District Spotlight: Queen Creek Unified School District
Finding Success in Recruitment and Retention
September 28, 2021
The Change Agent
Dr. Perry Berry
Superintendent of Queen Creek Unified School District
Recruiting and Retaining High-Quality Educators
What are the key components necessary for great student outcomes? This week, Dr. Perry Berry, Superintendent of Queen Creek Unified School District, joins the podcast to discuss the important ingredients of a great education, what makes a great educator, and how his district is working to recruit and retain high quality teachers as their enrollment numbers grow.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
The ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast is presented by SchoolMint. SchoolMint is a pre-K to 12 education technology company, providing strategic enrollment management solutions and positive classroom support to schools across the U. S. See for yourself how we're working with educators to create bright, sustainable futures at Schoolmint.com.
Welcome to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast. Join our host, Dr. Chris Balow, chief academic officer at SchoolMint, as we dive into thought-provoking, in-depth conversations with top educational leaders. Our goal? The advancement of education and improved outcomes for all students. Listen in, be inspired, and ask yourself, are you ready to be a change agent?
Welcome everyone to the latest installment of the podcast ChangeAgents in K12, where we have the chance to meet with educational leaders, researchers, and authors in the field of education to really explore the pertinent topics of the day and today, uh, really great and exciting to have with us. Uh, superintendent Perry, Berry from Queen Creek, Arizona. And, uh, he's just a person that was recommended to me by, uh, someone else that I interviewed on the podcast who would just be a great guest. So I'm just super excited to have Dr. Barry with us. Welcome to ChangeAgents in K-12.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, what, um, Queen Creek Unified School District a is down in the east valley of Phoenix Metro area. We're next to Chandler Gilbert Southeast Mesa. Um, this area that I'm describing is about 48 square miles. Um, our Northern boundary up in Southeast Mesa go, uh, extends all the way down south, um, right to the border of Pinell county. And we, we are, um, one of the fastest, if not the, one of the fastest growing districts in the state. In fact, there are areas in our district per capita. Um, that's growing faster than most places in the country. And so we currently have about 11,000 students and, uh, you know, it looks like that we're going to double in size over the next eight to 10 years. So we'll probably have about 20,000 students in our school district. And so a big part of my job has been obviously curriculum instruction, professional development, but it's also been around construction. And how do you fund new schools and, um, and get these additional square footage put up for these, um, for these families. So we have a very good, housing market's got great variety. We have a post-secondary opportunities for families. Um, we have an airport in our area. Um, we just a great place to live. And I think that these prospective home buyers are choosing our district. We have a great K-12 school, um, school district located here. And so I would just say that, uh, you know, we're, we have very small pockets of, uh, free and reduced lunch, um, title one pockets. So we have the second highest median income in the state of Arizona.
Yeah, that's correct. And we, uh, we do a lot of work with a third-party demographic company called applied economics where we're looking out up to 10 years now we do this every year, but we, we contract with them and they give us, um, enrollment projections by age and grade, every single fall. And the way we use that to help plan out new schools and attendance, boundary adjustments that need to happen.
Fascinating. Um, yeah, I know the area a little bit, uh, Perry, I, you know, years and years ago, I went to Arizona state and I used to work in the Kyrene school district as a school psychologist. I think back then there was nothing out there, but desert, um, absolutely incredible.
Yeah. When we, uh, you know, I I've been the superintendent for probably seven years, eight years, something like that. And when I, my wife and I moved out here, it was a lot of farm ground and cotton fields. And just a lot of agriculture now it's just getting rezoned into residential development. And so it's changed even in the short time that I've been here.
Yeah. Fascinating. So with this rapid growth, one of the things I've been researching quite a bit for my company at SchoolMint and, and how we at our company are helping districts address this problem is teacher recruitment. Um, is that, uh, a challenge that goes along with this rapid growth in student population?
