A Spirit of Reinvention
Walt Rulffes had an unlikely ascent in Nevada’s Clark County School District (CCSD). Having served neither as teacher nor principal before his hiring as deputy superintendent of finance and business, his seven years of dogged lobbying for dollars from the legislature nevertheless paid off when he was hired as superintendent of the fifth-largest school system in the country.
“Larger districts are more receptive to nontraditional leadership, particularly if they’re confident about leadership style,” says the soft-spoken Rulffes (pronounced “rule-fiss”), one of four finalists for the AASA’s 2010 Superintendent of the Year award. “CCSD was heading into tough times and felt it needed financial help. I was a mix: I had been a former deputy superintendent, but knew finances. I had lobbied the legislature. I knew the culture.”
Rulffes says the district has a culture of newness, as Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the nation (the population climbed more than 30 percent from 2000 to 2008, according to the U.S. Census). “There’s a spirit of reinventing ourselves. We are receptive to new ideas,” he says. He was faced with the challenge of maintaining sports, arts and library programs while making school intriguing again for students who had dropped out, all in a district with some of the lowest funding in the country.
Engaging the Unengaged
Roughly 20 percent of the district’s dropouts were gifted students who felt unengaged. “I was very invested in a career and technical model,” says Rulffes, thinking some variety would assuage the apathy. In 2005, CCSD started building dualtrack “themed” career and technical high schools to combine occupational training with college-track academics for students who know at an early age what they’d like to do when they grow up, from aviation to medicine, firefighting to the arts, cooking to cosmetology. All career paths align with the curricula of area community colleges.
Empowerment and Accountability
Students aren’t the only people CCSD wants to engage. In 2005, Rulffes proposed turning four existing schools into “Empowerment Schools.” Similar to charter schools, they are a hybrid of programs Rulffes saw succeed in California, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. In exchange for making AYP, demonstrating fiscal smarts by spending efficiently and effectively, and complying with all district policies and regulations, Empowerment Schools are granted autonomy over budgets, staffing, and how instruction time is spent. “The Empowerment Schools were a major shift in philosophy,” says Rulffes. Officials announced in February that 11 more schools will become Empowerment Schools this year, bringing the total to 28 by 2011.
Rulffes also wanted a more holistic way to measure the district’s success than just using test scores. “The NCLB methods of measurement were not enough to measure the effectiveness of a school,” he says. In 2007, he implemented the Quality Assurance Framework, which presents goals and indicators that profile what each school can do to achieve. Factors measured include attendance, discipline rates, dropout rates, citizenship and parent, teacher and student satisfaction.
Today, Rulffes faces a likely 10 percent budget cut totaling $150 million, due to the state’s $880 million revenue shortfall. He has taken a significant voluntary salary cut, and among other things, has proposed shortening the school year by three days, which would save some $35 to $40 million. “Walt was chief financial officer to begin with, and I can’t tell you how much that influenced what a great superintendent he’s been,” says Joyce Haldeman, CCSD’s associate superintendent of Community and Government Relations who has worked with Rulffes since 1992. “That background for being able to navigate the district during extremely difficult times is extraordinary.”
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.