Wichita proud of opportunities, partnershipsScott Rothschild
The new superintendent of Wichita USD 259 says the district is proud of the opportunities it offers its students through academic offerings and community partnerships. With a new superintendent and four new board members, USD 259 is now beginning work on a strategic plan that will build upon existing successes to further strengthen Wichita public schools.
Dr. Alicia Thompson became Wichita’s newest superintendent this summer, but she is a lifelong product of USD 259, from kindergarten through graduation from Heights High School. On the first day of the 2017-18 school year, Thompson visited her former Chisholm Trail Elementary 5th grade classroom, where the teacher had a desk with Thompson’s name on it. Thompson visited with the new 5th graders and with the many teachers who remembered her student days. “It was my proudest moment so far,” Thompson said. “It was a proud moment for me, and for those teachers who are still there” to see one of their students now leading the district.
Thompson and her board’s three priorities for Wichita USD 259 are academic rigor; social, emotional and character development; and strategic partnerships.
Thompson, who has worked in the district for 25 years, said there’s a sense of hopefulness in the district as a result of the new school finance plan enacted by the Kansas Legislature. USD 259 used new funding from SB 19 to add staff to address students’ increasing social and emotional needs, recruit and retain teachers through increased pay and reinstate credit recovery and alternative programs to increase high school graduation rates.
“We strategically looked at ways to use the at-risk dollars given to us by the state,” Thompson said. “We’ve produced exactly what they asked us to do with the dollars.”
Although the Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled the new formula didn’t do enough to address either the adequacy or equity concerns brought by the plaintiffs in the Gannon case, Thompson is hopeful lawmakers and advocates will find a way to best serve Kansas.
“Education is the economic driver,” she notes. “If you want cities and the state to be economically sound, you have to invest in human capital, our kids. If we invest now, we’ll have the quality workforce we need. We’ll have students able to fill jobs and attract business. If there’s a quality education system, those businesses will come.”
Although she’s a 25-year veteran of the district, Thompson feels she has much to learn about what the community wants from USD 259 schools. She’s embarked on a listening tour to talk with students, teachers, business leaders, family members and members of the public. In mid-tour, Thompson says common themes are already emerging. District leaders hope to present the tour findings to the USD 259 board in the Spring so members can begin to build a strategic plan.
As Thompson spoke with KASB, the district was preparing for its annual Showcase of Choices and Opportunities, which was expected to fill the Century II Convention Center with displays about the district’s 23 magnet schools, advanced course offerings, International Baccalaureate program, career and technical opportunities, JROTC and more. “We’ll have thousands of families there tonight, including babies in strollers” who are future USD 259 students,” Thompson said.
While she’s proud of USD 259’s academic offerings, Thompson says the district’s strong community partnerships also offer opportunities for students to excel. One of the newest partnerships is with the United Way through the Read to Succeed program. Wichita business employees spend time in third- grade classrooms across the district to listen to students read, which improves fluency. Thompson said the employees often come back to the schools to participate in additional events and programs, which increases the community bonds with the students and schools.
Thompson is also enthusiastic about a fledgling “grow your own” teacher program to address the “huge” teacher shortage in Wichita. USD 259 is working with local universities on initiatives to enable the district’s paraprofessionals to receive reduced tuition for college classes that will lead them to becoming fully-qualified, licensed Kansas teachers. “If you don’t have quality teachers, what do you do?” Thompson asks. “We’re not standing around [just] hoping.” In fact, district leaders are also encouraging USD 259 middle and high school students to consider using the “grow your own” program as a boost into the teaching profession.
As USD 259’s new superintendent and new board of education begin to work together, Thompson said she’s proud of teachers and staff for the way they’ve persevered through years of funding and political challenges. She’s also proud of the students and families for “sticking with” the district. “We buckled down and kept the focus on the kids; the community trusts us.”