A passionate education leader in the desert

Darwin Stiffler, Yuma Elementary School District chief, takes education personally
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 27, 2015

Driven by a passion to create an environment where teachers and students can reach full potential, Superintendent Darwin Stiffler has implemented programs to support the migrant workers and military families whose children attend the Yuma Elementary School District in Arizona.

Through a partnership with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Darwin is using data to make his district’s administration more efficient. He also has created a technology-focused elective specifically for migrants and worked to integrate special education students into mainstream classrooms.

After talking to Stiffler for just a few minutes, it’s clear that he is determined to give students and teachers the best chances for success in their schools and beyond. When he’s not working, Stiffler says he enjoys driving through and around the desert, and thinking of ideas about how to improve his schools and help every one of his students.

What drives your passion to serve as a superintendent?

I believe it is about systems, passion and respect. I was one of those teachers who wanted to know everything and how to get around the secret parts of the organizational chart. At one point, I got angry enough that I wanted to be the one creating the chart.

I am really a teacher who ended up in the super’s office. I have been a teacher, a principal, an administrator, a director, a superintendent. I have walked in all of those shoes. I am not going to ask someone to do something I would not do or have not done.

My secret weapon is that I care more than anyone else. I simply can’t bear when we don’t do the right thing. I am a geek about teaching and about school. To be superintendent is a tremendous freedom and an awesome responsibility.

An extreme personal need for efficacy drives a lot of what I do. You don’t have to wait your turn to make a difference. If you are someone who is mission-oriented and passionate, there is a lot of need. It is exciting yet daunting.

How have you reached out to migrant workers and military families?

Our 140-year-old, K8 district has 9,000 kids in 17 Title I schools, with two military bases and farming being the big deal in the town. With a lot of migrant workers, ELL is important. Spanish is the first language and Korean is a close second.

Yuma Elementary School District, Arizona

Superintendent Darwin Stiffler
Schools: 12 elementary, 5 middle, 1 digital learning academy
Students: 8,996
Staff: 1,259
Per child expenditure: $7,098
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 75%
Yearly budget: $56,895,184 for FY 2014-15

Our five middle schools have a migrant elective, without a set curriculum, that includes the use of technology. Our super teachers also work with the students to do a video log about what they are learning that they can then take to their next school for schoolwork continuity.

We also have a preschool dedicated to migrant kids. We try to convince them to stay as long as they can to provide education continuity of service, and we are increasing the number of families staying.

We have a military community with one school actually on the U.S. Army base. Our district has partnerships with the Pentagon to hire extra teachers and counselors temporarily for the kids when deployments are happening.

We understand some or most of the students miss school days when parents or relatives are being deployed and our staff trains for that. We also have built partnerships with the U.S. Marine Corp and Army to volunteer in our schools. A group of young Marines from the base help supervise recess and events, while U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons have adopted some of our schools and read and paint with our kids.

It is all goes back to the mission to make a difference. A lot of teachers come to this district for their first job. Twenty percent of our teachers roll over every year. It has been that way for a long time because of our general location and the military. Many of our best teachers are spouses of military personnel. But we continue to build people up and emphasize their training.

What innovative programs have driven change in your district?

Our district is bold. Our kids deserve that. We work really hard to push that envelope.

As everyone was rolling out Common Core, Eureka Math launched in three areasÑNew York, Berkeley and Yuma. We are an AVID district that builds supports to turn our home into a college-bound town. And we offer full-day kindergarten in all of our schools, despite the costs.

We are connected with the University of Arizona and I2 (Internet2) so we can do virtual trips to connect our kids to the world. So our kids can work with and Skype scientists in Antarctica, for instance. I2 is fast and is used by premier universities to push their research on the internet.

Five of our middle schools were chosen as a system for a grant-funded opportunity to partner with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Five principals and I worked with Darden on timelines, business plans and data crunching, and then brought teams in to analyze data and systems.

It has made a huge difference in changing our administrative structure for continuity and having the right amount of support for our teachers and staff while giving them independence to make changes. All 11 elementaries are now following the guidelines we learned at Darden.

We see the hoops that teachers go through to get kids special education. A year and a half ago, we hired a new special ed director and started renovating our learning disabilities program. We put the responsibility back on the regular teachers and sent resources to those teachers rather than taking the kids out for special education classes.

What are the results of your leadership?

I’m eager and insatiable in wanting us to be upfront. My strength is about painting a vision and putting things together in a way that makes sense, and inviting people to participate and identify resources so we can move forward.

Our scores have been going up. We have gotten national attention by moving large groups of poor kids to do better.

Other states’ education departments have asked me to share with their superintendents about the differences our teachers are making. We have even been filmed by Univision to find out what has been happening with our migrant population.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.