Administrators' Days 2012
by Elisabeth Reinkordt
NCSA Staff Correspondent
“The times of doing more with less are gone. We’re now providing essential services, and trying to make the right choices,” said State Board of Education President, Jim Scheer, in his opening remarks at the 2012 NCSA Administrators’ Days Conference. “Schools don’t function without administrators,” he added, “and thank you for all you do for the youth of our state.” As Jim Scheer leaves his position on the State Board of Education, he commented that it “bodes well for education in Nebraska that we have so many young, articulate folks entering administrative positions. We’re in good hands.”
Day One: NDE Day
It may seem that the refrain of less funding has been on repeat for the past few years, and as Commissioner Roger Breed opened his keynote speech, he shared some comments from previous conferences. “Young superintendents said ‘We left your presentation depressed,’ and the truth is, the last three years have been some of the most difficult,” that educators in Nebraska have ever faced. His speech, entitled “Miles to Go and Promises to Keep,” focused on Nebraska’s goal of having all students leave high school college- and career-ready.
In the past few years, standards have been revised, assessments have been developed and given, the State Board has established an accountability model, and now, Breed said, since “we’ve done our job to develop an accountability system, it’s the legislature’s job to allocate resources to meet the needs,” of schools and districts. Further, he added, it is time for “communities to step up to align resources to needs.” Noting facility disparities, Breed emphasized the need for a broadened community approach to education that takes into account not only aligned resources, but also attendance -- “an adult responsibility” -- health care, and more. And as communities look to invest in education, as taxes go up or bond issues are considered, the Commissioner stressed the need to partner with local businesses for mentoring opportunities and more. “Don’t shackle your students’ futures,” he said, urging communities to look for creative ways to meet the needs of twenty-first century learners. “We can’t let ZIP codes determine access to a full, rich education,” he said.
Of course, funding is always a big question, but Breed stated that this year and in the near future, more stability is anticipated. “Nebraska spends roughly eight percent less than the national average,” Breed said, and as the legislature makes funding decisions, he strongly urged that “articulation of needs must come from the field.” When fall turns to winter and the Unicameral reconvenes, Breed predicted that discussions regarding equalization in the face of increasing agricultural land values coupled with a declining rural population will take center stage in the education debate.
As Breed closed his remarks, he reminded the audience that “education in Nebraska is everyone’s responsibility,” and that “we must seek success for each student,” as that is what will deliver more productive adults into Nebraska’s future.
Both NDE and NCSA made the decision to “go paperless” with handouts at this year’s conference, and Chadron Superintendent Caroline Winchester couldn’t be happier. “I’m so glad this conference is moving to this,” she said, adding that “when you go home with a stack of papers, it’s hard to sort through them all and find what you wanted to remember.” In addition to being able to download materials online, attendees could visit a download kiosk, where they could have all materials saved to a thumb drive courtesy of Ameritas. Brent Gaswick, NDE’s technology integration specialist, was on hand to help at the kiosk, and said he received many positive comments from attendees. “They’re liking that they can go home and look at handouts from sessions they couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts,” he said.
One special award was given on Wednesday, and Bob Uhing took the stage to present the NCSA Friend of Education Award to recently retired NDE Director of Statewide Assessment Pat Roschewski. The award, presented to a non-member of NCSA and recognizing exceptional leadership on the part of education in Nebraska, honored Roschewski’s 43 years of service in education. As she thanked the audience, Roschewski said that “Nebraska educators are the most resilient in the country, and will be among the most successful in using data to adapt,” to changes in the future.
Day Two: Sessions Galore!
Thursday kicked off bright and early with a presentation of the colors by local Boy Scouts and a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Quartet of Singing Administrators. The event moved swiftly into the presentation of the 2012 Distinguished Service Award, and Kent Mann took the stage to surprise Dallas Watkins with the honor.