Yeah, it is. It's a challenge everywhere, as you know, um, you can't pick up a journal, an article without reading about the problems with, um, recruiting and retaining high quality people. But we are very fortunate, um, just because we're a growing district in Arizona, our per pupil operating revenue is relatively low compared to other states. So we, um, but we're growing district and our, and our board has been very supportive to put a lot of that growth money back into the salary schedule, benefit packages for employees. And so that allows us to, to recruit high quality people and retain them once they're here. In fact, when I got to the district, um, Chris, we, we, uh, our, I think our beginning teacher based salary was like 32,500. Now we're right at 47, 40 8,000 for a brand new teacher. And so that sure helps our principals and HR department when we're recruiting people, um, out there.
Yeah, absolutely. And you know that what the research I've done around teacher recruitment and retention is, you know, the salary is important for beginning teachers and so forth, but retaining teachers later on, um, really speaks to your culture in your climate and the kind of the level of administrative support you must be providing to teachers. So they feel like they're collaborative and they're involved. So that must be happening too.
Yeah, that is correct. And in fact, we do a board report every year, um, in the fall, um, our HR department pulls all the teacher turnover numbers, the classified staff. So we, it's one of our priorities within our strategic plan. Uh, obviously we want highly effective personnel and that, you know, involves recruiting and retaining people. And there is a lot to be said about the school culture, climate and communication that helps retain people. We've also, um, invested some money and some staffing positions into a new teacher induction program that helps them make a smooth transition into our district. And there's a lot of research shows that show that a good induction program helps retain teachers once they're there. But going back to the recruitment scenario week, I believe that our K for all the Cade openings in queen Creek, I think we're averaging about 18 applicants per opening. That's very good. Wow. Yeah. Now that is not the case for what I call hard to fill positions at the secondary schools. Like some, maybe your sciences, special ed and some of the math various, but, uh, but we're really proud of the way our board is that invested, um, growth monies and opportunity back into those schedules because it really gives us a headstart in getting them in here. And once they're here, um, I believe that we support them well and keep them so that they, uh, they are successful and they have good careers.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the things in my research that has shown to be effective and teacher retention is having a, a robust instructional coaching program. So teachers are connected. They they're, they're not on their own necessarily they're, um, building their skills, uh, across a number of areas. Um, is that something that you do in, in queen Creek?
Yes, we do. We have, uh, we have instructional coaches, elementary and secondary instructional coaches. And, uh, they are, you know, how going this, the central office, but they are at the sites every single day, supporting new teachers, supporting them with curriculum issues, instructional issues, providing feedback. And they've been a huge resource for the, for the staff.
Yeah, I think we have right at 12, um, coaches for our district. That's pretty adequate. I would say we have a, for example, we have a secondary math coach and, uh, an elementary math coach. They kind of specialize in the different, um, math pedagogy at those levels. And the same scenario holds true for English language arts and some of those other content areas. So that's the model that they use. And, uh, they, um, receive a lot of training on instructional coaching from experts, third-party experts. And then they, they meet with principals, they meet with teachers, they meet with new teachers, veteran teachers. And, um, when we made this investment a few years ago, our board's interest was just to make sure that they are at the site supporting the teachers and not doing paperwork and curriculum, curriculum related things.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, that sounds like a really great investment on your part, you know, kind of keeping with this teacher retention theme, we've kind of gone into, one of the things I've read about is, um, one of the leading causes for teachers to leave the profession is, uh, student discipline and, and feeling a lack of support in, in managing that and teacher anxieties increase and so forth. And, um, so how do you address that concern?
