McKersie sees choice, digital learning as key

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sat down with the Post last week to discuss priorities for the new year.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sat down with the Post last week to discuss priorities for the new year.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Superintendent of Schools William McKersie about the challenges of the new school year. The second part will run in the Sept. 5 edition of the Post.

 

As students returned to class this week, in many cases teachers started them off slow, allowing them to reacclimate themselves to classroom work after summer vacation. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie enjoys no such luxuries though. There’s a full plate for him.

Not only does the superintendent have to focus on Greenwich’s response to a state mandate for racial balance in student populations at two elementary schools, examine why standardized test scores have shown a widening achievement gap in town and manage the day to day operations of the district. And that’s just going to be in September. But Dr. McKersie told the Post in an interview last week that not only is he ready for the challenges ahead, but so is the district cabinet, the principals and administrators and the teachers in staff in every one of Greenwich’s 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school.

The results that came in earlier this month for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) had bad news for the state as a whole, but particularly in Greenwich had some discouraging results, including the growth of the achievement gap between students on the free and reduced lunch program and their wealthier counterparts. That gap had been shrinking in previous years, only to increase this year.

“Any one year doesn’t make a trend,” Dr. McKersie said. “But we did have a nice trend going… This is a shift from where we were going and we have to watch that. I think a couple of things are going on. It’s just in the last eight or nine years that we’ve doubled our proportion of low income students in the district. We’re in many ways a young district in how we embrace diversity and work with diversity, particularly from an income standpoint. I think that brings with it the need to look at how you can be most effective with a diverse group of students.”

He added, “I’m completely committed to having our top achievers going higher and higher and, at the same time, trying to help our lower achievers, or as I like to call them our up and coming students, get that much stronger.”

According to Dr. McKersie sustained success on this hasn’t happened across the country, save for small pockets here and there, and he said a more “aggressive” approach around innovation and choice and clear standards for curriculum and professional learning will help.

“What I mean by innovation and choice is giving our professionals much more room to make decisions that are going to be much more effective for their learners,” Dr. McKersie said. “This can be done within a set of commitments so we don’t just have anyone doing anything they want. We want to give schools and set of schools the room to be innovative and make choices about what’s best to personalize and make the learning much more tied into students.”

Dr. McKersie said this philosophy is reflected in the changes that have been implemented in the district’s central administration to create five networks that bring together schools for joint planning and implementation around professional learning, with budgeting and programming in the future. Dr. McKersie said this will allow schools make “key decisions” and also be able to share best practices.

This is also where the digital learning initiative is expected to come into play. Dr. McKersie said this project is now going “great guns” with the recent hire of Phillip Dunn as the director of digital learning and technology. The district is in the middle of getting a contract set for the district-wide learning management system to manage the information as well as for the professional learning for all teachers and staff. Hamilton Avenue and Riverside School will be the two test schools for the first phase and, if things go according to plan, the students there will be getting digital devices in January.

“We have a very strong organizational structure around this,” Dr. McKersie said. “This is not all about the devices. This is about transforming teaching and learning and it’s about innovation and choice. We want to help, as soon as we can, help the professionals be ready so when the devices land, be able to have much more personalized learning and have instruction much more tied to individual student needs.”

The choice that Dr. McKersie also speaks to the kind of movement he said he wants to create, where families can stay with their neighborhood schools or go to another school, if they so choose. He stresses this would be voluntary on the part of families but he wants to be able to provide choices as a way to deal with facility utilization as an outside consultant has found that nearly all of the district’s elementary schools are either at too high capacity or too low.

That issue and racial balance is set to dominate the first board meetings of the year, including tonight’s meeting at 7, at Greenwich High School. The state has determined that two schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, are in racial imbalance for having too many minority kids there and is expecting a resolution this fall, with Greenwich facing unclear consequences if one can’t be achieved. The choices on these issues will be left to the Board of Education, but Dr. McKersie and the district administration will certainly be leading forces in determining a path forward.

Dr. McKersie said that at tonight’s meeting he will be presenting a “fleshed out” version of a plan he presented last month that would allow for school choice to potentially move kids to underutilized buildings at Parkway and North Street Schools. He said there’s no guarantee this plan would lead to racial balance but it would be part of a “wholesale approach” to raising the level of achievement and work throughout the district.

So far no options have found broad support and Dr. McKersie said there may not be more out there, claiming, “There are really only two big ways to skin this cat.”

He explained that there could either be redistricting and changing attendance lines, which parents have been strongly opposed to, or through a choice approach that gives families the ability to stay in a neighborhood school or have options elsewhere in the district. Dr. McKersie added that most districts deal with this through redstricting but said he had heard the resistance to it from Greenwich parents. That leaves choice and there is market research ongoing right now, at the board’s behest, and focus groups scheduled for next month to determine what will get people to leave neighborhood schools and embrace other options.

“The board has the ultimate authority and oversight, but they’re not on this day to day,” Dr. McKersie said. “We’re on this day to day. I’ve had some members of the cabinet and some principals working on it this summer so it’s not taking over everybody. Our big main focus is on moving along our strategic priorities and moving along the start of school and everything else. Facility utilization and racial balance will be one topic, but it won’t be the only topic. The heavy lifting on how you improve teaching and learning is done by professionals in the schools so we’re on that every day.”

Dr. McKersie stressed that just because the board is occupied with balance and facility utilization, “nothing stops” in the schools and that the daily goal is on academic achievement.

“We’re going to charge along to do what we have to do to improve achievement,” Dr. McKersie said.

Dr. McKersie is approaching the start of school with one full year under his belt as superintendent. He said that he came into the job expecting to find engaged parents and professionals but that he underestimated what he would find in Greenwich even with all the ongoing issues in the district and the years of turnover in the superintendent’s position.

“That’s a good surprise,” Dr. McKersie said. “On the face of it this would appear to be kind of an embattled district and the professionals are so strong. I’ve worked with lots of embattled districts and embattled schools in my career. I’ve worked with a lot of good people, but nothing like what we have here in Greenwich. Every time I turn a corner there’s another professional really dedicated and really committed to what’s best for the kids.”

 

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