Zoellner upbeat about district’s direction despite recent challenges
Although a De Soto USD 232 bond issue was rejected by voters eight days earlier, two of its schools not make its adequate yearly progress goal and funding from the Kansas Legislature remains uncertain, Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said Wednesday there's no shortage of positives for those educating De Soto's children.
Zoellner delivered her State of the District address Wednesday, the 11th such address for the district. In the past 11 years, Zoellner said, the student population has more than doubled. The buildings have increased -- both in number and capacity. And the district has grown from employing 162 teachers to 465 teachers. Teachers' salaries have grown from a $22,000 base to $34,350.
Zoellner noted the positive support from patrons, board members and parents.
"It's definitely a pleasure to work for a district such as this," she said.
Next year, the district will continue to experience growth of about 300 to 400 new students and will open a Mill Creek Elementary School and USD 232's sixth elementary.
Although the 2006 bond issue failed by 32 votes, the need for more space in the schools is immediate, the superintendent said.
"It's not an option not to come back with something," she said, noting that the board would look at changing school boundaries or a future bond as possible solutions.
Zoellner said that although the district did not make its overall AYP goal, 85.5 percent of students reached the reading goal and 82.6 percent of students reached the math goal.
"I think the message I would like to share with you is we're not failing," she said.
ACT scores at the district have risen for the past three years, Zoellner said. Mill Valley High School students scored an average composite of 23.1 and De Soto High School had 22.3 -- higher than both the state and national composites.
The district is also on the cutting edge of teaching styles with Professional Learning Communities. The school buildings are each furnished with a learning coach, who serves as a mentor to the district's many new teachers and facilitates cooperative groups to plan learning strategies.
Zoellner read passages from a book, "Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond" by Gene Kranz. She compared the district's mission to educate children to save the astronauts in a failing spacecraft.
"We must adopt the attitude that we will not let any students fail," she said.
De Soto area PTA member Vicky Needham asked Zoellner about strategies schools are adopting to improve AYP status.
Zoellner said a language literacy program is helping those learning English for the first time to attain new skills. Also, the schools have a separate night for Spanish-speaking parents to visit the building and learn the importance of sharing English reading skills with their children. Zoellner said that was especially important for buildings in the west, such as Starside Elementary School.
"Hispanic culture is very supportive of education," she said. "But it's also hands-off."
She said through school programs, parents are learning to get more involved in their children's education.
When asked about changing the district's boundaries to deal with extreme growth, Zoellner said local boards in several districts were not interested in the process. She said it could become a complicated issue among separate districts and the state department of education.
In comparison to De Soto, the nearby Shawnee Mission School District recently closed two of its elementary schools with less than 300 students. Zoellner said De Soto could feasibly face the same situation in 30 or 40 years. She said the district's newer buildings were especially constructed so they could be reconfigured for other uses, such as an assisted living facility.
Last year, the Legislature agreed to a plan to give more funds to schools through a three-year plan. Zoellner said she was hopeful the state would agree to fund the second year of the school finance plan. The district receives about 35 percent of local taxes for its general option budget and 65 percent from state aid. She said the biggest need was to provide funding for all the extra requirements for special education students.
State Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, came to De Soto for the speech. She serves on the House Education Committee.
"I think we will fulfill the school finance formula for the second year," she said.