Superintendents spotlight: What it means to stay focused on the whole student

These leaders are taking distinct approaches to keeping learners safe, healthy and ready for what comes next.

Committing to the whole student is how K12 schools can and will remain the key to democracy in America, Superintendent Trent North says. Of course, there is a lot that goes into maintaining that focus, adds North, the leader of Georgia’s Douglas County School System since 2017 and now one of four finalists for AASA’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year award.

Trent North. Douglas County Schools
Trent North (Douglas County Schools photo)

“My leadership philosophy is solution-oriented,” says North, who began his K12 career as a paraprofessional. “I’ve learned that every problem has a solution. If we can’t find a solution, our approach needs to be readjusted. It means we’ve been looking at the same problem through the same lens.”

North is one of District Administration’s latest group of superintendents to watch, all of whom are taking a distinct approach to supporting the whole student in an effort to keep learners safe, healthy and ready for what comes next.

‘Socially and emotionally ready’

There may be no higher priority for education leaders and their teams than giving students access to the highest level of instruction. North says he is constantly working toward that goal by recruiting and retaining exceptional educators by, in part, providing intensive professional development. He and his team are also committed to helping students develop the social-emotional skills to succeed during and after high school.

“When our students graduate, they must not only be academically sound, but we must also ensure our graduates are socially and emotionally ready to leave their impact on the world,” he explains. “If we commit ourselves to students, K12 can and will remain the key to democracy in America.”

Douglas County schools has also invested heavily in several safety upgrades and improvements. It has created its own police department, added parking lot monitors and installed hundreds of video cameras. North is also proud of the community support the district receives as evidenced by the 5,000 people who attended the most recent Back to School Bash. More than 1,200 students received backpacks stuffed with school supplies.

“But our biggest achievement has been our work during COVID,” North added. “When many schools across the nation never reopened, we opened our doors and safely remained open. While many schools were forced to close due to outbreaks, we stayed open.”

He cites growth as one of his district’s biggest challenges. The number of new homes, subdivisions and apartments being built is putting pressure on the district to expand physically and hire more staff. “Recruiting a sudden increase of additional new educators will make the challenge harder,” he says. “It is a balancing act, but we must manage the growth to ensure our growth does not manage us.”

Whole student innovations

Students at Plymouth-Canton Community Schools are bucking statewide and national learning loss trends in reading and math even as educators there have grappled with increased anxiety in classrooms, says Monica L. Merritt, superintendent of the district, which sits on the edge of Detroit and is Michigan’s fifth largest. “We have a way of making a big district small by personalizing learning to meet the needs of all of our students,” says Merritt, Michigan’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year. “We continue to reinvent programs to make sure students are college- and career-ready.”

The district operates art, STEM and International Baccalaureate academies and is launching a business academy and an early-college high school to add to its extensive CTE programs. In the earlier grades, elementary school students are now taking an innovation class centered on design thinking, critical thinking and problem-solving, says Merritt, who began her career as a high school English teacher.

When it comes to security, the district’s team of SROs has added a K9 ammunition-detection dog that doubles as a student therapy dog. Merritt also points to the district’s solid fund balances for instilling confidence in a community that recently approved a $275 million bond for facilities upgrades. And on the safety and wellness front, Plymouth-Canton’s educators are focused on helping staff and students heal from the divisiveness of the past few years.

“Everybody wants what’s best for students, and a lot of passions came out as we were all going through the pandemic together,” Merritt continues. “It has been a priority to be in a space of healing and showing a model for our students for how we can come together. If you want civility, you have to be civil.” 

Merritt may be unique among superintendents for having a father who was portrayed by Denzel Washington in a movie. Remember the Titans told the story of her dad, Herman Boone, a football coach who helped to integrate his team’s Virginia high school. “I’m in my 29th year as an educator, and I’ve always known I wanted to be an educator,” she concludes. “My father would say to us, ‘If you didn’t wake up planning to make a difference in someone’s life today, then go back to sleep.”

Touching hearts over hardening buildings

Sara E. Johnson
Sara E. Johnson

Superintendent Sara E. Johnson and her team at Oregon’s Crook County School District have pursued several big initiatives in serving their students. The first is to “show up,” by which Johnson means connecting with all students. For instance, when a new student enrolls, an educator from the district reaches out to begin building a relationship.

Those budding connections are then solidified as educators familiarize themselves with each student’s strengths, needs and interests, and track the data to monitor each child’s progress and experiences. Another key element is elevating student voice by regularly seeking feedback through surveys and listening sessions.

Counseling areas have been remodeled so they are more welcoming and student-centered. These efforts are part of a social-emotional learning strategy that’s key to the district’s whole student-oriented safety and wellness philosophy, which prioritizes preventing risks and threats from surfacing. “It’s much better to touch a kid’s heart than to harden the perimeter of the school,” explains Johnson, Oregon’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year and a former state principal of the year. “Part of safety is making school a good place for kids and a place where people can be heard.”

As a leader, Johnson says she builds credibility by being dedicated, driven, motivated, kind, and collaborative. For each issue, she seeks input from multiple staff members because she believes better outcomes result when the solutions are a product of teamwork. Even so, she acknowledges that the buck stops with the superintendent. “After all the listening has occurred, people also want someone who will make a decision and move,” she adds. “You’ll never be 100% sure about anything but I’ll make hard decisions.”

The district’s enrollment is larger than it was prior to the pandemic and the growth has been steady, which has allowed Johnson and her team to keep pace financially. They are currently working with a local organization to build affordable teaching housing on land donated by the city of Prineville and also provide childcare for district staff.

“All of these things contribute to people being able to focus on teaching and for students to focus on learning,” Johnson concludes. “The most important thing schools do is teach kids to read, then math and writing. If we can master that, all the other things will take care of themselves.”

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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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