A Message from the Superintendent

 dr ward

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Vernon ISD Teacher Retention Video

The future Vernon Elementary School

The Vernon High School Addition

Vernon Community,

For anyone who works in a public school, the Christmas Break is always a welcome time of the year. It is a time when we get to refresh our batteries.

For some, it is a time to completely remove themselves from the job, but as a superintendent, I can never fully disengage. Whenever I have tried it, I always develop a sense of low-key anxiety thinking about the lost opportunity to get a little ahead of the job. For that reason, I did not feel crazy at all for turning a trip to Quito, Ecuador over the break to sharpen my Spanish skillset, into a work session.

I will first answer your question of why Ecuador of all places? Well, there are quite a few reasons. First, I had never set foot on the South American continent and my research led me to believe Ecuador was one of the safest countries in the entire Western Hemisphere. Secondly, this country does not have its own currency and they use the U.S. dollar, so I did not have to deal with an exchange rate and those dollars last much longer.

As I write this, I’m having a late lunch consisting of tea, baked chicken, and a slice of lemon meringue pie, and the bill will come to no more than $4. Finally, because of how far Americans can stretch their dollars and this great weather (between 60 and 80 degrees year-round), Ecuador is the No. 2 destination in the entire world for American retirees.

It is the rainy season here and the rain is falling in full force today. I was either going to sit in my room and watch the rain or join many Ecuadorans who are used to this and get out in it. As I people watch as it rains, my mind drifts back to work as it always does. I am thinking about my recently celebrated one-year anniversary as an employee of Vernon ISD, and of being a proud resident of the City of Vernon.

I am not too sure who coined the phrase “time sure flies when you are having fun,” but had they trademarked it, they’d easily be a billionaire today. Has it been all fun? I’d honestly say no not all fun, but a remarkable amount of my time here has been. Fun assembling the pieces to the puzzle that ultimately will lead to Vernon ISD becoming as great a district as it was once. Fun seeing the kids reap the benefits of hard work and a rock-solid plan taking shape. Fun providing the necessary supports that lead to good teachers either wanting to make Vernon ISD their work destination or wanting to remain with Vernon ISD.

We really have been hard at work, and we needed to be, as admittedly there was lots that needed to be done here. I cannot singularly identify or elevate a move, an idea, or a system that we have put in place here and classify it as our silver bullet or the district’s defining moment. We may be able to look back on this later and point to something, but while sitting here in downtown Quito under a popular local restaurant’s covered area and with the comforting sound of heavy rain coming down, I will share my Top 3 proudest and key moments.

Changing Thoughts and Attitudes of the Adults

I read leadership books often in order to sharpen my craft. This may come off as condescending, but the main thing I draw from those readings is confirmation that we, as an organization, are indeed on the right pathway and doing things right. A few books back, I read about the significance and importance of the behaviors of the adults in a school system changing before student outcomes can change.

My team and I have learned so much about how Texas public school accountability works, and we were able to identify district strengths and weaknesses. Those work sessions have led to us developing an affirmed belief that we need to focus on getting kids to master state assessments instead of just passing them.

We all realize there have been many missed opportunities with our antiquated approach of just focusing on getting students who have not been successful to at least experience a minimal amount of success on state assessments. The focus is still right there with that particular set of students, but now there is a considerable shift to paying attention to the kids who have consistently done OK or good in our schools and pushing them up to the great level.

I now hear teachers often using a few words that were not used very often in this district just a year ago. I am now in meetings where I hear teachers planning a lesson for their “enrichment group of kids” or having thorough discussions of our newly revamped “GT testing process” and who will qualify. The fact that we are financially committed to doing great things for those kids suddenly and abruptly has made being GT cool to the kids.

Finally, I think every student at the high school now knows what a CCMR college and career readiness point is. We had a few students who initially pushed back when I announced at the start of the school year that getting a CCMR readiness point would be a Vernon ISD graduation requirement for each Vernon High School senior. I will give credit where credit is due, and those who initially pushed back on this now understand the expectation and have either gained their point or are well on the pathway to getting it.

The changing of adult behaviors was not just exclusively pushed onto the campus and administrative staff. The VISD school board stood in front of the same mirror and ask what needed changes would be required of them? Ultimately, the school board committed to sit through a few weekends of training on restructuring our school board meetings.

