New Waco Independent School District Superintendent Susan Kincannon may have started the school year about two weeks late, but she seems to be keeping up with her lessons.

Kincannon’s first day as superintendent in Waco was Thursday, after the board of trustees voted 5-2 to hire her Aug. 29. Board members Stephanie Korteweg and Norman Manning cast the dissenting votes, citing concerns about Kincannon’s lack of experience working with a district as diverse and economically disadvantaged as Waco ISD.

From 2011 to this past summer, Kincannon served as superintendent of Belton ISD, a fast-growing district about 40 miles south of Waco.

But Belton ISD looks quite different demographically. About 77% of Waco ISD students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 45.5% of Belton ISD students, according to the Texas Education Agency website. Waco ISD has just under 15,000 students, and almost 61% are Hispanic. Belton ISD has about 12,000 students, and almost 53% are white.

Additionally, seven Waco ISD schools received an F rating from the state this year, while no Belton schools did. One Belton school, Southwest Elementary School, received a D.

For Kincannon, those differences do not represent a problem but a challenge, something she relishes.

“My approach is to do my job with fidelity and take care of kids in schools, and I certainly believe and know from my past experience that that builds trust,” she said in her first sit-down interview with the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday afternoon. “Trust and relationship-building takes time, and it takes listening and being with people. Trust comes from taking care of what you’re charged with doing.”

Kincannon has spent her first four days walking through schools and meeting with principals, listening to them and learning their needs and concerns. She believes she is already building trust that way, she said.

She visited both high schools and was impressed by the Advanced Placement music theory class at Waco High and the engineering program at University High. She said she was pleased to see every Waco ISD elementary school employs an art teacher, something Belton ISD could not afford.

“I see a staff that is very dedicated to the students,” Kincannon said. “Schools have been very orderly, and students are well managed. I’ve seen lots of engagement, and of course, as a curriculum and instruction person, that makes me very happy. I like to see kids learning in classrooms.”

While on her district tour, Kincannon said, she has started seeing patterns, such as a need for leadership development for staff, improved communication and updated facilities.

“I had the opportunity to go to University High School last week and then Waco High School yesterday,” she said. “With University being built in 2011, it’s a new campus, state-of-the-art, modern, whereas Waco High School was built in 1960. You find smaller classrooms that were designed for instruction in 1960. That’s on my radar right away in terms of needs.”

But another, more pressing pattern and concern for Kincannon is the high rate of teacher turnover in Waco ISD. She said she is “alarmed” at the high turnover rate and the fact that the district cannot retain new teachers.

Waco ISD sees roughly 26% teacher turnover every year, while the five Transformation Waco schools have an annual turnover rate of 40%, according to district figures. The state’s average turnover rate is 16%.

That is one area where Kincannon believes she can use some of her own professional development and her listening skills. She completed a design thinking workshop at the University of Texas this past summer that showed her how to solve problems using empathy and feedback from the people she serves.

“I can already envision using that process here after we get some of the staff trained to talk about teacher retention and ways we can retain our teachers,” she said. “A big part of that would then be really trying to understand why it is that teachers leave and what it is that would keep them staying in Waco ISD. That concept of listening and understanding what’s important to people and not trying to come up with all the solutions on your own is really critical because you might come up with a solution that doesn’t work because you didn’t really understand what people needed or wanted.”

Transformation Waco

Meanwhile, Kincannon is acquainting herself with Transformation Waco, the five-school, in-district charter partnership with Waco ISD. She has not worked with an 1882 Turnaround Partnership like Transformation Waco before. A 2017 law, which advanced as Senate Bill 1882, gives school districts the authority to partner with an outside organization like a charter school or nonprofit and, in turn, receive extra state funding.

While the partnership is a “bit confusing” to her and the staff, Kincannon said she believes Transformation Waco is doing the work school districts ought to do, including offering wraparound services like corrective lenses for students who need them and free breakfast and lunch at school. She said those services are particularly vital to economically disadvantaged students.

“Transformation Waco was designed to do what Waco ISD wants to do, and that’s to take care of students,” she said. “To me, it feels like another layer of work to accomplish the same goal, so understanding my role in that work is what I am trying to sort through at the moment so that I can help the staff of Waco ISD understand for themselves what they’re doing to support Transformation schools and then be as helpful as I can.”

Kincannon also wants to build on Waco ISD’s professional learning communities, the topic on which she wrote her doctoral dissertation. A professional learning community is a group of educators that meets regularly to collaborate on ways to improve teaching skills and student achievement.

“What teachers and teams should be doing is working together to identify areas of need by looking at data, designing lessons together and then coming back together to see how a lesson worked or didn’t work so that you can refine it for the future,” she said. “The way that you do that is by looking at student achievement results, assessing your students to determine if what you taught them was actually accomplished.”

That approach can be applied on a macro or micro level, Kincannon said. She can foresee Waco ISD using a professional learning community model that is districtwide, as well as campus-level or subject-focused communities, to ensure the district is effective at producing educated, mindful students.

“You can very easily in bureaucratic organizations like school districts begin to get into silos and not listen and work together to accomplish the same goal that we all have,” she said.

Kincannon does not intend to let that happen at Waco ISD. She wants to bring the team together, every member of the school district, because she believes helping students succeed academically is just as important as seeing them become good people and good stewards of their environments.

“Schools are charged with not only teaching students academically but helping them to become better people,” she said. “We want to have a better culture inside of our schools because schools are reflective of the community. If children can learn to coexist in a classroom or a school building together, then that leads to better outcomes when they’re an adult.”

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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