ESU 16's Listening Tour a "refreshing" experience for Central NE school districts

ESU 16's Listening Tour a "refreshing" experience for Central NE school districts

By Tyler Dahlgren

The question from the team at ESU 16 nearly caught Brady Public Schools superintendent James McGown off guard.

“What can we do for you?”

School districts, McGown explained, are a service industry. They’re often the ones posing such questions, prying for specific needs and searching for supports specialized to every single one of their students.

When the ESU 16 Listening Tour caravan made one of its 16 pit stops in Brady two weeks ago, McGown found himself on the other side of the proverbial glass. The experience was a welcomed breath of fresh air, and extraordinarily helpful.

“It was refreshing to have somebody ask us what we needed as a school district, because on every other day of the year it’s the other way around,” McGown said. “The work that’s going to result from that is going to benefit our student body. ESU 16 listened to our unique needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

When you’re in a small school district, you naturally wear several hats. That goes for superintendents, teachers and students, too. In Arthur County, Barry Schaeffer plays the part of superintendent, elementary principal, curriculum contact, safety guy and water operator, for example.

And without ESU 16, there’d be a few more caps on the hat rack.

“If I didn’t have an ESU to provide SPED services, to provide speech and occupational therapy, network support and mental health services, there’s no way I could do it,” Schaeffer said. “The Listening Tour was a great opportunity to touch base, face-to-face, with them.”

The 16 school districts in ESU 16 each had their time with the travelling staff, an opportunity to calibrate and communicate with their primary source of resources on the heels of a pandemic that shook education over the last 18 months. The idea was first floated in a leadership meeting after an external visitation capped ESU 16’s previous five-year continuous improvement cycle.

“We really felt like it was going to be important for us as a regional service provider to get out and talk to the folks we actually provide services to,” said ESU 16 administrator Deb Paulman. “This tour is the next step of the process, the first in collecting data that helps guide our programs and services. It revealed what schools are trying to accomplish and how we can best move alongside our districts to ensure they meet their goals and intended outcomes for students and staff.”

For ESU 16, the tricky part was bouncing between two time zones and covering 12,000 square miles in under two weeks. Administrative Assistant Michelle Walker coordinated the travel for the service unit’s leadership team, who carpooled nearly everywhere and left each site with invaluable data, the reward for time well spent.

“It was a big commitment, a week and a half of our time,” said Teaching and Learning Director Alison Smith. “But it was the most valuable time ever, going in front administrative teams to hear truly what makes them tick, how their district is functioning and what their primary needs are so that we can align our work to support their needs instead of this notion of ‘Here is what we have to offer.’”

The meetings each started the same, with Paulman explaining the “why” behind the tour by detailing the service unit’s continuous improvement efforts. From there, ESU 16 asked questions and simply listened.

“What is your vision for Teaching and Learning?" "What is your vision for Special Education?" "How about network operations?" "How do you see ESU 16 fitting into that?”

Now that the tour is wrapped up, the team will work to consolidate the data gathered before taking it to their steering committee, a group of 15-20 representatives from job-alike professionals such as speech-language pathologists, school psychologists and administrators. The committee will then formulate a theory of action and the next set of steps.

“It’s been enjoyable and hugely informative,” said Paulman. “It’s also been a little validating. We made a commitment early on to be good listeners in this work. It’s been challenging at times to sit on your hands and not jump in and say ‘Oh, we have something for that,’ or ‘We have a program or a staff member we can send out for that kind of thing.’ That will come later for us. We wanted to be very intentional about listening.”

The team had their eyes opened to how separated everyone has been throughout the pandemic. The need for social and emotional supports was a common request across all districts, as was professional development, special education and technology.

“We struggle getting and implementing high-quality instructional materials, and that’s one of the needs we expressed during the tour,” said McGown. “Working with our ESU on that is going to be very beneficial for us. That benefits every student, no matter their ability. Getting those resources in our hands benefits every teacher and every student.”

Scott Jones, Director of Network Operations, appreciated the opportunity to get back on the same page with each district. Relationships, naturally, were strained because of the pandemic. It was nice to reconnect without the use of Zoom or other webcasting services, although everybody’s newfound comfortability in those areas is a silver lining to come from the pandemic.

“We are going back out and reinforcing, re-instilling and sometimes even creating that trust that’s imperative to have between the ESU and the school district,” said Jones. “We’ve been separated for so long that there has been a growing divide between us. When we can be there in-person, it really changes everything.”

ESU 16, historically, has been a binding agent for the districts in their area, no matter how many miles may exist between buildings. They prioritize professional development, and even spearheaded a regional PLC that came from a conversation between Paulman, McGown and Schaeffer.

“They’ve been really good leaders in that area,” Schaeffer said. “They did a good job of keeping us in contact with each other and helping us to work through the process. If I have a question about something, I never hesitate to jump on the phone and call another superintendent in the area.”

In this part of the state, those relationships are critical. There’s 121 students in Arthur County Schools, which stands 25 miles north of Lake McConaughy. Brady Public Schools averages 15 students per class, K-12. Students in both districts are described as hard-workers who take advantage of opportunities when they're presented.

“Many of the districts out here are rural and isolated,” said McGown. “Our ESU has done an excellent job of making sure we don’t operate as a silo. Our staff is primarily on an island. We have one kindergarten teacher and it’s like that all the way through, but the service unit works really hard to give us professional networking opportunities with other school districts.”

The Listening Tour was a learning experience for the team at ESU 16, but it was also an admirable display of accountability and dedication to the districts they exist to serve.

“Our mindset is one of a continuous willingness to learn, to try something without being afraid of failing, because that’s when we can really grow,” said Smith. “I’ve been appreciative of the Teaching and Learning team’s ability to try new things.”

ESU 16 has listened. Now it’s time to respond. Paulman is anxious to watch her staff do what they do best.

“This has been beneficial for us in so many ways," she said. "And we believe our schools would say the same."