"We have students way ahead or way behind whenever they start school, and so we need to get them all on the same starting line." -Michael Kuhrt
On this episode of Education Talk Radio, host Larry Jacobs speaks with Michael Kuhrt, Superintendent of the Wichita Falls Independent School District (WFISD), about incorporating technology-based learning solutions into the classroom.
Kuhrt began working with the WFISD in 2014, and in 2018 was named the “Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the Year” by the Texas K-12 Chief Technology Officers Council. He is an outspoken supporter of the importance of early education in student success, and in 2017, made Wichita Falls the first school district in Texas to implement the Waterford UPSTART kindergarten-readiness program.
- Implementing new technology into a school district
- The challenges of growing the population of skilled workers
- Crafting education solutions for a diverse population
Education Talk Radio: “Building a Suite of Early Childhood Services in Wichita Falls Texas Schools,” Full Transcript
Larry Jacobs (Host, Education Talk Radio): Good mid-morning everybody, it’s a little earlier where my guest is. 10:30 here in Maine. Uhhh warm I meant to say warm it’s warm today. Up in the 60’s close to 70 but it’s always that way in Wi… I can’t talk today, Wichita Falls, Texas.
LJ: Okay, where am I, guest Super… I’ll get this together Mike. Where my guest Superintendent Mike Kuhrt of the schools down there, is with me. And it’s a real treat to have Mike here because Mike was named Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the year by the Texas K-12 Chief Technology Officers Council. He’s working to build a big career-tech center down there in Wichita Falls and we’re going to talk about his efforts and his leadership along with his whole team. He will tell you that alright and my good friends at Waterford Institute. In building a suite of early childhood services for the kids and he’s making real changes down there and it’s going to be a real treat to talk to Michael Kuhrt. First, we’re going to… first of all my name is Larry Jacobs this is Pre-K-12 Education talk radio. We’ll archive the show as we always do over at education-talkradio.org, we put a new schedule up there every Saturday and you can follow us on Twitter get a direct link to the show and also on Facebook. They’re both @edutalkradio. So we hope you do that. Take a few minutes etc., and you’ll be able to pick and choose the shoes shows you want to listen… I can’t talk today, the shoes you want to listen to all day. The shows you want to listen to all day and all week, alright. Well Mike’s going to make me speak better today Mike I’m like talking and I don’t know what’s going on. Welcome to the show Mike Kuhrt.
Michael Kuhrt (Superintendent, Wichita Falls ISD): Thank you very much. Glad to be here, Larry.
LJ: It’s a pleasure to have you here. I don’t know why my mouth isn’t saying what my brain wants it to say right now. Is there’s a reason for that? Mike, you’re tech-savvy.
MK: Well I don’t know that technology has anything to do with it. I think it could be because in Wichita Falls today we are not 70 degrees, we’re 31 degrees and sleeting outside.
LJ: No no.
MK: It is cold. Yes.
LJ: God, we’ve traded weather Mike, we’ve traded weather. Wow. Yeah. Here, I live in a little town west of Portland, Maine called Cornish, and it’s about I’d probably say 65-68 degrees it’s over 70 in Boston and sunny and nice. Wow I can’t believe it, sleet down there. You’re not good drivers in sleet and snow.
MK: No, we canceled school.
LJ: Did you really?
MK: Yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We don’t do well in sleet and snow.
LJ: Yeah. And you know people moan and groan, parents moan and groan up here too when the superintendents cancel school because of lighter winter weather so to speak. But it’s the insurance and the worry that the kids won’t get back and forth to school safely. That is the reason for that. It’s not that it’s going to clear up later you got to get them to school safely. So I’m glad, so are you home or did you make it into work?
MK: No. I’m actually in a hotel room, I’m out of town today. So I’m not actually in Wichita Falls. But right. Our biggest issue is, too many of our kids that they don’t take the bus their parents bring them. They come from however far and our roads are not like yours. We don’t have all the icing equipment and things like that, so our roads are pretty tough when it gets icy.
LJ: Where is Wichita Falls? I think it’s up in the panhandle if I’m not mistaken?
