The Change Agent

Tony Sanders
Superintendent of U-46 Elgin, IL

The Objective

To share experiences, challenges, and advice from the leader of a large and diverse school district.

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Show Notes

In this District Spotlight, Tony Sanders (Superintendent of Illinois School District U-46) describes his professional journey to leading the second largest school district in Illinois. Topical district issues are also discussed, such as budgeting, Covid challenges, district communication, and how his district is working to provide access to unique programs and school choice for all students.

Episode 21
Title: District Spotlight: Illinois School District U-46
Subtitle: A dialogue on pressing district issues

VoiceOver (00:02):

ChangeAgents in K-12 motivating transformation in education is presented by Schoolmint,. Featuring in-depth conversations with top educational leaders, we are committed to the advancement of education, through research exchange, idea sharing and enlightening discussions. Are you prepared to be a change agent?

Dr. Chris Balow (00:22):

Welcome to the podcast ChangeAgents in K-12 everyone I'm really excited today to have with us, Mr. Tony Sanders, who is the superintendent and CEO of U- 46, school district in Illinois. And, uh, for those of you that don't know, it's the second largest district in Illinois and superintendent and CEO, Tony Sanders has been the superintendent since 2014 and he manages a large budget of 600 million and he's helped lead successful statewide efforts to pass equitable state funding. And under, uh, superintendent Sander's tenure, U 46 has implemented unit a universal full-day kindergarten expanded dual language, gifted programming, uh, provided additions to three elementary schools, implemented new curricula, just many, many different innovations. And prior to 2014, superintendent Sanders served as the chief of staff of the former superintendent. He also worked in St. Louis public schools as the chief communications officer. So he brings two decades of educational leadership to his current post. He's also done a lot of work for the Illinois state board of education and the Illinois department of health. It's interesting. Tony has an MBA from the New York Institute of technology and an undergraduate degree from the university of Illinois in 2020. He was awarded honorary doctor degree from Judson university and he lives, um, in Elgin, Illinois with his wife, and he has two, uh, children in college. I'd like to welcome superintendent and CEO, Tony Sanders.

Tony Sanders (02:08):

Hi, Chris. It's great to be with you today.

Dr. Chris Balow (02:10):

Awesome. Well, it's certainly great to have you and I, I've known you a little bit over the last couple of years, and I know that you just have a lot of really unique experiences and I know our listeners are really going to glean a lot, but let's start off with, um, having you just tell us a little bit about your school district.

Tony Sanders (02:29):

Sure. So school district U 46 is one of the oldest, uh, school districts in the state of Illinois, our high school Elgin high school, the flagship school that started, uh, Elgin public schools back in the 18 hundreds, uh, is actually where my, my office is located and is, uh, yeah. So yeah, I think we're the second oldest school district in the state, uh, which is something that, uh, I think we should be very proud of. So we've, we've had a long run and over time, of course, being centered around city of Elgin originally, um, U 46 has grown over the years through consolidations and through population growth, uh, to become school district U 46, which now serves 11 different communities in the Northwest suburbs. So Elgin, Bartlett, uh, Streamwood Hanover park to name a name, a few of them, uh, we are about 90 square miles. So in terms of square square mileage, we're larger than the city of Seattle. Um, and then, uh, we do, as you mentioned, we're the state's second largest school district serving 37,000 students. So we have, uh, one of the blessings is just the, not just the geographic diversity, but the student, uh, the diversity in our student body, we have urban, we have suburban, we have rural, uh, when you look at Wayne, Illinois, there's parts of our district that if you were to drive through it and winter, it looks like a Thomas Kincade painting. So, uh, it's, it's a wonderful, wonderful place to be and to raise a family.

Dr. Chris Balow (03:59):

Yeah. Awesome. It sounds like a really, really interesting and, and dynamic school district. Um, one thing I noted in your biography is that you come to your position, uh, with an MBA. So what led you to get an MBA? And, and how does that current path impact your work?

Tony Sanders (04:20):

That's a great question. I, um, I had worked in, uh, at the state board of education. I spent years and years working in state government, um, which actually started off with a career in radio. So do you mind if I go all the way back?

Dr. Chris Balow (04:34):

No no. And you've got a great voice for radio. Let me tell you,.

Tony Sanders (04:37):

Well, I didn't at the time that I, I knew what I wanted to be growing up, uh, there was a TV show called w KRP in Cincinnati.

Dr. Chris Balow (04:45):

I remember it well, Dr. Johnny fever.