“This man has had a storied career,” Mann said, “with thirty-two years as an administrator and a particularly strong advocate for our superintendents in the western part of the state.” Watkins, who was completely surprised, said that after retiring as superintendent of Dundy County Schools three weeks ago, “they lied to me about why I had to be here!” After letting the news sink in for a moment, Watkins reflected that “when colleagues do something for you, it’s so meaningful,” adding that “thirty-two years fly by, and I was lucky to have so many good people in the communities where I worked.” Joining Watkins were his wife, two daughters, and two grandchildren. His daughter, Nicole Hardwick, is a second year principal at Loomis, and she said she grew up thinking “I’m never going to be an administrator.” Now, she said, “Dad is on speed dial.” When asked what advice he might share with other young administrators, Watkins said that “our challenges in education can be very rewarding. Stay the course. You make a difference.”
Thursday morning’s keynote was delivered by Mike Schmoker, who emphasized that going back to basics and doing a few things well was the best way to make your school successful. “Do not innovate when it comes to improvement,” he said, “and keep your standards simple.” He advocated heavily for the Madeline Hunter model, focused on three elements: a guaranteed curriculum, authentic college-prep literacy, and effective lessons. Quoting Robert Marzano, Schmoker said that “all teachers and administrators in a district or school should be able to describe effective teaching in a similar way,” and he urged school leaders to clearly define this for their teachers. “You’re lucky you haven’t adopted the Common Core,” he added.
Commissioner Breed concurred that Schmoker’s message was spot-on. He urged administrators to take to heart the message to focus their work and make sure their teachers are all on the same pages. “In Nebraska, we leave the selection of curriculum to local schools,” he added.
After the keynote, conference attendees had a plethora of sessions at their fingertips. For superintendents and board members, Superintendent Steve Joel from Lincoln Public Schools and Jim Gessford, from the law firm of Perry, Guthery, Haase & Gessford, shared information on the Superintendent Appraisal Law. Because the statute does not explicitly state who is in charge of conducting the evaluation, Gessford said that there can be a local decision made on how to proceed. The superintendent, as a probationary certificated employee, must be evaluated twice during the first year and at least once annually thereafter, and while this evaluation is usually conducted by the local board of education, some boards instead choose to hire a retired superintendent to conduct or assist in the evaluation. Because of a change in Rule 10, the evaluation of all certificated employees must have official approval from NDE, and Joel shared that Lincoln Public Schools had just gone through this process. “Many districts haven’t done this yet,” he added, “and they need to.”
One of the most popular presenters of the day was Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey. Stressing that “social media is not the enemy,” Sheninger showed a packed room -- the majority of them on iPads -- how to leverage the tools of social media and web 2.0 to improve their schools. He emphasized five areas in which social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter could be very useful: to Involve, Create, Discuss, Promote, and Measure. His school uses these and other tools for communication, branding, public relations, professional development for teachers, and student engagement. As administrators, he said, “we’re in the business of PR, whether we like it or not.” By using social media tools, he added, “we control the stream of information, from sports updates to weather cancellations.”
After he started using Twitter (his handle is @NMHS_Principal), he shared that his students convinced him that New Milford High School needed a Facebook page, too. So he let them create it, and the page is entirely open to comments. When asked whether he was worried about it being left open for anyone to comment, he said that he is not afraid, because “we are modeling that social media is a professional tool, and in the last year, we’ve only had to remove three comments. If it’s not open, it’s not social media.” The biggest reward about his school’s changes, though, was the increased opportunities it opened for his students. As the traditional media learned what was happening in New Milford High School from student- and school-generated social media presence, he said, press coverage increased. Recently, he shared, the Newark Museum invited a group of his students to the museum with unprecedented access so they could advise the curators how to make the museum experience better for young people. Finally, Sheninger said, all administrators should keep a public blog. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re a good writer. Blogging will make you better at being an administrator, because you will reflect as you’re disseminating information to your stakeholders.”
