Dr. Butts Answers Superintendents’ Questions

Posted on January 23, 2019

What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?

Wow!  This question is one I could truly write a novel on.  The MSD of Wayne Township is a progressive urban school district located in the west central portion of Marion County (Indianapolis) comprised of 37.5 square miles.  The school district has a rich history spanning more than 100 years.  We have eleven elementary schools, two 7th and 8th grade centers, one 9th grade center, 3 high schools, on career and technical education center, one alternative school, and one special needs school.  Nearly 16,500 K-12 students are served in a student centered atmosphere where the individual is valued.  In addition, the district operates the largest licensed public preschool in Indiana on one end of the continuum and the Adult Education program on the other end to serve students ages 3 to 103.

The school district has formed strong partnerships with the parents and nearly 450 Giant Partners as evidenced by active PTOs, booster organizations, leadership committees, businesses, civic groups, and various other organizations designed to give parents an active presence and voice in the operations of our schools.  Ben Davis High School has an especially active band booster organization, athletic booster organization, and BD Dads organization.   The district currently has a strategic planning committee and Voyagers Committee designed to build capacity within the ranks of our parents and communities.

The district faces many challenges including decreasing property values, increasing poverty (78% Free and Reduced), and decreasing funding.  Despite these challenges Wayne Township has been able to significantly increase graduation rates by over 30% and maintain high quality programming at every level.  Wayne Township high school students earn in excess of 27,000 college credits annually.

The Wayne Township Preschool is a fully licensed, Paths to Quality Level 4, and NAEYC accredited facility.  Wayne Township Preschool offers half-day preschool classes taught by licensed teachers to approximately 400 3, 4, and 5 year old students. Both community and developmental classes are offered to students.  High-quality, age-based childcare is also available.

The district operates eleven elementary schools:  Bridgeport, Chapel Glen, Chapelwood, Garden City, Maplewood (National Title 1 Distinguished School), McClelland, North Wayne, Rhoades (National Blue Ribbon School), Robey (IDOE STEM Certified), Stout Field (IDOE STEM Certified), and Westlake (National Blue Ribbon School).  Each School provides a wide range of services to our students including Title 1, Special Education, Gifted and Talented, ENL, and many others.

The two 7th and 8th grade centers (Lynhurst and Chapel Hill) are organized around interdisciplinary teams.   These teams focus on student success through student engagement.   Project Based Learning is central in building problem solving skills and to create a climate of high engagement.  Teams are instrumental in building a “school within a school” climate where students do not get lost in a large urban middle school.   Through this attention, student self-discipline is developed and nurtured to have learning occur without interruption.  Both schools were named IDOE STEM Certified school in 2018.

The Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center is organized around 7 career academies.  Student choice is central to developing student engagement.  The career academies while providing core instruction also are able to develop themes and experiences which help students in career exploration.  The BD Ninth Grade Center is an IDOE STEM Certified school.

Ben Davis High School is our large comprehensive high school offering a wide variety of curriculum and programming.  We offer a full array of Advanced Placement Classes, a comprehensive career center, JROTC, fine arts, media communications, Project Lead The Way and many dual credit opportunities just to name a few.  AREA 31 at BDHS was the first IDOE STEM Certified CTE Center in Indiana and offers over 40 CTE programs.  Ben Davis graduates are accepted routinely at the very best universities from all over the United States.

Ben Davis University High School (2014 Indiana  Four Star School)  is a small UIndy CELL Endorsed Early College High School where students earn both their high school diploma and their associate’s degree from Vincennes University simultaneously.   Our high school graduation rate is routinely 100% (7 straight years) while our associate degree attainment routinely exceeds 90%.  It was one of the first high schools to receive the IDOE STEM Certification.

The third high school is Achieve Virtual Academy which in an online high school offering high school diplomas.  Achieve Virtual Academy is Indiana’s only public virtual high school operated by a local Indiana school district. Students have the option to accelerate learning, recover lost credits or earn a complete Indiana Core 40/Academic Honors High School Diploma.  Students can combine Achieve Virtual with their regular high school or make it their full-time school.  We have had growing success with our graduation numbers more than doubling in the recent past.

