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AZ’s Superintendent of the Year on growing learners and leaders


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Dr. Gail Pletnick, Superintendent Of Dysart Unified School District, Working With A Student. Photo Courtesy Dysart Unified School District

Preparing students for a future that is being rapidly transformed by technology is a formidable task for schools, but it is also very rewarding, said Dr. Gail Pletnick, the American Association of School Administrators’ Arizona Superintendent of the Year.

“I am very proud to be part of a profession where individuals willingly take on this challenge, yet never lose sight of the needs of the whole child,” said Pletnick, superintendent of Dysart Unified School District.

AZ’s Superintendent of the Year on growing learners and leaders GailPletnick

Dr. Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Dysart Unified School District, working with a student. Photo courtesy Dysart Unified School District

Pletnick is an educational leader both in Arizona and the nation in her role as educational advocate and accomplished scholar, said Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District, who nominated Pletnick for the award.

“She models for people at all levels to not be afraid to take risks and make a commitment,” Sandvik said. “An average superintendent might sets goals that are either vague or easily achieved, but a great one is not afraid to set goals and then put programs and resources in place to achieve the goals.”

Pletnick serves on a variety of educational and community advisory boards, was elected an executive board member of AASA, The School Superintendents Association and has served on the AASA governing board.

“She sets the tone for the overall needs of the district while never losing sight of the most important question of all: What is best for all students,” Sandvik said.

Pletnick concentrates on preparing the district’s 25,000 diverse students for success through rigorous, relevant learning opportunities, said Traci Sawyer-Sinkbeil, Dysart Unified School District governing board member, who also nominated Pletnick for the award.

“She sets the tone for the overall needs of the district while never losing sight of the most important question of all: What is best for all students,” said Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District.

“She regards student achievement as the highest priority,” Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.

Pletnick has focused on the academic needs of a growing district while collaboratively working with board members, administrators, teachers, students and community members to help all students succeed, Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.

“She has the ability to accentuate the positive, embrace the negative and celebrate the innovative,” Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.

One of Pletnick’s initiatives, YourCALL (Your Community as Leaders and Learners) encourages employees to identify and solve challenges, provides replicable processes and empowers staff, said Deb Duvall, executive director of Arizona School Administrators.

“Under Dr. Pletnick’s leadership Dysart School District has a national reputation for its 21st century learning environment and for its support of a digital transformation that has changed teaching and learning,” Duvall said.

Pletnick brings together multiple resources to get the best information possible and then evaluates it to develop solutions, Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.

AZ’s Superintendent of the Year on growing learners and leaders GailPletnickPortrait

Dr. Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Dysart Unified School District, was named the American Association of School Administrators’ Arizona Superintendent of the Year. Photo courtesy Dysart Unified School District

Wi-fi access was extended outside school walls through the use of E-rate funding. Students have been encouraged to bring their own device to school for the past seven years, and Title I funds and community donations made that technology available in high poverty schools.

“Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, ‘… educate and inform the whole mass of people …. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberties,’” Pletnick said. “Those words still ring true today and perhaps are even more important than ever before.”

With the ability to rapidly communicate information and share opinions, people need to think critically, distinguish between propaganda and fact, and use today’s communication and research tools for useful information and data, Pletnick said.

“By educating all students, or as Jefferson stated the ‘whole mass of people,’ we are investing in those capable future leaders and that future workforce,” Pletnick said.  “Investing in education ensures developing informed and engaged citizens who will preserve our liberties. I am proud of the contributions our public schools are making in our communities, across our state and across our nation.”

In 2012, Dysart Unified was a National School Boards Association Teaching and Learning Visitation Site, and Pletnick was named as Education Week’s Leader to Learn From in 2014, Duvall said.

“Through the effective leadership of Dr. Pletnick, Dysart Unified School District is a nationally and internationally recognized model of an educational system that is doing something right,” Sawyer-Sinkbeil said.