Tony Sanders (04:49):

Dr. Johnny fever. I wanted to be the next Dr. Johnny Fever. Living with two parents who were both educators. My dad ended up going into school administration at the state level and then eventually the federal level. But my, uh, uh, my mom was also a teacher, so they stressed to me the importance of going to college. So I went to college, not realizing that you don't have to have college to be a disc jockey. Um, so I, I went to college with the, with the hope of becoming a disc jockey and ended up living that dream, uh, my senior year into my first few years of actually being a professional. Um, but I realized very quickly that, uh, one of the things that no counselor ever told me was that DJs don't make a lot of money. And so, uh, when I got married, it became very clear that there's no way you can have a wife and kids and survive, uh, without having a different kind of a job. So I moved into state government and that I had this winding road that led me then to the state board of education, um, where I just fell in love with the, with serving kids and knowing day when I went home, that every activity that I engaged in that day directly impacted the life of some student. And so there was a transition at the time in state government. Uh, we had a new governor, Blagojevich, who had just been elected. And, uh, he, he sought to take over the state board of education and I ended up being a casualty of that. Um, and so the MBA came about because in that period of time, after I lost my position with the state, uh, I realized that a bachelor's degree does not get you a job at the time, back in 2005, there was no, uh, jobs that, uh, that I would, that I really wanted, that didn't require at least a master's degree. So I re-enrolled in school. And I thought, well, I'll just get my MBA. And, uh, so I was able to go back to school, got my MBA, because I always had a passion for numbers as well. And that, uh, that really did help me grow the business side of public education in addition to having a little bit on the educational side of education.

Dr. Chris Balow (07:02):

Sure, sure. Yeah. I have a friend actually was superintendent in a Minnesota district near the twin cities and he had a similar path, he MBA, and he served on the business side of education and then stepped into the top role. Um, and in that scenario described for our listeners, how some of those business practices that, that you learned have really helped and running U 46 in such a successful manner.

Tony Sanders (07:29):

Well, well thank you for saying I've been successful. I assume that you mean not that I'm being successful, but, uh, well,

Dr. Chris Balow (07:35):

You and everyone around you. Yes.

Tony Sanders (07:38):

Well, it's, it's, uh, I think it's not just the business, the MBA, um, I've always enjoyed the numbers and cents, but I can tell you that might in the period of time, uh, that I was here as chief of staff, we had to oversee a series of budget cuts and get the district, uh, on the path towards financial health. And so the MBA helped with, with maneuvering the budget and making sure that we had a budget that was balanced, uh, but added to that where the communication and government relations experience working at the state board and working in state government in communications and government relations, that government relations experience helped me to get a bill passed that actually generated about 16 million for the district back in 2000 and, uh, about 2009, which was really, uh, a saving grace for the school district at that moment in time. And then the communications piece. So the, not just what are the numbers, but people have to understand, they have to have a direct connection of what our budgets are really do. It really does matter. It matters to teachers that it matters to paraprofessionals and it should matter to the community. And so communicating our budget out, uh, is really an important thing to do in, in any period of, of economics, whether we're in good times or bad times, people should know that, uh, what, what your budget means and where you're spending their resources.

Dr. Chris Balow (09:04):

Yes. Uh, I couldn't agree more. And I would, I would assume too, with your background, that your decisions that you make are data-based and you're, you're looking at the statistics and, and with deep understanding of what the data means to make decisions. I think a lot of leaders talk about using data, but some, maybe don't to the extent that, that they really understand the numbers.

Tony Sanders (09:31):

Uh, Chris, I think that's true. I, I, I mean, to be perfectly transparent, I, I wish, and I think we all should use numbers even more. I, at my cabinet level, we do use a lot of data, but, um, sometimes you get mired in the day-to-day work, especially for example, like in this time period of time that we're trying to figure out how to reopen schools in the era of COVID. Um, and you start losing some of those data points, number one, but number two is sometimes you forget to stop and look at your data to make sure that you're doing the right thing. So it's always a good reminder.

Dr. Chris Balow (10:04):

Yeah, absolutely. And, and also I find, um, I used to be a director of data for a school district, and you can have too much data where you kind of get paralyzed. It's like, what are the, what are the essential data elements you really need to move forward?

Tony Sanders (10:21):

Yeah. Analysis paralysis.

Dr. Chris Balow (10:23):

There you go. Yes. Yeah, exactly. You know, I read the other day a recent article you had published for the Illinois school of business managers called staying on mission and on budget. And I think like, wow, that is the ultimate challenge, right. These days.

Tony Sanders (10:42):

It is. And I think for, um, leaders in public education right now, if you're not thinking about the long-term marathon view of your budget, then you're going to be really left behind come spring. Uh, I mean, if I'm sure there are, everybody's paying attention right now to the fact that the fair tax failed in the state of Illinois, we know there's, you know, there may be a second bailout from the federal government, but we're just not quite sure yet whether that will happen. And so being mindful of what your budget is, and being in communicating that out to your families and your teachers and others right now, I think is really important. Um, before you get into the big budget making decisions that happen in February, March and April of next year. So that's, I know locally that's what we're trying to do right now is have those conversations.

Dr. Chris Balow (11:34):

Sure. Um, yeah, you mentioned, um, you know, with COVID and thinking, long-term tell us about how you and your cabinet are thinking about, you know, we've heard a lot about the COVID slide that students are going to be losing some academic ground. And I would argue also social, emotional, um, as a psychologist. Uh, but how do you think about those kind of short-term versus long-term things that, that need to be put in place?