The Wayne Preparatory Academy challenges students in grades 6 – 12 to reach their full potential academically, emotionally, and socially in an alternative setting. The Wayne Preparatory Academy equips students for the demands and opportunities of the twenty-first century by offering differentiated and individualized instruction that addresses the whole child. A professional and highly trained staff, in partnership with home schools and the community, work to ensure students achieve and successfully transition back to their home school or graduate by supporting academic and character growth.

Sanders School is the special day program serving students in kindergarten to age 22 through West Central Joint Services, a five-school district cooperative. Students are placed in the program through case conference committee decisions according to guidelines in Article 7.  Sanders School is passionate about equipping our students with skills needed to develop self-awareness, self- regulation, and self-advocacy for self-realization.

Wayne Township Adult Education (WTAE) assists adult learners in earning their High School Equivalency, acquiring the English language, and earning career certifications.  Over 2,000 adults each year enroll in WTAE.  Wayne Township Adult Education’s advancement of community members advances their families’ financial future, provides for better classroom learning for their children, as well as builds a better tax base in Wayne Township.  Programs include Welding, HVAC, Plumbing, Phlebotomy, ParaPro, ServeSafe/Kitchen Cook START, and CDL B.  All of these programs are building the workforce pipeline for industry and our school corporation.

We recruit and retain the finest teachers available.  All of our teachers are highly qualified and receive extensive, ongoing, professional development in order to maintain and improve their instructional skills.   Our award winning teachers and administrators are dedicated professionals who are student centered.  We have had Indiana Teachers of the Year, Milken Award Winners, Indiana content teachers of the year, Indiana Principals of the Year and countless other award winners.

The year I arrived (2006), Ben Davis High School had a graduation rate of 67%.  This poor graduation rate was deemed a crisis that negatively impacted every subgroup within our school.  One third of our students failed to graduate in four years.  It is also notable that the graduation rate for our African-American students was 66.2%, compared to a 67.5% rate for White students.  The graduation rate for Free-Lunch students was 62.9%, while the rate for Paid students was 70.1%.  Most dramatically, our English Language Learners (ENL) students were graduating at a rate of 51.5%, compared to our Non-English Learners at a rate of 68%.

While internal gaps varied greatly, it was clear the overall lack of achievement was disturbing. When comparing our district to other successful urban school districts, it was clear that we did not compare favorably.  Our expectations were far too low.  I challenged our team to raise expectations for staff, students, parents, and the Wayne community.  Our mission became to turn an underachieving urban high school into a high performing high school with the expectation that regardless of race, socioeconomic status or language that every student would graduate.

In 2014, through a lot of hard work and a dedicated group of professionals, we saw Ben Davis High School’s graduation rate peak at 94%.  Although this rate has fluctuated slightly in subsequent years, we continue to see overall graduation rates at or near 90%, including rates exceeding 90% the past two years.  Our 2018 graduation rate will exceed 92%.  It is important to understand that these significant gains have been made against the backdrop of a district that continues to increase the number of students in poverty and a population of more diverse learners.  These consistent and continuing gains in achievement are the result of strategic planning initiatives led by me, both as Assistant Superintendent and now Superintendent.

Recently, we launched an ambitious district-wide Secondary Redesign process which included the following strategies at Ben Davis High School:

1. Increase rigor by dramatically increasing student access to our most challenging curriculum (Advance Placement, Project Lead The Way, and Dual Credit) through the elimination of most prerequisites and through a self-selection process for high school students.   This was accomplished by overhauling our Guidance Program.    The number of Advanced Placement Course Enrollments increased from 750 in 2006 to 3302 in 2017.  This is an increase of over 4 times the number of enrollments.   Our dual credits earned improved from 17 in 2008 to 6087 in 2018.   This was an increase of more than 350 times the number of credits.  It is our belief that results of the increase in rigor; combats boredom, better prepares students for future challenges, and creates self-efficacy.  A strong culture based on high expectations and educational pathways that lead to a meaningful future has become firmly institutionalized.

2.  Improving student supports including study tables, credit intervention, credit recovery, and fall break intersessions was the second overall strategy employed.  With high poverty, district transportation is always a challenge for our students for after school opportunities.   We went to a balanced calendar in 2012-13 which created a two week Fall Break.   We implemented a Fall Intersession that focused on credit intervention helping students who are failing to get back on track.  We average 400+ high school students who participate.  In addition, during the last month or more of each semester we run after school buses for students to receive tutoring, retake assessments, and make up missed work. We average well over 200 nightly.  Lastly, we run study tables year round and provide tutors through our National Honor Society so all students have access to assistance.

