Superintendent Donna Hanlin: Students, teachers need safe spaces

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In March, Dr. Donna C. Hanlin was selected to succeed Dr. John E. Fredericksen as Superintendent of Wicomico County Public Schools.

She was born and raised in Salisbury and is a James M. Bennett High School graduate. She began her career as a classroom teacher in Wicomico County and assisted in the design of the elementary guidance program for the school system.

She served as Assistant Principal at Wicomico Middle and James M. Bennett High schools and as Principal of James M. Bennett High School before being promoted to Director of Secondary Education for the school system.

Then, after 26 years in Wicomico County schools, she moved to Hagerstown, Md., where she served as a Supervisor of Special Education, Director of Elementary Education and Assistant Superintendent.

Hanlin is known for her focus on developing challenging, innovative and personalized educational opportunities to serve the needs of a diverse student population. She is a passionate advocate for high expectations and opportunities for all students that will prepare them well for college and careers.

She believes that the development of the whole child begins with a strong foundation in early childhood and continues when students learn to think critically, work together to solve problems, and explore interests. She believes in the strength of teachers and principals, the importance of risk-taking and empowerment, and the authentic involvement of the community, with parents as partners, to improve schools for the benefit of all students.

Hanlin has an energy and enthusiasm that are contagious — she seems to do effortlessly put people at ease through a welcoming demeanor.

Q. You’ve been on the job for two months now, how have your first two months been?

A. It’s been amazing. It’s been a whirlwind for sure. Even from the time of my appointment, the support and encouragement that I received, and continue to receive from both people in the school system and community members, has been incredible. I just feel tremendous support for the work that’s ahead of us. I have met with all of the stakeholder groups who were part of the superintendent search process and that was very helpful to me. I heard from others about what their vision for our school system should be and what their concerns are and how people are anxious for the school system to be part of the energy that everyone is feeling in the broader community. People are craving renewal – they are looking for a new start.

Q. You brought everyone together for the kick off ceremony at the Shorebirds Stadium, something that hadn’t been done in a while. What was that like?

A. It was wonderful. We worried about the weather but it was beautiful (although very warm), and being in that stadium environment was fun and invigorating. Having the opportunity to talk to everyone at once was great.

Q. I saw some people were posting live video from the stadium. There seemed to be a lot of excitement.

A. Great (smiling)! People came from the community. We had a parade. Director of Special Education Bonnie Walston, who helped organize the event, called it the Parade of Champions. Each school had five representatives and interspersed were community members symbolizing our partnerships and how we are all coming together to do great things for students. The crowd was so energetic and enthusiastic. It was a great way to usher in a brand new school year, and as I said, a new era.

Q. What was your message to the teachers, administrators and staff members?

A. I talked about what led me here and about forks in the road. One of the biggest forks in the road for me was when I made the decision to leave this community. By doing that I grew tremendously as a leader and as an educator. I can now look back and see how different forks in the road were part of bringing me back home to lead this school system. I talked about when I tried to retire in 2012, the lessons that I learned from the teachers I taught at that time.  It just stunned me when the teachers would say “It’s a good day when I don’t go home in tears.” And it really brought me back to the support the teachers need in the classroom. We need to give them the freedom to be innovative and creative in their classrooms rather than have everything based upon mandates. I think that Every Student Succeeds Act is going to help a great deal to bring more control back to the states and locals.

The teachers seemed particularly enthusiastic when I talked about safe schools and the importance of finding a balance between showing students we care and establishing relationships with students. However, part of caring is being very explicit in what we expect, having very clear expectations, having a very clear code of conduct and consistently enforcing that code of conduct. It’s something they wanted to hear and I really mean it. It is something that we have to do.

Q. You shared about the forks in the road in your life but what truly made you decide to come back to Wicomico County, especially now in these challenging times?

A. The real answer to that question is that my husband heard of Dr. Fredericksen’s retirement and brought it to my attention. He reminded me that I had said the only place I’d want to be superintendent was in Wicomico County. And when I read the posting and the qualities the school board was looking for it felt like a really good fit.

Q. How have things changed since you left?

A. I knew things were different. I knew the demographics of the area had changed but I didn’t understand the depth of those changes until further into the interview process. I kept hearing concerns from the focus group members and others in the community. But what I also noticed was this overwhelming sense of renewal in the community. I’ve known Mayor Jake Day for a long time. I was his high school principal and I’ve watched what he and others are doing for the community. So while there are issues  that need to be addressed, I feel that if everyone comes together I am confident that we can turn things around. Because I do think there’s incredible leadership and incredible people who want to come together and be part of a great team.

