ICYMI: New school year comes with new goals, hopes

A conversation with Washoe County School District Superintendent, Dr. Susan Enfield
A photo of Washoe County Superintendent Susan Enfield visiting with students in a school classroom.
Washoe County Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield. Photo courtesy Washoe County School District

A new school year is underway for students, teachers and parents across northern Nevada. It’s also the second year for Washoe County School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield. She and the district [recently] announced its three-year roadmap for the district.

Executive Editor Noah Glick chatted with Dr. Enfield to learn more about what she’s hoping for this year, the historic education budget passed by the [Nevada] Legislature, and how to create personal connections across all schools.

Interview Transcript

Noah Glick: We’re at a new school year. Can you tell us about your vision for this school year and beyond?

So, we spent the better part of last year working with staff and community members and students developing our three-year strategic plan, which the board formally adopted and which we launched at our staff kickoff. And so, we’re very excited for that, because now we have a roadmap and a vision for our work for the next several years. I think it’s important that all staff understands sort of not just what we’re doing, but why. And so rather than a mission or vision, we have what we’re calling our ‘WCSD Promise’ and that promise is to know every student by name, strength and need, so they graduate prepared for the future they choose. And that will guide the decisions that we make, as best we can.

How has this evolved from where the school district was before? And then what are some of the details of this strategic outlook for the next few years?

Well, it’s different because first of all, the plan that I inherited, was really not a strategic plan, it was the district’s response to recovery plan that they had to develop during the pandemic. So, in many ways, it’s an apples and oranges comparison, because, as you know, during the pandemic, districts had to do all kinds of things differently. And so, some of the metrics and things that they were focusing on that are no longer relevant. So, we really wanted to have a three-year plan that was focused on improving outcomes for students. And not as focused on some of the things that we had to worry about during the pandemic. So, I think that’s the biggest difference.

For example, one of the goals is a strong start for every child. So, we’re developing a pre-K through third [grade] vision for how we how we ensure that our youngest learners are getting what they need. And then in between, it’s all students making academic growth each year, students feeling safe and connected to their school and then ultimately, that students graduate empowered for whatever future they’ve chosen for themselves.

I appreciate the clarity on the pandemic, and how it’s different [now]. What does life look like for the school district after the pandemic? I’m curious, how do you start that process of sort of trying to come up with a vision? Where do you start with something like that?

Well, I think that there’s some things that have remained unchanged since the pandemic. The core mission of public schooling has not changed. It’s that every child comes to school, is seen and supported to succeed, and graduates prepared for whatever future. That’s always been the goal and the job. And so, what we’re just doing is sort of recommitting to that that we want to make sure that we’re supporting our students to be successful academically and socially. Because the social component really became important, I think, during the pandemic, when there was so much isolation.

And one of the things that’s been great about this school year, and all my school visits so far, are people feeling, principals and staff telling me, ‘It just feels good this year.’ Students and staff feeling like this is more familiar. I don’t like to use the term normal so much anymore. It feels more familiar, it feels good. And so, I think that we’re making progress, but our core commitment to our core mission of educating children remains unchanged.

Obviously, this is not a reflection of every single teacher or staff member in the district. But after the kickoff event, I saw quite a bit of criticism toward that event from school staff and teachers on social media. A lot of them were saying, ‘Well, I’d rather have that time in my classroom to get prepared.’ I’m just curious to know what your thoughts are on folks who maybe didn’t think that the kickoff event was the best use of their time or district resources?

Well, we didn’t use district resources, just so you know, we got donations for that. So, the rental fee, everything that staff received, we didn’t have to use the general fund for that. And that’s why we couldn’t do some of the things we wanted to do, that people were most frustrated with. So we couldn’t afford video screens, we couldn’t afford a better sound system. And that was one of the biggest frustrations I heard from people, they’re like, ‘Oh, we could see or hear you. So frustrating. You know, we wanted to hear that.’

