SUSD begins journey into modern education with innovative leadership pursuit
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press
Last month, Scottsdale Unified School District leaders provided to its governing board initial data points on the newly installed 2022 strategic plan.
The Arizona Digital Free Press reached out to Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel to better understand what the strategic plan entails, initial benefits realized by the plan and how artificial intelligence will play a role in the classroom and beyond at Scottsdale Schools.
This is what he had to say:
Looking at the newly adopted strategic plan, what are your thoughts on the district’s focus on academic excellence as goal No. 1?
Our vision is to engage all students in world-class, future-focused learning. Academic excellence is central to achieving that vision. This means ensuring that students receive high-quality instruction coupled with supports necessary to ensure they master the content at each level of learning.
We analyze various metrics to determine the extent to which students are “on track” with respect to mastering the core content and implement a multi-tiered system of support to address deficiencies when students fall behind. It is important to emphasize we hold high expectations for all students. We also realize that the rate at which students learn varies, and the myriad of challenges they face include environmental factors outside of the school experience.
How has the experience of COVID-19 shaped this plan?
COVID disrupted learning over the span of three school years. The plan was not in response to COVID, but was developed through a future-focused lens with an eye toward where we want our district to be in the next decade. We didn’t start with our current constraints, but rather with an aspiration of where we want to be in service of the students in our district.
In this plan are their areas where parents can see and understand efforts and opportunities for better communication with parents and families to ensure that all students are successful?
The partnership between the school and are families is foundational for student success and the strategic plan recognizes we need to make the process easy for parents from all backgrounds to engage constructively with our teachers, principals, and other school employees who are all working to ensure student success.
There are several areas in the plan (including specific commitments 4.1, 4.3, and 5.5) that talk about enhancing partnerships, communication, and connection. To that end we are launching a new app this year, ParentSquare, that is designed to streamline and enhance communication with parents regarding connection with their student’s teachers, building principal, and the district.
Under the framework of new & emerging technologies what are your thoughts on the district’s use of technology in the classroom?
SUSD is a one-to-one district, meaning each student is provided with a device to be used in support of their learning. However, one of the key lessons during the pandemic is that students need face-to-face interaction with their teachers and peers and that technology is not the answer to every problem, although it is an important tool to advance achievement.
Access to information, learning how to research online, digital literacy, and understanding cybersecurity and the footprint students leave when accessing social media and other online resources is an important part of preparing students for future success when they leave SUSD.
How does this strategic plan help prepare students better for the evolving marketplace they will encounter?
Under the goal of academic excellence, the first commitment is to “Provide learning opportunities that ensure all students graduate prepared for relevant and viable postsecondary higher learning and careers.”
The governing board has established Key Performance Indicators, several of which relate to this area of focus—including increasing the number of students who participate in Career and Technical Education classes (CTE) and earn industry credentials as well as increasing the percent of students who pursue postsecondary education and training and persist after the first year of enrollment.
Helping students understand the relevance of their learning to the real world and to their interests, passions, and career aspirations is important. We also know that many of the jobs of the future haven’t been created yet, so mastery of the basics and focus on transferable skills including teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking are also areas of focus outlined in the plan.
Where is the district succeeding? Where could it be doing better and how does this strategic plan put policies or efforts in places to solve those issues?
Depending on which metric is used, SUSD is performing well on state and national assessments. We compare favorably with similar districts in the value and out-perform the state averages on all tested areas. However, that is not to say we don’t have areas for improvement. More specifically, math achievement at the middle and high school level has been a concern for some time and is an area of intense focus for our district as we head into the 2023-24 school year.
The strategic plan focuses on building a system of supports for all students (multi-tiered systems of support that focus on both academic and behavioral needs of students). It addresses the importance of creating a safe and supportive learning environment where each student is seen, heard, and valued for who they are and experiences a sense of belonging.
The plan also recognizes that the only way we can provide world-class, future-focused learning is by attracting and retaining high quality staff (this includes teachers, administrators, and support staff). Each person plays an important role and when we are able to have consistency in staffing, the relationships that are established with students and families strengthens.
As superintendent, what are your long-term goals for the district and how does the strategic plan align with the vision of the governing board?
I believe Scottsdale Unified School District is positioned to make significant strides toward becoming a world-class district. We have a supportive and engaged community that recognizes the value of a quality public education system, but one that also expect results. I believe success can be measured in different ways (test scores represent one indicator). It is my expectation that we will continue to innovate in our teaching and learning practices so we can accelerate learning for all. The real measure of success is what our students do when they leave our district—we need to ensure each one is prepared for college and career and that they have the foundational knowledge and skills to pursue their individual passions in order to make a positive difference in the world.
Talk to me about the budget. How are things looking at the state level as we move through the next few fiscal years where the strategic plan is meant to unfold?
School finance can be a complicated area, but I will try to highlight a few key factors on the horizon that are important related to our ability to implement the components of the strategic plan and move SUSD forward.
First, school districts across the nation received significant federal funds (ESSER) to help address the impact of the pandemic on learning. Those funds must be spent by September of 2024. SUSD has been able to hire reading and math coaches (among other strategies) using these dollars and when they are spent, those positions will likely go away without a replacement source of revenue.
Secondly, for the past two years the legislature has had to vote to override the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) so schools can spend the money that was approved in the budget. This will likely be an ongoing challenge each year without a permanent fix and that has a disruptive impact on the budgeting process.
Thirdly, the impact of the expansion of ESAs is far greater than was estimated at the time the legislature approved the changes. This will have a direct impact on available funds for increased investment in public education.
Finally, increases in school funding have not kept pace with inflation. While we are grateful for the increased funding we’ve received over the past few years, Arizona still remains one of the lowest funded states for public education and this impacts our ability to attract and retain talent. If our state hopes to remain competitive in the future, investing in the talent pipeline (preschool through postsecondary) is essential. It is my hope that elected officials on both sides of the aisle will come together in support of our students, teachers, and communities to ensure each child, regardless of where they live, has access to a high quality public education experience.