Dr. Gail Pletnick is the Superintendent of Dysart Unified School District, a large district in Maricopa County in South Central Arizona. She is also the President-Elect of The School Superintendents Association (AASA), arguably one of the most influential associations in the education world. After more than 13 years at DUSD (three as assistant superintendent and 10 at the helm), she dynamically leads her district with passion and enthusiasm, directing one of the most innovative volunteer/mentor programs in the country.
Through her vision and focus, Gail has developed an extensive network of community volunteers and retired business executives that personally interact with Dysart’s high school students, working shoulder-to-shoulder to get them excited and help them understand what skills will be needed for a successful pathway to tomorrow’s careers.
Rod Berger: Well, Gail, I’m really looking forward to this conversation. I get to speak to a lot of leaders in education and your resume is very, very impressive and significant in this space - what you’re doing not only in your district and being a part of the League of Innovative Schools, but also with the AASA and now, the President-elect.
I can imagine that you have a lot on your plate. How do you balance all of that from a leadership perspective, especially now that people are looking to you for guidance, even the stewardship of education when we’re talking about bringing together superintendents that really have a strong voice?
Gail Pletnick: I really consider it a privilege to have this opportunity to network with leaders from across the United States. We’ve been engaged in this work for almost a decade here at Dysart. We’ve been on this journey of being a part of AASA and the League. We’ve had the opportunity to work with EdLeader21 and a number of other organizations, which provided a lot of support to the district and it also in turn gives me the opportunity to share what we’re doing and help others.
It’s about doing hard work every day. We get everything done for our students. We’ve been given opportunities to share our work and bring great minds together as we continue to move forward.
RB: Gail, I know a big part of what you’re doing in your district is integrating high school students with the local community. Talk with me a little bit about the real world challenges and the impetus behind programs that do that. I’m very fascinated in ways that we can provide real world experiences for students. It goes to the larger benefit of what we’re trying to do as adults and connecting them to the world that they inhabit already.
GP: Absolutely. When we started down this path, it wasn’t about having a single program or initiative. It was about making certain that every student has the opportunities to prepare for the challenges and opportunities when they left our school. We’re very serious about saying students need to be career, college, and life ready as graduates.
That led us again to a number of different options and opportunities that we wanted to provide for our students, one of which is internships. It allows students to have real-life work experience and we’re very fortunate here. In our community, we have a number of retirement communities that are part of our city. These are experts that have a lifetime of expertise, and they provide resources for us so that our students can get their hands into the pathways they really want to pursue.
It gives the students an opportunity to find out what that world of work is going to look like. It’s much more than the knowledge that we’re providing in the classroom. We understand that you have to have a strong core knowledge. But, what about work skills, people used to call them soft skills or perhaps 21st century skills?
RB: Yes, they did.
GP: We’re living in the 21st century and these students have to be prepared to utilize those skills, whether they go into a post secondary opportunity or whether they’re going to walk right into a career. We go one step ahead and provide internships. We actually have learning experiences where students go out and visit the various workplaces. We also have our volunteers coming in and working side by side with our students. A perfect example would be our automotive program, a CTE program that we have. Retirees who restore cars and then race them come and work with students on our campuses. In the past, they’ve restored a car that then was raced. What a great opportunity.
RB: I bet that was well received by the students.
GP: Yes, it was. It was so exciting and students got to track the progress they made. It really was a wonderful way to bring those opportunities to our students.
RB: Gail, I’m glad you brought up the integration of the community. It’s a unique opportunity that you have there with those different communities of individuals that you’re talking about. One of the things in education that I find interesting is how we find alternative ways to balance the playing field with funding and how we do that by incorporating the local community and the region where our districts are.
How have you done that within your district and how can we be more progressive in looking at ways to be more thoughtful with our funding? We only have so much funding per student in our district and oftentimes, that does not meet the minimum requirements.
GP: Absolutely. One of the great ways for us to be able to provide opportunities is to have volunteers. We have thousands of hours of volunteer work in our school district. Whether it’s partnering with people to provide real life experiences, whether it is having the support of our community to come in and do some fundraising in our schools with our students. That fundraising means we can invest in the technology that we need. It may be in the form of when we go out for an initiative in our district such as an override, making certain our community understands what we contribute to its growth and the importance of having a collaborative relationship.
There are a number of ways that we reach out to our community; many volunteer in our district and provide the additional support that we need.
RB: Speaking of a community, a lot of superintendents are talking about new ways to communicate with the community - specifically parents - in ways that we can build a better relationship that schools and parents used to have.
How are you looking at that, especially being in a position of leadership as a lighthouse district, to lead change in this crucial area?
GP: Well, one of the things that we do is reach out and find out from our community how they want to be communicated with. There isn’t a one-size fits all for communicating with parents and constituent groups.
