Leader Digital Feature

MASA asked 2018 Superintendent of the Year Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift of Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) five questions to gain insight into the work she is doing in her district. Here are her answers.

What does AAPS do to stay connected and engaged in the community?

In the AAPS, we believe in the fundamental importance of engaging directly with our community to listen and learn, to inform our work and to lift up and celebrate the exceptional work of our students and staff in this Ann Arbor community. We see our community engagement as the foundation from which our relationship with our staff, students and community grows.

First, we engage in conversation face-to-face in community meetings, hosting tours in the community every spring and fall. We meet with stakeholder groups regularly, interacting with parent and key community groups to share and discuss our current progress. Our Trustees host coffees and other public engagement opportunities out in the community as well.

We also engage widely via social media to share the story of the AAPS; our Facebook and Twitter presence has a single mission: to inform, to highlight and lift up best practice across our 32 schools. We are delighted to observe the activities and contributions of children, staff and parents every day across our social media channels.

In addition, we livestream our regular meetings of the Board of Education and also produce specific “mini” presentations via our YouTube channel so that stakeholders may engage for just a single presentation on a particular topic of interest.

What was one specific policy that you had to grapple with that required building consensus among the district staff, the community and students so that AAPS could continue to be a safe and welcoming environment for all students?

One opportunity that our Board contended with and built consensus among district staff, the community, and students so that AAPS could continue to be a safe and welcoming environment were the policies we adopted in 2015 around school safety, establishing school as a “disruption-free” environment.

Our community felt strongly that the decision allowing a CPL holder to carry at school should be a local decision, based on the values of the community, not a state decision. The Board and our district leadership team navigated the process to stand up for this ideal, based on a local consensus and commitment to safety within our classrooms and schools.

Subsequently, this policy work has withstood the test of two court decisions. The district policies protecting a disruption-free environment remain in effect and represent the values of our Ann Arbor community.

Your district faced challenges with disparities in achievement across student groups that mirrored national trends. Since a leading indicator at the root of student achievement is inequality in rates of suspension across student groups, what did AAPS do to successfully address this?

Here in the AAPS, our values of equity, access and opportunity run deep, yet our student performance data has not always aligned congruently with our stated values. While student achievement overall was high, our District faced challenges with disparities in achievement across student groups that mirror the national trends. We understood that a fundamental “leading indicator”at the root of student achievement is inequity in rates of suspension across student groups.

For some time, AAPS had been about the work of closing achievement gaps and reducing disparities for African American and Hispanic students, students from poverty, and students with specials needs. The District had already begun the process of narrowing discipline gaps in student suspensions among those same groups of students and yet the proof would be in successfully continuing to sustainably reduce disparities in rates of suspension among African American, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, and special-needs students.

What was also clear is that we could not simply avoid suspension alone, we needed to couple that work with a student support endeavor for students who struggle behaviorally at school in developing the competencies to improve their engagement and time in class to achieve greater levels of success in academic performance.

We also understood that we could not sustain improvement with struggling students unless we provided additional real-time support for teachers and building leaders in navigating this process with students on a daily basis; we knew the focus must be to improve behavioral skills and confidence, to cultivate relationships with students and in outreach to their families. Our students needed an opportunity to learn success.

In 2014, we deployed a Behavior Interventionist model, training and developing a team of interventionists growing from just three in Year 1 to currently staffing high schools and middle schools as well as sharing Interventionists across elementary schools. The role of these professionals is to work closely with approximately 20 general education students most at-risk for behavioral struggles at school.

Interventionists develop success plans with students, teachers, and parents, and closely support students in developing the competencies and the confidence to achieve success at school. Interventionists problem-solve, conduct home visits, facilitate parent engagement, and serve as a nexus for the cultivation of supportive relationships among teachers, students, parents, school and community.

Our work continues today and we remain focused on the goal of continuing to narrow disparities across groups of students. The reduction in rates of suspension is significant across elementary, middle and high schools in the district, and these positive results are sustaining over time.  

We are committed to continuing this work to ensure that all our students find success in school, and while buoyed by sustained reductions in rates of suspension, we are driving deeper into this work to realize the additional improvements that will ultimately close disparity gaps, ensuring that all students have the support they need to achieve and succeed in school each day in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

What would you say was the key effort that halted the decline, and led to an increase in your districts student enrollment?

“Everything good in life – a cool business, a great romance,
a powerful social movement – begins with a conversation.”                                                           
~ Daniel Pink

In the AAPS, during the fall of 2013, we began with a community conversation. We engaged in a Listen & Learn Tour of our 32 neighborhood schools as well as with groups from community, non-profit, government, and higher education to better understand what the Ann Arbor community wanted in their schools. During approximately 90 meetings, participants responded in a World Cafe format to discuss what they were most proud of, what they dreamed of for their children and the schools into the future, and to rank the “Top 3” issues that the Superintendent should address.

From the Listen and Learn information gleaned during this community engagement effort, we understood that we needed to pursue a path of strategic enhancement of programs and offerings in our schools, or we would continue to lose students from our district.

We have worked diligently to focus on the articulated priorities of the Ann Arbor community for our schools. These include the implementation of programs such as STEAM, Project Lead the Way, International Baccalaureate, and World Languages; we re-envisioned two underutilized schools.

For example, in innovating programs to address the community’s stated requests, the investment has transformed Northside Elementary School from a low-performing, low-enrolled school (175 students) to a thriving STEAM K-8 school, now with over 600 students enrolled. In an area where the district had been concerned about a possible closure of this campus, today it is a highly competitive school for enrollment, with demand for real estate dramatically improved within the attendance area.

In addition to the implementation of the A2STEAM at Northside K-8, we have also implemented International Baccalaureate Program, PK-12 at Mitchell Elementary, Scarlett Middle, and Huron High Schools, having received full authorization across the three schools beginning in Fall 2017. As a result, these schools have experienced a flurry of growth, particularly needed following a worrisome drop in student enrollment during the 2013-14 school year.

Over the previous four years, we have pursued a path of enhancement to promote growth in the district as opposed to one of diminishment. We have continued on a path of community engagement, conducting follow-up tours of the district during each year since 2013 to check in on district progress.

Among next steps, we are excited over this 2017-18 school year to engage in a community Strategic Planning process that will help us to redesign our Strategic District Plan to guide our continuing improvement work over the next five years in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

AAPS is a culturally and socially diverse district.  How do you turn what could be a challenging situation into an opportunity for your district and its students to follow on a path of growth, innovation and success?

In the AAPS, we believe that our classrooms and schools must serve as warm and welcoming environments that recognize our diversity as a fundamental strength within our community. We believe that students and staff benefit from richly diverse learning settings and therefore are better suited to learn, work and lead in a globally connected world.

Of course, the true measure of our work lies in our ability to say that ALL our children are well – not just my children or some children, but all our children are well. As a fundamental indicator of our progress as a community, we want to be courageous to ask this question: How are ALL our children doing?

We continually strive to renew our priorities, deeply and profoundly, on the well-being of all our children. We want to consider how our children are doing as the first and foremost question we ask, the way in which we hold ourselves and each other to high expectations, the fundamental measure of our progress together, and as the postscript we place on our legacy and our future as a community.