Serving as superintendent and deputy superintendent for two school districts in Kentucky definitely helped Karen Cheser avoid surprises when she arrived in July to assume leadership of Durango School District 9-R.
“I would say there are more similarities than differences,” Cheser said in comparing her most recent jobs. “I was fortunate in that we have really great teachers and we had really great teachers in Fort Thomas.”
Bolstering 9-R’s procedures to help students struggling academically has been a major focus of Cheser’s since her arrival from her leadership role at Fort Thomas Independent Schools.
Strong teachers and leadership form an essential foundation on which to build greater academic success among students. Cheser said adding robust interventions for struggling students will only further bolster 9-R’s academic services.
In helping academic stragglers, she said it’s especially important to catch lagging performers before the fourth grade.
“It’s key we get to students early, before they fall so far behind,” she said. “We know that by the time students get to fourth grade, it takes twice as long to catch them back up.”
Focusing attention on younger students, Cheser said, would not come at the expense of academic interventions for older students who are struggling.
Cheser wants a more robust system of academic interventions established throughout the district, with a particular focus on ensuring incoming fourth graders are at grade-level proficiency.
“When students fall behind in reading and math in fifth grade, in middle school, in high school, we’re still going to work with them to get them caught up. It’s just going to be a lot harder,” she said.
Interventions will be focused on individual needs, but Cheser said some students might suffer from similar needs based on shared economic or cultural backgrounds.
For instance, some students might lack transportation to after-school tutoring, athletic practices and other clubs.
9-R is looking at running an extra school bus after school to ensure those students aren’t missing out on extracurricular activities because of a lack of transportation.
Citing English language learners who share similar academic needs, Cheser said at times shared interventions might be appropriate for groups of students with similar backgrounds. But first of all interventions need to be tailored to individual students’ needs, she said.
Increasingly, school districts have become battlefields over the divisive issue of critical race theory, which evolved from theories first proposed in law schools in the 1970s that say institutions in the United States systematically favor whites.
For many years, critical race theory was confined to universities and obscure academic journals, but it has increasingly become a greater presence in public institutions during the past decade. It has been introduced into government agencies, public school systems, teacher training programs and corporate human resource departments in the form of diversity training programs, human resource modules and public policy formation.
But Cheser said her only experience with critical race theory came in a doctoral-level Black history class.
She said she doesn’t know of a single K-12 public school system that is teaching critical race theory.
What is important, she said, is addressing the needs of all students, including minority students, to ensure everyone is welcomed at school and is given the best shot at succeeding.
“If you’re going to ask me about race or diversity, inclusion and equity, I think the school district’s No. 1 role is to ensure every single student is successful, and that takes different resources for different students,” she said.
The idea that educational services should be delivered as a one-size-fits-all approach, she said, leads to academic failure when put into practice.
“A non-native English speaker has a great asset. They can speak more than one language,” she said. “But we need to bring extra support and instruction to ensure they succeed.”
In her view, the main goal of a school district is that every student after high school can thrive “making a living wage in a career they are passionate about and enjoy.”
Last year, Durango High School developed a “Portrait of a Graduate,” and Cheser said similar visioning work will be done at all grade levels so a strong mission statement supports teachers and students guiding their path from elementary school to a high school diploma.
“We want to have a strong vision for the entire district that everyone is working toward,” she said.
“High-performing districts do this. They create this description of what they want, and they work with the community to do that.
“Once we have a vision, then we have to create a plan to get there,” Cheser said.
The $114 million 9-R received in bonds approved by voters in November 2020 to repair a backlog of building maintenance needs, upgrade safety and security, rebuild Miller Middle School and build a new Career Technical Education Center will help build ties with the community.
Cheser said development of the Career Technical Education Center provides a perfect platform to strengthen ties with Durango’s business community and to enhance internship opportunities for students.
“We want to focus on successful career pathways we have now and we want to develop new ones,” she said. “You saw how things changed during COVID. Our world is changing over the next five, 10 years, and we want students to be prepared when they get out.”
Cheser said national surveys have shown 70% of students are interested in starting their own business, but only 2% of K-12 students have received any instruction about business formation and entrepreneurship.
The new Career Technical Education Center will be an ideal resource to ensure Durango defies those national numbers.
“There’s definitely a strong business spirit here, a sense of individualism,” she said. “You’re living in paradise and you want to figure out how to continue living in paradise, and that sense helps build a strong business community.”