3. Improvement of Alternative School Programming for those students who are mismatched for a traditional large urban high school was our third major initiative. The quality of the Wayne Enrichment Center, our primary alternative school, was lagging.  Very few of our students were actively accumulating high school credits, let alone actually achieving their high school diplomas.   We did a comprehensive redesign of this program that included rebranding it the Wayne Preparatory Academy, providing comprehensive staff development, building  accountability, implementing Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, and beginning to track results.  In 2006 students earned 516 credits and the building produced 7 graduates.   In 2018 student earned 1918 credits and produced 95 graduates in the 2018 Cohort.  This contributed approximately 10% to the Ben Davis High School Graduation Rate which will exceed 92% once finalized.

4. Implementation of a College and Career Readiness Counseling Program to ensure student access to post-secondary opportunities was our fourth major strategy.  Changing student aspirations is critical to improving graduation rates.  When students see there is something beyond high school they are more likely to persist and graduate to propel themselves to whatever is next.  In order to change aspirations we implemented a robust College/Career Readiness initiative.  This robust program rooted in Naviance focusses on self-exploration, career exploration aligned with the necessary education, post-secondary applications, financial aid, and the various activities associated with taking the next step to Employ, Enroll, or Enlist.

5. Implementation of Impact Period to teach Costa/Kallick’s Habits of Mind (soft skills/employability skills) was our fourth major strategy.  Much of what gets in our students way are lack of habits that are precursors to success such as:   persistence, collaboration skills, promptness, grit, accuracy, metacognition, and many others.   Each student, through their Impact Period, receives lessons that focus on soft skill development that will help them meet current and future challenges.

The success we have had over the period of my tenure is unprecedented in Wayne Township.   Although we face the same major challenges as most poor urban school districts, we have changed the culture and have changed the results.  And, our scholars are the benefactors.

What have been your most significant challenges as a supt. and how have you dealt with them?

We are faced with significant challenges every day.  The most significant challenges I have faced as a superintendent include: 1. Being able to communicate our counter-narrative to the negativity we so often hear and read about public education, 2. Making sure we give our staff the appropriate supports to be successful in their work with our students, 3. Providing elected officials with information that will assist them in making the best decisions, and 4. Balancing all of the opportunities available to me as Superintendent with the demands of being a husband, father, and grandfather.

There are two things that I communicate often to our students, staff, Board, and Community.  The first is that we must tell our story.  If we are not telling our story, someone else will.  Secondly, it is important to know our “why.”  If we know our why, we can continuously work towards achieving our what!

The purpose of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, as expressed in our mission statement, is to provide multiple opportunities for learning that meet or exceed the present and future goals and aspirations of our students, in partnership with our community. This mission statement appears on many of our formal documents, and it is the “longhand” behind our more concise district motto: “We Are Wayne! Great Schools. Great Community.” This motto, which my staff and I created at the beginning of my superintendency in MSD Wayne, is at the heart of all of our communication.

The need for our school district to reach out to our greater community in Wayne became very apparent as we prepared to take an operating referendum to our voters in 2015. We convened a group of 50 guiding coalition members and an additional 150 individuals to embark upon a strategic planning effort for the district. We learned through that effort that our greater community was often unaware of the wonderful achievements in our schools. So we went to work. We used a variety of strategies, including direct mail and increasing our district’s in-person interactions with the community. Here are just a few examples:

Each month, we created a 9” x 6” postcard trumpeting one piece of our good news, and mailed it to every household in our district. Topics included our award-winning educators and administrators, our students giving back to the community during the holidays, and our district’s 94-percent graduation rate. In previous years, we had reduced the amount of printing and mailing such communication in order to reduce expenditures. What we learned through research, however, told us that we needed to reconnect with residents in our district who may not be making the effort to follow us on social media or visit our website. We continue to send postcards to our residents on a regular basis.
While direct mail has been a critical component of connecting with our community, it is not a substitute for in-person interaction with community members. We began and have continued a series of efforts to connect with our community members in person on a routine basis. Our Voyagers class provides information on various aspects of our school district for selected community members over a period of six weeks. We established a regular breakfast meeting for the clergy members in our district.

