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New Janesville superintendent looking to expand opportunities

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, July 15, 2017

JANESVILLE--If the Janesville School District's new superintendent Steve Pophal had a motto, it might be "build each other up."

Build students up so they succeed.

Build up teachers by giving them tools to hone their craft. 

Build up administrators so they can focus on what's most important: student success.

Build up the community by making a good district even better.

Pophal, who replaces the recently retired Karen Schulte, officially started July 1 but has been working with the district intermittently for the past month.

On Tuesday, July 18, less than three weeks into the job, he'll meet with the school board to do strategic planning. The board's decisions will give Pophal a sense of what his priorities will be for next year.

The way he proceeds, however, will be guided by what he thinks his primary job is: modeling the innovation, collaboration and support he wants to see in others.

Building up students

At Tuesday's meeting, Pophal is going to ask the board to consider one of its six foundational "pillars," which are service, quality, people, finance, growth, and health and safety.

"The quality pillar is where you identify what the outcomes for kids should be," Pophal said. "Right now what's there is to be in the top three of the largest districts in standardized tests. That's a good goal and I think that should stay there, but I think other things should be added."

Pophal would like the board to consider creating a goal focused on career and college readiness. At his previous school district, D.C. Everest, 96 percent of students graduated having completed one of the following: an AP course, a "dual enrollment" class with credits that could transfer to a tech school or college, or some kind of industry certification.

"We need to be preparing kids for all career paths," Pophal said. "It's not enough to have a robust set of AP offerings. That's good, but there are so many other career paths that are not served by AP classes alone."

At D.C. Everest, students could earn industry certification in areas such as automotive, construction, food service, child care and employability skills.

Classes with credits that would transfer to the technical colleges in the D.C. Everest district included introduction to vet medicine, finance, accounting II, applied technical communication in human relations, medical terminology, and foods and nutrition. The district offers more than 30 courses at its high school that qualify for technical college credit.

Other goals Pophal would like the board to consider?

"One of the very specific measurements of success is for kids to be able to read at grade level by third grade," Pophal said.

If they can't, studies show their chances of academic success decline exponentially.

Another benchmark is successfully completing algebra I by the end of ninth grade.

"That's a gateway course to so many other courses—not just in math, but in science and technology, too." Pophal said. "It has an impact on what pathways are open to kids."

The district currently has children taking algebra I in eighth grade.

"It's an interesting requirement, and it's been tried in a lot of places," Pophal said. "Some of the students are struggling, and some of them aren't ready for it. I'm not judging it the way it is, but I think we might have a little more flexibility there."

Building up teachers

Several years ago, the state Legislature mandated what it called educator effectiveness reviews.

Reviews in the Janesville School District involve an elaborate system that demands teachers submit extensive documentation regarding goal setting, classroom practices, test results, classroom surveys, intervention plans, classroom behavioral strategies, journaling that “represents reflecting thinking and professional growth,” “data-driven” revisions to curriculum or teaching plans, samples of “innovative approaches,” and a variety of other subjects.

Administrators are required to review all that documentation and, during certain parts of a three-year review cycle, do classroom visits and evaluations.

Pophal would like to streamline the system.

"High-performing organizations don't make personnel decisions on high-stakes performance reviews," Pophal said.

The current educator effectiveness procedure creates a "pretty narrow scope" on what it means to be a teacher, he said.

"I haven't talked to a lot of teachers yet, but I would bet—and I think I'd have a high degree of accuracy—that many teachers feel like this is a heavy burden on their back," Pophal said. "It feels threatening, and it doesn't necessarily promote and encourage teachers to take risks, to innovate."

It’s more important to find time during the day for teachers to collaborate, to share knowledge and ideas, he said.

Building up the school community

So how can the district create time for teachers to collaborate, get kids extra help in reading or algebra, meet state requirements, make more career pathways for students, satisfy the community's demands, and get teachers more training?

The answer is to start with helping the rising number of children in the district who live in poverty, Pophal said. He believes that process begins with him.

“The first thing that has to happen for that to be actionized, is I have to role model that,” Pophal said. “I can’t just talk about that. I have to treat people with love and respect. And the leadership team and the principals have to. I’m not saying it’s not happening now, but we’ve got to scale it up.”



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