Amid Culture Wars, 3 Ways for Supes to Stay Focused on Helping Students Succeed

Kids become collateral damage when politics shifts from 'How will this policy help students?' to 'How can I make sure my side wins?

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School district leaders had long been attuned to the ebb and flow of politics, having to navigate the sometimes rough waters of discourse until leaders on both sides of an issue could find common ground for the sake of their students. 

Then, 2020 happened. 

Over the past three years, there has been a political shift from “How will this policy help students?” to “How can I make sure my side wins?” Battle lines drawn in state legislatures impact local school board meetings, with superintendents often forced to play mediator. Students’ educations can become collateral damage.

As someone who has been a superintendent for more than 20 years (and who comes from a political family), I know how it can feel to be caught in the middle — juggling federal, state and local legislation that doesn’t always align with your philosophy as an educator or meet students’ diverse needs. But there are ways to make a difference while remaining apolitical if you stand true to your mission and message.  

First, build relationships with and get buy-in from legislators. 

School choice has become a sensitive topic for legislators across the country. It has grown increasingly difficult for public school educators to fight the falsehoods about their schools. This misinformation can be used to steer families away from public education. It is the duty of K-12 district leaders to demonstrate to local and state officials why public schools are the right choice — that they provide multiple opportunities for students to succeed, prepare them for careers in the community and do both without any political agenda.

Through events such as weekly school board luncheons, board members in my district remain engaged and connected to our overarching focus — to educate every student at the highest level while standing strong in our convictions and being open about the challenges we face. We regularly invite state and national legislators to visit our schools and engage in programs, classroom walkthroughs and roundtable discussions with teachers.

After working closely with local and state leaders, I’ve discovered we can usually find commonality on most issues and focus collectively on the betterment of all students. Those politicians return to their legislative bodies with real-life, on-the-ground information — that they gathered from conversations with us — which they refer to when bills are proposed and budgets are set. 

Second, assemble a team of advocates.

Business and industry leaders are among the most powerful voices in advancing educational opportunities. The Springdale School District has 125 career and technical education teachers serving about 9,000 students daily in four middle, four junior high and four high schools. They routinely work with and learn from community and corporate partners. 

The district collaborates with these partners to create a solid foundation for students, from coordinating paid apprenticeships to connecting parents to local jobs. By addressing ongoing workforce issues, helping to lift families out of poverty and creating stability in the community, we’ve been able to help lessen many barriers to students’ education. 

These business leaders are also some of our best advocates. When they step into our schools and see all the good things that are happening — as well as the challenges — they can tell our story in the community in a powerful and deeply personal way.    

Third, embrace transparency and authenticity. 

Like most districts, Springdale has been on the receiving end of negative and controversial comments from people in the community. But I’ve found that they often say these things without having all the facts, or are repeating talking points from others who are trying to further agendas that aren’t always in the students’ best interests.

When I have the opportunity to discuss our circumstances, it’s amazing how people’s frustrations subside and their focus shifts to what they can do to help alleviate the district’s challenges. Over and over, I’m asked why we didn’t tell them about our issues sooner. The fact is, many times we have — but people aren’t always ready to listen. 

One way we combat misinformation is to be authentic, timely and transparent. For example, during legislative sessions, I travel weekly to the state Capitol to engage directly with elected representatives. I then disseminate information through newsletters, meetings with principals and our district’s residents, and through school board meetings. Most important, we make sure no parent is left out of the conversation and left to seek out details from other sources. Our communications office delivers school information in English, Spanish and Marshallese, to speak to families in their first language. We’ve built relationships with local media to stay visible, get information out quickly and respond immediately to issues that arise. 

We have also created a guiding coalition of administrators, instructional specialists, teachers and support staff, who analyze school data, help set school goals and assist with the development of the district’s strategic action plan. Additionally, they work to strengthen our Professional Learning Communities — teams of educators who share ideas to enhance their practice and create a learning environment where all students can reach their fullest potential. This helps to ensure our collective focus is on student achievement. 

Lastly, stand your ground — and pivot when needed. 

As frustrating as navigating changing laws can be, it’s important to remember that most people want the best for the students. While striving to make everyone happy is an exercise in futility, superintendents have to find ways to navigate the politics — while remaining completely apolitical — to ensure every student has great opportunities that pave the way for success.

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