The Change Agent

Dr. Philip Downs
Indiana Superintendent of the year from SW Allen County

The Objective

To present one district's example of how years of planning and practices to advance the student experience equipped them for the school closures of 2020.

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Show Notes

In this school spotlight, guest Dr. Phil Downs, Superintendent of SW Allen County Schools, offers thoughtful dialogue on preparations and practices that have been most beneficial to his district during the pandemic. Dr. Downs also notes challenges they've faced, preparations for reopening, and more!

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.

Episode 6
Title: School Spotlight: Southwest Allen County Schools
Subtitle: Successes in a time of crisis

Voice Over (00:02):

ChangeAgents in K-12 is presented by SchoolMint and features top educators, practitioners, and leaders sharing research and experiences as well as stories of hope, opportunity and student success. This interview was recorded in the spring of 2020 during the time of wide and extended school closures, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Chris Balow (00:24):

Welcome everyone to today's podcast. I'm really excited to have with us, Dr. Phil downs, uh, superintendent of Southwest Allen County schools, Dr. Downs. Welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Phil Downs (00:38):

Thanks for having me, Chris.

Dr. Chris Balow (00:39):

Absolutely. Well, let me, let me tell you folks a little bit about Dr. Downs. He began his teaching career in Fort Wayne community schools back in 1989, and he taught social studies and language arts. And he also did a lot of coaching of soccer for many years back in 2001, he moved to Northwest Allen County where he was assistant principal at a middle school, which are always fun schools to work in. And he also opened a brand new elementary school. And was the first principal. He became an assistant Sup in Southwest Allen County where he is today, back in 2010 and became began, uh, his superintendency in Southwest Allen County in 2014, Dr. Downs has a PhD in educational leadership from Purdue university.

Dr. Phil Downs (01:28):

Boiler Up.

Dr. Chris Balow (01:28):

Um, there you go. And, uh, he was a, as I said, he was a assistant superintendent Southwest Allen County. Now his bio does not indicate this, but I happen to know that Dr. Downs was, uh, voted Indiana superintendent of the year. Is that correct? Dr. Downs?

Dr. Phil Downs (01:48):

Yes, that is correct. My wife refers to this as the year of Phil and that needs to be said with an eye roll.

Dr. Chris Balow (01:57):

That that's good. Well, we can maybe dig into that a superintendent of the year award. I, you know, that's, that's very significant. And one of the things I know about Dr. Downs and known him for a few years is, is he does not like to toot his own horn, but so I definitely wanted to mention that, but he does like to talk about the amazing things that his, uh, his staff, his teachers and his, his, uh, district and community have, have accomplished over the years. So we're going to dig into that. Does that sound good? Dr. Downs?

Dr. Phil Downs (02:29):


Dr. Chris Balow (02:30):

Great. So tell us a little bit about the characteristics of your district.

Dr. Phil Downs (02:34):

Yeah. Um, Southwest Allen County schools is actually in the Allen County, Indiana just outside of Fort Wayne. We are, uh, a suburban district. Our demographics are this year. We were almost 7,700 students, predominantly white, uh, about 78% white students. Our free reduced population Is, um, is right around, I think it's 18% right now, which is, I know remarkably low, but interestingly in the last three or four years that has been growing, we used to be quite a bit lower than that. Um, so we are seeing some demographic changes and, uh, that's a challenge for us to, to make sure that everybody who's moving into Southwest Allen feels welcome. That's a, that's a major focus right now for us is to make sure that we're welcoming. Uh, we have six elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school homestead high school. And, uh, that's kind of the, the district in a nutshell.

Dr. Chris Balow (03:37):

Okay, great. Yeah. That's interesting a comment about changing demographics personally, I used to work in a district that, that changed rapidly in terms of the percentage of students with a low SES characteristics. And that really provided challenges to us because we just really didn't know how to deal with some of the, those new issues. So it's interesting, those changing demographics.

Dr. Phil Downs (04:05):

Yeah. We found, um, having programs in place to help, uh, climatize students coming to Southwest from other places have been really, really important. Uh, you want to maintain, you want to develop a sense of connection and give them multiple, multiple places to kind of find a niche to do things or get involved. And at the same time be understanding that their lives outside of school are different from a lot of the other lives. So it needs to be very different that way.

