Superintendent Joe Kitchens turns technology against dropout rate

Superintendent Joe Kitchens turns technology against dropout rate

Leader of Oklahoma's Western Heights Schools finds solutions in high-tech programs
Superintendent Joe Kitchens from Western Heights Schools has made technology the priority throughout his career.

Superintendent Joe Kitchens thinks technology will keep students in school and on track to graduate. The 20-year-leader of the Western Heights school district in suburban Oklahoma City is focusing on a strong telecommunications network and analyzing student data through various platforms to raise the 63 percent graduation rate.

Kitchens has always been ahead of the game technologically. In the 1990s, he connected all his school buildings with fiber optics and put computers and video conferencing software in all classrooms. “I’ve consistently worked with outstanding board members and a special community,” he says. “Together we’ve passed bonds and worked to receive grants to provide the technology we need to be successful as a district.”

Throughout his career, Kitchens has jumped on meeting new technology needs, whether it was building a stronger network to implement online state testing or adding computer labs so every child would have internet access, says Rita Morgan, Western Heights’ assistant superintendent who’s worked in the district for 37 years. “Joe’s vision has always been, ‘Let’s start now to get ready for the future.’”

All in the family

A native of rural, southeastern Oklahoma, Kitchens says being a school superintendent is a family tradition. Not only was his father a superintendent in Oklahoma for 25 years, but six uncles from both sides of his family were also superintendents throughout the Midwest. “I really grew up around great educators.” Kitchens says. “I had the great benefit of my father and uncles advising me throughout my own education and career by helping me realize how much dedication it would take to be a successful superintendent.”

Joe Kitchens

  • Western Heights Public Schools (Okla.)
  • Tenure: 18 years
  • Schools: 8
  • Students: 3,600
  • Staff and faculty: 500
  • Per-child expenditure: $8,098
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 73%
  • Graduation rate: 63%
  • Website: www.westernheights.k12.ok.us

In 1972, after receiving a bachelors of science degree in biology from Oklahoma State University, Kitchens received a master’s degree in teaching at Northeastern State University in 1975. That year, he became superintendent in the Indianola Public Schools in Oklahoma at the young age of 24, after working as a science teacher and high school principal in the district. After more than 15 years at Indianola, in 1992, he joined the Western Heights School District as an assistant superintendent, becoming the superintendent three years later in 1995.

Analyzing data

Kitchens says one of his greatest initiatives at Western Heights was adding a longitudinal data system to track student performance. “I believe the key to improving education is to give schools and districts the ability to track students’ progress over time,” he says.

“Building the right kind of reporting system allows us to understand what exactly the challenges are and to tell the public how well our schools are performing for all our children.”

Western Heights’ biggest challenges is working with a study body that’s 73 percent economically disadvantaged, 30 percent transient, and that has a 63 percent graduation rate.

With a goal of raising the graduation rate from 63 to 72 percent over the next five years, Western Heights teachers and administrators are using online data systems to monitor attendance and track test scores and grades. Alerts are also issued to administrators when a student drops out or a new transfer student comes to the district. Administrators can also analyze this data to view the progress of an entire demographic by age, grade, or learning disability.

Western Heights teachers can, before the school year begins, prepare to help struggling students by accessing their test scores from previous years and summer school grades. Morgan says this has allowed teachers to tailor the curriculum to better support students’ weaker points and give better individualized attention.

Administrators can also use data to get parents more involved in their child’s progress. “In a disciplinary meeting, for example, an administrator can turn the conversation from why a student isn’t showing up to class to pulling up their test scores or weak points right in front of the parents,” Morgan says. “We can really change the conversation about why a child isn’t performing academically and what recommendations we can make, like tutoring.”

Setting a foundation

When Kitchens became Western Heights’ superintendent in the mid-1990s, his first priority was to upgrade the technology in all district buildings. “While we wanted to expand on many programs, we knew at the same time we were entering a new information age,” he says. “The district wasn’t networked at the time and we weren’t able to communicate between buildings.”

Between 1996 and 1999, Kitchens helped pass several bonds, totalling nearly $7 million, to fund 17 miles of fiber optic cable between the schools. Internet routers, storage, and servers also were installed, resulting in one of the most powerful networks in the state. He also took advantage of the federal e-Rate program to get discounts on many of the services, such as internet and storage.

As a result, by the late 1990s Western Heights students already had internet access and videoconferencing equipment in all classrooms to connect with other classes and guest speakers, including senators and teachers from other schools. “Once this network was in place, we knew it would set the foundation for adding new technology in the future and would allow us to upgrade easily,” Kitchens says. “It happened slowly, but we wanted the children to be proficient in technology.”

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Morgan says that same tech-first philosophy is still keeping Western Heights on the cutting edge. All schools have Wi-Fi while iPads have been given to every teacher and high school senior.

The district is also ahead of the game in preparing for the Common Core. “When we first looked into the Common Core testing, [Superintendent Kitchens] didn’t think we were ready for it technology-wise,” Morgan says. “We’re now in the process of improving our computer labs and internet network to make sure hundreds of our students can take these tests at once with no technical problems.”

First-of-its-kind food pantry

To meet students’ more basic needs, Kitchens in 2010 launched the district’s WHIRE program, or Western Heights Implementing Resources Everywhere. The first-of-its-kind in the state of Oklahoma, WHIRE is a districtwide food pantry and clothing closet program that’s funded by donations and partnerships with many other charitable organizations in the area.

Kitchens says WHIRE supports about 200 students and their families each month. “It’s all well and good that we build up technology, but it’s also important for a district to become more accountable with helping its students and their families,” Kitchens says.

WHIRE has also collaborated with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to have a dedicated social worker at each Western Heights school site. The social workers help identify needy students and families and work with them to find housing and other resources.

“Having the extra staff has really helped us identify and support families with financial difficulties and lack of housing, food, or clothing.” Kitchens says. “I’m especially proud of that.”

Lauren Williams is assistant/web editor.


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