Here’s what’s keeping K-12 leaders up at night—and what’s keeping them hopeful.

School safety, staff shortages and academic engagement are top of mind in many central offices.

Which K-12 challenges are keeping your fellow superintendents and principals up at night now that COVID is no longer an all-consuming crisis? And what are public school leaders looking forward to with the pandemic no longer clouding every inch of the horizon?

Superintendent Marcella Shaw, of the Barnwell County Consolidated School District in South Carolina, has four major goals for this year and beyond: safety, academic excellence, fiscal responsibility and building community. For instance, a recent safety review revealed that not all custodians had walkie-talkies to communicate in emergencies and that trees around some schools had to be trimmed to clear views for surveillance cameras. Safety also means making all staff and students feel valued in the new district, which was created by the merger of two smaller school systems in Williston and Blackville.

“If we make the district a safe space where people feel honored—where people feel like they have a voice and that they are contributing—that is a big retention strategy,” says Shaw, the 2023 superintendent of the year in South Carolina. “We are working very hard to create conditions so our folks want to come to work.”

To keep students engaged and involved, she hopes the merger allows her to reinstitute programs, such as soccer, and start new ones, like wrestling. She’s also working to launch an academy for gifted students. “We want to be recognized nationally as a rural school district that’s making a difference,” she adds. “If you have a diploma from Barnwell, I want that to be recognizable across the nation as producing scholars who are creative, critical thinkers who can be great leaders.”

Many K-12 challenges revolve around staffing

Teacher and staff shortages are a daily concern in many central offices across the country, and will seemingly persist over at least the next few years. “If you were to ask me my 15 biggest concerns, 12 of them are staff-related,” says Superintendent Jim Nielsen of Orchard View Schools in Michigan. “It’s not because our staff is not doing a great job; it’s because we just can’t find the people.”

The biggest struggle at Pitt County Schools in North Carolina has also been finding qualified teachers and other personnel, including principals, custodians, bus drivers, and teaching assistants. “For years, we’d advertise for certain positions and have 20 people apply,” Superintendent Ethan Lenker says. “Now, we only get one or two.”

More from DA: Is the Nation’s Report Card also the nation’s K-12 rude awakening? 

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Nielsen and his team of educators will offer more hybrid classes for students who are more successful when they are not learning in-person full-time. The district will also introduce competency-based learning and design thinking on a wider scale as those novel approaches gain momentum. “We have them in pockets throughout the district, ” he explains. “And we have more success with allowing teachers to learn and develop passion and excitement about these models rather than mandating them.”

In Pitt County Schools, the future will see the expansion of the district’s tech academy, which will likely include housing some programs at the local community college, Superintendent Ethan Lenker says. “The questions are, how do we grow that and can we take that into a school-within-a-school model?” he says. “We’re also looking at a self-enrolling high school to be part of that program.”

Recommitting to continuous improvement after COVID

Many other leaders say they can now get back to focusing on continuous improvement after powering through the pandemic.

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Enhancing personalized learning to meet the needs of every student, supporting families and keeping the community informed—as well as ensuring the district is a place where teachers and staff are enthusiastic to work—are the priorities for Superintendent Walter “Rick” Clemons and his team at Gloucester County Schools in Virginia.

“It’s about never being satisfied where you are,” says Clemons, Virginia’s 2023 superintendent of the year. “We have had a lot of success and we have a lot of things to be proud of. But there are a lot of things that still need to be done.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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