Field Trip: Cutting Edge & Rural
Graham Local Schools is a small, rural district in Ohio. Yet it’s found a way to offer progressive professional learning that’s making a difference in teachers’ and students’ lives.
In this interview, Superintendent Kirk Koennecke discusses how Graham Local Schools is building community relationships, offering innovative opportunities for students, and providing the kind of personalized professional learning that teachers are asking for.
- Offering a menu of professional learning opportunities aligned to the district’s strategic goals in 4 different areas: Grow, Teach, Plan and Lead.
- Using technology in professional learning as well as unique programs like Lean Six Sigma for teachers and students.
- Pooling resources with other districts in the Ohio Small & Rural Collaborative to increase opportunities and equity.
- How they determine what initiatives to focus on, and which ones to stop.
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KIRK KOENNECKE: Getting people into that mindset of it’s okay to try something and it’s okay to ignore the clock one day or it’s okay to forget about the test score and really worry about some deep learning with students and meet their needs — then you’re going to be successful wherever you are with professional learning.
Today on Field Trip, we’re speaking with someone who’s proving that you don’t need to be a huge district to offer cutting edge professional learning.
KIRK KOENNECKE: We want people to be able to do their professional learning and meet them where they are so they don’t have to always show up on a given day or at a given time to do their professional learning. We might have a teacher do an externship with a company because it’s relevant to their learning, and they’re going to bring that back to their classroom or program and make that specific.
Small, rural schools are doing some incredible work in the area of professional learning, and today we’re looking at one of them.
KIRK KOENNECKE: And I think when we show people that they can learn in different ways through different platforms, that could be attractive to them, you get more out of your employees over time and they feel more connected to something.
It’s the podcast for leaders in K-12. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
We’re here with Kirk Koennecke, Superintendent of Graham Local Schools and executive director of the Ohio Small and Rural Collaborative. Kirk, thank you for being with us today.
KIRK KOENNECKE: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
I wonder if you could start by just giving us a brief snapshot of Graham Local Schools. What is it like there?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Graham Local Schools is a wonderful place. We have about 1,980 students we serve in a small, rural environment in Champagne County, Ohio, which is about 45 miles west of Columbus. Ohio. We are a rural school district with three buildings: one very large elementary building, a middle school and high school.
We have a very low diversity percentage. We do deal with a high free and reduced population in terms of poverty. Our county has seen over 20 percent growth in poverty in the last 15 years. We’re serving about 1,980 students with over 250 staff and another 160 part time staff and then approximately 150 volunteers who come into our buildings to help out.
As a rural school district, I’m sure that you have very different advantages and challenges compared to suburban or urban schools. Could you talk about this a little bit?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think the challenges for us in terms of our students’ social and emotional needs are exactly the same as they are in other environments. I’ve worked in a lot of urban and suburban environments prior to coming to Graham, and kids are kids. The issues that they face in society today, we have a much more transient population. We have a lot of students who move in and out of our district just like suburban and urban schools do. So the typical Graham student has changed over time and is much more similar to students in all schools.
Those issues that we face though, dealing with poverty barriers and dysfunctional family situations and environments for children, the mental and physical, medical needs of our students in schools, those things have all grown over time and we have to try to find innovative and creative ways to get at all of those students. And then on top of that, the academic expectations for students in schools have not only progressed so fast and changed with technology that many of our parents have trouble assisting their own students with their learning today. Schools have to take on those added responsibilities to really make sure we’re not only educating students but their parents as well about what learning looks like.
As we think about being in a rural environment, anytime you have a distance between where you are and the next town or the next major urban center, obviously resources may not be quite as available or at least quite as close. When we think about professional learning, how does being in a rural area impact how you support your teachers through professional learning?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think not just at Graham, but all small and rural schools face this issue of budgets, and how far can we send somebody away to learn, how many people can have an opportunity to do professional learning in that traditional sit-and-get environment. And so we’ve really tried to become more progressive and personalize a model of professional learning at Graham where teachers get to choose from a menu of opportunities, most of which are led by our own staff. Our goal at Graham is to create and build internal leadership capacity, and while that requires the use of some partnerships and some training, we really look for a return on investment with any type of consultant or company we work with for professional learning so that we’re building our own internal leaders who can then train other staff over time in the professional learning that they need. And I think using technology to do blended learning and remote learning and learning that teachers can choose in their own space and time is how we’re able to be adaptive and nimble and keep our staff progressive over time in a small, rural environment.
