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Superintendent’s Message: Strong Relationships Build Positive Culture

Theresa Davidson, Superintendent of Schools

Theresa Davidson, Superintendent of Schools

Another school year is coming to a close as thousands of Kansas students take another step toward postsecondary education, a career or military service.  While recent attention has been diverted to the question of how Kansas boards of education will respond to frozen budgets, educators can’t help but reflect proudly on the magic that happens every day in our classrooms.

The research clearly points to the teacher as the single most important factor in a student’s educational success.  Certainly, it’s true that with the increasing demand for students to achieve, it is more important than ever for districts to employ teachers who are experts in their content area and highly effective in the technical aspects of instruction. Yet, those skills alone are just the beginning.

Our district invests heavily in professional development, providing teachers with the tools to respond to our students’ unique needs.  As those needs and expectations change, so does the focus of our professional learning.

We are about to enter a new era in how Kansas accredits school districts that holds schools accountable for student achievement.  The new process provides opportunities for schools to focus energy and training more precisely on their unique challenges.  From No Child Left Behind with its emphasis on math and reading, we find ourselves gearing up for additional expectations reflected in “The Rose Capacities.”  These include communication/basic skills; civic and social engagement; physical and mental health; and postsecondary and career preparation.  For those of us who have spanned the decades of change, it is an exciting venture that restores emphasis to skills somewhat diminished in importance over recent years.

Kansas districts will continue to develop goals and action plans to obtain growth RESULTS — the fifth R – but in large part, this will be addressed through the other four R’s of Rigor, Relevance, Relationships and Responsive Culture.  It’s those last two R’s that we’ve sometimes left to chance.  It’s those last two R’s that seem to complete the cycle of a child’s learning.  It’s those last two R’s that I wish to reflect upon today.

STREAM activities are a perfect example.  Students and teachers engage in amazing extensions of learning.  The days are hard work for our teachers and community partners but phenomenal experiences for students – not just for the value of the lessons but for the relationships that develop in the process.  We owe these experiences to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant.

Last spring, our district accepted a grant from the Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas program that allowed us to add an elective for selected students who, for a variety of reasons, have far more on their minds than graduating from high school. Not only do teachers help students stay on track in their coursework, they also teach many of the “soft skills” that employers tell us are sorely needed. Students study personal finance, participate in community service projects, and practice leadership skills. The JAG students have quickly become a family. At EHS, a total of 73 students completed the first year of JAG this spring.

AVID, another program initiated through grant funding and now in its sixth year, has similar goals with an even stronger emphasis on college preparation. Last weekend, the AVID “family” hosted a 6K run from EHS to ESU, symbolic of the journey from high school to postsecondary study.  Both JAG and AVID are evidence of the RESULTS we can achieve when we take care of the other four R’s – both evidence of the importance of a culture responsive to student needs and the relationships built upon the hard work and the joy of learning.

In yet another new course, Geometry in Construction, I witnessed the value of relationships between students and staff as they tackle the rigor of geometry through practical application.

The class, which is co-taught by a math teacher and a technology education teacher, affords opportunities for students to work in groups, learning together to solve real life problems as they construct physical structures – this year, storage sheds.

These are only a few examples. You will find others in each of our schools, from Turning Point Academy where students with uniquely different skill levels work together to solve problems according to their personalized lessons and expectations, to Emporia Middle School where every teacher carries out Capturing Kids Hearts protocols to maximize potential for the relationships that accentuate learning, to Flint Hills Learning Center where students and teachers share the joy of each academic success large and small.

Teachers understand the power of these bonds built through frustration and hard work, through the empathy found in personal trials, and the joy of knowing that they have made a difference.

It is easy to get discouraged by the negativity, the fiscal challenges, and the constant state of change surrounding education today. Yet, I see so many examples of  relationships and responsive culture all around the district in the “extra” ordinary deeds our teachers and support staff do. Most of these programs – STREAM, JAG, AVID, Turning Point – started with the benefit of grant funding.

Our district also enjoys many philanthropic gifts from individuals, businesses and local foundations that allow us to provide exceptional opportunities for learning and activities outside of the classroom. Without these grants and generous donations to supplement our regular funding sources, these extra programs would not be possible.

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