MK: Not quite. We are in the North Fort Worth Prairie. So about 120 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Up by the Oklahoma border. And like halfway between Fort Worth and Amarillo, which would be the Panhandle.
LJ: There you go, perfect. Thank you. Thank you. Nice part of the world my friend. Are you, are you from that area?
MK: It is. No sir, I was born and raised in Houston.
LJ: And see I know you’re from the south because you’re calling Sir already. Feel free to call me Larry. And I’ll never break that habit of my southern friends. I’ll never break that habit up. I was talking to a superintendent on the show a couple of days ago and he said if I did that Larry he said, “Sir, if I did that my mother would yell at me.”
MK: My mother would yell at me as well. Correct.
LJ: I know. God bless mom. Okay. She raised you right. Talk about Wichita Falls for a second. Mike, we’re going to talk about what you’re doing in early childhood, but talk about Wichita Falls and just tell us about it, you told us geographically tell us demographically what the school district’s like, how big? The demographic makeup of the kids etc..
MK: Okay. So I consider ourselves an urban-rural district. In other words, because we’re geographically isolated from a big Metroplex area we have we have rural issues. But then because we’re a large regional hub, we have 100,000 residents or so in Wichita Falls and we have a lot of urban and social service issues that go along with having a big city or a mid-sized city. We have 14,100 students, 66 percent of those would be economically disadvantaged students. We kind of look like, not quite but almost, like the state of Texas. In other words we’re about 14 percent African-American, 35 percent Hispanic, 42 percent white, we have about a 12 percent special ed population, and a big issue for us would be mobility. We have about an 18 percent mobility rate.
LJ: What does that mean?
MK: So about 18 percent of students come and go freely for our district.
MK: Well, Sheppard Airforce base is in Wichita Falls and so we have a lot of military students. And so every two years they’re going, for the most part. And then we have about 25 or 30 small districts around us and parents because of mainly because of poverty are moving in and out of our district and those districts. And just moving from house to house or wherever they can find places to stay.
MK: So our mobility rate’s fairly high
LJ: I’ve never heard that term before, student mobility rates.
MK: Mobility would be not in the same… technically it’s not in the same county as you were the previous year. So they’re moving out in and out of Wichita county pretty regularly.
LJ: What a challenge. Wow, what a challenge. That’s amazing and I know you’re doing great things down there. I want to before we get into early childhood, I want to talk about a couple of things you’re doing. Okay and first of all first of all, Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the year from Texas what is the Texas K-12 Chief Technology Officer Council. Congratulations that’s great.
MK: Well thank you very much.
LJ: Did they give you a plaque or statue?
MK: Actually it’s like a heavy glass statue, so you know very nice. Yeah that was pretty cool.
LJ: Nice, that that is very very cool. All right. Congratulations on that. I know, just talk about this because I work a lot with ACTE the Career Tech folks.
LJ: And you are you’re building, and I think it’s in the process of being built, a new career and technical education center, is that correct?
MK: We finished it we opened it up this year.
LJ: Great! Great, how’s it working out?
MK: Wonderful! A couple of years ago the Texas legislature passed a law allowing us to kind of move back towards career and technical education. In Wichita Falls, we have a need, we have workforce issues. We have a very low unemployment rate, but we lack skilled workers. And so, we had a real need here in town, our community supported it, and about two years ago we started the process and we went from six career tech fields, and now we have 26 in that brand-new state-of-the-art facility. Really a neat thing for our kids and much-needed for our community.
LJ: Without question and two things. First of all, I talked yesterday to the Computer Science Teachers Association, the first time they were ever on the show. And I had never heard of them until a few months ago and we got them on the show they’re going to do a series of shows with us. But that comes down to CTE and that is such a key thing goes way beyond coding. Okay and I hope that that the kids in Wichita Falls, okay, CSTA everybody. The [Computer] Science Teachers Association. And Mike, since you said low unemployment, what’s the economic backbone of the area? That’s great that there’s no unemployment.