Tony Sanders (12:03):

So in the short term, we're one of the districts that, uh, I came up very early on and said that we were not ready to reopen our doors for students. And so we've been predominantly in remote up, up until the last couple of weeks. We serve special education transition students, uh, pretty well for the last month. Uh, but for our preschool to second graders, we just brought them back here recently. So we know most students in U 46 have been on a computer with their teachers, uh, for since last March 13th. Uh, so we do know there's going to be some gaps and we know that there's also the social emotional piece that you mentioned, Chris. Um, we are already planning. So there's the sprint work that we continue to do to try to get schools reopened for some level of in-person hopefully at least by second semester. Um, and then on top of that, we're making plans for all of next year. So what is our start day going to be, do we start earlier trying to hope to make up some lost ground? Um, we're already talking about how many sessions of summer school can rerun, uh, and who should, who do we need to target? Um, and even having conversations if there's a vaccine, and if we have teachers willing to come in and do some in-person sessions over spring break, are there opportunities over spring break to make up some ground? Um, I think as a larger community and actually as a nation, I'm wondering if we take this opportunity to really stop and think about, um, our calendars and do we start moving towards a more year round approach to school? It, you know, we continue to, to have a calendar that represents many days gone by, um, and, uh, I think we're kind of feeling the implications of that from the loss that we had this last summer. And I'm wondering if there is a way that we can start spacing it out and spreading out the instruction to be a full year of instructor.

Dr. Chris Balow (13:56):

Yeah. That's a really intriguing idea. Um, and I used to work in Arizona and quite a few districts do a year round calendar kind of, as I recall, like eight weeks on and three weeks off and maybe a six week in the, in the summer, but, you know, studies have been clear that a lot of students regress in summer, so now we're going to have another regression, you know, coming up. And so yeah, that, that's a really intriguing idea. Definitely. But it sounds like you would definitely tell other F other district leaders to really think beyond just the next few months, which obviously we're all focused on, but think longer term. Yep. Well, Tony, that article you wrote in the, uh, the journal sounds super interesting. Tell me about the framework you use to formulate that article.

Tony Sanders (14:47):

Sure. So, um, as an organization, we continued to have conversations. Um, you know, as, as we thought about, uh, in the midst of this pandemic, how do we approach all the topic areas, not just getting kids back into school, but the eventuality of budget reductions coming in the future years. And I found an article written by Deloitte, um, where they interviewed CEOs who are going through the midst of a crisis and kind of boiled it down to what are the action steps that good CEOs take. And so one of the things that they said for example, is put mission, vision, and values. First, as you're thinking about your budget, um, designing from the heart and your head, uh, aiming for speed over elegance, owning your narrative so that other people aren't telling your story. And then finally embracing the long view, recognizing that some of these issues are short-term budget, uh, budgetary issues that districts or corporations might face. And so, uh, don't lose sight of the fact that this is a we're in this for the long run, not just a, a one or two year budget. So that was kind of the framework I use, but I took that corporate approach to, uh, to what good CEOs do in times of crisis and try to make it relevant for, for school district leaders in school district, business officials.

Dr. Chris Balow (16:07):

Yeah. So clearly our background in business really is of great benefit to, to your district, uh, uh, under these trying circumstances. I liked that that phrase speed over elegance. Describe that a little bit more for us.

Tony Sanders (16:23):

Well, they're saying that sometimes in the midst of a crisis that you, you can't wait for all the data to come in to make a, a decision. So sometimes you do have to make expedient decisions that seem right in the moment and own them and live with them. And, um, you know, you might end up regretting it at some point in time, but, but you can't, sometimes you just have to move quickly in, in this, in the era that we're currently in. Um, and I think it does apply to many facets of our lives where, uh, I try to think back as a, as a leader on March 13th, when the governor shut down all of our schools, um, we immediately had to jump in and take some specific, very rapid actions like ordering 3,500 more Chromebooks for kids or ordering a lot of food to start providing food for our families. And unfortunately it wasn't all pretty, it wasn't, it wasn't elegant. Um, we did the best we could, but the intent was to get kids served as quickly as we could in whatever way we could.

Dr. Chris Balow (17:31):

Sure. Yeah. It kind of reminds me of that saying don't let perfect be the enemy of good. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And then, you know, it's interesting too, the, um, kind of the counter valence of speed over elegance, but yet you have to consider the long view as well. So what a delicate dance.

Tony Sanders (17:51):

Absolutely. And I, you know, that long view really is what led to a change in our school funding formula, you know, legislators, advocacy groups coming together for five years of work to eventually get to a place where the general assembly and governor reached consensus to change our funding model in Illinois. And I thought, boy, if that work, if that long view work and not occurred in the, in the era that it did districts like U 46 and, and many other really financially challenged school districts that are not spending what they need to be spending on all their kids, boy, we would have really failed miserably in this time of, of the pandemic. You know, we were able to very quickly use our resources to buy Chromebooks. And luckily right out of the gate with the first year's check of evidence-based funding, we, we purchased 14,000 Chromebooks for our high schoolers the next year, another 12,000 Chromebooks for middle schools down to fifth grade. If we hadn't had done all that work in through that new funding formula, uh, our ability to serve kids in this environment would have been really hampered that we would not be doing anything good for kids right now. Oh my gosh. You think about those long view conversations. And I think it is critical not just for school district, but our legislative leaders as well.