Dr. Chris Balow (04:34):

Okay. Um, is your district growing or kind of maintaining?

Dr. Phil Downs (04:38):

We are growing, uh, we've been, uh, kind of, uh, we had a period of rapid growth back in the nineties, and then it kind of has slowed now to a very steady kind of, uh, about a hundred students a year on average over the last 10 years or so.

Dr. Chris Balow (04:54):

Okay. Well, that's not a bad situation to be in.

Dr. Phil Downs (04:58):

No. Uh, particularly in Indiana because our funding mechanism is all based on the number of students are the, the money we get from the state, which funds basically all of the people in the district is tied to students. And so if you're growing that helps you maintain, uh, an ability to give raises. There are a lot of districts in Indiana that struggle with that because funds from Indiana, from Indianapolis are not necessarily keeping up with cost of living. And so if you're not growing, it's very, very difficult to, to pay teachers. And you can see that when you look at national rankings of education funding, uh, across the country, Indiana is down near the bottom for teachers.

Dr. Chris Balow (05:38):

Oh my gosh. I did not know that. As long as we're talking about funding, has the state given any guidance to district leaders around budget, given the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Phil Downs (05:51):

Last week, the Senate appropriations chair came out and basically warned everybody in the state to expect cuts. Now, early on, they have said that a public education or K-12 education is not going to be hit as hardly as other things, but we're all going to take a wait and see approach to that. You know, this is an election year and, um, election in November, I think, uh, happens before budgets are set. And so we're waiting to see if, uh, if, what is said now before the election holds true after the election.

Dr. Chris Balow (06:31):

Right. And you know, most districts, their budgets are on a Razor's edge and any cut is pretty much catastrophic because many districts have been facing cuts, uh, in prior years too.

Dr. Phil Downs (06:46):

Correct. We've we've never recovered from the last, from the big recession in Oh nine, 10, the state budget was cut by $300 million and it's never been replaced.

Dr. Chris Balow (06:56):

Okay. Okay. And they, they didn't give you a number to plan on. It sounds like just that

Dr. Phil Downs (07:01):

No, they haven't. And, and, and fairness to them, they don't know. I mean, they're not going to know what revenues are until, until later. And most of the Indiana budget is based on sales tax and income tax. So it's very much tied to school funding. And the people in schools in Indiana is very much tied to the economy.

Dr. Chris Balow (07:21):

Sure. And, you know, we're still, um, hearing rumblings that the feds may put out additional funds, but that's very much up in the air as well. So for, for district leaders like yourself, probably a few sleepless hours, uh, thinking about that.

Dr. Phil Downs (07:37):

The mind does race.

Dr. Chris Balow (07:40):

Yes, definitely. Well fill, um, tell as district superintendent and leader kind of describe some of your teams and structures and, and maybe a working groups that you have operating within your district to achieve some of your strategic plans, et cetera.

Dr. Phil Downs (07:58):

You know, I think like a lot of districts, you know, we have a, we have a central office team. If you get to a certain size, you have enough people in the central office. And, uh, we certainly do. And that team meets weekly to it's HR, finance, curriculum, instruction, and me special ed joins every once in a while as the need be. We, we meet every week outside of that, the secondary principals have a meeting once a month and that's the middle schools and the high school, it's their meeting. We're invited to it. And we go and, and, and just start there as they run their meeting. And then there's also an elementary team that has meetings. Again, they're meeting, we go to it as invited and, um, and then once a month, there is a administrative council where everybody comes together and we work on that. And then we're also big on if we don't need to meet, we're not going to meet, we don't meet just to meet. And so gotta be, there's gotta be things to do. So the days are set, the schedules are there. And then if we don't need them, we don't have them.

Dr. Chris Balow (09:03):

That that's great. Uh, time is so short and some, some things can be done via email or a video meeting. We've all learned. Video meetings are effective. I think during the pandemic.

