Joel L. Voytoski, veteran superintendent of the Evergreen School District 50 in Kalispell, Mont., has been named the state’s 2009 Superintendent of the Year for his success in morphing programs around student assessments.
“We’re using a lot of different assessments,” says Voytoski. “I think schools have been very good at collecting data, but finding the time to work with it has been difficult.” As a result, the district’s youngest students were entering kindergarten so far across the academic board that some performed at the third-grade level while others could barely accomplish the tasks of a preschooler.
Reading and Caring
Such academic diversity prompted the district in 2006 to begin all-day kindergarten. By 2008, 16 percent of the district’s new kindergarten students entered school at benchmark level, while 78 percent left at that level. In addition to all-day kindergarten, Evergreen also employed the Dynamic Measurement Group’s (DMG) program for improving early learning literacy through DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills), which shaped professional development around differentiated instruction, helping some students leap two to three years in a single school year. “It’s just beginning to work, but we’re already seeing the payoff,” says Voytoski.
Voytoski is proud of Evergreen’s mission to be a “feeling” district. “I stress that we’re a caring school system,” he says. “The kids really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. ... We care, but we set high expectations, and we hold students to them.”
Those high expectations include the district’s involvement in the Reading First program, which implements proven scientific methods of early reading instruction in classrooms throughout the state. Voytoski calls Evergreen’s participation in the program “a catalyst for change” in the district. “Full-time kindergarten, being a Reading First district, and the DIBELS assessments were all definite factors [in the change], along with the professional development in recent years.”
More Time Is Better
Evergreen teachers work for 189 days—two more than in other districts in the state, according to Voytoski—and instruction quotas in the district and throughout the state are measured by providing “minimum aggregate hours” instead of the former mandated 180 days of school. With the few extra hours squeezed into teachers’ schedules, Voytoski says that Evergreen has “pushed the hours formula” to maximize professional development.
For many Evergreen students, time spent at school is better than time spent elsewhere. Of the district’s 730 pupils, 65 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many come from homes where single parents work two or three jobs to support their families. As a result, Evergreen programs include the “Lunch Bunch,” which pairs older students with K4 students for lunchtime conversation about school and life, weekly advisory meetings for students to share their concerns, and a mental health program in conjunction with a private provider to help kids who are having difficulties outside of school.
“I don’t know that any of this is magic,” says Voytoski of winning Superintendent of the Year. “I work hard, and I’m pretty persistent. There’s an art to communicating. You have to know your key players and who needs to know what, when.”
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.