The Kent School District, with 27,750 students, is Washington’s fourth-largest, and has undergone rapid change in the past decade, with 31 percent more low-income students than it had in 2007, and a surge of nonnative English speakers.
Such shifts would be challenging under any circumstance. But Superintendent Calvin Watts, who took the helm in 2015, is also confronting significant budget problems. In March, he announced that each of Kent’s 43 schools had to cut its budget by 20 percent. The following month, he froze 260 school-district credit cards without notifying teachers or other staff. (Last week’s sudden cancellation of international field trips, though, reportedly came out of concern for undocumented students who might have difficulty returning to the U.S.)
Education Lab spoke recently with Watts about his vision for the district. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve been on the job 20 months. What’s different from when you started?
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A: We’ve had to come to terms with a culture shift, to understand that while we need to teach our students, we also need to teach our teachers how to respond to our students. We may not have responded in appropriate ways in the past.
Q: Are you talking about school discipline?
A: Yes, all of our schools now have a trained equity team, some with students represented. The purpose is to ask: “How is my teaching? How is my practice in the classroom impacting you?”
Q: Really? That sounds like quite a change from when I last visited, about two years ago. Back then, you had dozens of kids sitting in in-school suspension rooms, and they were silent.
A: When I started here, we began with the notion, “Build nothing for us, without us.” It allows us to ask, who else needs to be at the table? We had 32 students participate in those discussions. Since then, we’ve begun to use healing circles and restorative practices in four elementary schools and six middle schools. Exclusionary discipline is down across the board.
Q: What’s been the most difficult aspect of the job so far?
A: Ensuring that we have the resources, navigating relationships and building bridges with the school board.
Q: This sounds like you’re referring to Kent’s budget problems? I’ve heard that your office cut off all school credit cards without warning?
A: Good communication is a constant work-in-progress.
Q: Well, what is the budget situation — why did you need to make this rather drastic-sounding move?
A: Our position is less than positive. We started out the year with a $3.8 million fund balance. In a district of our size you need at least $15 million to $18 million. About a year ago, we heard enrollment projections that came in less than expected, and adjustments to the budget were not made. That’s what put us in the position we’re in now. So we’ve instituted a spending freeze.
Q: Sounds like a rocky way to start a new job.
A: Well, I plan to be here for a very, very, very long time. The average tenure of a superintendent is 3.2 years. So here’s what you will not get from me: you will not get a superintendent who acts like they’ll be here three years.
Q: When you’re not puzzling through spreadsheets, what do you read?
A: Right now I’m reading “Good to Great,” for probably the fifth time. Also “Together is Better” — Simon Sinek. When I’m not reading these books, I do have literature, most recently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”