MK: Well, it used to be used to be an oil-based community, oil support services for the most part. But now, our largest employer Sheppard Air Force Base and I think our hospital system is probably second, and the school district is probably third. So, don’t have a lot of farming. I mean I mean farming or anything like that because we’re really a city town but we have a lot of ag-related businesses. We have a lot of, because we are a regional health care center and things like that, we have lots of government jobs and social services. We have health-care related fields. And then because we are a regional center, we also have a lot of retail and service-oriented facilities and businesses in town. So, we have plenty for people to do. But when you’re trying to grow a workforce you need to have skilled labor to get manufacturing jobs and tech companies to come. So that’s what we’re trying to produce as the workforce to entice some of these companies.
LJ: I’m very pleased and congratulations on that effort because that is just so key. There’s a lot of opportunity there. Okay look at the companies and the area and I might add the parents want their kids to be ready. All right. I think it’s just wonderful and just keep it up my friend because it is where it is. You know everybody always talks about the phrase you’ve heard this a million times Mike, ‘college and career-ready’ and I always say they should just drop the word college because we want to go to college to get a career that’s part of a career. But there are other ways to do it. We need retail people, we need we need everybody. We need auto mechanics, we need welders, we need whatever the case may be. And that’s as legitimate as anything else so…
MK: We cannot get enough welders or machinists
LJ: That’s right. That’s right. We will get to those kids cranking
MK: As soon as they graduate, two months, they have jobs.
LJ: Exactly, so get them going and welding, by the way, is a great career. And the other thing you can send a few up here Mike, is plumbing. Please we can’t find plumbers up here to save our lives.
MK: We need them down here in Wichita Falls so that’s going to be kind of hard.
LJ: Send them up here Mike please. I’m just kidding, keep ‘em down there, it’s okay. All right very good. You got a great district a lot of opportunity there, and challenges, but the opportunity is going to overcome this etc. And I always say it’s a cliché you know you want to build a good house you build a good foundation. All right and that’s what early childhood education is about. Alright, and we want these kids to be well prepared for their lives etc. And what are you doing and again a big shout out to my friends over at Waterford Institute they introduced me I know you’re working with them. What are you doing with Waterford etc. to build the suite of early childhood stuff?
MK: Well, I’ve kind of assigned myself the job of Poverty Awareness Coordinator that’s what I call myself a PAC.
MK: We have poverty issues in Wichita Falls, we have, I probably have four campuses or five campuses that are 90 plus percent free and reduced lunch. And so, poverty is such an issue in our community, as it is across the nation. And I’ve sat on poverty summits and we’ve organized early learning service provider summits. We have a really close relationship with the United Way, trying to promote and educate people on the effects of poverty. One such thing is a documentary called ‘Resilience’ and it’s all about experiences, adverse childhood experiences. And those are those are so detrimental to students. Whenever you have an ACE score of 3, 4, or 5, which means you’ve had adverse situations growing up, it affects not only your mental state but your physical state. And all the research, out of the CDC, out of Kaiser Permanente, out of a lady named Nadine Burke-Harris, and a pediatrician in San Francisco, shows that these lead to stress-related diseases: heart disease, diabetes, all kinds of issues. Basically, the term is that the mind might forget but the body doesn’t. So, we’re trying to just educate our community and really build a force around, wraparound services for students and mainly young families. And so, we’re working with Waterford and we’ve just recently started a program it’s Waterford’s UPSTART program
LJ: I Know the program.
MK: Ninety-six, well good that’s great, we put 96 Chromebooks and WIFI adapters into people’s homes for their four-year-old kids to use 20 minutes a day, five days a week, and we’ve got parents using them at the rate of about 98 percent completion rate. In other words, these parents are using this program to give students early reading skills, early language skills, and things like that. But I think more so, we’re building a culture of enabling parents and helping parents help themselves to try to overcome some of these ACE’s these childhood experiences which is so crucial.
LJ: Yeah, they are. They are it, when you talk about it like that it’s quite frightening and it is an interesting juxtaposition down in Wichita Falls which you know you had said that there was a (quote) “a high rate of poverty” which can lead to a whole series of problems quite obviously. But there’s also low unemployment. Okay, which is interesting because that’s not usually the case. Usually, it’s high unemployment and a high rate of poverty. Okay. And what do you think it is that holds people back? In a town, a good a good little city okay where those low unemployment. What, what do you think it is that’s holding people back? And by the way, the things you’re doing with Waterford and the UPSTART program are wonderful. But I’m just curious what do you think that is?