Another popular session allowed administrators and up-close-and-personal chance to visit with Commissioner Breed and Deputy Commissioner Scott Swisher. Though the NDE leadership duo provided a sheet of talking points, it was up to attendees to ask questions and guide the discussion. Kyle McGowan, superintendent of Crete Public Schools, asked the Commissioner about NePAS, the state’s new accountability model. Breed, pointing out that Crete is one of the districts with a K-4 elementary school, explained the reasoning for a system that ranks districts based on grade spans rather than on a per-building basis. “There is no simple equation for weighing values,” he added, referring to the relative measures of status, growth, and improvement. McGowan replied, telling the Commissioner that the state had “made a good decision to do away with the multiplier, because as far as the public is concerned, it’s fair to put out information and then let the consumers, the community, determine what is important.” Breed agreed, adding that “you can communicate to your community what’s going on in your schools -- we’ll make the state policy.”
Jenny Fundus, Special Education Director for Lincoln Public Schools, asked about changes and growth in early childhood education. Deputy Commissioner Swisher was quick to note that he sees this as one of the largest areas of growth in education policy in the next five to seven years. “Currently, we’re all over the place in terms of quality,” he said, adding that “the evolution of early childhood education could very well follow that of Kindergarten -- first voluntary, then mandatory, and now moving to full-day.” Breed added that because early childhood education programs are proven to bring such a significant return on investment, communities will see the benefits of investing in them. And in a time of smaller state budget allocations, he added, “communities will have to step up, because the state will be very reluctant to add funds.”
After the morning sessions, conference attendees reconvened in a general session for lunch, awards, and another keynote presentation. It is customary for a representative from a partner organization to address the group, and this year, John Spatz, the newly-appointed Executive Director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards opened the luncheon session. He began by commending NCSA for being such a strong organization, adding that Senator Adams said last winter that “over the next few years, the education community will need to learn to speak with one voice.” He praised the leadership of NCSA, and NCSA’s Executive Director Mike Dulaney added that “we move public education forward by meeting and collaborating with our partner organizations.”
Brent Cejda, the head of the Educational Administration program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, presented two Fellowship Awards, and because of the geographic proximity of the winners, he had to stress that the applications did go through a blind review! James Blake and Mike Gillotti, both teachers at Lincoln North Star, were each awarded fellowships. Blake is a science teacher and the coach of Science Olympiad, and Gillotti is a Social Studies teacher working on his certification as an associate principal.
Teresa Friels, President of NASCD, then presented the Al Kilgore Award, which this year recognized another outstanding educator from Lincoln. Dr. Marilyn Moore, who said that “all children are ours, yours, and mine,” was honored to receive the award, and as she thanked those who had come before her, she slowly brought the entire room to standing. “This is the education leadership team of the state of Nebraska,” she said. “This whole team makes it possible.”
After the awards, keynote speaker Larry Bell energized the crowd. With his high energy, interactive speech, he modeled the kind of environment he thinks schools need. “On your worst day on the job, you’re still some child’s best hope!” he exclaimed, “and you need to show your kids how much you care. Because when the kids know how much you care, IT’S ON!” Bell introduced the audience to his “100%ers” -- teachers who had every student pass every class and every state test, challenging Nebraska to send him some more 100%ers to his next conference.
All the information and new responsibilities can be daunting for those new to the profession, so a roundtable session specifically for new principals was held in the afternoon. Dan Ernst from NCSA and Kent Mann from UNL facilitated group conversations with new principals and a couple of veteran principal mentors. Ernst urged new principals to take risks, because “very few things you do are unrecoverable.” He added, though, that “whether you’re in a small or a large community, act and speak as if everyone is related.” Mann encouraged the new principals to take advantage of the peer network that exists, and stressed the importance “not to buy in to the myth that you can’t leave for a day -- get out of the building and discuss your challenges with your colleagues!” Veteran principal Mike Wortman, of Lincoln High School, said that while he might be the principal at one of the largest schools in the state, he was in awe of all the hats that many of the new administrators have to wear. “We all have big challenges, no matter where we are,” he added.
