How one superintendent strives to keep his rural schools relevant

Bermudian Springs School District has completed one big project—a new middle school—and several more, including a new curriculum, are underway.

Momentum is what’s invigorating Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss of the Bermudian Springs School District as the 2023-2024 hits its stride. One big project has been completed—a new middle school—and several more, including a major curriculum rewrite, are underway.

Hotchkiss, Pennsylvania’s 2024 superintendent of the year, says he’s eager to watch the progress his staff and students are making, particularly at the new middle school, which replaced a 40-year-old building and is now in its second year of operation.

“This was truly the largest construction project ever done in our community,” says Hotchkiss, who has led the rural, three-school district since 2011 and began planning the new school in 2018. “I’m excited to see students and staff utilizing the facility the way it was designed, which is with a lot of flexible space that promotes creativity and collaboration.”

When students or staff arrive at the new middle school, they enter a wide-open, two-story “Main Street” that leads to four identical academic wings. Classrooms have garage doors that lead to open areas where students and teachers can collaborate on a wide range of projects, such as building a food truck. All classrooms have a mix of furniture, including low and high tables and other forms of flexible seating, all of which have wheels so students and teachers can rearrange their learning spaces.

Making Bermudian Springs’ buildings safer after the 2018 Parkland shooting was one of the motivating factors in building the new middle school, which, for example, did not have a secure vestibule. “People could enter and go where they wanted to,” he points out. “When you walked in, you had to walk 80 to 90 feet until you got to the main office.”

The design process, which included students, teachers and the community, culminated with a bid going out just as COVID struck in March 2020, which drove up construction costs by millions of dollars. But low interest rates allowed Bermudian Spring to recoup much of that cost.

Because of the scope and prominence of the project, Hotchkiss had construction cameras installed so the community could watch the school take shape online. He even ran the occasional time-lapse video. “My goal was to build space can be flexible and adaptable for decades to come,” he notes.

A little luck in Bermudian Springs

Math and science are the key focuses of the curriculum rewrite. As part of the process, Hotchkiss and his leadership team worked with the district teachers union to create content lead positions. These teachers get a stipend to take on additional responsibilities for rewriting the curriculum to align with and surpass state standards.

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“We have a lot of teachers spending a lot of hours, so I want them to be proud of their work,” he continues. “As a small district, I think we create a lot of opportunity for kids—we have college-in-high school courses, we offer AP courses, and our students can graduate with almost a semester’s worth of college credits.”

Still, Hotchkiss and Bermudian Springs are grappling with some of the unique challenges of being a rural district, with one of the most pressing being internet access. In the rolling central Pennsylvania hills in the western part of the district, some residents still have to use dial-up internet service. Teachers help students use district-provided iPads to download assignments so they can work offline at home. Students can also sign out Wi-Fi hotspots even as local governments are working to expand to broadband in the region.

The district recently filled three high-needs positions even as Bermudian Springs, like many other districts, copes with staffing shortages and a scarcity of new candidates. It took months for the district to find an educator to oversee its emotional support program. It also hired an experienced ELA instructor to teach college-level courses. “People are leaving the profession—not going to another school district,” he concludes. “I feel super lucky this week.”

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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