MK: I think it’s hope. I think they have low-skill jobs, low-pay jobs if they have a job. And by, as a low unemployment. Those that are out there, active actively seeking employment I think are the ones that count and go into those numbers would be unemployment. There are lots of people that I think are not even in the system. In other words, they’re not even counted because they’re not actively seeking employment, because they’re single-parent households that are living and living with their parents and their parents might be working. But the grandparents might be working, but this new mom with two or three kids isn’t. So I think they just don’t have hope. They don’t see an opportunity for a quality, paying job that affords them a livable wage. And so, getting those wraparound services we’re trying to connect these young moms, mainly moms, not so much so dads mainly moms, connect them to workforce solutions that’s going to give them some job training skills. And at the same time, provide them free daycare while they’re doing it and provide them with some rent assistance or utility bill assistance while they’re getting these skills so they can get one of these jobs that provides them a meaningful wage vs. just a low skill, low paid job.
LJ: And you know when we talk about early childhood ed okay, that’s not going to affect things for a long time, although that’s going to affect the kid’s successes in elementary school and onward because they’re going to be more well-prepared. Okay, does the town understand how important it is to get started early even though it’s going to be a while till we really see the results?
MK: I think so. I think we’ve because we’ve been on this public service or public campaign to make people aware of these things. I think our community is on board. We have so many foundations that have just generously given money for us to do some of these things, that it’s really humbling that they’re willing to support our efforts mainly around early childhood.
LJ: It’s wonderful, and how’d you put together I have to ask you how did you work with all these groups.
LJ: But I’ll say it this way. When you went to college to become a teacher or a superintendent, this wasn’t part and parcel of the package.
LJ: You thought you’d be asked on occasion. But you find yourself, bless your heart, you find yourself in the position where you have to take the lead and be a part of a whole wrap-around grouping because all this… you know makes the schools better. What was that campaign like? How’d you get all the families on board with this? Because you just mentioned the term you had a public service campaign. I love that. How’d you get the word out?
MK: Well, I speak wherever anybody will have me.
LJ: We have you now.
MK: So, wherever they’ll let me talk about that. I hired a Director of early childhood, which is a new position for us. He’s a really dynamic former elementary principal and he’s doing a wonderful job of making connections with different groups and telling them about issues. So, for instance, the United Way that we have in town is unbelievably supportive of this effort to the PAT program and to the HIPY program. Which, PAT, is parents as teachers and HIPY is home instruction for parents of young children. So we’re teaching parents how to be parents and we have hundreds of families enrolled in these programs that… And we have waiting lists and so I think people want help and they want to have better opportunities for their kids and their futures. And so we’re taking the tech services to them and by making it a very visible thing for our community and our foundations and our city council our Chamber of Commerce is on board. All of these groups. I think it just has brought a new awareness. So back to Waterford the UPSTART program is a home-based program. Our school-based program for four-year-olds is the SmartStart program. Which is basically the same thing as the home program except we have teachers doing it with our four-year-olds, and two different foundations have funded these two different programs for us. And to the tune of like I don’t know, close to 300,000 dollars.
MK: And that’s just, that’s amazing that they see the need and agree with the need with us to do that.
LJ: That’s right. And again they’re so wonderful because they see the need to make success for these kids down the line. They’re not going to get instant gratification. Okay, but down the line, they’re really investing in the community. Okay. And making the community extremely viable they should be congratulated. One group you left out, I was curious because I would assume it’s a fairly, if I may, religious part of the country. Okay. Down the state whatever you want to say. Yeah. Okay. And you didn’t mention, are the churches involved, the houses of worship whatever they might be?
MK: Definitely. I sit on the board of directors of the food bank, Wichita area food bank. And we have so many churches that have food pantries at their churches where we distribute food to them. We have churches that have outreach services and provide opportunities for these families to come not just to church on Sunday mornings, but to come and get their services whether it’s mental health services, counselling services, and then just regular support from them and I wouldn’t say we have a certain organized ministerial alliance, but we have dozens of pastors and preachers in our community that…I think they’re on a mission to help our families. They open up our churches to events that we have. We have food distributions from the parking lots of churches, you know things like that. So our religious-based, faith-based community’s pretty awesome.