Dysart Unified’s work in the area of strategic planning is featured in an Alliance for Excellent Education profile series of online interactive professional development designed to help other school leaders improve student learning outcomes, Duvall noted.

“She has the ability to accentuate the positive, embrace the negative and celebrate the innovative,” said Traci Sawyer-Sinkbeil, Dysart Unified School District governing board member.

“If you spend the day with her, you will see a genuinely caring person that has the best interest of the students at heart,” Sawyer-Sinkbeil said. “She knows the value of a quality education and inspires all to be effective in what their heart tells them to do.

Q: How has Dysart’s innovation, personalization and support for technology helped change teaching and learning?

A: Dysart Unified School District is dedicated to building a 21st Century learning environment and supporting a digital transformation that is changing teaching and learning across the district.

This work is critical to ensuring all students graduate armed with the skills and knowledge needed to be college and career ready and prepared for the challenges and opportunities of this new century.

This journey of transformation in our district began by defining the profile of a graduate prepared to successfully embrace the future in a radically transformed and ever evolving world.

We understand that a comprehensive education not only provides students with that strong foundation in the academic core subjects like math, reading and language arts, science, and social studies, but also arms students with critical thinking skills, develops technology literate graduates, nurtures collaboration and creativity, expands cultural awareness, and helps students develop other essential work and life skills.

Classrooms are no longer defined by four walls and must include 24/7 access to resources, relevant problem-based activities, and multiple pathways to engage students in learning.

Every child is unique, every child has special talents and every child has gifts to give.  Knowing that, we are working to transform our learning environment to nurture and support the uniqueness of each child, to bring out those special talents and allow each child to share his or her gifts with the world.

To accomplish this we personalize educational learning environments and utilize technology as a critical tool in that teaching and learning transformation.

Q: How is Dysart sharing what it has learned statewide and nationwide?

A: Working collaboratively with districts and organizations across the state and country allows Dysart to be both a learner and a leader in this transformation. Networking and building on innovations and best practices through collaborative partnerships is critical.

For example, we are sharing our practices and lessons with districts as part of the White House Future Ready Initiative, through our work with the Alliance for Excellent Education and EdLeader21. These networks bring schools together to ensure 21st Century skills are integrated in our educational systems and the focus is on college and career ready graduates.

Additionally, we are a part of the Personalized Learning Consortium and Digital Learning Consortium‘s organized through AASA that work on transforming learning environments and educational systems in this country.

Dysart teams are also active on the state and national level sharing information via conference sessions, webinars and welcoming visitors to our schools.

Q: What made the difference in voter’s approval of the override last month?

A: The negative impact of the district budget cuts on our school programs, students and highly qualified staff was felt in our community.

As a district we are proud to be a partner in building and supporting quality communities where children grow and thrive, and community members from birth to retirement reap the rewards of these successes.

Stakeholders from across the Dysart community recognized the critical need to support their public school district in preparing students for the opportunities and challenges they will face when they graduate from Dysart.

Our community members including parents, students, business leaders, retirees, government and civic leaders, and staff, who utilized their own time, came together to share information and advocate for the override.

With a united voice, community volunteers were able to effectively communicate the need for the override and help voters understand the value of a strong public educational system.

The community recognized the district must have high quality educational programs to produce the educational outcomes that will help drive economic development, generate a competitive workforce, and protect the value of the communities and properties we serve.

Q: How will it help students’ learning?

A: The override will support the return of all-day kindergarten at no additional cost to families.  This program is critical to providing a strong educational foundation for students to build on.

Additionally, it will allow our district to recruit and retain the most critical resource in our schools, highly qualified teachers.

As a district, we also know how important it is to provide a comprehensive education to our students that includes fine arts, physical education and athletic programs.

The override will also support early intervention and prevention programs for math and reading.

Equally important, the district will be able to support high quality programs that prepare future-ready graduates that are equipped with the knowledge and skills for the new century world they will live and work in.