We’re going to dive into that in a little bit more detail later on, but I want to take a step back for a second. How long have you been a superintendent at Graham?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Three years.
And when you came on board as superintendent, what was it like? Where did the district shine at that point and where do you see significant room to grow?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I kind of use the analogy of Graham being a gem that needed some polishing. I felt very fortunate to get this job because I knew that there was a hard working staff and faculty here, and many of them just lacked some of the resources and tools, but maybe more importantly, they lacked the empowerment and the choice to learn and lead the things that I think they could do. So what we’ve really tried to do is focus on a growth mindset with our whole staff. And taking the approach that failing at being innovative is okay, and we want people to step out of their comfort zone and try to lead and take risks and be innovative, and that’ll get us where we need to go with students. The other thing that I saw coming to Graham was that student voice and choice was not the center of the culture for several reasons. And so I think in all of our buildings, what we’ve tried to do is build a culture where student input and student voice matter and everything we do is built around their needs. And getting all the adults on board, of course, is the challenge over time, and I think we’re making a lot of progress.
How do you incorporate student voice into this? Is that simply through one-on-one conversations or do you have more systematic ways of collecting that kind of input?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think our leaders are always seeking formal and informal feedback, whether that be surveys or focus groups or talking to groups of children at lunchtime, hearing from their parents in meetings, talking to them through their counselors, their teachers giving feedback. But I think in terms of programmatically, we’re trying to put relevant programs in place that students have said they want and we’re trying to make sure that they have activities that they get to lead, and then we seek their feedback over time. And you do that by classroom, by grade level, by whole school program or event, and sometimes you just have to start off with an idea that they have and let them run with it and then get out of their way, and you’ll be amazed when you see what happens.
Are there any stories that immediately come to mind of this kind of thing happening?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Sure. I think our united service project at Graham — we call it United Service Day — is a great example. It’s a K-12 service learning day that happens in our county that Graham students lead and plan. So you can imagine what it’s like to see a room full of third and fifth and seventh and tenth graders coming together to plan service learning projects across an entire county. And over the last three years, this event has grown from a simple Graham event that included all students and staff to now a county-wide event that includes many, many business and agency partners, and now for the first time, other schools in the county. And I think when the students see the power of their ideas come to fruition and the community sees that, the community then redefines the value of the school and students in their community and the voice that students should have as an equal part of a community. And boy, that’s really powerful.
I’m glad you brought up the community because I know that you have taken several steps, I believe you said in the past that perhaps Graham had become a little bit disconnected from the community, and you’ve taken some steps to reestablish those relationships. What kinds of things did you do?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think there was a perception when I was hired, and the Board of Education made it very clear that Graham needed to reach out and build and sustain relationships with industry, agency, Higher Ed partners that they did not see happening and that community members were unsatisfied with. So our entire leadership team has made it a mission to make sure that we connect and build and sustain as many of those partnerships as possible. And we started by individual meetings with leaders, meeting with companies that we felt were relevant within our district boundaries, and then also within the county and region who were looking in high demand career areas and high interest areas that are in those higher ed fields. And we tried to make sure that we then adjusted our programming for our students to be relevant to our partners. And then those partners have started to give us value in those partnerships in different ways, whether it be through human resources or supplies or materials, putting on events with us. And I think what’s happened is we’ve changed the perception, that Graham does care about what the community’s wants and needs are, and we’re trying to be relevant to our community, and our students are getting out there in the community in ways that they never have before, through internships, both unpaid and paid, which we’re really trying to scale up here at Graham.
