With the first day of classes starting early Monday morning for students and teachers in the Bismarck R-5 School District, Superintendent Jason King is excited about what he believes will be another outstanding school year.
While King is new to the role of superintendent, having filled the vacancy left by Chuck Hasty who retired at the end of the 2016-17 school year, the seasoned educator already has a long history at Bismarck School.
"I'm starting my 16th year in education and it's my 15th year at Bismarck," he said. "I started out teaching high school communication arts and loved that. Then I earned my Master's Degree in Administration and I was asked to help out the administration by doing supervision at evening games. I was young and didn't have any kids at the time, so I told them I'd do that.
"One thing led to another and I started doing a little more supervision. Then I became a half-time assistant principal and did a little bit of discipline, but still taught some. That turned into a full-time assistant principal job and then I was high school principal for five years. Now here I am and I tell people, "I really don't know how I ended up here."
Another change in administration this year is the expansion of duties for Carmen Barton, who has served in the school district for 26 years — the majority of that time as a school counselor and, beginning last school year, as elementary principal.
"This is going to be Carmen's second year as an administrator, but this year she's going to be the K-12 principal for our district," King said. "Then we'll also have Katie Martinez serving as our K-12 assistant principal. Katie has taught a lot of things for us — social studies, special education, physical education — and she's going to do a great job. Of course, Carmen's going to do a fantastic job too."
Looking forward to the new school year, King said there are "a lot of things on the table" that he believes is going to push the school district to the next level.
"We're very early in the stages of trying to implement the use of Chromebooks with our kids," he said. "It's going to be a couple of years before we're fully there, but we are going to get there and that is an exciting time for us. Also, a lot of people out in the community know that a couple of years ago our elementary school was an Exemplary PLC (Professional Learning Communities) School and last year our high school was an Exemplary PLC School. We were the only high school in Missouri to get the award, so that was a pretty neat deal for us.
"Following those trends, we're going back to year one of PLC training. What a lot of people don't realize is that for PLC to work in a school you have a leadership team — and we've had the same leadership team for many years now that got us initially involved and has done a great job of leading us. Now we're sending a new group through the training.
"One of the things that I talked to our board about is I really believe we can grow leaders from the ground up here at Bismarck. We have young teachers that are intelligent and go-getters who know what they're doing. With the right training, then they can grow and be leaders here too. We're raising that whole next generation of PLC and school leaders right here, and for me, that is the most exciting thing that's going to change our schools."
King stressed that, while the use of Chromebooks in the district will be a great tool for educating students, it's not the most important piece of the puzzle.
"Google Chromebooks don't make test scores go up and a Chromebook doesn't make a student smarter," he said. "It's how it's implemented in a classroom and how the teacher chooses to use that. Combined with the PLC training they're going through, I think there's really good things coming for our school."
While Bismarck has utilized a number of what some might call "cutting-edge" methods to improve student learning, but King noted the school district doesn't intend to change it's teaching approach just to be part of whatever might be the newest educational trend.
"We want to do things to get better and improve, but we don't want to do it because it's the latest fad and we also want to be realists about what we're doing and the effect it can have," he said. "There's a lot of things in education that schools do and I'll tell you that 95 percent of them work. Ninety-five percent of what's going on in public education works, but you've got to ask yourself, 'Does it work well and does it have the maximum impact that it could upon student achievement and helping kids learn?'
"We want to be on the cutting edge, but we want to be on the cutting edge because we are confident, we've done our research, we've got the groundwork to know that it's going to work and that it's going to have a good impact for us. It's not about the latest fad or about taking on an expensive initiative just to say we're doing it. That's why I like to say that we take a cautious approach. We want to be on the cutting edge, but we don't want to waste taxpayer dollars and we don't want to waste the resources we have on things just to make us look good. We want to make a difference."
King knows that one of the most important keys to making a difference in the lives of students is the quality of teachers in the district.
"Bismarck has always had a great group of teachers and last year we underwent something that we hadn't experienced in a long time — a big turnover in our teaching staff," he said. "The turnover was due to people retiring. We had some great ones who had been here for years and years — just tremendous for our kids — and they decided it was the right time for them to step away and go on to the next phase of their lives.
"We're going to miss them, but one of the things that I realize — and I think our board of education realizes — is that every time you have an opening, that's a golden opportunity to at a minimum make your team just as good and hopefully make your team even better. We have an extensive interview process and searched far and wide.
"Luckily, we found some people that we were comfortable with. You get in a situation at times where you're trying to scramble to find somebody and there's not really anyone out there. I can say that this time we didn't feel that way. We felt like we had good quality candidates and we're very happy with who we hired."
One challenge the Bismarck School District has had to deal with for more than a decade is the problem of decreasing student enrollment.
"Enrollment over the past 15 years has been rough to us," King said. "We've had a large drop in enrollment, but we have kind of leveled off in recent years. We're looking at a little over 500 students in K-12, with around 300 of them being in our junior and senior high school this year. Luckily, the decline has kind of leveled off for us and hopefully there's some things going on in our community that is going to draw people to our district.
As far as the school calendar, King believes most of the activities, events, vacation times and teacher in-service days will be familiar with the district's parents, students and staff — but it's already going to have to be "tweeked" a little bit.
"Calling off school on Aug. 21 for the eclipse is going to cause us to make some other changes to the calendar, like possibly moving Professional Development (PD) day up a little bit and then have student attendance later on " he said. "I'd like to protect Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day if I can. We don't want to lose that as early as the 21st of August.
"I've got some work to do with the calendar committee and PTA to see what would work best for us. But other than that, Christmas break is really going to be the same. We work hard to try to give two full weeks. That's in the calendar again this year. That's solid. That's firm. We'll be sprinkling our PD days around and our teachers conferences, that sort of thing, so nothing really big. We have a pretty good calendar most years."
King also offered words of praise for the district's board of education.
"The board's been very supportive of me — not only during my years of teaching, but through my time in administration and then working up to this position," he said. "What I really appreciate about them is that they know their role and they do a good job with it.
"They allow me to do my job and they are there to support me, as well. So, it's not a stressful situation. It's not tension-filled. It functions the way that a board should and I'm able to have a good relationship with them because of that. Our board really cares about our kids.
"Our board is a little different than some boards around in that they also know our kids. They've worked with them in some capacity, maybe at their local church, summer sports or anything like that. They've known each other for years. This is a close-knit community."