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Earlier this month, Michele Blatt became the West Virginia superintendent of schools following the retirement of David Roach in June. She is the third person to hold the position in less than two years.
Education Reporter Chris Schulz caught up with the superintendent at the INVEST Conference in Morgantown earlier this week to discuss her new position.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Schulz: Superintendent, first of all, tell me, how are you feeling?
Blatt: I’m really excited about this opportunity to lead our state, and so grateful to the [West Virginia] Board of Education that put their faith in me to do this job. I have an amazing support system at the department and around the state that I know together, we’re gonna do some really great things.
Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about what it is that you’re doing here in Morgantown?
Blatt: This is our second statewide conference that we’ve held, called INVEST. It is to begin the implementation of House Bill 3035, the Third Grade Success Act, to start training our teachers and principals on the implementation of the Science of Reading components. And also start with the Unite with Numeracy work around the math skills and things so that our students can be successful by the time they leave third grade.
Schulz: How is the implementation of the Third Grade Success Act going, and how does it feel to now be at the helm?
Blatt: We’ve got a great plan in place. Like I said, this is our second statewide conference, so we’ll have hit approximately 1,200 teachers and principals this summer. We also have a wonderful plan in place to do implementation teams across the state. We’ll be starting in August and September, going out and training county teams that can then work with each of their schools. And then we’ll also be able to provide the support and follow-up. So it’s always been important to me that the department’s seen as a support place, and that they can provide the resources and things that our teachers need so that they can reach the students.
Schulz: The issue of staffing has come up. I don’t remember the number off the top of my head of how many paraprofessionals are supposed to be coming into first grade classrooms this year alone, to say nothing of second or third grade in the coming years. But how is the department addressing that right now?
Blatt: We put out some guidance early on as to the different options and things that were available, and the [state] legislature gave us some flexibility. They could hire early childhood classroom assistants, aides, paraprofessionals, or interventionists, because we knew that would be an issue. But in a call last week with superintendents, we learned that they’re not having trouble filling those positions, but they’re losing all their special education aides. So that’s where, in some conversations with the legislature and other things, we’re gonna have to really start figuring out how to meet that need as well.
Schulz: More broadly, you know West Virginia is still dealing with over 1,000 vacancies in certified teaching positions. Now that you are leading the department, now that you’re leading education in the state, do you have any plans or working on anything to try and address that issue?
Blatt: Well, we have a lot of programs in place that just started in the last year or so. We have Grow Your Own teaching pathway, and that is also starting to incorporate the pathway for aides and our high school students to come out and meet that demand. So we’re doing a lot of work with our universities, doing a lot of alternative certification pathways, so that we can make sure that we’re doing all we can from the state level to recruit and retain our teachers.
Schulz: One of the concerns when we hear about alternative educational pathways is that foundation of the profession of teaching. I know that you have a very long career in education. What can you say to that, and what are you seeing in these alternative programs that makes you confident that these people are going to be ready to teach in the same way as a traditionally trained teacher?
Blatt: Well, there are several different pathways, whether it’s from the state level programs that our university or counties are allowed to have their own. Part of that is they’ve already received the content based on the career, something they’re coming from. But there’s various ways that depending on which program they select, they do receive the pedagogy and some of the classroom management and behavioral skills that they need to operate in the classroom.
Schulz: What are you most excited to be working on right now?
Blatt: I think just making sure that our teachers in our schools [and] our staff have the resources they need to meet the needs of our children. We focus a lot on academics, and that’s the most important thing, to make sure that we can get our kids ready to read and do math by third grade, but we have so many children across this state that their basic needs aren’t met.
And making sure that we’re putting supports in place to help our teachers so that they can be able to teach our students, and making sure that everyone understands that for some of our students, schools are the only place that they feel safe and loved, and get two or three meals a day.
Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit more how that will be happening? I know that your predecessor was talking a lot about expanding Communities in Schools, for example.
Blatt: We’ll be in 52 counties this fall for Communities in Schools. We also have many other projects in place through different programs, working with our counselors and things. Communities in Schools has made an impact across the state because it has put a site coordinator in every school to focus on those basic needs, and then allow them to free the teacher up to actually focus on the academic side of it. There’s a shortage of those, of counselors and behavioral specialists and things as well, but there’s several different grants and things that we’ve worked on with different agencies to really address that need as well.
Schulz: I’m curious if you can help our listeners a little bit to understand the differentiation between deputy superintendent and superintendent. What has been the biggest change for you so far?
Blatt: I think the biggest change is just the realization that I’m the one that’s responsible for all of our schools, and making sure that everything that we do is going to meet the needs of our students, going to get them where they need to be academically. And that there’s just a lot of opportunities, but it’s a little scary at times to think about that. All of those schools and everything are depending on me. But again, I just continue to think about the great staff we have at the department and then across the state and those that are willing to do what it takes to meet the needs of our students.
Schulz: I know that one of the topics that came up at the last [state] Board of Education meeting was the two current special investigations into school systems. What really struck me was this discussion about implementing new procedures for maybe catching these issues early. Is that something that you’ve been working on?
Blatt: Yes, we’re really looking to see what we can do proactively to catch some of those issues that we found. Each office at the department is in charge of a certain section of those county effectiveness indicators. And they’re looking to see how they can tighten those up or strengthen those to catch some of those situations earlier.
Schulz: Could you tell me a little bit about that conversation that you had with the superintendents in the state last week?
Blatt: It was a matter of looking at all the requirements and things that are out there. We talked a lot about the professional development that’s required, or the required trainings and things that are required either in state or federal code or policy, and really trying to think about how can we make sure that we have enough time with our teachers and staff, to really train them on the things that they need, and provide them what they need to be successful, especially as we implement this Ready Read Write initiative.
Schulz: As a career educator, do you have any thoughts on how much is being asked of our educators these days?
Blatt: There’s an immense amount of work being asked of our educators, of aids. As I mentioned earlier, so many of them are responsible for taking care of these kids. We have over 7,000 kids in foster care that aren’t getting their basic needs met. So when you think our teachers are no longer just responsible for teaching, reading, writing and math, they’re also responsible for teaching these kids a lot of times how to behave in the classroom, providing them with clothes, providing them with extra resources on the weekend, so that they have food on the weekends. And in so many cases, our teachers are not only teachers, but their counselors and nurses and so many other things for the students in their classroom.
Schulz: You are, by my account, the third superintendent that the state has had in as many years, maybe less. And I just wonder, how does that impact your outlook on the position and what you hope to accomplish?
Blatt: We’ve had a lot of turnover over the last several years in superintendents. One of the things that I think a lot about is, what can I do to kind of study the system? There’s no way we can continue to meet the demands that the communities and the legislature and the governor and others have for us if there’s a constant turnover in leadership, and we’ve had a lot of that turnover. So one of the things I think about is, what can we do to all work together and keep everyone moving in the right direction for our kids and do it for the long-term?