The last thing is certifications and credentials to build their resumes is something that not only the state of Ohio wants to see out of all graduates, but everybody in a community wants to see when they’re going to hire a prospective employee. So the more we can do to prepare those students, especially in high school with a credential or certification that adds to their diploma, that benefits our partners and us. And so we’re trying to really dramatically expand those experiences.
One of those experiences that Kirk is especially excited about is a Lean Six Sigma certification program for students.
KIRK KOENNECKE: That came out of a business meeting where the local business advisory council and some of our partners at Clark State Community College said, “Look, we’re looking for students who can problem solve, and we’re looking for students who can work through conflict as an individual or a team and really become more productive if we’re going to hire them as an employee.” And I said, “How do you know that your employees can problem solve?” And they said, “Well, all of our employees go through Lean Six Sigma training. It’s an internationally recognized credential for adults,” and I said, “Well, why aren’t we teaching that to students, then, before they graduate from high school so that, you know, coming in the door, you’re going to have this student who can do this problem solving that you don’t think a teenager can do?”
And they said, “Well, that would be really interesting.” So we began working with a partner through Clark State Community College called the Five Disciplines Company. And we put together a curriculum and did a train-the-trainer model where I put my entire leadership team through Lean Six Sigma yellow belt and then green belt training. And I felt like our adults needed to be able to walk the talk and model this. And an interesting thing happened. We put together a blended cohort where we were going to invite employees from around the county who wanted to get trained in Lean Six Sigma to work with high school students who were going to get trained for the first time together. And when the time came to pay, none of the industry partners sent employees to this training. But the company decided to work with our students and so two and a half years ago, 13 of our students earned their Lean Six Sigma green belts and became the first high school in the nation to do so. And none of our industry partners sent any of their employees.
But what that did was it proved to the adults in our county that these students can indeed do the work that adults do, and they can prove that they have these skills before they graduate. And what has developed since that time is a large, large number of students getting their Lean Six Sigma credentials at our school, and more and more partners in schools in the area now signing on to do this training. And the students can get points toward graduation and it’s just a wonderful development that came from discussions with our partners.
Partnering with businesses is just one facet of what they’re doing at Graham. And Kirk said that in some ways, they see their students as a customer base – and they try to think and act like a business themselves.
KIRK KOENNECKE: When you talk to community partners and parents, many of them have a generalized or stereotypical view of what kids can’t do and what kids can do. And I think that idea of making a diploma more valuable is something that everybody can care about, including students. Students want to have the best resume possible when they leave our high school, so K-12, we’ve tried to put things in place where we align our spending and we align our programming to the needs of, again, community partners and community interests in the areas that we call the three E’s: Enlistment, Enrollment and Employment. We want 100% of Graham students to be committed to one of the three E’s upon graduation. And so we try to spend our money based on that programming that will get those students in those pathways over time. And all of our decisions are made about what’s best for the kids in those career pathways.
We host specific career pathways that our high school that are high-demand industry needs that local partners want to see, and our budgets are built around those concepts. The other thing that we do that I think is innovative that some schools also do is, we put our people in professional learning experiences so that they themselves become trainers and they themselves run the curriculum or develop the program so that we get a real return on any kind of spending we do on adults over time within the organization. The more internal leadership capacity you build, the more effectively you’re going to be able to run your education organization like a business.
So let’s talk a little bit more about that, about professional development. How has Graham been able to provide progressive professional learning as a rural district?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I’m really proud of our professional learning program. It’s a personalized learning pathway model that two of our coordinators helped develop with our leadership team. And we put it in place last year in kind of a nascent form, and this year it’s really become more robust. What our teachers are doing is they’re choosing from a menu in four areas: Grow, Teach, Plan or Lead. And under each of those areas there are a menu of choices that we identified that are aligned to our strategic goals and plans, so that we’re building that capacity I talked about in all of those areas. And so a teacher who might not feel really, really strong with their technology skills can pick from a menu of things that they want to learn to strengthen themselves in one of those areas. Or a teacher who is really strong in that area can lead in an area of technology development and get credit for it also.