Dr. Chris Balow (19:13):

Yeah, absolutely. Let's change gears a little bit. Um, Tony, um, I've done a little bit of reading about the magnet academies at the U 46 high schools. They sound fascinating. Tell us about them.

Tony Sanders (19:26):

Sure. So, um, our board of boards of education here in new 46 back in the 1990s, decided that they really wanted, um, at the time we only had, we had four high schools. Now we have five, uh, but they really wanted to give kids, um, students access to unique programming and offer kids school choice, uh, in our high schools. And so, um, back in the nineties, they created a magnet program for every high school. So for Larkin high school, it's visual and performing arts at Streamwood high school, it's international business and world languages. Uh, we have a gifted and talented Academy at Elgin high and at the time Bartlett high school was, uh, science, technology, engineering, and math. So a STEM Academy. And then as we added our fifth high school, South Elgin high school, they chose a magnet Academy. That's surrounded by its video. Uh, it's called the beacon Academy, which is broadcast engineering and like the video techie stuff. Um, but each of the academies really provides a smaller learning environments for students who are admitted to them. We limit the number of seats and it really is a way to meet the individual needs of students. So it's something we're trying to replicate across all of our high schools as we build out career pathways. Um, so this magnet schoolwork that you're talking about, we we've been working to really refine what's meant by a magnetic academy. Um, each of the schools is going through a process to determine if the theme that they currently have is the right theme. And then at the same time, we've shifted our enrollment process to make sure that that it's open and available for every student. Um, it's not to try to make it a less selective process and make it open for any student in U 46, trying to reduce the number of requirements to get into the Academy programs. Um, so that's been work we've been doing for the last couple of years, and this will be our first year of actually making, shifting our admission process to being, um, really a lottery system so that we will have equitable access for our Academy programs.

Dr. Chris Balow (21:43):

Yeah, that's so important. Um, you know, using lottery. So there's no, uh, you know, situation where certain kids are favored over others. And do you, in, in that lottery process, that's just fascinating to me. Um, you probably have the ability to maybe wait certain factors, um, to, to help achieve equity as well.

Tony Sanders (22:07):

Absolutely. So, I mean, certainly you need to have some experience or a desire to go into that field. For example, if you, if you're going to Larkin's, um, visual and performing arts Academy, certainly you're going to want a background in either music or art or dance. Um, so that is important, but there are other factors, so that will get you some points in the lottery system, if you have those experiences. Uh, but so will being homeless, if you're homeless or low income, that gets you additional points so that we, we really are trying to serve all students through the, through the program and not just those who have the resources to provide, um, that additional extracurricular supports for their kids at home.

Dr. Chris Balow (22:53):

Yeah, that's so fascinating. So kids that may not even know that they have great talent or attributes in these areas can have the opportunity to, to throw their hat in the ring. Um, that that's fantastic. I've done a lot of research as a psychologist around student engagement, and it just seems like you're, you're hitting all the notes here in terms of that, you know, having choice and unique programs that small environment meeting individual needs tapping into kids' passions. I mean, that's just so important, um, over sit and get rote instruction. And so the pathways is that the, in terms of careers, is that separate from the magnet or is that just sort of you're baking that into the entire district?

Tony Sanders (23:39):

So the intent is to bake it into the entire district so that we will have our magnet academies will, uh, will eventually have their own unique curriculum. Um, but we really, the intent is, is to give every student that opportunity to go into some sort of a pathway. That's something that's in their, their area of passion. Yeah. It makes me want to go to school and, and then I'm traveling throughout my day. I mean, we have to be careful that it doesn't turn into tracking obviously, but, but throughout my day, I'm working alongside peers who have the same interests and passions that I do. And, you know, we talked earlier about the story of me being in radio as a, as a student. And, uh, that's what I wanted to go to school for. There was no radio program at my high school. There was nothing that would really prepare me for what that career might look like. I went into college, took all the college courses, just blind, not knowing really what to expect. And so to give students those experiences through, uh, Academy like programming, uh, while they're still in our high schools, I think is critically important. It doesn't mean that a kid can't change their mind, but, you know, as we know, if you want to go into healthcare, wouldn't it be great to have access to, you know, programs while you're still in high school? We have a, we built a redid, our Larkin high school, all of our lab spaces for healthcare. We actually have, like, it looks like a living breathing hospital. So like who ended up going into that pathway will while they're still in high school, get to know what it feels like to actually be in a hospital setting, taking blood pressure, doing vitals, and that hands-on experience while you're still in school. You get to find out whether this is really what you want to do. That is what you want to do, then shift to something that you do want to do. And so I, my, my intent is to really make sure that every kid has access to something that makes them want to come to school for their future.

Dr. Chris Balow (25:44):

Boy, that's just, uh, that is just so fantastic. You know, uh, I did a podcast interview a while back with Dr. Elliott Washor, a famous person who's really championed out of school learning. He calls it, which is really those real life learning experiences like internships and field work and linking in what you're doing in school with. Now, maybe those students go go to a real hospital and, and do some things. Um, wow. That's just so amazing. Yeah.