Dr. Phil Downs (09:16):

Yes. That, that's a, it's been very helpful to have, uh, um, zoom and things like that available to us. But, uh, but you're exactly right. If, if you can email it, don't meet about it. And that's, uh, that's kind of a mantra we have, people's time is valuable to them and they've got things to do in their building. So

Dr. Chris Balow (09:35):

Yeah. Hear a lot of superintendents talk about a meeting should not be just about sharing information. It's about problem solving collaboration, et cetera. So,

Dr. Phil Downs (09:45):

Right. And, and also professional development. We run, we run a lot of professional development through these meetings as well. Um, two years ago, I think it was, uh, we ran a series of book studies that, uh, that actually we ran them through canvas through our online, uh, learning management system and the idea I taught the class. So I had to actually develop some empathy. It allowed me to develop some empathy for teachers learning how to use the LMS. And then the administrators participated like students in the classes. We divided them into groups and had three different books. And, uh, that was a really, really good experience for us. But we were able to then use the Edmond council meetings as a kind of a blended approach. So you do some of the things online and then we'd come together and our admin council and work on things from the books there.

Dr. Chris Balow (10:38):

Right? Yeah. That sounds like a very efficient way to do it. Shifting gears a little bit. What's been your process for scaling up, uh, e-learning and virtual instruction, um, in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, um, it came upon us rather quickly.

Dr. Phil Downs (10:55):

It did. And, and we've been very, very lucky in this regard. Seven years ago, we had a winter that, uh, in Indiana where a lot of districts had to close for upwards close to 20 days. And at the time there were not a lot of districts that were doing much in the way of blended learning or relearning. We had a cohort of teachers that were, that were doing it. We had been kind of fertilizing fertile soil and, and, and allowing a lot of growth across the district. And during this time, the, the crisis produced an opportunity for us, where we had some students showing us what they were capable of doing out during snow days. For example, first week back from winter break in January, we had a, uh, a group of students that Woodside middle school who, uh, were on a future city team and they were out of school for the whole week and they had their project due to be submitted. And they decided to just get online, use Google docs and a number of things that they had learned at school to do the project and ended up, uh, going to nationals and doing, and being very successful there. At the same time, we had a group of students at the high school physics class that was concerned about AP their AP tests and losing lots of time. They began to do a lot of online things. And so when the state opened up the opportunity for a virtual makeup days, we jumped on it and put the teachers in charge of kind of developing some of the protocols, the teachers who had been involved with the middle school and the high school, and, um, and basically did a whole bunch of what we call e-learning that year. And it was awful. I just got to tell ya. It was flat out awful. And, but it, it's important to lean into that and just realize that that's not a reason to stop. That's a reason to get better it's opportunity to get better. And so we developed quickly a series of, of ways for parents to give us feedback on what was working, what wasn't we did a lot of interviewing the students. Uh, some of my favorites were, uh, at the high school staff meetings that principal had students come in and lead discussions, basically telling the teachers what was good and what wasn't good. And it was hard, I think for some of our teachers to sit through that, but over the course of that week, we began to develop a system where we were monitoring ourselves and getting better at doing blended learning. And the goal was not just to get out of a snow day or to get out of things, but to actually expand the opportunities that students had to produce things, to communicate, to collaborate. And, uh, I think, uh, just basic basically expanding opportunities was the goal. And our mantra was always maintain educational momentum in moments of crisis. So if it's a snow day, doesn't have to be awesome. You just need to maintain it momentum, maybe move the ball ahead a little bit and we'll keep getting better as we go. So over seven years, we began to schedule what we call flex days. So in the fall we would have one a month. Families knew ahead of time that they could, uh, on those days and on having dentist appointments or doctor's appointments. And the way it would work is the teachers would come into the building. We would have professional development around the idea of blended learning. And, and then in the afternoon, they'd go get online with students and began to work with students. And so between those days, we'd do three or four of those in the fall. And then we'd have, you know, five or six snow days during the winter where we could do the same things and began to just notice where we had good teachers, put them in charge of doing some, some training or showing off on inservice days and developing that sort of a talent so that when you flash forward now to this crisis, we were able to hit the ground, flip a switch and get right into e-learning the first day, March 13th for us. So I think it was the Monday and we have just run it every day, all the way to the end of the year. And right now we're in the process of turning devices in and getting people's equipment then and gear and locker decorations and things and food science fair projects by now back to families. And, uh, that's a, that's, it's been very, very gratifying, I think, to the teachers and to the, to, uh, everybody on the team here, how easily and well this went. And I know that that is not what you hear across the country, but, um, it's, it's been incredibly gratifying, but it's the thing to remember. It's been seven years, a very, very hard, intentional strategic work about how to expand where and how kids can learn and what they can do.