LJ: Yeah. And I would I would imagine when I asked that question to they give them the credit for that. I know how important that is down in Texas and then certainly Wichita Falls and they deserve a lot of credit and we kind of just left them out on that. I want to put two things together and I’ve got to say it again with you and your glass statuette, congratulations Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the year. Okay.
MK: Thank you.
LJ: But you know tech-savvy, you’re welcome. And then we have Waterford which is technology-based, the UPSTART program in the homes and I just want you to talk about all the ed-tech things you’re doing down there how it all fits together so to speak. That’s one of the keys, we can’t have UPSTART and that makes no sense by the time the kid gets to second grade. It all fits together. And you are a tech-savvy superintendent. Okay just talk about that. About your technology efforts and etc..
MK: Yes sir. Well that’s a really easy thing to talk about. It takes a team and I have an unbelievable team here. And basically what we did is we, my Associate Superintendent of Curriculum Instruction, and my Chief Technology Officer, those two are attached at the hip. And those two departments work together, our instructional technology staff is housed in our technology department and so we don’t make Technology decisions unless Instructions involved. And we don’t make instruction decisions unless Technology’s involved. And so, connecting those two, we did a major infrastructure upgrade a couple of years ago that allowed us to go wireless and have all the seamless technology infrastructure we needed. And then we started with a group of teachers, 42 of them to be precise, in 2015, and we asked for kid-magnets. We wanted the teachers who the kids want to be in their classrooms, not technology teachers, teachers that kids liked. And so we got those 42 together started with the pilot with them, gave them devices, all different kind of devices, and we ended up settling on Chromebooks and that 42 is now about 600, two years later. And we have hundreds of Google certified educators, ones and twos, and we have about 35 or so Google trainers now, we’re a Google reference district. And just, teachers took over because they saw the value of the technology. And all we had was two goals. The first goal was to make learning visible, in other words formative assessment. How do you know what students know? And then the second one was publish for a worldwide audience. Because we know if students are publishing for somebody else besides just their teacher. If their friends are going to see it, if their family is going to see it, if Grandma is going to see it in Maine, then they’re going to put a little more effort into it, and they have. And so it’s really then kind of gone viral.
LJ: Wow. Wow. That’s wonderful. You are the Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the Year. I got to tell you. But it’s your team, let me be the first to tell you. It’s everybody. It’s everybody that team is wonderful teachers etc.. Did the community… You know you said you upgraded your network and all that sort of thing a few years ago etc.. Sometimes, and up here I’ve heard it, you know it’s hard to get those points across. Okay. To the folks in the community especially those ought to pay their taxes like senior citizens who don’t have kids in school anymore. Alright. And how do you how do you get all this together for them? Was it mostly just the communities how did you get the community support for this? It’s a wonderful story.
MK: The community asked for it because we just, we weren’t giving our kids the technology they needed to compete.
MK: And our students here in Wichita Falls, they go all over the world especially because of the Sheppard Air Force Base and the NATO program that’s at Shepherd. They go all over the world to colleges and to work and things like that. And we were behind and our community said go for it. Our school board was 100 percent behind it. Supported it. So we upgraded our internal network. And now we’re we just got approval and we’re going to run going put our own dark fiber network. Throughout Wichita Falls and run lines all the way to Fort Worth to decrease our reliance on outside Internet providers. We still have to have them, but we’ll have more of a market to tap into if we get all the way to Fort Worth. And so that’s a pretty big infrastructure development for us also. And everybody is just excited about computers, Chromebooks, kindergartners using Chromebooks. And we have teachers presenting all over the place. They champion this. And so our high school has been chomping at the bit to get their hands on them so we’re about to roll out the whole one-to-one initiative at the high school level and we’ve been doing it at the Upper-Elementary in junior high level and all these students are now coming to the high school. And so, yeah.
LJ: Of course.
MK: So we’re going to take it to them next.