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Q. What are you most excited about this school year?

A. Sharing my vision for our school system. I’ve met with the executive leadership team and we’ve had a lot of great conversations about the vision which includes four areas; trust and empowerment, safe schools, quality of instruction, and a community that believes in us.

We are spending a lot of time, here in central office, talking about trust and empowerment and what that really means. How we have to be intentional and we have to model that throughout the system. I am excited by the enthusiasm I am hearing about this. We can accomplish nothing without a culture of trust.

Q. School is getting ready to start, what do you think will be your biggest challenge this year?

A. The challenge will be to make the vision a reality. But also the safe schools issue. I recognize that things aren’t going to get better just because I said we’re going to enforce our code of conduct — because everybody’s interpretation of that is different. So, I fully recognize that students are different than when I was here 12 years ago and the community is different. I’m sure I will be working through some issues and applying what I believe to real life situations very soon. I think it is important that my team work together. We will not be making decisions in isolation.  

Q. Thinking about what you just said about safe schools, what message do you want to give to parents and our entire community?

A. That this issue is critically important to me. Students can’t learn and teachers cannot teach if they aren’t in an environment where they feel safe. It’s important to me to know what it’s like to be a student in our schools today. I’m not necessarily going to know what students are going home and sharing with their families. If parents have concerns, I encourage them to voice their concerns in a productive manner. To find someone who can help them. We will work through whatever issues present themselves, but our schools will be safe.

Currently we have a very productive relationship with our sheriff’s office and have met often. Our School Resource Officers and administrators did some collaborative training this summer which was so important. They will work together to make sure our schools are safe.

Q. What are your top goals for this year? For the next four years?

A. Rolling out the vision is top priority. At the senior leadership level we’ve talked about how we are going to measure these areas, which would then tell us our goals. What are the concrete steps that we are going to take?  For instance with trust and empowerment it starts at the top and then trickles down to every level and every person.

Safe schools is another top priority. I’m going to be monitoring discipline referrals and concerns. I’ll be looking at hard data but I’ll also be in schools and listening. Making sure the informal feedback is saying things are so much better.

Also, we are working to identify overarching principles to guide our instructional program. We are exploring some different areas. Specifically, I want to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our highly able students and gifted students through programs that may or may not exist now. I’ll be really zeroing in on our Magnet program and how we are meeting the needs of our highly able students in our schools, whether it’s elementary, middle or high. I have experience with International Baccalaureate, which is an amazing program available at all levels and, I just learned, for Career and Technology Education (CTE) as well.

We will be looking at all of our interventions. I’m hearing great things about our reading interventions, the Leveled Literacy Intervention and reading labs at the middle school level. I want to make sure we are making great progress at the elementary level and that we aren’t forgetting about the high school level. It’s particularly important to me that we are putting resources in early childhood.

Q. There has been talk about rebranding our school system. Wicomico County Public Schools has struggled somewhat with a negative image and with a lack of support from our community. What is your plan to address that?

A. I talked about that in my vision. The fourth bullet point is a community that believes in us. Part of the strategy there is through marketing to get our good word out. As a senior leadership team we have been talking about communication ten-fold. We read an article about being cultural travelers and being out in the community representing our schools and sending the message about our whole school system. That means we are pushing ourselves to get our message out there accurately and concisely. I’ve also been examining if we need to put some resources into the area of marketing. I am encouraging staff and parents and community members, all of us, to take ownership of our school system. If someone is talking negatively about our schools, help them find someone that can assist them.

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Q. Have you identified things that WCPS does very well?

A. I believe there are amazing leaders, school based administrators and central office leaders, here. The depth of knowledge that our team possesses is incredible. We have great instructional programs led by very talented people. People care about children.

Q. How will you spend the first week of school?

A. In schools (smiling). I have eight schools selected for Monday. I will be going around with our new State Superintendent, Dr. Karen Salmon, on Friday to visit more. I’m very excited.

Q. What inspires you?

A. People who want to do the right thing. People who are enthusiastic about wanting to do the right thing for children. People who are in it for the right reason and that is doing what’s best for kids. That inspires me. The energy and enthusiasm of our staff and their great sense of hope inspires me. But what brought me to tears was the end of the kick off ceremony when our most talented VPA (Visual and Performing Arts) singers were paired with our little 2nd graders from West Salisbury singing “We Are the World.” Being with kids inspires me.

Kim Hudson is a former member of the Wicomico Board of Education.

 

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