Dr. Chris Balow (16:00):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It's interesting. Um, as I've talked to folks around the country, uh, your story is definitely in the minority, but I was talking with Dr. Scott McCloud of the university of Denver is one of the leading researchers around 21st century learning. And you were talking about collaboration and communication in a virtual world, and that's really where we're going, I think, as a society. And, and so your work, it sounds like is really preparing students for that eventuality, that we're going to be doing many things virtually now and how to function and collaborate in teams virtually is a little different, uh, than face to face.

Dr. Phil Downs (16:40):

It's, you know, people talk about 21st century skills and, and I always kind of chuckle because to me they're also 21st century BC skills. These are the things that, you know, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, all of those things are, are human traits that we've been doing since, since we started walking upright, I believe, you know, we work together to solve problems. That's why a relatively weak species has been able to be very, very successful on throughout history. And to me, technology just affords new ways of doing it. It makes it easier to do it with people who are farther away. It makes it easier for us to share things because we don't have to do them immediately. At the same time, we can, you know, the whole concept of synchronous versus asynchronous, all of those things. It's just about expanding the possibilities to do the things that make us human. And I think that's, that's kind of been our mantra from the start here is, is what can we do to make it that much easier for us to be successful as a group?

Dr. Chris Balow (17:45):

Yeah. And I think, uh, you know, some educators speaking around critical thinking that it's been more just accumulating knowledge and, and, uh, regurgitating that. And Southwest Allen County, you're really focusing on building those critical thinking skills for students.

Dr. Phil Downs (18:03):

And, and actually we think of it more as two sides of the same coin when you compare that to creative thinking, any, any problem you get, anything you're trying to solve. And that could be the problem of I'm feeling lonely at school. It could be the problem. I've. I want to communicate an idea. I have all of these things involve a creative and critical thinking process. There are million ways, creative ways to express yourself, but you need to critically think about which one's the best. And once you narrow that down, there's still other ways to think about how you're going to do things. And so we think a lot about divergent and convergent thinking as two sides of the same coin that when we're teaching children, it's not a lesson in critical thinking. It's a lesson in thinking, so how do you go about generating options? And then evaluating those, if you're learning about something, there's a million places to start critically analyze where you want to start. And so you have to think about it in terms of, of opening yourself up and then narrowing it down and then opening yourself up, narrowing it down, and then processing it to where you can communicate it out in a way that makes sense.

Dr. Chris Balow (19:09):

Yeah, absolutely. I, I was talking to the researcher recently around this very topic and he was telling me about argumentative writing, where you have to take a position on something and find the evidence to back up your position, the factual evidence, and the studies are showing that it has great impact on students' writing and reading comprehension. And that whole process is really engaging for kids.

Dr. Phil Downs (19:36):

I, yeah, I agree. I think Doug Reeves has a lot on that too. He talks, I've heard Dr. Reeves talk about that quite a bit too. So yeah,

Dr. Chris Balow (19:43):

Absolutely. So, um, couple Sallisaw, I'm just, that's so exciting to hear about how your district has been able to respond to the, the school shutdowns. One of the things I hear is that the teachers, um, in the virtual learning environment have had some challenges with student engagement, um, uh, a variety of challenges. How, how has that been for your teachers?