Tony Sanders (26:14):

I don't know about you, but I that's how I learned as a, as a student, when I was, I had a paper route at 12 when I was 14 math, the concept of math really didn't any concept of math. Really. I struggled with until I went to work at a hardware store at the age of 14, and the owner came to me and we had these, um, he had piles of garden hoses that had been returned. They were just stacked up, out in the yard and they each had come back because they had had some sort of a flaw, a hole in them or something they leaked. So he says, I want you to go out and I want you to figure out, I want you to cap the end of the hose, turn it on turn. And I put it on the spigot, find out where the leak is, cut the leak out. And then I want you to measure down those two segments of the hose and price them accordingly based on the price of that specific hose. And that way she's not losing money. He doesn't have to send it back to the manufacturer, but he realized that people would sometimes just want a small segment of hose for like a hot water heater or some other purpose. And, uh, that real-world experience of me having to measure out, figure out where the hole was, cut it, figure out the price per, per foot of that specific type of hose, and then apply that, that, you know, that measurement and recalculate, what that the value of that hose was, was really at the time at 14, it stretched me, but it also taught me it actually made it a living, breathing real project that I had to figure out it's so much more meaningful than trying to do it on paper.

Dr. Chris Balow (27:54):

Yeah, absolutely. I have a similar experience. I'm a pilot. And back in the seventies, when I learned to fly yet the calculate a lot of different things, drifting angle and ground speed and all these things, and you had to do it by hand or with this little calculator, but it really got me into math, ended up going into psychology and statistics. And, and so those experiences are definitely life-changing. So kids in youth 46, what, what great opportunities, um, you know, um, I've been reading some research recently that why families choose to live in certain districts or, or change schools. The three main factors are student performance. You know, they, they want schools where kids are performing well, and they're looking for innovation and innovative programs. And then finally positive school climates, you know, maybe where there's no bullying and good relationships, et cetera. Do you see families looking at these factors in their decisions maybe to move into to U 46, which covers, you know, lots of communities and so forth?

Tony Sanders (28:57):

I do. I think, I think, um, uh, being in a big district, you know, with serving, you know, 37,000 students, uh, sometimes the district gets a bad name, but individual schools have good reputation. So, uh, there is that notion, but as a district that is large, it does provide students a lot more opportunities for that innovation that you talked about, um, for in new 46, for example, we're, I think we're the only school district in the state that now has dual language kindergarten through 12th grade. Wow. Think about that. Any kid who comes into our system has the opportunity to graduate bilingual and bi-literate in Spanish and English. And so that's a great benefit for families that are looking for their kid to have that multicultural background and B be able to have that marketing skill of two languages that you're well versed in.

Dr. Chris Balow (29:52):

Oh my gosh. Yeah.

Tony Sanders (29:53):

You know, some of the other things is we at a time that other school districts dropped gifted programming because the state stopped funding it. We still offer a gifted program, not just in English, but a dual language gifted program. You know, the, of course the, the high school academies, advanced placement opportunities, uh, dual, dual credit through Elgin community college. So really because of our size, we're able to offer a lot of innovative programs and programming for families, um, including students with specialized needs. So students with dogs with autism, um, we're able to serve them locally and not, not put them into outplacement services or anything else. We, we serve them. We love them, we keep them within our classrooms. And so there, there is that I do agree that, um, parents do look for high-performing school districts. Um, I will say in U 46 as the second largest school district, we are blessed that we have zero of the lowest performing schools in the state. So while other larger urban systems have typically eat up, most of those lowest performing schools, we don't have them here. Um, most of our schools are commendable under the state report card. And so, uh, that's, that's a point to be proud of, I think, for a system this way.

Dr. Chris Balow (31:16):

Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned something earlier about people may have a quote unquote perception of the district, but individual schools will have their own perception. How do you kind of control that? The, the messaging around that that must be a challenge?

Tony Sanders (31:33):

It is, um, you know, I think, I think it's just providing clear communication from the district. Um, I I'd like to think in my time here that the image of the district has improved to some extent, but it really is number one, leading by example at the district level about what is good customer service and, uh, what are the expectations for communications? So, um, I have a weekly message that I send out to all staff and I make it available to the community if they want to read it, but it's really just, it's not about me. It's the weekly message is not about me. It's about what do you need to know about U 46 this week as a, as an employee or as a community member. And I think you see that, that filters down to some extent to our schools and some of our schools with better school climates really do a really good job of being in contact with their families on a regular basis. I I'll point out, uh, Cheryl Daru is the principal of Glen Brook elementary school. She has a blog that she puts out weekly to her community that is read around the world because people just, they enjoy reading what she has to say. And so I think it does translate down to a better customer experience at the school level as well.

Dr. Chris Balow (32:50):

Yeah. That's so, so fascinating that as a superintendent, you're looking at your families and students as customers, that's kind of a big paradigm shift. It would seem, yeah.