We want people to be able to do their professional learning and meet them where they are, so they don’t have to always show up on a given day or at a given time to do their professional learning. We might have a teacher do an externship with a company because it’s relevant to their learning and they’re going to bring that back to their classroom or program and make that specific.
Kirk said that they also provide ways for their teachers to track their experiences, show evidence of their learning, and work toward some sort of badge or credential.
KIRK KOENNECKE: So if a teacher goes through a Lean Six Sigma training and becomes a trainer, they’re going to earn a certification or credential to model what they’ve learned, and we’re going to celebrate that and show that off over time. And I think that builds their professional resume in front of everybody and really raises the level of professionalism inside our walls and outside, so that the perception that our parents and partners have is that, “Hey, these people are really working towards some progressive goals, and they’re constantly learning and constantly honing their craft to be the best teachers that they can be.”
Kirk said that they also encourage teachers to use technology, both in the classroom and for professional learning. They said, “Here are some resources that are available to you, try them out. You might like them!” And as teachers did that, a number of them became very adept at using these tools and began to train others how to use them as well.
KIRK KOENNECKE: And so we let that awareness grow with some of these more progressive technology platforms and software platforms that teachers are becoming expected to use more and more. And in terms of curriculum, what we did was we put a process in place where we asked our own teachers to evaluate software, apps, resources, open education vendors, and said, “Look, we want you to evaluate and grade several of these before you make a commitment, and then we want you to make a long-term commitment to use one.”
KIRK KOENNECKE: And we put the power in the hands of the teachers to make the selections about our curriculum, especially where math was considered. When I got here we needed to address math immediately and we started to do that. The last thing that we did is, we’ve tried to push social media use with our teachers. And again, while we don’t require it, I’m very proud of the way the use of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram have grown in our district to try to meet people where they are, especially now students. Our Instagram accounts are growing and growing because we’re trying to push information to students. But Twitter is a way that all of our leaders and many of our teachers not only share and celebrate information in each other, but also learn. And I think when we show people that they can learn in different ways through different platforms, that could be attractive to them. You get more out of your employees over time and they feel more connected to something. And that’s ultimately the goal in a large human organization is those connections to students and other adults that make everything quality.
Kirk is also the executive director of the Ohio Small and Rural Collaborative, an organization that supports professional learning in – you guessed it – small and rural schools in Ohio.
KIRK KOENNECKE: The Small and Rural Collaborative, which we call OSRC now, is about three years old and it started with a group of principals and superintendents sitting around from small rural schools saying, “Hey, how can we connect better and share professional learning experiences in order to increase the equity and access for the people in our school environments?” And that’s really what it’s all about, an equity play, an access play for other adults, teachers. So we formed a nonpartisan group that was kind of informal and ad hoc. And then a couple of years ago we made things a little more formal and we have a board of directors and we have a leadership committee and we have a design committee. And these people get together only three to four times a year, but they do some amazing things and we really just try to be relevant to our members.
So over time we have about 50 or 60 school districts that have full memberships, and about another 20 to 30 individuals or other agencies or groups that are associated with us. And we listen to them and if they say, “Hey, we’d like to try this experiment,” or, “We’d like to try and do a blended learning project,” we try it. You know, if somebody wants to do a podcast, we try it, and we started off with some low hanging fruit like tweet chats, and every now and then a book study, and I think over time we really want to just give people a chance to explore things like podcasts and Voxxer and blended or remote learning experiences. And that’s really what our group is about. To meet the needs of those members and to work with all the other state associations to raise awareness for small rural school leaders.
Do you all get together in person or is this done using technology and gathering remotely?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Both, actually. We do Google Hangout meetings for our board of directors, and then we also meet in person. We do have an annual literacy conference. We have the Ohio Literacy Summit coming up at the end of January in Cambridge, Ohio, and we have an annual conference, we hold a one day conference in March that is all about the use of technology and blended instruction, and we try to model some of that at that conference. And then we have a Future Summit every year where we bring in someone like an Eric Sheninger to talk about digital transformation and how people can continue to make that leap with their staff and their students to really incorporate thoughtful use of technology with good instruction. And I think we’ve found ourselves landing in that area a lot, of “How do we continue to help people make that transformation, to build technology use into their pedagogy in a thoughtful way over time?”
