Shortly after being appointed as the new superintendent of Bainbridge Island School District, Peter Bang-Knudsen decided to take the temperature of the community around him by conducting a listening tour from September to November of 2016.
At a recent school board meeting, the superintendent reported his findings to an audience of community members as well as his higher-ups.
“The purpose of the tour was to approach my work as superintendent with fresh eyes and open ears,” Bang-Knudsen said.
The listening tour included more than 30 stops where Bang-Knudsen met with staff from all departments and schools, all parent teacher organizations, students, parents and concerned community members.
All told, the superintendent met with more than 500 people and received more than 1,000 comments in response to three questions: What is working well in Bainbridge schools? What can be improved? What advice do you have for an instructionally-focused superintendent?
So, what is Bainbridge doing right? Many of the people with whom the superintendent met, used the meetings to commend the district’s ability to cultivate a positive school culture, which Bang-Knudsen described as “kid-centric.”
“When we make decisions we think about whose interests are being served and it better be the kids. How do we help those kids?” asked Bang-Knudsen.
While relaying a story about one bus driver who managed to allay a kindergartener’s first-day-of-school-nerves by putting on a friendly face and warmly welcoming the child onto the bus for her first ride to school, Bang-Knudsen became visibly emotional and with a trembling voice said, “It’s that kind of care and attention that all our staff members have that really makes a difference.”
Communication was another important issue for the commenters on Bang-Knudsen’s tour.
“I heard lots of examples of strong communication between staff members from teachers and parents,” Bang-Knudsen recalled.
“I had a parent tell me just the other night, he’s got a fifth-grade son and he’s got a daughter in her 20s. The daughter who lives in a different state had a baby and they had to really quickly take the son out of school and go fly to another state to be there.
“Well, they forgot to check the kid out of school and his teacher called and just said, ‘Hey, just checking in, how’s your son doing, is everything OK?’ And the dad was just so appreciative of that personal caring, that communication that the teacher had demonstrated.”
What needs improvement? One of the things the new superintendent kept hearing from parents during the tour was their concern surrounding students’ social and emotional well-being and teaching stress-management and coping tools.
“We had a few tragic events that happened in the fall, with the death of a student, we had some pretty scary incidents with high school students drinking alcohol, using drugs. There was just this palpable concern in the community about how are kids doing? Are we taking care of them? What else can we do to support them?” Bang-Knudsen asked.
According to Bang-Knudsen, one parent commented: “I’m caring less about SAT scores — I just want my child to graduate and be healthy.”
What advice does Bainbridge Island have for their new superintendent? “Keep listening.”
“The overwhelming advice that I got was, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, engage with the schools, go out and be present, have the conversations with staff and parents and kids.’ And I really made an effort to do that and I enjoy doing that as well,” Bang-Knudsen said.
The superintendent’s report concluded with a brief period of public comment followed by School Board President Sheila Jakubik, who praised Bang-Knudsen’s work on the listening tour.
“I hope that Peter’s presentation tonight has shown you all a glimpse of the person that I get to meet with every week,” Jakubik said.
“He is always thinking about what the best thing is for the students, for the staff, for the district overall,” she added. “So I just want to say that watching you these past six months makes me incredibly proud and I think that Bainbridge is so lucky to have you as a superintendent.”