Why Indiana’s Superintendent of the Year says his leadership is inspired by ducks

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals (and, in this case, a superintendent) who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts comes from a long line of educators, but it was his Algebra II class decades ago that cemented his decision to go into teaching.

“Watching Mr. Smith teach and seeing how he was able to relate the content to his students and inspire us to learn, that was the tipping point,” Butts said.

After graduating from college, Butts got his start teaching health, physical education, and driver’s education classes at Prairie Central High School in Fairbury, Illinois, while also assistant coaching freshman football, wrestling, and track and field.

“Needless to say, it was a very busy first year,” Butts said. “Oh, yeah, I was also newly married.”

Now, Butts leads an Indianapolis district that serves more than 16,000 students, most of them from low-income families. He was recently named Indiana’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year.

He told Chalkbeat about how the district raised its low graduation rates, why he saves his paperwork for later, and what he would do with an eighth day in the week.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I  __________. Why?

My day at work isn’t complete unless I can specifically identify something I have done to make a positive difference in someone else’s life. In the nearly 13 years I have worked in Wayne, I have never had a day where I could not identify a positive difference I made in someone’s life.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I have always believed that paperwork happens when the students and staff are gone. When students and staff are in our schools, I want to be there too. It is important for me to experience what happens in our classrooms so that I can be a better superintendent. While I do not know all of our nearly 17,000 PK-12 students, I work very hard to interact and engage them as often as possible.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your district that you’re particularly proud of?

I came to Wayne Township as an assistant superintendent in 2006. The district’s largest high school, Ben Davis High School, had a graduation rate of 67 percent. This poor graduation rate was deemed a crisis that negatively impacted every subgroup within our school.

While internal gaps varied greatly, the overall lack of achievement was disturbing. When comparing our district to other successful urban school districts, it was clear that we did not compare favorably. Our expectations were far too low. I challenged our team to raise expectations for staff, students, parents, and the Wayne community. Our mission became to turn an underachieving urban high school into a high-performing high school with the expectation that regardless of race, socioeconomic status or language, every student would graduate.

In 2014, through a lot of hard work and a dedicated group of professionals, we saw Ben Davis High School’s graduation rate peak at 94 percent. Although this rate has fluctuated slightly in subsequent years, we continue to see overall graduation rates at or near 90 percent, including rates exceeding 90 percent the past two years. It is important to understand that these significant gains have been made against the backdrop of a district that continues to increase the number of students in poverty and a population of more diverse learners.

Recently, we launched a process to redesign high school:

  1. Increase rigor by dramatically increasing student access to our most challenging curriculum (Advanced Placement, Project Lead The Way, and dual credit) through the elimination of most prerequisites and through a self-selection process for high school students. We know that increasing rigor in our schools combats boredom, better prepares students for future challenges, and creates self-efficacy.
  2.  We implemented a fall intersession that focused on credit intervention to help students who are failing to get back on track. On average, more than 400 high school students participate. In addition, during the last month or more of each semester we run after-school buses for students to receive tutoring, retake assessments, and make up missed work. We average well over 200 students nightly. Lastly, we run study tables year round and provide tutors through our National Honor Society so all students have access to assistance.
  3. Improving alternative school programming for those students who are mismatched for a traditional large urban high school. The quality of our primary alternative school was lagging. Very few of its students were actively accumulating high school credits, let alone actually achieving their high school diplomas. We did a comprehensive redesign of this program that included rebranding it, providing comprehensive staff development, building accountability, implementing Positive Behavior Intervention Supports to reshape discipline, and beginning to track results.
  4. Implementing a college and career counseling program. Changing student aspirations is critical to improving graduation rates. When students see there is something beyond high school they are more likely to persist and graduate to propel themselves to whatever is next.
  5. Implementing what we call our “Impact Period” to teach “soft skills.” Much of what gets in our students’ way is a lack of habits that are precursors to success such as persistence, collaboration skills, promptness, grit, accuracy, metacognition, and many others. Now each receives lessons that focus on developing those skills.

Although we face the same major challenges as most urban school districts, we have changed the culture and have changed the results. As a result, our scholars, families, and our community are the true benefactors.

What is the hardest part of your job?

That the work is never done. I once challenged my colleagues to think of what they would do if they had an eighth day in the week. As I thought about spending time with family, recharging my batteries, and feeding my soul, I couldn’t help but gravitate toward what I would do with an eighth day to better serve our students, staff, and community. Educators are service-minded, and we will use every spare moment to better serve our students. Even when we are not at school, our mind is. And I cannot drive by a school in our district on a Saturday or Sunday and not see multiple cars in the parking lot, regardless of the time of day.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your schools right now? How are you addressing it?

We are faced with significant challenges every day. The most significant challenges I have faced as a superintendent include: 1. Being able to counter the negativity we so often hear and read about public education; 2. Making sure we give our staff the appropriate supports to be successful in their work with our students; 3. Providing elected officials with information that will assist them in making the best decisions; and 4. Balancing all of the opportunities available to me as superintendent with the demands of being a husband, father, and grandfather.

There are two things that I communicate often to our students, staff, school board, and community. The first is that we must tell our story. If we are not telling our story, someone else will. Secondly, it is important to know our “why.” If we know our why, we can continuously work towards achieving our “what!”

The need for our school district to reach out to our greater community in Wayne became very apparent as we prepared to take an operating referendum to our voters in 2015. We convened a group of 50 guiding coalition members and an additional 150 individuals to embark upon a strategic planning effort for the district. We learned through that effort that our greater community was often unaware of the wonderful achievements in our schools. So we went to work.

Each month, we created a postcard trumpeting one piece of our good news, and mailed it to every household in our district. Topics included our award-winning educators and administrators, our students giving back to the community during the holidays, and our district’s 94-percent graduation rate.

We began and have continued a series of efforts to connect with our community members in person on a routine basis. We established a regular breakfast meeting for the clergy members in our district. I meet over 150 times a year with PTOs, booster clubs, churches, Lions Club, alumni groups, and neighborhood crime watch groups. I am also in contact on a weekly basis with business leaders.

Each of our schools is now partnered with one of six senior living communities in our district. In the months leading up to our referendum in 2015, and again recently, I met with directors of our senior living communities as well as set up and manned a display of district promotional materials in the dining rooms of each of those communities. We created VIP passes for senior citizens living in our district so they can attend our events free of charge.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I do not find as much time as I would like to pleasure read. However, I am currently reading “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

When I was 14, my grandfather gave me a plaque to hang on my wall. It has become my mantra for most things in life. It was a picture of a duck with a quote: “Always behave like a duck — keep calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddle like the devil underneath.”