The training is called Lone Star Governance (LSG). Now, greater than 51% of our school board meeting discussions must focus on the academic progress of all the students in our system. Those meetings during the summer were indeed time consuming and I sat and wondered could we pull this off with the level of structure and change this would require of the curriculum department and our teachers. That commitment of time has led to more efficient board meetings where the trustees feel they are getting way more information in a more succinct way than ever before. The trustee buy-in with LSG is so profuse that at last month’s meeting they voted that any new board member coming onto this board must be LSG trained.

The Big Shift in Campus Leadership

While trying to get the superintendent position here at Vernon ISD I did research on the district and noticed so many missed academic opportunities while perusing through all the data reports and wondered why the student outcomes were the way they were. Having thoughtful and engaging conversations with staff and gaining access to more sensitive information when I arrived, filled in most of my questions and left me with a plethora of concerns.

I knew making some leadership changes would put this district on the quickest pathway to restoration. Knowing what you need to do and having the courage, and perhaps more importantly the support, are two entirely different things. I felt like we had good principals in this district, but I had to wonder if they were in the right places. We made one significant hire from the outside for our high school and then looked for the campus that would match each principal’s unique skillset. The outcome of those new assignments has been a key win for the district.

I mentioned having the support to make those changes. I was the new guy coming into a place where I could easily assume local ties are strong. I expected change on this scale, to be met with some degree of resistance from the trustees. We all needed to be willing to make decisions in pursuit of the best interest of our kids and hold those decisions well above the wants and levels of comfort of the adults. The trustees, in the end, only wanted to know my rationale and justification for those decisions. After providing them with the information for each move, I found us all playing in the same sandbox together and for that reason, we are on the right trajectory to success in the area of school leadership.

The insertion of Positive Behavior Support (PBIS)

Prior work peers have identified being tough on students as one of my shortcomings. I guess my biggest problem is – I do not see it as a shortcoming in today’s schools. Some of my best teachers and coaches demanded and got way more of me than I thought I was capable of giving. I detested it and sometimes them then, but I have a high sense of appreciation of it all now.

For that reason, this is in my DNA and for me, it is the only way to put together and sustain a strong school system. I draw lines in the dirt with students all the time and I tell them not to cross the line. The influences some kids come to school with in today’s times really make for this, in my opinion, being the only right way to put together a healthy school system that does not allow certain students to become bigger than the next student.

Narrowly speaking, not only am I talking about developing a set of standards and high expectations but more significantly having things in place where there is a plan already developed for how we respond when our students do not meet our expectations and what to do for our kids who are giving us exactly what we are asking for.

In a recent fall meeting with both principals and assistant principals, I loudly said we need to be tougher on the very few students who are purposely not meeting our expectations and taking precious time and resources away from the majority of kids doing the right things all the time. Although it was not said, I am sure my request caught them by surprise. It was important to follow that request up by telling them the district-level administration will support them when the parent of the adversely behaving student wants to discuss the issue further.

So, what is the plan for the large majority of our kids who are meeting our elevated standards and expectations each and every day? I have to say I am very proud of the response of the campus principals to my insistence that we have Positive Behavior Intervention Support in all of our schools. This was a new thought for campus leadership when I introduced this during an early summer meeting, and I required each campus to have this in place and use this as an incentive for grades, attendance, and behavior.

The campus leadership and their creation of a campus behavior committee have had a profound influence on what is making this work. The intent was to have rewards and incentives in place for kids to reach for and it is working. The most apparent area we can all clearly see right now is the impact it has had on student attendance. Student attendance is a primary tenet of any school system. Our teachers could come up with the perfect academic lesson for our students and it just wouldn’t matter if the kids were not there to be a part of it.

As the Spring semester unfurls its vibrant promise, the palpable excitement in the air is amplified by the noticeable shifts in adult behaviors across all of our campuses. With a fresh start comes renewed enthusiasm, and the changed leadership at all the schools additionally ushers in a wave of innovative perspectives and strategies. This leadership transition injects a dynamic energy that permeates both through classrooms and hallways, creating an environment ripe for growth and positive change.

Moreover, the implementation of PBIS in all schools underscores a district commitment to fostering a constructive and inclusive learning atmosphere. The introduction of PBIS signifies a collective effort to nurture not just academic development of our kids, but also social and emotional well-being, emphasizing a holistic approach to education that promises to make this Spring semester a transformative chapter in the educational journey. As the educational landscape evolves, the confluence of these factors paints a promising picture of a semester teeming with possibilities and positive transformations.

 Dr. Kermit Ward
Vernon ISD Superintendent