You mentioned equity as you were talking about this, and I wanted to ask, how does all of this impact equity? What’s the connection there and as a follow up, how do people, how can people bring equity into their organizations when they’re not dealing with enormous budgets?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Those are great questions. I think the number one value of the Ohio Small and Rural Collaborative has been attention. The attention brings opportunities for equity and access that we might not have had before. So to give you a specific example, two years ago, the Ohio Department of Education reached out with us and said, “How can we help?” And we sent 10 different school districts from around the state to four meetings throughout the year where staff from the Ohio Department of Education brought resource people and groups in and said, “Hey, as you do some design thinking and planning for how you want to make your schools better, we will support you and help you, or provide you with some network of support for free.” And what came out of that was celebrating all of those 10 school districts in ways that maybe they hadn’t been celebrated in before, and also shedding new light on what the Ohio Department of Education could do for small and rural schools.
And I really appreciated that whole opportunity, not just for Graham because we participated, but for all of our other colleagues around the state. And it led to national attention, and it led to the governor actually working with us to create the first Ohio Small & Rural Schools day last year on March 1st, which will continue every year from now on. And that attention brings opportunities like a grant partners. We’ve had four or five vendors or groups come to us and say, “We want to provide your schools and your members with grants to work on some things that are relevant.” I don’t know that we would’ve gotten those opportunities otherwise. So attention and the network itself has value and that collaborative spirit brings other opportunities that most people don’t realize until they get involved. And I think that’s the equity play there and the access play. And then over time, I think to answer your second question, we just want to make sure people have awareness.
So one of the best things we can do is shine a spotlight on our members and what they’re doing, and if we can share through Twitter or a podcast or Voxxer or a newsletter what other members are doing that’s innovative or creative or that works, and make sure that as many of our other people know about that as possible, other good things come from that. And that provides more access for people to not have to reinvent the wheel, but borrow good methods and borrow good programs, and we can all steal from each other in a positive way, and I think that’s what the members of OSRC realize and what makes me proud to work with them.
When Kirk spoke about encouraging teachers to use social media as a channel for professional learning, he’s doing the same thing. If you follow him, you’ll see the hashtag #FASTER used quite a bit. I asked him what that’s all about.
KIRK KOENNECKE: #FASTER isn’t about getting faster physically. It’s not about running, it’s not about moving faster every day just to accomplish more things. #FASTER is really a concept about building capacity in the growth and change over time and building your own internal capacity to do so, or team capacity to do so. And I think there are lots of ways to get faster and one of them is through collaboration or networking and that learning that can take place when those things happen. All of those connections make us faster. And what’s behind it philosophically is this idea that none of us should be getting faster necessarily for ourselves. We need to get faster for the generations of students coming after us that we’re instructing and teaching and developing right now, because there has been such a dramatic shift and change because of technology in our world, and the amount of knowledge acquisition that goes on because of technology is moving at a pace that most human beings can’t keep up with.
And so to try to be proactive and stay ahead of the game and just open ourselves up to capacity building for their sake is really what faster is all about. And that’s a mindset and some people don’t like that mindset, but that’s my mission and it has been for 24 years now in education, because I’m more worried about the future and students being prepared for it than I am about myself.
You just mentioned the vast array of information that we have access to today. And I think one of the important things that we need to wrestle with as we’re making decisions is not just choosing what to do and what to pursue, but choosing what not to do and what not to pursue. And as you look at everything that you could be involved in in professional learning or even broader, how do you decide, “Look, this might be a good thing, but we’re going to put it aside and not focus on this right now”?