Dr. Phil Downs (20:08):

Well, that it's a challenge, even when they're in your classroom. Uh, the, uh, one of the things that this has afforded us is it's, if you, when we first started doing, uh, e-learning days, like for snow days, that we piled so much work on kids just flooded them with work. And, and the reality is if you go through a school day, the amount of actual work being done is nowhere near as much as what people think it is to the point that we had principals go through with two stopwatches in their hands and would go into classrooms. And one stopwatch when kids were actually working on something and the other one was when they were milling around, or it was something social, things like that, right. What we found was there was a dramatic and we were able to show teachers, look, you don't need to pile as much work on, on these days. And, and, you know, so let's, let's pull back on that. Let's make it, let's be smart about how much we give and how valuable it is to the process. So learning how navigate that has been a bit big thing. And then the followup to that is the time of preparing these lessons is obviously a bigger deal to go online. And teachers will tell you, it's, it's harder to get things prepared for online because it just takes longer, mostly because we're not necessarily used to doing it a lot, but, but that's a big part of it, but there's still more time in the day. And we have found our ability now to communicate out to parents more often. And through technology has really helped us when we see problems with engagement, if kids aren't involved. And so we've spent a ton of time contacting families and parents, and that's been a huge benefit for us in case point this year. And this is a, I would give a shout out to Dr. Gander at our, at the high school, Dr.. Gander's our principal at homestead high school, Dr. Gander had found the time this year to write handwritten notes to every senior Holy cow, because they were losing their senior year and week. Every kid that was getting D's or F's received multiple phone calls, conversations with parents, trying to, you know, buck them up and, and encourage them to get done. And you can do this and get through it. But the biggest issue is not necessarily what we found is not necessarily engagement in what the work was. It was the discipline to stick to a schedule and with all that free time, finding the time to, to get to your work. And, you know, we've got kids who, during the morning, they've got something to do because of a family commitment right now because of the COVID things. And so we had to be very flexible about when and how kids could engage. And, but, uh, it's just really about making sure the workload is right. That it is that focused and valuable. And then following up with the other adults who are your partners to make sure that we're keeping kids moving. One other thing I want to say about this, you hear a lot of complaints from parents about, I don't like the homeschooling. This is homeschooling is one of the hallmarks we've had from the beginning is that we're never going to ask a child to do something at home in these situations that they aren't already doing all the time at school. And that allowed us to, to get tickets analogy infused into what we were doing in the classroom so that we knew kids would be able to access whatever it was they needed to do. That's a big piece. If you, if the kids aren't doing it at school, sending them home and asking them to do it is just putting that on parents. And that's not fair to the parents at all. Right. So, uh, I mean, that's, that's been a big thing for us. And so that way the conversations we're having now are more about keeping kids focused, engaged, not task and helping problem solve at home when a kid's having trouble keeping up.

Dr. Chris Balow (24:00):

Right. Right. So do you utilize any, uh, online curriculum assets or are your teachers creating this and loading it into an LMS?

Dr. Phil Downs (24:11):

Yeah, we've spent a lot of time developing our own. We were, the Indiana funding is based on your free and reduced population. And ours has always been very low. So we don't get a lot of funding that a lot of other schools get. We don't get a lot of title one. We don't get a lot of those things. And so we've had to be very bootstrapy about developing things. And in order to afford to go to one-to-one, we had to cut way back on buying textbooks and materials, and to do that, you need to develop a collaborative cop culture where teachers are willing to work and share and develop curriculum that way. And so we've done that where it's been feasible and we've been very, very pleased with that. You know, some places you still have to buy things. Yeah. But what we found is, is as this has grown it's snowballs and, and, you know, I have a theory about this a bit when I started teaching, this was before the age of high stakes testing and accountability. Every teacher, I knew pack ratted materials and develop things in the classroom and was very much into curriculum design and development. And when we went to this, this high stakes testing thing, you began to see the development of teacher proof curriculums, and a deep professionalism, or the devaluing of the professionalism of teachers to develop resources based on their education and their knowledge of the subject. And you've got a whole generation of teachers who have grown up in this environment where they've been handed a material written by a testing company that purports to guarantee right. Raises and the test that they're also selling to the state. And I think that's been the biggest hurdle for us is to get young teachers to trust that they're capable of developing high quality materials and going through a vetting process with their peers. And the other thing that technology affords is the parents now see everything that you're doing. And we have a very highly educated group of parents in our school district who get online and see what you're doing. And they're quick to let us know if they don't think it's up to snuff. So being open to that kind of feedback and developing that sort of capacity in our teachers has been huge. And it's paid off tremendously during this COVID crisis. We have a group of people who are very confident in what it is they're doing because they've been through seven years of, of getting good feedback on it.