I knew doing something at this scale, in a district where they had never done anything like this before, that there were going to be logistical challenges. You can’t do something at this scale, with [the] limited resources that we have, and not think that there’s going to be some issues. And we got some really good feedback from people on what we want to do differently next year. First of all, we’re going to start planning for next year, this year, so that we can secure a better location, make sure that staff can see and here. We also want to do it probably in October, so people don’t feel sort of the rush of the start of school and so that our non-contract employees who couldn’t be there, we want everyone to be able to be there. So, we’re looking at making some significant improvements for next year.

And I will tell you that I still believe it was important to bring us all together, and I read plenty and responded to plenty of the criticism as well. But I will tell you that the appreciation that I received from staff far outweighed the criticism. They appreciated bringing everyone together and setting the tone for the year, and being really clear in what our strategic plan is, and where we’re headed. And they loved seeing each other. You know, one thing that I heard was, ‘God, it was so great to see so-and-so, we worked together 20 years ago, and I never see them anymore, because they’re at this other school.’ And so next year, we want to build in some more like structured socializing time, so that people can really see one another again.

We’re a 6,600 square mile district and we’re pretty spread out. And really, at the end of the day, there’s power in personal connection. And people are really craving that, given what we’ve all been through over the last few years. So, I’m excited to apply the lessons learned from this year to make next year’s event a really, really great one.

You mentioned trying to do something large, at scale, with limited resources. That tends to be kind of a theme, at least as long as I’ve been here in the region, with the school district and the way education works. Now I know the [Nevada] Legislature just passed an historic education budget. Where are we with teacher raises and negotiations on that? What can teachers expect in terms of pay raises?

Well, we’re in active negotiations right now and our teams are working really hard. We’re all committed to getting to yes, but I can’t comment further at this point.

Can you say at all, like a timeline or anything, where people might be able to least hear something?

No, I can’t, because I don’t control negotiations. The very nature of negotiations is they take as long as they need to. But what I think is important to remind folks is that whatever is agreed to will be retroactive. So, the fact that negotiations are going on perhaps longer than people would like, myself included, doesn’t mean that staff is losing out on any compensation.

Last question for me, [and] it’s kind of a two-part question. The Washoe County School District is a very unique district. I’m sure it’s very unique compared to where you’ve previously worked. I’m just curious, what do you see as some of the bigger challenges facing the district? And then what do you see as sort of the solutions to help fix those issues?

Well, I think that I think state funding is certainly a challenge. And it is true that the legislature passed [an] historic education budget this year, for which we are definitely grateful. And I think it’s important to note that that’s a down payment on what needs to be an ongoing investment. Unfortunately, this state budget does not make up for decades of underfunding. So, I don’t think anybody should feel that the job is done and we now have all the adequate funding that we need. So, I think that’s important.

The funding piece is very, very real, especially in a place like Washoe County, where the cost of living continues to rise. We know that we have to look at issues of compensation seriously. And so, I think that is one of the bigger challenges that all of us in the state of Nevada face.

I think maybe more unique, but not entirely unique to Washoe County, we are as I said, 6,600 square miles. We’re pretty spread out. So, I think it’s important that we build systems that create reliability in service and support, regardless of what school a staff or student is at. Building those systems, I think, is, is an opportunity. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity. The takeaway that I’ve shared with people, since I arrived last year, is we’ve got extraordinary professionals working in this district. And my job as the superintendent is to help build systems that are equally extraordinary and worthy of the staff that show up each and every day to do their best. And so that’s what we’re really focused on right now, is how do we put those systems in place for the district to function reliably, efficiently, effectively, so that every employee feels supported and every student feels supported and succeeds.

I say it all the time, while our challenges are real, the opportunities for greatness, I think, are just tremendous. I say constantly we are a district on the rise, and I believe that. I am really, really humbled and inspired when I walk into our schools and our classrooms and see the extraordinary work that our people are doing for children and families. We just need to build a system that better supports them in doing that great work.

Dr. Susan Enfield is the superintendent of the Washoe County School District.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.


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