Conversations with a Superintendent Part II
By Brandon Hurley
New Greene County superintendent Brett Abbotts is a person of many experiences.
He is well-versed in various school districts, handling many different duties throughout his years.
Part II of the Jefferson Herald’s exclusive Q&A touches on Abbotts’ plans for the future of the Greene County Community School District as well as his thoughts on a number of hot button issues.
The interview concludes below.
Jefferson Herald: What kind of potential do you see for the Career Academy and where do you think you could take it in the future?
Abbotts: We have Theresa green out there, who is phenomenal. And she and I are going to get to partner together, of course, with our building principal, and our instructors and teachers that are out there.
I would like to be able to see us start to develop it and create more opportunities than already exist. Teresa, and I, met up at the Bell Tower Festival dinner and we just started spitballing a couple of things back and forth.
I want to create a pathway for kids that when they start in high school, they know (are you) going to a four year college? Or is (your) pathway to use the Career Academy and take advantage of the trades that are there?
How do we set it up so that students can start walking across our graduation stage with their diploma in one hand and a certificate or credential in another, and know that when they started as freshmen that they had a path to get to this.
Ultimately, however many years down the road, if it’s the end of this year, three years, five years, whatever it happens to be, I’d ideally like to see students from other other school districts coming here and taking advantage of what we have to offer.
JH: You’re coming into a superintendent position I think at a critical time in America. Education is right at a tipping point, it could go either direction. So in your mind, what are some key areas that Greene County needs to focus on education-wise and moving forward?
A: I think as academics, how do we support and serve the whole kid and then the whole family?
As we keep getting further and further away from the closures because of COVID, I think you’re starting to see the residual impacts that it’s having. It’s not on every kid, but it’s on enough that it’s impacting and influencing more.
How do we address those social-emotional competencies of our kids, and also of our staff. I’m a firm believer that you cannot pour from an empty bucket or an empty cup, and if teachers are running on empty, how are they supposed to support kids that are also running on empty? It becomes very, very challenging. We need to really take a deep look at what are we currently doing to support the whole child and also, we cannot forget about supporting our teachers, too, because they’re really the engine of schools.
And then, we will focus on academics. I know we have to do things at the same time, but we have to take care of your people first.
JH: There are a lot of hot button issues, school-wise (all over) the country, and one of them is gun violence, we had the shooting in Uvalde, Texas and then recently, there was an issue with a gun (at the Greene County High School) in the parking lot. What kind of plans do you have to make sure that the kids here in this district are safe and that guns never enter the school?
A: These are some conversations that we’ve already started.What are the security measures that already exist within our current buildings and taking a really serious look at what we have
One of the items that I have in my 150 Day entry plan is to do a threat assessment or security assessment of each of our buildings. To find where our weak points are and where are our points that we need to either secure or lockdown. Whatever that needs to be to ensure that we keep our both our students and staff as safe as possible.
It’s looking at a variety of training that can be offered to both students and staff to prepare themselves if situations should arise, and and how to respond proactively.
Student safety is 100 percent the first and foremost of literally everything that we do in a school district. So I think it’s going to take a good concerted effort from from all of us. It’s going to also take all of us getting a good, deep look at each building and making sure that we’re not leaving anything to chance in terms of how we approach our day and not be too lackadaisical about it, either.
JH: There are some certain school districts that are leaning toward maybe removing parts of the curriculum (when it comes to American history). How important is our American history to kids in school?
A: I think it’s incredibly important to know what happened and why it happened. But, it has to be from an objective standpoint ‘here’s what’s reported in history and here’s what we’re going to teach our kids and here’s what we’re going to allow our kids to discover without pushing ideology or ideas on kids.’ Rather than just how it was reported, let’s study it, let’s learn it together and allow kids to form their own opinions around what accurate resources are saying.
I think removing certain things out of text can start to remove a lot of context out of things as well. I’m not a huge fan of that.
Actually, one of the questions I got asked in the interview process was how I felt about religion and teaching religion in school and things like that.
I think my response, if I remember right, was one of the most impactful classes I had when I was in college. (It) was world religion. It was taught by a pastor who lived in town who was an adjunct professor and I think we learned about 12 or 13 different religions. Not one of the religions was ever pushed on us, it was just like, ‘hey, here’s Buddhism. And this is what they do. This is how they worship, this is what it means when they do this.’ It was a reflection on what you learned about Buddhism and what are your thoughts? How do you think and feel about it based on what you’ve read and what we’ve discussed here in class with the teacher facilitating the discussion.