Tony Sanders (33:02):

I can tell you, I don't think when I was a kid that we were really as a student, I don't, and I don't remember my parents ever feeling like they were customers of the school system. Um, we do try to look at it that way. We actually invested in an online platform to try to track our customer's experiences. So interesting. So we, we launched it so that if you have feedback or questions or comments, even directly to me, um, and so far within the last couple of years, we've had over 12,000 people send us notes. And once we've responded to you, it tells I can tell from any school or department did we respond in a timely manner? Um, and did the customer give us good feedback? So I can tell you as I sit here today that our current customer feedback score on a 10 point scale is 8.4. So can I tell you that our average age of any person that contacts us getting a response is 1.7 days. So I think when people know you're paying attention to, to our responsiveness, you know, emails can sometimes get lost, but this system doesn't let you lose those emails.

Dr. Chris Balow (34:12):

Yeah. That that's so fascinating looking at data on your customer service. Yeah. And, and how they're feeling about things in, in the software world. We have something called the NPR, the net promoter rating that we sort of use to judge the health of, of our customers. Um, and, and in the education world, the families, they, I mean, they do translate to dollars. So talk about that impact.

Tony Sanders (34:39):

Absolutely. So for any, you know, we spend approximately $13,000 per student, and a lot of that comes from local property taxes. So having people wanting to move into your into your system is, is really important. Unfortunately, a lot of school districts are currently losing students, partly because of the pandemic, partly because of, uh, you know, lowering birth rates the last few years. But, um, but certainly we were a healthier system when we're able to serve at the, the, the number of students that we have capacity for. So when you start having capacity issues, when you have schools that are under enrolled, you become inefficient, and that leads to some difficult conversations about keeping schools open, for example. Yeah. So absolutely we're a healthier system and when we have the kids coming

Dr. Chris Balow (35:33):

Awesome, awesome changing topics, slightly teacher retention is really a national concern that I've been reading a lot about. Um, what are some of the factors you believe impact teacher retention?

Tony Sanders (35:46):

I think that first and foremost is when you are able to recruit a teacher to come work for your school system is giving them that support in those first few years of their teaching profession, whether they're new to teaching or just new to your district. So we do have a two year teacher mentor program that has been recognized at the state level, uh, for, for really being a good quality program. Uh, but we make sure every new teacher has a mentor that they can turn to. Um, we also have a peer assistance and review program for, for teachers who are struggling. If they to try to keep them in the profession, we try to give them some more intensive supports to help them along their way. Um, the evidence-based funding allowed us the opportunity to increase the number of instructional coaches that we have as well, so that, uh, teachers are no longer having to feel like they're on an Island to themselves, right. They have opportunities to engage with other teachers and with a coach to try to help with their practice. And it is not easy being a teacher at all. It's the hardest profession in the world. What I always tell our new teachers is that we watch these movies and every movie about the teaching profession makes it appear as if you have one really good teacher who break rank breaks, ranks, and doesn't do what all the other teachers are doing, you know, and they have these outstanding results, but they are just all on their own. And like freedom writers is one teacher changing the world, right. And deliver one teacher changing the world. And while that one teacher looks really, really strong and positive, every other teacher that they have in the movies looks like a bumbling idiot. Um, and we know that that's not what the teaching profession is about. We know that collective teacher efficacy is the primary driver, um, in terms of effect size that impacts student learning. And so having teachers who are willing to collaborate with one another share best practices coming out of their classrooms and engaging with one another, that's critically important. The other thing is that those teachers that are always profiled in the movies are also the first ones to burn out because they are emotionally invested so much so that they, uh, they have failed marriages. You know, they, it causes problems on the home front side as well, and with their own social, emotional wellbeing. So I think having what I always share with our new teacher has to have that balance. That number one, you're a part of a network of teachers. And number two is, you know, yes, I want you to have relationships with students and I want them to want to be in your classroom, but you also have to take care of yourself as well. Sure. So I don't know if that answers your question.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:39):

It really does. And beyond Tony, um, all the things you're doing to support teachers and, you know, there's so many teachers, the baby boomers retiring, I'm part of that group. People leaving the profession for a lot of different reasons. So retention is just so critical. I was curious, you know, I read a big meta analytic study, um, just a couple of weeks ago around the impacts of instructional coaching on student achievement. And they're definitely very strong, positive impact. So, um, how long have you been doing instructional coaching in your district?

Tony Sanders (39:14):

Yeah, so we started adding, we we've had some centralized district based coaches, uh, for, for a period of years, but they're usually tied to a content area, but actually job embedded in a school. Uh, really just the last three years since we got the evidence-based funding formula. So it's been really short term. And we, we focused on the willing, so the sites, the teachers in schools, where the teachers all said, yes, we would like this opportunity. And so that's where we focused our resources out of the gate, where for the teachers that said they wanted that additional support, um, we were seeing some really good results coming out of, out of it. And then with the advent of COVID, unfortunately some of the coaches have had to go back and teach classrooms because we've been short teachers in different areas. So I think that's part of the learning loss that we're going to see moving forward is not just having kids in remote learning, but also having teachers not having access to their coaches the way we want it to.