KIRK KOENNECKE: That’s a great question. You know, pulling weeds, as Doug Reeves talked about, is a really hard thing for anybody to do. Teachers are really… it’s really tough because they just collect great things and great things over time. But it’s hard to work on a million things at once. I think one of the great things about learning, though, or using social media with learning, is there is a block button, there is a turn off switch, you can disconnect and you can focus on one thing. You can still pick a book up off the shelf and just do that. My advice to all people is do a few things really, really well. And that idea of focus, you know, is a part of this idea of #FASTER as well. Once you do choose something to be good at or to learn, try to do it to the best of your ability. And you don’t need to add a million things, but those things that you do choose, choose wisely. And one of the great things about social media and platforms like Facebook is we can teach people what to look for in terms of “What is good pedagogy and what isn’t? What is research and what’s just an opinion?”
It’s pretty easy on Twitter to see who’s pushing an opinion and who’s doing research-based work. And I think that educators and families are smart enough, and we can teach children do that as well. And I think we have been doing a fairly good job of that for a while. Society can always get better at it. I can get better at it, but I think it’s not going away. So if we can embrace how to teach people those digital citizenship skills, that also helps people make good learning choices over time. And when you’re talking about building a PLN on Twitter or with another group that’s through a blended cohort or something, boy, you really want to know who you’re going to work with.
So you’ve mentioned earlier personalizing learning for your teachers, giving them voice and choice in what they’re learning, providing a menu. That’s easier said than done. How do you do that, in detail? How do you personalize learning for your teachers?
KIRK KOENNECKE: We spent six months, last year as a leadership team, working with a director, a technology team, two coordinators and myself to kind of plot out what this should look like. And we started by doing some design thinking and design planning, where we really put together a logic model behind them. The idea of personalized learning, that’s how we define these areas Grow, Teach, Plan and Lead, and then we started to develop the menu of opportunities based on where our staff was and where we wanted them to be in a few years, and how long would it take to get 200 faculty members to build capacity in these areas that we were looking at. And that allowed us to focus in on a couple of choices for the menu in each area. And then our coordinators went to work over time, trying to actually plot out with a calendar when could these opportunities be offered, how many hours would we want for each opportunity, what would be a general standard or minimum requirement in terms of time and product?
And then the recognition and celebration piece came afterwards where we started to say, “Okay, we need to make sure when someone completes something that we can show that evidence, we can celebrate and recognize them.”
He said they have come up with ways to recognize teachers’ learning using badges. They use software to allow teachers to track their own learning over time. They’re doing a ton of stuff to give teachers and leaders agency in their learning, to identify the needs they have, then find ways to meet them.
So I asked Kirk, “What have you tried that hasn’t worked so well? What have you tried and decided to move away from?”
KIRK KOENNECKE: Well, I think what we’ve tried to do is get away from forms and processes and focusing on state assessment, report card data. We’re looking at data, and we’re looking at data that really matters, and I think identifying your priorities as a district is another reason to do strategic planning and design thinking. If your community is telling the Graham Local Schools, “Hey, we want to make sure that if you’re graduating 150 people every year, that a certain percentage are going into the military, or a certain percentage are going into the workforce,” we need to make sure those numbers are there and they’re ready. So the work we do and the measures that we look at should be focused on those things. Everybody’s got to take tests and do well. Everybody can take a college entry exam or a work keys test, but the why they’re doing it is what really matters, and measuring credentials and certifications, those are concrete things that show us that children are prepared in a specific pathway. Measuring ACT performance is a way to continue to gauge how many of our kids who aspire to go to a four year college are ready. Measuring the number of eighth graders that are performing well in Algebra 1 is a great measure for who could be college-ready on time, or enter a STEM field. So I think defining your measures is really important, and that should happen district by district.
You mentioned looking at data and the importance of basing decisions off of data. What’s the kind of data that you’re looking at most of the time?
KIRK KOENNECKE: One of the big pieces here at Graham is kindergarten readiness. So one of the first things we did when we got here is I looked at kindergarten readiness with our team, and we realized that 47 percent of the students who were entering the Graham Local Schools were not kindergarten ready. Kindergarten ready means a wide array of things. But really it’s academically, emotionally and socially ready for school. The academic piece and literacy skills are real concern, and we deal with a large number of families who are live with poverty barriers. So we created a literacy foundation in our county, in our community, and we worked with the United Way and the YMCA and some area partners, and we went after a grant and we created literacy foundation that allowed us to hire a foundation director. And we partner with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which is a great vehicle that provides inexpensive reading resources mailed to homes every month.