Yeah. Well, I'll tell you that when you're a new teacher, I think one of the most challenging skills that you learn is how to develop solid classroom management skills and supporting the teachers. And that is one of our first priorities in our induction program. Now, I would argue that some of the veteran teachers that we hire from other districts, they typically have pretty good strategies in place to engage those students from bell-to-bell and keep them engaged. And, and, uh, but let me tell you what we're doing in, in queen Creek that may be a little bit different. And that is we have a district wide PBIS initiative, positive behavioral interventions, and supports. And we, uh, worked with a contracting company called Koi consultants, and they helped us put together a district wide plan. Um, every site in our district has a PBIS site team. We monitor, uh, data what we call major and minor infractions. And we try to give our teachers skills on how to handle those infractions and then having those tier two interventions so that we can reteach those behaviors. And we feel like, um, there's a lot of room for improvement in our district. We're doing some good things, but there's tons of for improvement. But I think over time, you're going to look back and say, this was a huge support to the point that you just brought up about student discipline and the less time people deal with student discipline, the more time they can remain focused on instruction. That's the big idea.
Absolutely. Well, Hey, we didn't plan this Perry, but, um, I know Koi very well. They're a partner of SchoolMint. Um, we have a strategic partnership. Uh, they provide professional development and we provide PBISs software platforms, uh, for districts. And so I know the team there very well. So you are in great hands.
Yes. Awesome. Awesome. I know him. So, um, fantastic. So, um, you know, one of the, kind of circling back to something different here, um, with your growing district and kids moving in, um, do you have a lot of specialty programs and so forth, um, or specialty schools that, that have been developed to meet a market demands?
Well Uh, not as much as we probably will have moving forward, we just opened a new school this past year. The name of the school is Catherine Meecham Barney elementary, and it's an accelerated school. It's our very first what I would call school of choice. Um, and these students come in, it's all uniform based and the students have an opportunity to attend the school, um, from all areas of our district. We have bus depots that bus these students, and, and basically they're given access to some unique programs, some unique electives. Um, it's a leader in me school, it's a stem focused school. And, uh, so we're starting to explore that, like you said, we are surrounded by great districts, a lot of charter schools, great public school districts. And so, and a spirit of giving parents choice. We are motivated to, uh, establish some, you know, unique programs that parents can choose within our, within our school setting. Um, I will also say that we have up in the north part of our district, one of our relatively new schools, silver valley elementary and gateway Polytechnic academy are also one-to-one, uh, stem focused schools as well.
Gotcha. Great. So what, let's totally change gears here. Um, Dr. Barry and w in your view, what do you think is the most important ingredient for a great education? I asked this question of a lot of, lot of superintendents and it's always a fascinating response.
Yeah. Um, that is a good question. And I, and I I'll, I'm going to attack it from kind of a three pillars, I would say. And I actually tell people this all the time. I T I tell parents this, I tell our educators, they don't ask me that question exactly like you do, but I will tell you that I believe that there are three parts to great student outcomes. Number one is the family structure at home. I believe that these families, the guardians, the aunts and uncles are the first teachers. They, they encourage students. They hold them accountable, they pick them up and when they're not doing well. And I really believe that the family structure is instrumental in getting students ready to learn. Um, number two is I believe that the instructional family is paramount with the teachers, the counselors, the support staff, the principals, and having high, skilled, high, highly motivated educators is the second most important ingredient. And then, um, obviously you have to have students that take advantage of those opportunities that we provide. And so there's three big parts to that, but if you want to get down to a deeper level in the classroom, I would say that you have to have, um, teachers that are truly skilled in engaging students from bell to bell. They have to be very skilled at their craft and they have to have, they have to be intentional. In other words, they have to be thoughtful on where they're going with their curriculum and where they're going with their instruction. And then the third thing that I would say that teachers have to do to get great outcomes is they have to, um, have high expectations. And, uh, and I believe that, you know, in queen Creek, those are the types of characteristics that we're looking for teachers that are skilled, or at least if they're, they've got that growth mindset and they want to learn instructional skills, that's really important to us. And then being intentional in teaching a guaranteed and viable curriculum more days than not. And then I'll obviously having high expectations for all the students at all levels.
Yeah. Yeah. That's fantastic. And as a former school psychologist, um, and mental health professional, I think relationships also kind of overlays all of that, that, um, that, you know, kids have to have a relationship with their leaders, you know, whether it be in, in, uh, the classroom and or wherever, and, and that provides them motivation, um, to engage.
