Journey of a Superintendent: The Curve Ball

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Life has a way of throwing curve balls when you least expect it. We all have periods in our lives when everything seems to be moving along just fine, then here comes the unexpected, the curve ball. As a kid, I loved to play fast pitch softball. As a batter, rarely did I face a pitcher who didn’t give away their technique as the ball was released. But I remember facing a team from McCune, Kansas, whose pitcher not only threw an 85-mile-an-hour underhand fast ball, but also a highly-disguised curve ball, giving nothing away in her release. When facing this talent, the best you could hope for as a batter was to start swinging the minute you saw the wind-up, or lean forward hoping you could survive getting hit by the ball to get an automatic walk to first base.

As I think about our work as educators, curve balls are the norm. It’s not that we come to the “plate” without a plan. As districts and as schools, we have plans, very detailed plans that will lead to meaningful outcomes for our students. Our plans are based on what the data, and our strong relationships with our students, tells us we need to do. We work each day, highly focused on the plans and then … we face the curve ball pitcher. School reform efforts driven by state and federal mandates regularly throw curve balls.

Three years ago, Emerson Elementary School faced their own curve ball pitcher. The school was incrementally improving the performance of students on high stakes assessments in reading and math. Satisfaction with that incremental improvement came to an abrupt halt when school rankings came out, and Emerson found itself at the bottom of performance for elementary schools in Kansas. This change in how performance was judged certainly was a curve ball, one that the school and district had to face.

Emerson staff, the district, families and the community could have reacted in many different ways to their ranking. They could have stayed in denial, claiming unfair procedures or looking for a way around the reality, like “leaning into the pitch” and hoping to make it to first base.  Instead, these dedicated staff embraced the need to do what was right for their children and fully emerged themselves in a plan to ensure students were successful.

Three years later, Emerson Elementary School has been recognized by the Department of Education as a “Title 1 Reward School for High Progress.” Emerson implemented a plan that focused on developing their students as literate citizens, extended learning, strong parental involvement, and embedded professional learning. This plan has resulted in more than doubling the percentage of students being on track for success, exceeding 80% on grade level in reading and math. Many said it could not be done. Emerson stayed focused and said, “we must be successful for our kids.”

This team of committed educators and families faced their circumstances and made a tremendous difference in the lives of their students, and in the success of the school. It wasn’t easy. It took significant resources. Their work is not done, but success breeds success. What it says to all of us is that, given the right resources and a plan that is based on what children need, we can do anything, including hitting a curve ball out of the park. It’s Up to Us.

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