Coming out of the fire

Wichita educators forged new partnerships, vision, purpose during pandemic

Written by Amy Palser

Educators across America got the ultimate pop quiz in March 2020 when they had to change their teaching methods on a dime. There was no prep time, no chance to study and research, and no historical data from which to draw. Things were changing by the minute and teachers and administrators had to adapt to — and even invent — new ways of doing things, while still maintaining their original purpose of educating and preparing students from preschool through college age.

That pop quiz turned into a yearlong test for educators. And now that they’re on the other side, things probably won’t ever look the same for American education. Three Wichita educators say that’s a good thing. Though the pandemic took educators through the fire, they say it forged new relationships, created new vision, and strengthened their purpose.

To celebrate Wichita educators as they embark on a new school year, we spoke with three who are leading the charge in three different arenas: Dr. Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools; Dr. Sheree Utash, president of WSU Tech; and Becky O’Hearn, Wichita Collegiate School’s Head of Early Childhood.

“I’m really proud of our Wichita and greater Wichita area community and leaders who got through the pandemic by working together to keep children learning,” O’Hearn said. “We forged and strengthened our community with new relationships and new ways of doing things that will only add value and make our community a better place.”

Forging relationships

Dr. Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools, said she saw a spirit of cooperation come out of the pandemic that she intends to build upon. “We saw so many partnerships during Covid, whether with Wichita Tech, WSU, United Way, the Sedgwick County Zoo, and so many businesses that engaged with us to support us,” she said. “There were so many partners that helped us to make sure our kids had safe places to go to continue to learn. Wichita has embraced us in a different way than they had in the past.”

Moving forward, Thompson said she wants to continue those partnerships to change the way education looks — offering students internships with businesses, helping them get credentials so they’re job-ready at graduation, and helping them get college credit in high school.

“We have hundreds of kids this summer out in the community working. My daughter’s one of them — she’s 14 and she’s working at a church camp right now,” she said. “We have opportunities with our early college program where our kids are able to graduate from high school with 60 college credit hours through Friends University. And we have opportunities at WSU Tech where our kids get the credentials they need, so that when they graduate from high school they have job offers at Spirit and Textron.”

Thompson said establishing and maintaining those community partnerships makes it possible to achieve a goal WPS has adopted in recent years: Ensuring that every student is prepared to go into a career or college after graduation.

Another WPS goal that was accelerated by the pandemic was ensuring every student had a digital device and internet access. It took rebudgeting and readjusting funds to make that happen in 2020, Thompson said, but it also took community partnerships. “We had people who said, ‘I want to pay for 20 kids to have internet access for the next couple of years.’ We had businesses and community members step up to the plate, and we now have technology and internet access for every student.”

Expanding a vision

WSU Tech president Dr. Sheree Utash entered the education world a little differently than most. A journalism and marketing major at Kansas State University, she worked in advertising and private business before working for several colleges and earning master’s and doctorate degrees in higher education. That path helped her realize the importance of intersecting private business with education to produce a strong workforce and help students, no matter what their age, achieve their career and life goals.

“We are in highly disruptive times, and Covid really accelerated that and exacerbated the need for change in education,” she said. “It’s my belief there are a lot of lessons we’ve learned during this disruptive time that we need to capitalize on and build upon and innovate to attract students as we move forward.”

Utash said that while getting a four-year degree is still an important option, the coveted product businesses are looking for are knowledge and skills to be workforce ready, and that can be achieved many ways, such as professional development certificates, two-year degrees and more. “As we look forward in the world of work, the whole idea of critical thinking, knowledge, teamwork, communication and the demonstration of those skills are the currency for the future.”

In addition to helping high school graduates, Utash says it’s vital to provide opportunities for people who are sidelined in their careers and help them get the skills, knowledge and certifications to improve their jobs and lives.

“How do we debunk the myth so that people start to believe you’re never too old to learn, you’re never too old to change careers, and you’re never too old to follow your passion?” she said. “The bottom line in everything we do at WSU Tech is we’re looking to lift people in this community through training to economic prosperity, and then to create a pipeline of skilled workers. We’re in the hope and dream business.”

Working together

Becky O’Hearn, Wichita Collegiate School’s Head of Early Childhood, said the pandemic solidified in her a belief that people need to connect in real life — students and teachers included. “Over the first six months of the pandemic, I saw a real sadness coming over the teachers and their view of their role in a profession that was changing so drastically,” she said. “They were saying, ‘This is not what I want to do much longer.’ It made me concerned for all of the nation’s teachers who were becoming more disenfranchised about being educators. Teachers need to collaborate with each other, share their life stories, not be in this isolated place.”

That need for connection is what she has always loved about being in early childhood education. Often preschool is the child’s first introduction to the outside world — and the first teacher they learn to love. “In order to be a well-rounded human being, you need to be around other human beings, see the needs of the group, learn social discourse,” she said. “You’ve got to be in the same room to know that, to see it, to feel it. When you’re online you get to be removed from that emotional response, and that’s unhealthy.”

She said the data isn’t in yet on how much children retain from learning on a screen and then testing. “It’s super hard to be engaged on a device, no matter how good the teacher is,” she said.

But despite the challenges of the last 18 months, O’Hearn is thankful that education in America is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Raised by a single mother of five children, O’Hearn said public education allowed her to overcome her circumstances, and teachers along the way encouraged her potential.

“What won’t change about education going forward is that being an educator still is one of the greatest industries where you have the greatest impacts on human beings,” O’Hearn said. “If you want to be a difference maker, it really is a very rewarding experience.”

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