LJ: You talk about wraparound you really got it together is what I was saying before there just this Pre-K-12 spectrum and we got to take care of it all the way all the way down the line. Mike, I know, and I do a lot of work with AASA and are you part… you’re doing something with AASA what are you doing? Mike Kuhrt?
MK: Well, I’m in the early learning cohort with AASA. And that group is about 35 superintendents from across the nation. We’ve met in various places and looked at model Pre-k programs. And basically, we’re trying to do with the early learning cohort what we’ve been trying to do here in Wichita Falls is advocacy for the need for high-quality Pre-k, high quality early-learning services for struggling families that an awareness issue and try to get superintendents around the nation fired up about starting there first. Because to see if we can get them out of the same starting line, we know where the finish line is, if we can get them out of the same starting line at roughly the same place, all of our kids have a lot better opportunity than currently. Well we have students way ahead or way behind whenever they start school and so we need to get them all on the same starting line.
LJ: Everybody’s gotta get the checkered flag at the same time so to speak, I mean it’s that simple.
MK: Correct. We know where the checkered flag is, but if you’re starting two years behind your peers, it sure is hard to catch up.
LJ: It sure is. And actually you rarely do, to be perfectly honest.
MK: Right, no, correct you’re exactly right, you don’t.
LJ: Yeah. And it just it just feeds upon itself. So we’ve got Waterford UPSTART okay going into the homes of children. Okay, in Pre-K, at home all technology and the technology goes right through a fourth grade and further on down the line now it’s going into high school. Okay, this is what technology is all about. By the way, Mike, I did a show just before this one with the groups you’re certainly familiar with, CITA and KOSEN and ISTE. Yeah okay it was all about the EdTech advocacy summit that’s going to take place in March right after the KOSEN one up in Washington DC. And I hope a guy like you gets there, okay, and passes the word around.
MK: We definitely will have, my CTO is heavily involved in KOSEN and I’ve been at ISTE the last several years. I’m not going to be able to go to this advocacy event in Washington but we definitely are doing our part down here and the Texas [indistinguishable] council is a Kosen affiliate so we’re involved in all that.
LJ: You know you’re CTO is the person is a male or female?
MK: Male, Shad McGaha is his name.
LJ: Tell Shad, by the way, I would love to do more shows with you guys you’re so good at this. Okay, and bring your CTO on, and also a couple of the teachers. Well yeah. Let’s do a show and get the word out because you guys are your own advocacy group. Okay. It’s that simple. All right. And you’re advocating this across the country and you’re doing it right, you’re doing it right for the people in Wichita Falls, starting when their kids are young. You see the challenge and you move it forward boom can’t take no for an answer. And that’s the whole community getting behind you. They really have, you did it Mike.
MK: We’re not there yet, we have a long ways to go.
LJ: Houston boy makes good in Wichita Falls.
LJ: We’re trying. That’s for sure. It’s a great place to be.
LJ: Well, it’s getting greater every day because I’m sure they have other great public officers but you’re just a wonderful superintendent. You really are.
MK: Thank you very much. Thank you.
LJ: Thank you, sir. Okay. Wherever you are. Have a great day. Enjoy yourself, buy yourself a Texas steak for dinner. Thanks, Mike.
MK: Thank you. Have a good day. Thanks.
LJ: I’ll be in touch. Bye bye.
LJ: And there is nothing better than a Texas steak unless you’re in Omaha Nebraska. You can get an Omaha Steak. Okay but wow okay. What a district. What a guy. Thank you, Waterford. That was great. waterford.org. Okay, check it out. UPSTART program, did a couple of shows about it really works great but the key is what Mike’s doing is putting it on a K-12 spectrum. These kids have to get all get to the starting line at the same time. Okay. And we’re talking about the amount of dollars all that cost that he’s doing it’s an investment. It’s going to pay itself off tenfold. Okay you’ll see. It’s unbelievable. Great superintendent, good job. So glad he’s involved with AASA and with Waterford and all that. That’s Mike Kuhrt down in Wichita Falls. We’ll archive the show education-talkradio.org. And that’s Wichita Falls, Texas by the way. We’ll, archive education-talkradio.org, tweet at @edutalkradio I’m Larry Jacobs.
LJ: This is Pre-K-12-educationtalkradio. Thank you for listening.