I hear and see some people get all up in arms about that stuff. But, I was never forced to think or feel or be a certain way. It was actually probably one of my favorite classes in college just because it really broadened my horizons of a variety of religions. It just made me think differently. I was able to form that opinion on my own and not not have it forced at me.
JH: How important do you think it is to have parents be able to have some say in the curriculum that their kids are being taught?
A: I certainly think that parents should be very aware of what their kids are learning and the materials that kids have access to. I don’t think we should ever be be hiding that from from anybody. Actually, I believe all of our curricular resources are available to parents, if they ever wanted to view them.
A lot of parents come from a lot of different backgrounds and experiences. I look at that from an equity lens of like if we were to use a really broad example – we’re going to learn about baseball teams, but hey, we’re not going to learn about the Toronto Blue Jays, because we don’t like that here. But you know, we can go down to Perry, and they’re not going to learn about the New York Yankees.
I think that as long as there’s equity in terms of we all have the opportunity to learn the same content, then I’m good with that. As long as parents are informed to what their what their kids are learning, I think that’s important as well.
JH: Speaking about the future, technology is at a great point for education, I think. How do you plan to use a lot of the new technology to help kids learn moving forward?
A: I am a firm believer that technology needs to be something that’s in place that enhances learning and it becomes more about the learning and less about the tool itself. What I mean by that is our tech department training our teachers. They need the correct training from our tech department. Training them how to use tools to enhance learning. Whether that’s using tools like LCD displays that are in our classrooms. Those are hands on, those can be touched and manipulated and moved around.
If (students) are going to be using their different devices, how are they connecting, communicating and collaborating on a specific assignment? It becomes about the learning and the assignment that they’re doing rather than anything that might be cumbersome with the actual tool, or the computer or whatever piece of technology it happens to be itself.
I’ve been a big believer in that.
JH: There are a lot of distractions in the world now for everybody, not even just students. How are you going to keep kids focused on education and make sure they know that education is important?
A: One of the conversations I was having with a staff member from high school was about getting kids to attend and getting kids to understand the importance of getting an education. That’s something that we’re going to have to figure out together as a team. How do we keep kids engaged in class? That’ll be a challenge. There are lot of distractions here, right?
Not all, but some students and some families don’t see the value or the importance of getting an education. How do we make our education engaging, inviting, and rigorous enough so that when they’re here, they’re challenged? When they’re here, they’re engaged, and when they’re here, they additionally see the value of continuing to come.
Kind of coming back to one of the things that I think is one of my strengths is about what’s the relationship that the school has with the family? And what’s the relationships that our teachers have with kids? What’s the relationship that our administrators have with teachers?
I get it, all of it all funnels back out to keeping kids in school and keeping them engaged.
JH: There’s been a strong push to bring the Latino community into Jefferson and Greene County overall. How will you go about helping the Latino community assimilate into the school district?
A: I don’t use the word assimilate, I use the word embrace. I think about where I came from. Being in Council Bluffs for six years, we actually kind of reflected when we looked at our student demographics. We did a data dive at the end of each of our three assessment windows across the year, and one of the things that I always pull up and put in front of my staff is our building demographic. What’s the percentage of each of our student groups that we have, broken down into maybe five – male, female, that was an obvious one, but it would be our white students, black students, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino. When we started six years ago, we had five total students who were black. This year, we finished the school year with 47. Our Hispanic numbers, we only had like 20 to 23, my first year and then we finished this year with 91.
We made some incredible strides with (the Latino students). It was just how we embraced them. We spent a lot of time learning about them. We created a diversity team within our school that was with students, parents and teachers. In order to be able to teach, learn and engage with families of different cultures, you have to learn and understand. What makes them feel connected, and what makes them want to keep coming back.
Hispanics were a little different. The parents really valued the kids getting an education up to a certain age and then once they kind of hit a certain age, the education wasn’t so important for them anymore.
It became our job to figure out how to keep you engaged. Once you walk out of our building as fifth graders, into that middle school, how do we continue to rope you in and pull you in, and, and make this seem like this is something you can’t leave behind?
I think we did that really, really well over my six years there. I think that’s what contributed to us being as successful as we were. It was a lot of learning.