Leadership for Tomorrow class learns powerful lessons in southeast Kansas

By Leah Fliter, lfliter@kasb.org

KASB’s Leadership for Tomorrow program visited Coffeyville and Neodesha in May for powerful lessons about school redesign, community partnerships, and change theory.

More than 200 school board members, superintendents and administrators have participated in LFT over the past 13 years. Visits to local schools, classroom observations and presentations provide a foundation for class discussion and analysis of issues and opportunities in Kansas education. Class members explore change theories and strategies, gain training in leadership skills and expand their understanding of education key issues for effective governance and raising student achievement.

`Empathy education’ in Coffeyville

Coffeyville USD 445 is one of the original “Mercury 7” Kansas State Board of Education redesign schools. To be considered for the project, districts had to designate one elementary school and one secondary school to be redesigned around the five outcomes established by the State Board of Education as defining a successful Kansas high school graduate, and what Kansans said they want their schools to look like in the future. Each district also had to have support of their local school board, their faculty and their local Kansas National Education Association or other professional organization. Subsequent phases of the redesign program are named Gemini I, Gemini II, and Apollo. Eventually, all Kansas school districts will be expected to participate in redesign.

While Coffeyville is a Mercury school district, the district’s economic and demographic challenges prompted Superintendent Dr. Craig Correll and his staff to reevaluate its practices several years before the 2017school redesign initiative was announced. A devastating 2007 flood that also swamped a nearby oil refinery caused widespread destruction and prompted hundreds of residents to leave the community. In 2014, an area manufacturing plant closed and in 2015, Amazon closed its Coffeyville fulfillment center. Roughly three-fourths of the district’s families are considered economically disadvantaged and its English Language Learners population has increased from 0.22 percent in 2014 to 10 percent in 2018.

The school district responded to those challenges by seeking out partnerships with John Deere and other local businesses, Coffeyville Community College, Head Start and regional health organizations to establish in-school physical, dental and mental health clinics, a comprehensive universal preschool, trauma-informed classrooms, and internships and job-training opportunities. The district is also known for its Age to Age kindergarten classroom that’s housed in a local nursing home. The students interact with their “Grandmas and Grandpas” through daily reading time and community activities like card games.

“I loved going out and seeing the kindergarten classroom that’s integrated into the retirement facility,” said Goddard USD 265 Director of Community Relations Dane Baxa. “There was so much empathy education as part of that. How often do we get exposure to that kind of an educational experience; there are 20 lucky kids in Coffeyville who get that every day.”

Coffeyville USD 445’s Mercury Redesign work continues to emphasize kindergarten readiness, social/emotional wellbeing, and postsecondary success/employability. The administration and staff have spent significant time and effort offering students of all ages strategies and cool-down rooms to help them acknowledge and deal with stressors and quickly return to their classrooms.

“It was really powerful to see them implement that at the middle school level and even into high school,” said Goodland USD 352 Superintendent Bill Biermann.

Biermann said the Coffeyville visit was well worth the seven-hour drive from western Kansas.

“They’re a really good model for a lot of us on how we engage our communities to develop partnerships for job shadowing, for health care access, all these things they’ve got going here.”

While Coffeyville is a veteran redesign school district, nearby Neodesha USD 461 is a Gemini II school district. It’s in the early stages of redesigning its two elementary schools and Neodesha Middle/High School.

Desire for change in Neodesha

Neodesha suffered in the same 2007 flood that swamped Coffeyville. In late 2016, an explosion demolished much of a local manufacturing plant. About 60 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.

The USD 461 staff were grateful to have Coffeyville’s redesign example to study as their district plans its work around personalized learning, civic engagement, project based learning and social/emotional learning. The presenters told the LFT class that constant communication with district staff, administration and the community are critical, as is a willingness to problem-solve throughout the redesign process. The Neodesha redesign leaders said they’re “constantly” posting about redesign on the district website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That’s helped the Neodesha community embrace the school redesign effort.

The pre-school staff at Neodesha’s Heller Elementary was initially apprehensive about redesign, “Because teaching ‘littles’ is already all-consuming,” said Principal Melissa Johnson. “You have to move away from [insisting on] ‘having all your ducks in a row’ and be willing to fail and make changes.”
Neodesha Middle/High School Principal Nathan West is leading an initially-reluctant staff through the redesign process at his school. While nearly 75 percent of the high school staff voted against redesign, some of the staunch early opponents are now embracing the change.

Business Education Teacher Betty Wheeler originally abstained from voting on the plan, but West sought out her involvement anyway and she’s now one of the building redesign leaders. Wheeler said the school prototyped a no-bell schedule this school year “and it feels like the entire atmosphere is more relaxed.” Interestingly, tardies are not a significant problem under the no-bell experiment, and teachers say they’re communicating better to let their colleagues know when a project causes kids to stay later in class.

LFT class member Tammy Thomasson, who’s the assistant superintendent in Paola USD 368, appreciated the insights and advice offered by the Neodesha staff.

“The common theme is that the [redesign] process is supported, and you have the ability to do what’s best for your district,” she said. “I’m learning there are people you can go to, who’ve already gone through the process and that you will live through it and you can really do some spectacular things.”
The Neodesha session also provided time for the LFT class to read and reflect on the work of several experts in education change theory. Class members shared insights and considered how they might take their new knowledge back to their districts.

“It really drove home you have to have the desire to change,” said Seaman USD 345 Board Member Keith Griffin. “In order to change the philosophy and structure of an education system, it takes an entire organization, from the top down. My job is to communicate that back to our leaders so they can filter it out to our administration and staff.”

Leadership for Tomorrow’s third session will take place in July in Manhattan for programming on school safety and first-responder partnerships and crisis media training. The class will visit Lakin and Garden City in September. The final class session will focus on the Wichita area. Class graduation will be in December at KASB’s 102nd annual conference.

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