Day Three: The Silver Lining in the Funnel Cloud
Thirty-five new members of NCSA woke up early for a special breakfast Friday morning, and they had a chance to introduce themselves and meet members of the Executive Board and affiliate organization leaders. Following breakfast, Seward Superintendent Greg Barnes introduced the 2012-2013 Superintendent of the Year, Kevin Riley of Gretna Public Schools.
In what outgoing NCSA Executive Board Chair Jack Moles called “one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard,” Riley asked the audience what prepares someone to be a superintendent. “Only you know what it’s like to be in the position where people come to you with the issues they do. They trust you. Only you know what it’s like to sit across the table from a 15-year-old girl exhibiting self-destructive behavior. Or a mother whose life is falling apart. Or a 5-year-old you know has been victimized,” he said, solemnly. “I don’t know what prepares us, but I do know what supports us and sustains us,” he added, “it’s the collective wisdom of this group.”
NCSA also named its Special Education Administrator of the Year, and that honor went to Ellen Stokebrand, SPED Director at ESU #4. Stuart Clark, President of the Nebraska Association of Special Education Supervisors and ESU #1 SPED Director, praised Stokebrand for her ability to make special education laws understandable. Stokebrand, when listening to the biography of the honoree being read, said “it took me a long time to figure out it was me they were talking about!” Jack Moles congratulated her, and reminded the audience that “we don’t thank our ESU staff enough.”
As many of the speakers and leaders at the conference emphasized throughout Administrators’ Days, learning from your peers and asking questions is the best way to get better at what you do. This year, attendees welcomed three members of the administrative team of the Joplin Public Schools in Joplin, Missouri, to share their experiences in recovering from 2011’s devastating tornado. On Sunday, May 22nd at 5:41 PM -- graduation day, and graduation had ended at 5 PM -- a powerful tornado swept through the town, leaving 4,200 students without schools. Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer showed haunting surveillance camera footage from inside the schools, and as pencil machines careened down hallways, she urged administrators to rethink where they put their students during storms. “We were so fortunate the children weren’t in school,” she said, “because our losses would have been far greater.”
With over $100 million in damages to nine school buildings, a downed district communication system, and the loss of one staff member and 7 students, Superintendent C.J. Huff made a promise: school would start as scheduled on August 17th. Dubbed Operation Rising Eagle, district personnel worked tirelessly to address the emotional, physical, and technical aspects of recovery. By the Wednesday following the storm, all staff had been accounted for, and on Friday, they had located every student in the district. As summer school got children out of the rubble and into a place to play, as school busses and what remained of buildings served as emergency vehicles and shelters, and as the technology director worked to get payroll processed off a generator, getting the schools to open on time became a rallying point for the community.
The district has interim schools for three years as they rebuild, and Besendorfer urged administrators to think creatively in times of crisis. “FEMA would have just built what we already had,” she said, adding that “Henry Ford said that if he would have asked the public what they wanted, they’d have asked for a better horse.” The district had gone through strategic planning sessions addressing how to teach for 21st century citizens in April, and they pulled out the plan to lead in the design of their new schools. As for their temporary locations in shopping malls and industrial parks, she stressed how important it was for the environments to look like schools. Instead of buying textbooks to replace all the ones that were lost, the district launched a one-to-one laptop initiative for every student.
As Joplin Schools looked for the “silver lining in the funnel cloud,” Besendorfer told the audience that “we didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done in your community.” She invited attendees to come visit the district anytime, and to visit joplinschools.org for more information.
Before attendees departed for their homes, motivational speaker Murray Banks reminded them to keep their sense of humor. In a presentation full of funny comics and with stories drawing on his experience as an Ironman triathlete, Banks reminded administrators to kick off the school year with a bang. “The longer your staff works for you, the more they become like you,” he said. Using a montage of movie clips, the conference closed with a reminder that now, “IT’S SHOWTIME!”