Yeah. I agree with that. I, uh, I think for a teacher to get to high levels of rigor, interpersonal relationships is a prerequisite of that. And, uh, because of what you just said. Um, so yeah, I, I believe that that's the case with great leaders working with teachers, it's the same dynamic with, uh, adults working with other adults in the workplace as well. So it's a good point.
Yeah. I, I found, you know, I always worked with the toughest students and if, if they trusted me and they knew that I cared, they were much more willing to try new behaviors and to change things up a little bit for sure. And that probably falls under the category for teachers of being skilled. I mean, there, there are skills involved in developing a relationships with students. Definitely.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, and I think that the we've always known that. Um, but I think with, with the way things are today, I think that that's just become more of a focal point for, um, professional development is just, just making sure that, uh, um, we're supporting teachers and, and growing those skill sets. I think there's certain strategies that we can provide, um, to help with that. But it's always been, um, a pre-work prerequisite to learning, but it seems like it gets, um, more attention today than it has in the past.
Yeah. That's a great point. There's been so much written lately about, you know, COVID and the pandemic and that kids need more and more of a social, emotional support. Definitely. Um, one to ask you about professional development for teachers. Um, I know it, there's a lot of different opinions out there and lots about how to do it, how best to do it. Um, it's challenging for many perspectives, you know, cost and time availability, et cetera. Tell us about your, your perspectives on professional development.
Yeah. Yeah. I, uh, I believe that, well, let me just talk to you about the Jew. I like to talk in big ideas first, and then we can talk in detail, but I would say that professional development in my mind as a superintendent of schools is two parts. In fact, I talked to our directors and assistant superintendents. First part is you have to have high skill, high quality training. That's, um, that's relevant to the, to the teacher or to the counselor, to the principal. The second part that's sometimes overlooked is you have to monitor that these new ideas and new strategies are actually being implemented in the classroom or in the, the office. Now, a lot of times you'll see districts and organizations invest a lot of money in paying people to come in and deliver training. And, but they don't have a, um, a set of look fours or expectations for the people to go implement the new learning that they got from the training. And so I, um, as a superintendent, we've got to be very vigilant on making sure that our new, we have limited monies to spend in professional development once we spend those. And we get that training that we, we support the teachers through expectations through time through feedback and making sure that that new learning gets transferred into the classroom. Does that make sense?
Sure does. And that's great, great advice for our district leaders out there. What are your thoughts about, um, you know, asynchronous professional development, video, professional development, et cetera, do you see those as viable approaches to, to help?
Well, I think there, I think that they, it depends on the learner. I, I really believe that, uh, there was some people that can really benefit from it and it kind of goes back to, um, what we talked about. It's really not, I think it's important. The delivery of the PD is important, but the most important part is how do you ensure that, that new learning, whether it's synchronous, asynchronous has transferred back into practice, but, uh, I I'm, uh, I like in person job embedded PD, uh, but I also feel like there's a place and time for, um, other modes, uh, of, of PD. In fact, one of 'em, you know, we're in a district wide avid program. Uh, we, we implement avid in all of our schools, um, elementary, middle school and high school. And before the COVID pandemic, we used to take 70 to 80 teachers out to San Diego for the summer Institute. And years ago it used to be a five day Institute, but then they changed that to kind of a hybrid model. So you would have three days of in-person training, but the other days were kind of, um, virtual, online learning. And it works just fine. I think that you can change that. But again, going back to what I said earlier, I think the most important part is once you get the training, how do you ensure that your teachers and staff are going back and using it?
Yeah. Yeah. That's a good point. You know, um, to that point, I was just talking to someone the other day about the, it's funny, how some good instructional pedagogy, the titles and the names of those trainings sometimes change, but really that the core, the core of that has really remained constant over time. You have solid writing pedagogy, inquiry-based pedagogy, um, collaboration strategies for teachers, organizational, and reading across the curriculum. Strategies they've really remained constant, but sometimes, um, they're called different things. And so one of the things that I've am hoping that we can get better at with our coaches is to make sure that we're speaking common language, because sometimes, uh, I've seen the titles of trainings changed, but the real at the root cause of that is the same identical strategy that we've used for years.