Dr. Chris Balow (26:45):

That's such an interesting observation. And it, it makes me think, you know, about accountability testing and the teachers focusing on improving the test score. That's gotta be antithetical to the whole notion of critical thinking because those tests are all multiple choice. Would you, would you agree?

Dr. Phil Downs (27:03):

Absolutely. It is such a narrowing of what, what any parent would want for their child and an education. And, and in fact, my first year as superintendent, so it was 2014. The board challenged me to get out and hear from parents as to what they wanted the schools to be for them and for their children. And what we heard overwhelmingly was the development of critical thinking of, of creative thinking of collaboration, of communication, of being good citizens and, um, being responsible citizens that was overwhelmingly what came out of it. And what did not come out of those conversations was anything about test scores.

Dr. Chris Balow (27:48):

Yeah. Very, very interesting changing gears a little bit again, uh, Dr. Downs, uh, uh, I'm a licensed psychologist. So I read a lot about this area and it's, it's close to my heart. And a lot of experts are saying that students are really facing increased social, emotional challenges during, during the pandemic. And there's going to be increased social, emotional learning and mental health needs, particularly among kids that are, uh, experiencing adverse, uh, life situations could be food insecurity and shelter and kind of Maslow's hierarchy. And, and, and even, you know, students coming from family with, with, uh, means there there's talk of increased, uh, abuse, uh, alcoholism, all sorts of factors. So what discussions has your district had about ramping up to meet some of these increased needs?

Dr. Phil Downs (28:42):

Well, quite a few, actually. And I also serve on the board of a local, uh, child abuse organization. It's called scan, stop child abuse and neglect. And in Allen County, we've seen a 50% reduction and reported child abuse during the COVID crisis. And that's not good news it's because it's not being reported. We're pretty sure that it's still happening. One of the things that we've made sure our teachers understand is the biggest reason for doing what we're doing right now is to maintain a sense of community in the system and make sure kids still feel connected to each other and to their teachers and to the schools. And so that was job. Number one, the curriculum, all of the rest of what we were going to do was secondary to the reason we were doing this was to, was to maintain that community and provide kids an opportunity to talk to adults. Particularly if they're concerned, we have tip lines, we have all of these sorts of things where kids can, can reach out to us. And we wanted to make sure that that network stayed open. As we start to come back, there's going to be a lot of fear about coming back. And we know that, and we need to have, you know, we're working with our counselors to have in place, uh, ways that kids can come down and have conversations around it and not just them, but we talk about children and their social emotional needs, but the adults all have social, emotional needs. So adults have that they're dealing with as well. And we need to make sure that all of us work together to try to help each other, you know, deal with the stuff you're dealing with in your head all the time. So it is a major concern for us, especially because I think when we come back that the whatever restrictions are put into place around social distancing and all of those sorts of things are not necessarily just going to keep us healthy, but they're also going to be a constant reminder of the danger and that is going to have a toll on children.

Dr. Chris Balow (30:42):

Yes. And, and, and they need that social contact and interaction. And it's just part of, part of their being with young people. And that's, that's definitely going to be affected. So, um, with the remaining time, uh, another quick change of gears, um, I know that, uh, looking at your website and I noticed that you had a page around grading practices and references to Dr. Thomas Guskey, who I know and respect greatly. So has, uh, your district in embarked on some grading practices, changes.

Dr. Phil Downs (31:17):