Dr. Chris Balow (40:15):

Yeah. And I've talked to a number of superintendents that had to do the same, it's all hands on deck to try to meet the needs of the kids. Um, you know, one district I was talking to, they had a large percentage of their teachers had COVID and wow. I mean, adding another challenge on top of it. Yeah. That, that's a super fascinating, um, with our remaining time, I just have so many other questions, but I want to get to these. Um, we talked offline about a very high impact strategy that you employ when you meet with all of your schools. I'd like you to tell our listeners about that. I just think it's fantastic.

Tony Sanders (40:56):

So we have 57 different schools. And, um, as I told you, you can't be an alternative candidate to this, to this, uh, position first coming in as CEO and then earning the superintendent credentials. My background clearly is more aligned towards government relations, communications and, uh, and business. And so my first few years I spent most of my time working towards that, the change in the funding formula, something that I knew would change transform our system when it happened. And when it passed, I, my calendar suddenly shifted from spending most of my time doing work to having additional opportunities. So I had kind of lamented to my cabinet that in my time in new 46, my visits to schools were, um, I mean, I would go and have lunch with students. I would visit a few classrooms, but I never engaged in conversations with the teachers or their principal about what's actually happening in the school, how what's in your school improvement plan, what data do you use to drive your decisions? And so we agreed as a leadership team that we would begin scheduling cabinet data reviews with every single school improvement team. So this is our third year of it. Um, so three years ago we scheduled a 90 minute session with every school improvement team in the district where they would present to us on what's in their school improvement plan. How do they monitor their success? How do they align their resources, uh, that either whether it's state local or federal resources to support their plan. And it ended up being, uh, for me transformative as a leader, it shifted the bulk of my time as a leader to being spent working with school teams on how they're actually improving student outcomes. And so it's, it's been wonderful. COVID kind of the latest a little bit last March. Uh, but we've, re-engaged again now using zoom. So it's kinda like if you've ever seen, do you ever see the TV show? Um, undercover boss.

Dr. Chris Balow (43:06):

I have, yes.

Tony Sanders (43:07):

So this, I like to refer this as out of cover bosses, so they know it's me coming. Uh, but it's an opportunity for not only for me to give feedback and my team to give feedback both in writing and verbally, uh, but also if there are needs that we can identify like they do on the show, undercover boss, if there's something that we're missing as a system that we need to provide for our schools, then what are we going to do differently at the central office level to provide that? So it it's, uh, for me, it's been very impactful and I think it's a model that, that could very easily be replicated across larger.

Dr. Chris Balow (43:44):

Yeah, that's amazing. So you get this firsthand view of what's happening out there in the trenches and speed of decision-making again, you hear something, Oh, I can fix that for you. And that must really help with educators feeling engaged and having ownership and having a voice because that's so important for motive, human motivation.

Tony Sanders (44:08):

Yeah. I hope, I, I think it added a lot of stress the first year out for, for school teams,

Dr. Chris Balow (44:14):

The boss is here.

Tony Sanders (44:16):

Yeah. I mean, it's a little bit more the anxiety level of the superintendent visiting your classroom and just waving to you and saying hi to the kids is a lot less than actually having to present to me and my cabinet in a formalized way and, and actually kind of defend the results that we're getting and, or not getting for that matter. And so we do look for a reflective practice because we know that that's critical for me, it's critical for you. If we can't reflect on what we've either done well or poorly, then we don't improve.

Dr. Chris Balow (44:52):

So true. Tony, I, you know, I worked as a assessment data, uh, director for a large district and there, there were some people who were afraid of bad data and we had a leader that no, I want to see the bad data because that, because we're not perfect and we need to dig into it.

Tony Sanders (45:12):

Yep. And that's, so one of the things that we really have pushed on is dis-aggregating your data. You can have the best data. You get to be the best, the highest flying school. But if you still have kids that are left behind, based on race or income or specialized needs, then you still have problems. Right. So not problems, but there's still areas of opportunity for you as a school to address.

Dr. Chris Balow (45:36):

Yeah, absolutely. Well, one final question, Tony, before we wrap up, is what, uh, recommendations or actionable steps might you suggest for a new superintendent stepping into the job? Some things that you've learned over the years.

Tony Sanders (45:52):

So I would say number one is transparency, just be transparent. I, you know, one of the things I mentioned, my weekly message sharing out, uh, people don't care where I've been or what I'm doing, which schools I visited, but they do care about why, why was this decision made? Why was that decision made? And so to weekly put out to all of my staff, you know, updates from my perspective on what's happening in the district, I think has been number one, it provides them a connection directly to me, but it also, people need to know what's expected of them in order for them to do their job successfully. And so I think some sort of a mechanism to provide that a regular communication to staff is I think very important learn from your mistakes. Uh, it would be number two.

Dr. Chris Balow (46:45):

Well, those are two big ones being transparent, communicate and learn from mistakes because, you know, my observation of nearly 40 years in education is no one has all the right answers and we have to keep pitching and innovating. Some things will work. Some things will work better than others. But, um, learn from that. I mean, that's, that's pretty awesome. And I would say to new superintendents, your strategy of meeting in all the schools is really powerful.