That's a fascinating observation. And, you know, I work in, in, in the corporate world and, and companies like mine, our job is to sell a product or whatever. And so people repackage something with a new name and then sell it, you know, PD or whatever it might be as you described. It's, it's kinda the same thing only with a different package.
Yeah I think it's good for, for, um, for good leaders, good instructional coaches to connect the common themes of the new learning to what we've learned in the past. Because I feel like when we just keep changing the name, sometimes it overwhelms our teachers and they feel like it's more things on their plate when, and in fact it's really something that we've, we're building on from, from years in the past. Does that make sense?
It does. Yeah. And teachers always ask that question in my experience as well. This is something new. How does it all fit together? That's a very common question and it's really an extension of, of what, what you've been doing. Um, you know, what I also think my opinion is that, you know, educators sometimes can be afraid of something new out there that, um, and I love it when educators have an open mind and they want to learn about everything new out there, good or bad, and then they can reject what they don't like and, and, uh, you know, build in what what's appropriate. So.
Yeah, it's funny, you said that this year I tried something new as a superintendent. And, um, my secretary helped me schedule a personal meeting with every secondary new hire that we onboarded in our district this year. And I just wanted to personalize a welcome talking to them a little bit about our core values and our strategic plan. But what you just said is one thing that I brought up with every single one of these people as that importance of having a growth mindset and in the educational field, we need to always think of ourselves as a new learner and trying to find new ways to improve our pedagogy or whatever it is. And, and, uh, because I really believe that that's the sign of a true professional as someone that continues to learn and doesn't get set in their ways.
Yeah. So it's so well said, well, we're almost to the end of our time, um, Dr. Berry. So, um, I asked this of all the superintendents I speak with, um, what are three actionable steps that superintendents, um, that you would suggest that they think about,
Yeah. Let me just say this. I would say that, uh, good leaders, whether it's superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals are, I do not believe that you are, um, you're going to be successful unless you are a strong instructional leader. First and foremost, we belong to a learning organization, a learning profession. And, uh, you know, we're either teaching adults or we're teaching students. So the more you understand about learning theory pedagogy, the, you can, you can be a little bit successful with your teachers and your students. If you understand how to coach and improve instructional quality. Number two is I think that you have to be sound with data. You using data to inform your decisions is, um, prerequisite to being a successful superintendent or any leader for that matter. Um, so much of what we do nowadays is really based on, um, data and getting, making sure that we're getting returned for investments. Um, number three, and this is, are not in any particular order, but I would say that, um, superintendents need to think about interpersonal skillsets. Um, it's hard to be a successful leader if people are not following you. And that doesn't mean that you're always agreeing with people, but treating people with dignity and respect, um, having sound interpersonal skills helps you, um, engage with people that see things differently. We're constantly dealing with human emotions and people that are upset and afraid of things. And, you know, so it's really important for leaders to have, uh, have that skill set. And then I would say something else a superintendent should think about is just the importance of developing systems. Um, so much of what we do is developing. We have good people, how do we help improve the, the system so that the good people can get more efficiency or better outcomes? And I think that those would be three or four things that I would encourage all superintendents to think about instructional leadership, um, the use of data, interpersonal skills and, uh, and systems. I also like to challenge our leaders. And I would probably say the same thing about superintendents is just making sure you're being innovative. Um, I think that, uh, one of my favorite presenters was a guy named Ray McNulty and he used to talk about only dead fish swim, um, downstream all the time. And I always encourage people to think about innovative ways to think outside of the box and, and challenge the status quo. I think that's a sign of a good superintendent as well.
Wow. Well, that is great advice and things for superintendents and, and educational leaders to, to think about, um, Dr. Perry Berry from Queen Creek, Arizona. I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights, uh, around educational topics. It's been really informative and super enjoyable for me.
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