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The new year has dawned.

Reflection on 2023 allows us to ponder our wins for the year and be grateful for our accomplishments, but also to consider the challenges we navigated and be reminded that we can do difficult things together.

To say that the 2022-23 school year was a challenge would be a serious understatement. 

As we emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, we faced student achievement scores that were lower than ever before and we earned a label of “low performing district” that no one wants. While many qualities that make a school district somewhere parents want to send their children are not measured in the current state accountability model, this model is clear and sets the expectations for us. 

Our talented staff including our teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, interventionists, and the District Integrated Instructional-Student Services Team rallied together to examine curriculum, learn new pedagogy, use data, have difficult conversations, and put in the hard work to move us from where we were then to where we are now. 

We are blessed to have amazing teachers who figure out what works to help our students learn and close gaps, but never forget that our children are still children who need to experience the magic of learning and have their curiosities and passions fed. 

Our teachers are led by our talented administrators and supported by our wonderful support staff. 

It truly takes a village! We learned in October of a huge win: Roanoke Rapids Graded School District exited low-performing district status.

Our challenge in 2023-24 is to continue this momentum. 

District and school improvement arises out of a culture of high expectations. 

While it starts at the top, all levels of stakeholders share the same values, live the same mission, and work toward making the same goal a reality. 

All must believe that high student achievement is possible and act accordingly to make the belief a reality. 

Change does not happen over night, and sometimes we will try new things that initially cause achievement or morale to drop — the official term is “implementation dip.” 

It is important to stick with programs long enough to evaluate the fidelity of implementation and make decisions based on both quantitative — numbers from tests and usage — and qualitative — interviews and feedback from stakeholders — data. 

The culture of high expectations prioritizes student needs over staff comfort — even though we want staff to have excellent working conditions — normalizes staff sharing and using data to inform instruction, and monitors progress and achievement. 

In this culture, district administrators set a vision and motivate school administrators, who set a vision and motivate teachers and other school staff, who set a vision and motivate students. High expectations require buy-in from all levels from leaders to students, and everyone involved has to understand and work together toward a unified goal of improving student achievement.

Administrators monitor action steps and goal progress because what is inspected gets respected, and they model for teachers and other school staff in doing this for students.

One of the biggest challenges facing education today is a shortage of qualified teachers and other staff.

School districts are forced to jockey for staff by traveling out of state or even out of the country, luring staff from other districts with recruitment bonuses, or any number of other strategies. 

As my leadership team can tell you, I prefer to focus on retaining staff — meaning that if we have any funds available for bonuses, like we did early on with COVID-19 funds, that we provide retention bonuses to thank our existing staff for sticking with us — and growing our own — such as encouraging our students to become staff members and helping our existing staff grow and be promoted within the district. 

I am so grateful for previous leaders in the RRGSD who shared these same beliefs, encouraged me, and helped me grow from a teacher to school administrator to district administrator and now to superintendent. 

Another huge win is that RRGSD has all of its classroom teacher positions filled. 

If you visit our website, our employment page only lists nine positions out of about 350 staff members as vacancies — English Learner Tutor and Substitute Tutor, two Exceptional Children’s teacher assistants, Media Coordinator, Guidance Counselor, Technology Technician I, Bus Driver (part-time), and Secondary Teacher. 

This low vacancy rate is something for all of us to be proud of.

Other wins this year included our Community Outreach Liaisons helping over 200 students — out of our 2,808 students in preschool through grade 12 — with Christmas presents. 

Our Finance Department was praised for yet another clean audit of the school district finances. This makes five years without a finding or any notation in a management letter! 

As the federal programs director, I was also very pleased for us to have clean ESSER and Consolidated federal program audits and monitoring visits and to be asked to present at conferences on these processes for other federal program directors. 

While this reflection has been very positive, not all days are easy. 

Like everywhere, we have student discipline and domicile issues and personnel concerns. Conducting thorough, fair investigations takes time, but ensuring that all students and employees — both offenders and victims — are treated consistently, fairly, and in accordance with laws, policies, and procedures is such an important part of our work as district and school administrators.

When I was a high school English teacher, one of my favorite literary techniques to teach was irony. 

In reflecting on our wins and challenges, I realized that many of our wins actually arose from challenges. 

I firmly believe that the reason the challenges became wins is because of our emphasis on doing things together — #TogetherWeSucceed. 

Before I conclude this week’s article, I would like to thank each of you for your support and encouragement. 

Over the past few weeks, I have received so many sweet cards and emails to congratulate me on earning my doctorate from William & Mary and on great things happening in the RRGSD that they learned about from this article. 

I am so thankful to be part of our school district and community and appreciate each of you so much. 

There are so many blessings to be thankful for in the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District — from amazing students, talented staff, engaged families, and supportive community — that I can’t wait to see where we go in 2024.