We have, we, uh, Dr. Guskey, I I've been a fan of Dr. Guskey's from way back when I was a principal, when was, when I first came across to his work. So this was back in Oh six. Yeah. Oh six. And, um, over the time I, I had, you know, reached out and, and had conversations with them and, and, and gotten to kind of bounce ideas off him, just through email. And we had a professor at a local university, Laura Lenke, who had moved up here from Tennessee, and she had done a ton of work getting her doctorate, uh, with Dr. Guskey. And they had a very good relationship and had done a lot of professional development together. And she came and floated the idea of doing a district wide training with Dr. Guskey that would not just be him coming once, but would be working with him over a period of two years. And we jumped at it and, um, Dr. Guskey came up. And so we spent two years with him working with teachers on a Bloom's mastery learning cycle. And, and then once we had that solidly in place, worked with them to revamp our elementary report cards. And, uh, that has been a huge positive for the district. And, um, Dr. Guskey was kind enough to come up and meet parents a number of times and talk to parents and it was available for, uh, anytime we had questions, something teachers could reach out. It was, it was a wonderful two years of working with Tom and Laura. And, uh, it has, I think really opened us up to, uh, the idea that learning is much more important than a grade. And when you do that, guess what the grades actually end up doing, they start going up, things get better. And, uh, teachers begin to believe in it and they believe in it more and more practices change and things get better. And that also has really helped during the covert crisis because, you know, tech issues, home issues, parents who, whether they've got a central workers are not involved in the house having to go out, there are a number of reasons why kids would, would struggle with this. You know, the, the idea of the schedule being very open for them and not maybe having the self discipline to get through things. So the idea now that teachers have that the mastery of the, of the material was more important than just me giving it. And you giving it back. I think that's been another reason why we've been able to keep kids engaged, because just because you didn't do something, doesn't mean we're not going to come after you again to make it, do it right the next time, or do it again.

Dr. Chris Balow (33:58):

Yeah, exactly. And so have you kind of abandoned that, that old bromide of grading where it's the average that, that counts where in the, in the stages where you're trying to learn something and you're struggling and failing as opposed to grading on the mastery of it, eventually.

Dr. Phil Downs (34:21):

We, you know, grading is a very personal thing, Chris. I would say the majority of our teachers have embraced that and are moving in that direction. And I can tell you that there is significant pressure on those teachers who haven't because of the social pressure from parents and from kids and, and, and what they're seeing. And, you know, the interesting thing about leading change in a school system is they're loosely coupled organizations, and you don't have a lot of control once the teacher shuts the door. And so I think if, if you, if you, if you're careful and you plan things out well enough, you can find other levers to move people. And social pressure is a good one. And right now I think there's a lot of that going on. And that's a good thing.

Dr. Chris Balow (35:06):

So you're telling me that an edict from the superintendent office, uh, there's no guarantee that they'll actually carry it out.

Dr. Phil Downs (35:14):

It looks good on paper. It looks good on paper, and I can stand in front of a crowd and say, look what I did, but, uh, yeah, show me your worst teacher. If you, if you want to see what's really happening, go to any district and have them show you, what's where they would consider their worst teachers. And then let's compare that. Cause we've all got rock stars who do what we ask. And the idea is how do you, the people to move, who are recalcitrant and, uh, and just shut the door and want to do their own thing. So.

Dr. Chris Balow (35:45):

Exactly I've, I've heard in this grading practices, uh, Wars, if we call it that the parents are really important, that, that, that it's actually hard to convince them.

Dr. Phil Downs (35:55):

Right. And, and, you know, they need to see that, that, that there's value in it to them. And, and that the grade is communicating something that they understand, and we all had, you know, you grade, like you learned, that's, you know, Tom talks about that is you do unto others. What was done unto you as a teacher usually. And so you've got to change that mindset. And then parents, that's what they grew up with. And they, they don't know any different from that. And so you've got to be patient and, uh, and have good conversations to get them, to see the value in it. And even then, you know, they they're going to push back until they see it. But, and that was one of the great things Tom did for us was the parent meetings. And that, that was really, really helpful. And we, you know, the other side of that is you got to make sure you get the right parents to that meeting. And so you have, we had some a night, we have some during the day for parents who, you know, who didn't work, parents who did work and went out of our way to make sure that we had representatives from a number of groups so that they could go back and be kind of messenger carriers for us. So, yeah. Very important.

Dr. Chris Balow (37:04):

Yeah. Excellent. Well, Dr. Downs, um, we've come to the end of our time here today, and I want to thank you so very much for taking the time to share all the great things that are going on at SouthWest Allen County schools in, in, uh, suburban Fort Wayne, Indiana. I know people are really gonna take a lot from this conversation, but before I let you go, we have to play our little game. We do this with all of our guests called this or that. And it's very simple. I'm just going to say two things and you tell us which one you prefer, and you can explain yourself if you wish. Okay. So here we go. Dog or cat.

