An Interview with Rob Moorhead, 2017 District VIII Superintendent of the Year

Posted on April 10, 2017

Rob Moorhead, Superintendent of South Ripley Community School Corporation, was named 2017 Superintendent of the Year for District VIII by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. Moorhead has been South Ripley Community School Corporation superintendent since 2012. The district has remained committed to providing quality educational programs for students despite the decline in state financial support.
When Moorhead became superintendent, the district had just experienced a collapse of its entire technology network, losing data and eroding employees’ confidence in using technology. The technology system has been rebuilt, and the district has since implemented a one-to-one computer program for students in grades K through 12. Moorhead also led the creation of the Ripley County Alternative to Suspension program that serves four small school districts. The county school districts have also established relationships to share academic programs, with South Ripley hosting a biomedical sciences program and other districts hosting an engineering academy and an Advanced Placement science program. Moorhead also worked with Ivy Tech to create dual-enrollment opportunities at Ivy Tech for South Ripley students during the school day. South Ripley Community School Corporation has been an “A” rated school district for the past four years and its junior high school has been a Four Star School each of those four years.
Moorhead is a graduate of Hanover College and earned post-graduate degrees from Xavier University and Indiana State University. He is a member of many community organizations, including the Dearborn County Hospital Board of Directors, the Economic Opportunities Through Education Action Team, the Ripley County Community Corrections Advisory Board, and the Southeastern Indiana School Insurance Consortium Board of Directors.
Following is a recent interview with Rob conducted by Jim Freeland.

Jim: What programs or activities that improve student learning do you consider to be your most successful?

Rob: I feel like the best thing we do to improve student learning is to study individual student-level data through PLCs on a regular basis. Our principals lead data meetings that begin with looking at formative assessment data on our students, but that end up with having important conversations that center around the needs of each student and how the teachers can help one another to meet these needs. These conversations are crucial to the improvements in student achievement and growth that we have seen. Additionally, I am very proud of our 1:1 technology initiative and how we have phased it in over the past three years.  We are now a fully 1:1 school with every student in grades K-12 having a device that goes home each night. In implementing this 1:1 initiative we have focused on providing many professional development opportunities for our staff members so that they know how to best use these devices to enhance student engagement and learning in the classroom. The device does not equate to improved learning, but how that device is used to enhance student interaction with curriculum is what truly makes the difference. I am also very proud of the Alternative School program that we have started at our high school to help meet the needs of students who may have fallen behind or who are having trouble finding success in the regular school environment. This program has allowed us to see a large jump in our graduation rate by allowing more students to achieve a high school diploma.

Jim: What have been your most significant challenges as a superintendent and how have you dealt with them?

Rob: Without question, the biggest challenge we have dealt with in my time as superintendent at South Ripley was the tragic accident that resulted in the death of three students while participating in a school field trip. This happened during my first year as a superintendent, and no amount of training or coursework can prepare you for going through a situation like this. We have a very strong community who came together to help one another deal with this tragedy. The support of our faith-based organizations was critical during this time, as were the strong relationships that we have with one another in this community. While going through this situation I relied on my own faith, as well as having the listening ears of many of my friends, family and colleagues. Additionally, I tried to follow the advice of Abraham Lincoln who once said that in times of crisis you have to do four things: 1) Remain calm; 2) Tell the truth; 3) Take care of people; 4) Get back to taking care of business as soon as possible. By taking care of each other and working through this tragic event one day at a time we were able to get through. We will never forget the student lives that were lost and the impact they have had on all of us at South Ripley.

From a different perspective completely, the other challenges are financial in terms of continuing to provide high quality programs while dealing with declining state tuition support. We are a district that has seen a decline in enrollment, and subsequently a decline in state revenue and this makes it very challenging in terms of providing the staffing you need to run your organization in an ideal manner. I continue to communicate with our legislators about the need to work on the funding formula, and I work with our school board on reviewing budget reduction items to help us make ends meet.

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

Rob: The one aspect I would focus on is reducing the emphasis on high stakes testing. Due to the nature of our accountability system we are forced to give so much attention to our state testing that this drives most of the decisions that are made in our buildings on a daily basis. As long as the schools are being given a letter grade from the state we are going to be forced to focus on the metrics of that grading system so that we look good in comparison to surrounding schools. I am all for accountability, but I think we need to really rethink how we approach accountability and put more decisions back into the hands of local school boards and school personnel to work within their own communities to be accountable locally for the quality of education being provided to the students of the community.

Jim: What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?

Rob: The advice that I would give, and have given, is to know that you will be supported by area superintendents. I have never been turned away by an area colleague anytime I have a question or concern. When I first became a superintendent, many of my area colleagues reached out to let me know that they would help me in any way that they can. I have tried to pay that forward as new superintendents have come to area schools. Additionally, I would tell a new superintendent to establish communications with their state legislators. We are in a position where our legislators will listen to us and need to hear from us about the many issues that they have to vote on that deal with education. Get to know your legislators and establish a trusting relationship where they will value your input on important issues. I would also advise new superintendents to get involved with IAPSS and attend as many of the conferences and meetings offered by the organization as possible. The superintendent’s job can be a lonely one and these meetings provide you the opportunity to communicate directly with others who are dealing with the same issues. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask as many questions as necessary to help you handle any issues you are dealing with.