Superintendent Todd Gray sees more Waukesha schools becoming specialized
Pleased with district's recent test scores
Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part interview with Superintendent Todd Gray. The first part included topics on the district's financial state, how ACT 10 and voucher schools have and can affect the state's public school system in the coming years, renovation projects, the FieldTurf project at the high schools, iPads and the district's new no-cell-phone policy.
Todd Gray had a plan for the Waukesha School District.
Now, over the next five years and beyond, the superintendent wants to make sure that plan continues to be successful.
He became the leader of the Waukesha School District in 2008 after previously serving as an assistant superintendent in the Appleton and Oshkosh school districts. Before that, he was a certified public accountant and an accounting teacher.
Drawing on his financial background, he helped the district become more cost-effective at a time when it needed to be more mindful of its expenses. This started with eliminating or repurposing underused buildings.
Entering his sixth year with the School District, Gray is excited about improved test scores and schools in the district becoming more specialized. He also wants to keep seeing its dual language program thrive.
Gray is encouraging teachers at the district's 27 schools to be innovative. Implementing iPads was a start, but he doesn't want teachers and principals to be afraid of continuing to try new methods in the classroom.
In an interview before the 2013-14 school year began, Gray addressed these topics as well as his goals for the next five years.
Q.This will be your sixth school year in Waukesha. What are your general thoughts with another year underway?
A.I'm very excited. Our ACT scores are up, our school report card scores are up, we've got a lot of neat new academic programs that will benefit kids. We continue to try to innovate in any way we can to improve instruction, and that seems to be taking place — at least if our school scores are any indication.
Q.So test scores are a big indicator to you?
A.It is, but I'm not a big fan of the school report cards because there's so many good things we do that aren't represented in the report card. We have championship bands, we have award-winning art programs, music programs. Our athletic teams are all off to a good start.
Those all provide different types of education for kids that aren't usually represented in a school report card. So I get the fact the report card can only have limited information, but I don't think anyone should judge a school or a school district by necessarily those report cards.
Q.The STEM Academy, with an elementary and middle school campus, opened not long after you started. How are those charter schools going?
A.It's in their fourth year and doing very well. There's still a waiting list to get into those. Again, the academic success of those schools has been fantastic, and now we're looking for different options.
This year we turned Hawthorne Elementary into a magnet school that also focuses on STEM (a science, technology, engineering and math-focused curriculum) because we have so many parents looking for this type of education experience. We knew back then we probably would have to expand this, and so Hawthorne represents that expansion.
Summit View is a completely different magnet school. That's integrated arts, not a fine arts school. The arts are used within the academic disciplines. That looks like it's going to be successful.
Q:Do you think more schools in the district and statewide will try to be more specialized?
A.Milwaukee (Public Schools) has been using them, and other districts have looked at that. I think we're going to continue to look at unique education experiences within this district for some of our other schools. I would like each school to have some kind of signature educational approach and give parents choices as to where they want to attend.
Q.Can you talk how this will work at Summit View, for example?
A.It's a specialty school where the kids who live in that attendance area go there automatically. But others who want to go there apply from different areas and can go there as well. There might be some parents who live in that area who don't want (this) and want more of a classical-type education, and they'll go somewhere else. But this is a specialty school, and we're using a unique approach to education.
Q.Doesn't this then take away the neighborhood approach?
A.Not really, because our schools will still be open to the neighborhood students, and there will be a specific educational approach to that. We'll still be focusing on the core subject areas; we just might be focusing on different techniques to get there.
Q.What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
A.The big thing is giving parents choice. Kids learn in different manners. I was very much a kinesthetic learning. My youngest son, for example, can sit in a classroom, and he gets it. I'm not good at sitting and getting. I need to do hands on. So those kind of opportunities we want to make available to all students in the district.
Q.After closing White Rock last year as a neighborhood school, those bilingual students were primarily dispersed to their neighborhood schoola. How did the first year go? Tell us about implementing the dual language program?
A.We've got a great program at Banting (which has had it for three to four years). We're in our second year at Bethesda (using a two-way program where Spanish and English speakers learn the opposite language in addition to their native language starting at the kindergarten level). We're looking at Heyer as a third possibility (it currently has a one-way program that allows Spanish-speaking students to learn English). It's not something we could expand to every school. But we could probably get four regional schools that it would work at.
The first year 90 percent of instruction is done in Spanish and 10 percent in English, and the second year it's 80/20, 70/30 and so on. It's just amazing to see some of the Spanish speakers doing well in the core subject areas because of that, and the English speakers are doing well. They're picking up the Spanish. The dual language approach so far has been the most successful kind of educational approach for non-English speakers.
Q.Speaking of White Rock, Pleasant Hill and Saratoga elementary schools also closed as neighborhood schools in 2010-11. Do you see any other schools not doing financially well on the potential chopping block?
A.The only one that closed that is not being used is Pleasant Hill, and it closed because there were only fourth- and fifth-graders there, and many of the parents said it doesn't make sense to just have fourth- and fifth-graders there. Put them back in our other schools.
Saratoga now is STEM,and many of the students that went to White Rock came from other attendance areas, so we were spending a huge sum of money busing those kids to White Rock when they had services in the neighborhood schools. So we said 'why not just keep the kids in the neighborhood schools; the services are there, and we eliminate the busing.' Now we use that as our early learning center.
Q.A lot has taken place during your first five years. What were your primary goals, and did you accomplish them?
A.I'm very proud of our academic achievement. We're starting to close the achievement gap. To me, that's the biggest piece. The innovative things we've put in place for our academics, that's been our best attribute. Obviously, the financial piece is good. Financially, we're very sound at this point, but I think the progress we're making and the innovation we're undertaking in education to me is a bigger point.
Q.So what are your goals for the next five years?
A.We've done a lot in five years. Now we need to take some time to make sure they work, put some resources into them before we start adding (more). But when teachers have better ways to do things and more innovative ways to do it, we want them to pursue those. I fully got their back in the event they want to do something different that improves education. We kind of said 'No fear.' Try something new. If it doesn't work, that's OK. But at least you've tried something. That's kind of the environment we want to create here.
Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.
Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter Get the Newsletter!
- Town of Waukesha in search of a new attorney
- Female driver crashes vehicle into Waukesha Memorial Hospital
- Waukesha man faces 10 counts of child porn possession
- Waukesha County will likely oppose arena tax
- Apartment complex proposed
- Waukesha man charged in motorcyclist's death
- Downtown Waukesha's logo could see a makeover
- City of Waukesha will have a new attorney next spring
- City of Waukesha's mayoral race has three candidates so far
- Local dance team tops in the region