Dr. Phil Downs (37:47):

Oh, dog.

Dr. Chris Balow (37:48):

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

Dr. Phil Downs (37:52):

I have two dogs.

Dr. Chris Balow (37:53):

Okay. You want to tell us about it?

Dr. Phil Downs (37:55):

Yeah. Uh, Gordy is a, uh,

Dr. Chris Balow (37:59):

A Gordon setter, right? No, no,

Dr. Phil Downs (38:02):

No, no. No. He's a, uh, a golden doodle. He looks very much like a poodle. He's a, he's a golden doodle. And then we have Mavis who is a Burmese mountain dog.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:13):

My wife's favorite dog.

Dr. Phil Downs (38:15):

They're just they're wonderful companions that are not maybe the sharpest files in the box. And Gordy on the other hand is a, is a little, uh, canine genius. And so it's really fun watching the two of them interact with each other.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:32):

I would guess. Are you a cake or a pie guy?

Dr. Phil Downs (38:36):


Dr. Chris Balow (38:37):

Okay. All right. Do you like big parties or small gatherings?

Dr. Phil Downs (38:42):

Small gatherings.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:43):

That's been consistent with all the education leaders that I've spoken with.

Dr. Phil Downs (38:48):

That's because our job is a big party.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:50):

Yeah. There you go. You have it all day long.

Dr. Phil Downs (38:53):


Dr. Chris Balow (38:54):

Okay. Football or basketball.

Dr. Phil Downs (38:57):

Oh, this is Indiana. I gotta say basketball.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:59):

I was thinking that might be the case.

Dr. Phil Downs (39:02):

But the reality is, uh, I'm a hockey, baseball, soccer guy. Okay. So you pick the two sports that are probably my least favorite. Okay. But I love them all. And, uh, I'm a, I'm a diehard Purdue boilermaker fan. And so football season football, basketball, basketball, but Indiana it's, it's gotta be basketball first.

Dr. Chris Balow (39:21):

Yeah. There you go. Okay. Uh, jogging or hiking?

Dr. Phil Downs (39:25):

Hiking, hiking, hiking. I gave up sweating years ago.

Dr. Chris Balow (39:29):

Okay. Very good. Are you a car or a truck person?

Dr. Phil Downs (39:32):


Dr. Chris Balow (39:33):

Truck. Okay. You own it. You own a truck then?

Dr. Phil Downs (39:36):

I do.

Dr. Chris Balow (39:36):

Okay. Awesome. Um, TV or book?

Dr. Phil Downs (39:40):


Dr. Chris Balow (39:41):

Book. Okay. Mac or PC Mac.

Dr. Phil Downs (39:44):


Dr. Chris Balow (39:45):

Okay. Always ask this one. This is a critical question. Toilet paper over or under.

Dr. Phil Downs (39:51):

It's gotta go over the top. Gotta go. Gotta go over the top. How else can you ascertain the correct amount? It's gotta go over the top.

Dr. Chris Balow (40:01):

Well, I agree. But interestingly enough, I was informed that MIT did a study on this with their engineers and they came up with under, I don't, I don't understand it, but.

Dr. Phil Downs (40:15):

Okay. That's probably why I didn't get into nit MIT. I'm sure. That's the only reason I didn't get into MIT.

Dr. Chris Balow (40:22):

Well, we should follow the science as they say. Right?

Dr. Phil Downs (40:25):

Sure. I'm going to keep coming over the top on that.

Dr. Chris Balow (40:28):

Okay. Very good. Well, again, Dr. Downs, this has been a great pleasure and I want to thank you for taking time.

Dr. Phil Downs (40:35):

My pleasure, Chris, I enjoyed myself. Thank you very much.

Dr. Chris Balow (40:39):

And have a great day.

Dr. Phil Downs (40:41):

You too, sir.

Voice Over (40:42):

You've been listening to the ChangeAgents In K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Be sure to subscribe. So you never miss a show and follow us on social media. Remember our brightest years are still ahead. See you next time.