We’re trying to personalize learning for our students, so we really have to personalize our communication with our constituent groups. We utilize some of the traditional ways. We’ll communicate through traditional media, whether that’s the newspaper or announcements that we make. But, we’re also active on social platforms like Instagram.
The other thing that we have is the Dysart video library. What we’ve done is produce clips - sometimes as short as one minute - which really provide a look at what’s happening in our classrooms, with our programs and with our students. It’s a perfect way for our students’ voices to be heard and for the community to understand our impact because we’re supporting the success of each and every one of those students.
The other thing that we do is invite our community into our schools. We’ve done some bus tours where they actually come into the classrooms, watch what’s happening with our programs and get to eat lunch with the students. Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to have a cafeteria lunch! Those are ways, too, that we engage our community with what’s happening in our schools.
It’s amazing because oftentimes, we’ll hear from people that take those opportunities. They say it’s so different from what they experienced when they were in school. They’re just amazed by the kind of skills our students have and the things that they’re accomplishing. It’s a great way to build that understanding and reach out to the community.
RB: Gail, let’s change gears a little bit and talk about superintendents - the position of a superintendent and how that has evolved over time. How do you think that today’s superintendent is challenged in ways that maybe they weren’t in the past? How does that impact those that we should be looking towards for future positions as superintendents?
GP: I have been in this business for about 40 years. I have seen a great deal of change, especially in the past decade or so. I think it’s representative of what’s happening in our world right now.
One of the challenges is about communication. There are so many avenues that we have and making certain that you have transparency. That you are able to provide accurate information, and when something is happening people have the expectation that they’re going to know immediately.
That can be a true challenge because we always want to make sure when we’re communicating something out, we have all of the facts, and we’re not putting something out that could really generate rumors or concerns. That’s a challenge that we’ve been working on and working with our community to try to build that understanding of what they can expect from us and when they can expect it.
Also, the resources. It used to be that you could buy a textbook and it was in place for 5 to 10 years.
RB: Mark it off the list, right?
GP: Yes. The resources were there and the worst that would happen is someone’s dog would chew up the cover and then you’d have to replace it. But other than that they were reliable for an extended period of time. Of course, that’s not the case now.
GP: Now, we have to be able to provide students with experiences that are real and relevant. That means having tools that are being utilized in the real world of work or post-secondary opportunity. That’s another challenge, just making certain that we have the resources we need.
I wish we all had a crystal ball so that we would know what the world was going to look like in that next decade, but we don’t.
RB: It’s not on your desk there, Gail?
GP: I’ve been trying to buy one! I thought Amazon had everything but apparently not the crystal ball, that isn’t there!
What we have to do is be certain that we’re constantly looking at changes that are there and that the skills and the knowledge that students need to be successful are things that we are adopting. I talk about this all the time, we aren’t trying to revolutionize education. It’s not that we’re trying to throw out a system that’s broken - it’s not broken. It needs to transform because our world is transforming. We need to constantly be looking at data, looking at trends and making the adjustments that we need to make. It seems that we’re on a much faster pace than we’ve ever been before.
RB: Let’s close with this, Gail. Whether you’re talking to pre-service educators or those that are contemplating going into the education field, what is something that when you walk into a classroom or you get off the phone with a parent that you smile to yourself and say, “This is why this is so exciting!” Aside from the negative – this is just a rhetoric that we hear in popular media that there are amazing people, there’s amazing progress being made. What is something that you would point to as a reflection to potential talent that might be filling in these positions like we were talking about earlier?
GP: I think every time I walk into the classroom, whether it’s one of our preschool classes or whether it’s one of our 12th grade courses, I know that we’re making a difference in the lives of children. That’s why we want to do what we’re doing. We need to make these changes because we’re providing students with opportunities that will be there for a lifetime. I do this because I’m passionate. I’m one of those examples of what happens when you have caring individuals working as hard as they can everyday so that you can learn and grow as an individual.
RB: It’s been a great pleasure to get to know you, Gail. I wish you continued success and I applaud your ongoing efforts to impact students all the way through the leadership ranks. It was a great pleasure. Thanks, Gail.
GP: Thank you so much.
RB: You’re welcome. Once again, I’m Dr Rod Berger.
Gail was awarded the 2016 Arizona Superintendent of the Year and is a member of AASA’s digital and personal learning consortia. Pletnick is focused on reshaping the national public education agenda and empowering district leaders through advocacy, networking and PD. Pletnick has been a member of AASA’s governing structure since 2008 and has served on the organization’s executive committee since 2013. She has also been a member of the Arizona School Administrators Association since 2002.
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About Rod Berger, PsyD.
Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit and in EdTechReview India.
Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger's latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS's Jack Ford.
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