Tony Sanders (47:18):

I would agree. I would agree. But so then I also think there's, there's the business side. There's the educational side. And then there's the personal side. Yes. Yes. So I will tell you a lot of my mistakes have been on the personal taking care of oneself, the social emotional, uh, you know, to be fully transparent, this job takes a big toll on you. And looking back, I wish I would have been in a regular regimen of exercising, making sure that I carved out time for my family more explicitly than I did. Um, because you're, it, it is, um, it's a lot of hours and a lot of stress. And if you don't have the outlets to deal with that through some means, then you're eventually it's gonna, you're going to pay the price. And so that would be another piece of advice that I would have.

Dr. Chris Balow (48:13):

Well, yeah, that's, that's so important. Absolutely. It's kind of like on an airline when the oxygen mask take care of yourself first, before you take care of others. Um, definitely great advice. Um,

Tony Sanders (48:28):

Let's come back to the two airplanes. Don't you?

Dr. Chris Balow (48:31):

I love airplanes and I love flying, flying them

Tony Sanders (48:35):

Like a school district that flies high. So there you go.

Dr. Chris Balow (48:38):

There you go. Perfect. Perfect. Well, Tony Sanders, superintendent and CEO of U, 46. I want to thank you for just a super informative interview where I know people are going to learn a great deal. And before I let you go, you have to play our game though, this and that, where I say two things and you tell us which ones you prefer. So let's start off with a super easy one dog or cat?

Tony Sanders (49:05):


Dr. Chris Balow (49:06):

You're a dog...Do you have a dog?

Tony Sanders (49:08):

Uh, we have three currently. Yeah. Shorkey, a Morkie and a Chihuahua.

Dr. Chris Balow (49:16):

Okay, awesome. Awesome. Do you prefer a book, physical paper book, or an ebook?

Tony Sanders (49:22):

Physical paper book. Yeah. Physical paper book. Absolutely.

Dr. Chris Balow (49:27):

Feels good to have that in, in your hand.

Tony Sanders (49:30):

I love the smell of them. I love the feel, the crackling of the spine of them. I, I, yeah, no. I prefer a paper book.

Dr. Chris Balow (49:36):

Awesome. Um, soup or sandwich?

Tony Sanders (49:40):

A sandwich.

Dr. Chris Balow (49:41):

Any particular variety?

Tony Sanders (49:43):

No, your listeners can't see my weight. So basically you put a sandwich in front of me and..

Dr. Chris Balow (49:49):

You'll take care of it.

Tony Sanders (49:51):

I would say probably an Italian sub, something like that would be really good.

Dr. Chris Balow (49:54):

That works for me. Let's see here. What else do I have for you? Do you prefer a TV show? Like a series or a movie?

Tony Sanders (50:02):

A movie.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:03):

Movie. Okay.

Tony Sanders (50:04):

I don't have the time to invest in long series.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:07):

Yeah. Binge-watching stuff. Um, so along the movie lines, horror movie or comedy ?

Tony Sanders (50:15):

More often than not, I like both, but more often than not. I'll go for the comedy.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:19):

All right. How about comedy or mystery?

Tony Sanders (50:23):

Uh, so I prefer the comedies for TV, but for books, I prefer a mystery.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:28):

Prefer a mystery. Are you an iOS or an Android guy?

Tony Sanders (50:33):

Uh, I have both, but I prefer the Apple.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:39):

The Apple iOS would be the Apple. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. All right. Um, hamburger or taco?

Tony Sanders (50:51):

Oooh boy.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:51):

Everyone struggles with that one.

Tony Sanders (50:54):

Yeah, that, one's a tough one. I would say the hamburger.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:59):

The hamburger. Okay. Sounds good. Do you prefer the, the beach or the mountains?

Tony Sanders (51:07):

Mountains. I grew up around the mountains. So grew up in, I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then we moved to Nevada and the base of the Sierra. So any opportunity I can be near a mountain, I would love to

Dr. Chris Balow (51:21):

I'm with you. Beaches are great, but they get a little boring for me after a while.

Tony Sanders (51:26):

Yeah. I'd love to visit beaches. I do. I like the warmth of the beach, but the mountains are so beautiful. I that's my that's my Zen place.

Dr. Chris Balow (51:35):

Awesome. Awesome. Our last question, toilet paper over or under? Everyone gets this question.

Tony Sanders (51:42):

Uh, the answer has to be over. Anybody who does it otherwise is probably, um, need some mental help.

Dr. Chris Balow (51:50):

Yeah. I I'm with you. I'm with you. I'm an over guy as well. Tony Sanders. It's been a true delight to spend time with you. And uh, thank you so much for the podcast interview.

Tony Sanders (52:02):

No problem. It's been my honor, Chris. Thank you.

VoiceOver (52:06):

Thank you for listening to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Find us on all major podcast platforms and make sure to subscribe, so you never miss a show. Have a story to share? We want to hear it. Record a three to five minute audio pitch detailing your experience in working to become a change agent and why educators need to hear from you. Send your audio files to Join the conversation and help us advance towards the bright years ahead. See you next time.