And we’ve really tried to set up a relationship with families before they ever enter our district to promote literacy and reading and family literacy, so that our students are more prepared when they get here. That affects the long-term health and achievement in our district and affects every student coming into our district and what teachers have to do to deal with those populations that enter every year. So we’re still working on getting better at that, and we’re watching those numbers every year to make sure that we’re having a positive impact on kindergarten readiness, and that’s one of the four or five key measures that we look at every year.
Do you then take what you’ve what you’re seeing from that data and say, “We want to have a focus in professional learning in this particular area in order to meet that goal”?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Exactly. Everything we do with those measures becomes dialogue for actionable work or objectives to meet our strategic plan goals the next year. Our number one goal in our strategic plan is to personalize education for every student in the Graham Local Schools. That’s easier said than done, so you have to look at that data and then you have to define SMART goals or objectives for the next year and that’s what we’re always trying to do. And some of those goals are goals for partners as well, not just our staff.
How have you seen professional learning at Graham local schools impact your students?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Our students at the high school have been asking for and craving some leadership opportunities that I think prove their leadership skills. So we started working with Ohio State University and the Leadership Challenge content from Kouzes and Posner that’s over 40 years old. And Ohio State has the Alber Enterprise Center, they have a trainer, Jim France, who’s gone all over the country and worked with Fortune 100 companies to teach this leadership content to leaders in any industry or agency you can imagine for years. And they earn a certification that proves that they not only have learned about leadership content, but they’ve learned applicable skills and leadership. It’s the only curriculum out there that that is tried and true in this area. So we developed a curriculum for the students and we put a group of staff through a train-the-trainer model this winter, and this spring our students at the high school, for the first time, are going to earn this leadership excellence certification and credential.
There’ll be the only students in the nation to have it. And they’re excited about that because they know that they get to learn about leadership and communication, but that they’re also going to earn a credential that most adults have never earned in their lifetime that proves that they can do some of the skills that people say they want out of our graduates. And the students came up with some of that need for us. They told us what they wanted. And so this is going to be an example of a really unique program that we created because of their voice. And I think that’s what’s going to make it so exciting for them to participate in it and earn that certification moving forward. And that’s something they can take with them to any job, any industry, any activity in their life when they leave high school. So I think it makes the entire high school experience more valuable for that student.
As you think about all the work that you’ve done since you entered Graham Local Schools, what would your biggest takeaways for other rural districts be?
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think first and foremost, what you learn as a superintendent or a principal is that none of this happens alone. So I give all the credit to our leadership team and our staff and our community partners for what they’ve helped us create here at Graham. A lot of great ideas by a lot of different people put into practice over time. And so what I would say is, professional learning is about small wins over time and those small things that you do and those small wins that you get build up into bigger wins that become your culture. And if you’re willing, in a small rural district, to step outside your comfort zone and take a risk and be innovative, even if you’re going to fail, the more often you do that, even fail, the more successful you’ll be over time. And so getting people into that mindset of, “It’s okay to try something and it’s okay to ignore the clock one day,” or “It’s okay to forget about the test score, and really worry about some deep learning with students and meet their needs,” then you’re going to be successful wherever you are with professional learning. And adults have to have a choice just like students. If you want to do professional learning the right way, you’ve got to let adults choose things that they want to grow and get better at. Otherwise you’re just going to have resistance or compliance. And I think that when you realize that as a leader, it becomes empowering for both the teachers and for you.
We’ve been speaking with Kirk Koennecke, Superintendent of Graham Local Schools in Ohio. Kirk, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
KIRK KOENNECKE: Hey, thank you. Great questions and I’m just a real big fan of your podcast and I look forward to working with you guys in the future.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for the K12 market. That includes Frontline Professional Growth, a holistic solution to help school and district leaders manage the entire educator growth cycle in one system, including employee evaluations and professional learning, and provide tools for educators to collaborate online. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.