I meet over 150 times a year with PTOs, booster clubs, churches, Lions Club, alumni groups, and neighborhood crime watch groups. I am also in contact on a weekly basis with business leaders in MSD Wayne through my involvement with the West Side Chamber of Commerce and Indy Gateway.

In addition, we have engaged the senior citizens in our community in a variety of ways. Each of our schools is now partnered with one of six senior living communities in our district. In the months leading up to our referendum in 2015, and again recently, I met with directors of our senior living communities as well as set up and manned a display of district promotional materials in the dining rooms of each of those communities. We created VIP passes for senior citizens living in our district so they can attend our events free of charge.

We made (and continue to make) improvements in our outreach to and communication with families in our district whose first language is not English. These improvements include adding a language-translation tool to our district website; creating two new staff positions at the district level whose work focuses on connecting with our immigrant families; and staffing each school with at least one paraprofessional employee who is bilingual. The success of our outreach efforts is made clear by the growing numbers of immigrant families who attend our Language Assistance Program Night event each year. Our outreach work is informed in part by collaboration throughout the year with groups such as the Indiana Latino Institute and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network.

I could not communicate the great things happening in our district without a tremendous amount of help from our staff. Because our employees are important ambassadors for our district within our community, I hold meetings at each of our buildings twice a year called “Briefings with Butts.” I update employees on important district information, and listen to whatever topics or concerns they would like to bring up. In addition, each of our buildings has a very active Twitter account. They use social media to share the achievements of our students and staff, along with the everyday moments that help “pull back the curtain” on our schools for our community. I ask our staff to include the hashtag #wearewayne in their tweets, so I can retweet them. We reach an amazing number of people with our story via Twitter and Facebook.

If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?

If I could change one aspect of K-12 education today, it would be the respect it deserves from our public.  Every day, I am blessed to see the amazing things happening inside of our classrooms and with our students.  Unfortunately, the narrative in the Statehouse and by our media are manufacturing a crisis that is not accurate.  The greatest change I could make to change this dialogue is to inform the uninformed.  By ensuring a first-hand authentic experience inside of our schools and with students and staff; those charged with making rules, passing policy, and reporting on education would have a greater perspective.

What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?

Every superintendent had a shelf-life.  For some it is one contract, for others like my colleague from Minnetonka, MN, it will be over 50 years.  While several factors impact our longevity, one of the most significant is our work in the local community.  Further, if you don’t desire to engage in the politics of education, the role of superintendent is not the right pathway for you or the district that might hire you.

As the largest employer in my community, operating the most facilities, and most significantly impacting the economic development, we must be actively engaged in my community. Not only as the Superintendent of Schools, but as a resident. We know that funding will always be a challenge for public schools. However, when we engage our community as a partner we can offset the funding shortages we are facing by leveraging the resources and human capital available to us. Partnering goes far beyond financial support and we consistently search for innovative opportunities to grow mutually benefiting relationships within our community and schools.
Developing a relationship between the school and the community is one of the most overlooked, yet most critical, relationship we can have. The success of our schools is dependent on the success of our community. And the success of our community is dependent on the success of our schools. That is why we developed the motto, We Are Wayne: Great Schools Great Community.

As you prepared for the National Superintendent of the Year competition what was your biggest challenge and what have you taken away from the experience?

There are several. One that is self-imposed is a desire to represent my Indiana colleagues well.  IN 2018, we were fortunate to have Dr. Wendy Robinson in the top 4.  However, Indiana has never had an AASA Superintendent of the Year in the 33 years that the award had been given.

Secondly, although the IAPSS award has my name on it, this recognition is only possible because of the amazing people working inside of our schools and across my community.  Without their dedication to our children and the M.S.D. of Wayne Township, I would not have the honor or opportunity to be an effective Superintendent.  With that perspective, it is challenging to have this award focused on one individual.

Thirdly, as a result of the previous two challenges listed, dedicating the time necessary to accurately and adequately highlight the accomplishments of the district and its’ Superintendent has been a challenge.  I have spent over 20 hours on the application alone.

Has your involvement in this process and the opportunity to look at the superintendence from a national perspective given you any new or different feelings about the role of the superintendent in today’s challenging educational environment?

I am still early in the process (October 7) and look forward to interacting with the Superintendents of the Year over the next several months.  I believe I will have a much better perspective as we near the AASA National Conference.