By Diana Whittle
Editor’s note: Over the past year, Wrangler News correspondent Diana Whittle has developed a continuingly productive relationship with Kyrene schools superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely. The relationship has produced an opportunity not only to report on the progress that has been made since Vesely’s arrival but to better understand the opportunities—and challenges—that lie ahead for the district. We encourage these kinds of working connections among our writers and the community leaders who are faced with making decisions that will affect all of us. The following is Whittle’s report on Vesely’s first year on the job, coupled with a reaffirmation of our longstanding pledge to keep our readers knowledgeable about the direction in which those leaders are taking us.
It’s been a fast-paced year since my first meeting last July with Kyrene’s newly appointed Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely. After arriving from Tucson, she hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped since; so, during our most recent interview on June 22, it was a chance, both to catch her breath, and to reflect over the past school year.
Ironically, our meeting took place on her birthday, so in the midst of well-wishes from colleagues, she spoke about a year of transition– from responding to the district’s first comprehensive audit, sponsoring a Visioning Day to gather input from many stakeholders in the community; and then, implementing a recent re-organization designed to return resources to the classroom.
All were steps leading to the next big task at hand, which is to weave together all the data and analysis into a new strategic plan to guide the district into the future.
A focus on students
First and foremost, it’s evident, as Vesely recalls the accomplishments of the past school year, her top priority is setting an atmosphere of academic achievement for the students in the district.
“We’ve set a brisk pace for our progress, but we have no choice, because when it comes to improving the quality of education we provide to our students, I am motivated by a strong sense of urgency,” said Vesely.
“We only have them in our care for what seems like a heartbeat, and we have a responsibility to give them the best we can offer.”
Vesely believes there remains a lot of work to be done, but it’s mainly because of the high achievement bar she has set.
“My team and I are dedicated to a process of continuous improvement, reviewing and assessing the outcomes of the steps we have taken to address the findings of the audit, with a constant focus on teaching and learning.
As evidence of their dedication, Vesely explains that the staff of each school in the Kyrene District collaborated to develop 90-day action plans to articulate their individual goals and strategies.
“When I arrived here, one year ago on July 1, I knew that Kyrene was a high performing District. And, it didn’t take me long to know that the pillars of strength of its schools were the exceptional and dedicated staff and the highly engaged and supportive community. “
While the end result is to improve teaching and learning, Vesely determined that the root cause of achievement gaps needed to be determined along with stabilizing and increasing enrollment.
To summarize, Vesely outlines the following initiatives that the district staff were collectively able to implement:
- Redesign of our middle school program. “Our middle school principals worked very hard on identifying the elements characteristic of a highly effective middle school, and crafting a model for Kyrene that includes an emphasis on academic excellence, responsive instruction and support and student agency.”
- Expansion of our early learning programs.
“Kyrene now has a full complement of early education options that includes the Early Learning Academy, Montessori, Bienvenidos Spanish immersion, Reggio Emilia programs as well as ten preschools across the District. We are adding to these options, with preschools at Mariposa, Ninos and Waggoner.
We also announced our participation in the City of Tempe’s PRE—Preschool Resource Expansion program, which is free preschool for qualifying families of children ages 3 and 4 at Ninos and Mariposa.”
- International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Kyrene Middle School (KMS).
“We recently received word that our application for candidacy, the prerequisite for an IB Middle Years Programme at KMS, has been approved. IB offers students with an opportunity to work within a global context with an emphasis on high quality, challenging instruction.
It includes a strong world language component, which provides our dual language students with an option to continue that focus in middle school. Enrollment of new students at KMS for the 2017-18 school year is higher than it has been in recent years.”
- Expansion of the Kyrene Traditional Academy to PreK-8.
“For years, parents have expressed an interest in having their children continue with the traditional approach to education offered at KTA beyond elementary school. We will be adding a 6th grade class at KTA in the fall of 2017, and are reviewing plans to expand the school to allow instruction through 8th grade.”
Vision for the future
One of the key findings of the audit was the need for the development of a multi-year strategic plan and identification of a vision and goals for the district that will guide the alignment of district decisions, actions, and improvement initiatives to close the gaps in student achievement.
“We have already started the process of developing that plan, beginning with visioning work done in collaboration with Dell EMC/Worldwide Education in which nearly 40 key stakeholders, including principals, teachers, parents, community members and most importantly, students, began to explore the question: What will learning look like in Kyrene in the future?”
Vesely created the Kyrene Business Alliance to provide community business partners with an opportunity to engage in the work of the district, and she also resurrected the Kyrene Student/Superintendent Council.
“The Student Council was instrumental in providing feedback on our middle school redesign, and at the end of the year, they offered their insight into what makes them want to come to school each day,” said Vesely.
“The Governing Board also offered their thoughts on defining the mission and vision of the district during their recent retreat. Over the coming months, we will bring together all of these perspectives and come to a shared mission and vision for the future of Kyrene.
Vesely concluded the conversation by saying, “We still have important work that needs to be completed, but as I enter my second year, I am excited by the challenges that lie ahead.
“Kyrene is strong and its future is bright.”