Fewer dropouts, safer schools: Wichita district announces its top priorities

Wichita school officials say raising the graduation rate is one of their top priorities for the next five years.
Wichita school officials say raising the graduation rate is one of their top priorities for the next five years. File photo

If you're a student, parent or teacher in the Wichita school system, get ready to hear the phrase "Future Ready" over the next several years.

School board members unanimously approved a five-year strategic plan — the district's first in about two decades — which lays out a new vision, mission and list of top priorities for Wichita schools.

Superintendent Alicia Thompson announced the plan, titled "Every Student Future Ready," after months of community listening sessions and workshops with school board members. It includes four long-term goals:

  • Increase the high school graduation rate.

  • Increase third-grade reading proficiency.

  • Increase the percentage of students completing dual credit, concurrent credit, industry certification or other college and career readiness opportunities.

  • Ensure that schools are trusted as safe places by students, parents, staff and community.

"This is the future, and this is where we need to go," said board president Mike Rodee.

Thompson said the plan is designed to "change the trajectory of Wichita students" by aligning the district's strategy with the state's vision for education. The district's new mission, according to the plan: "Wichita Public Schools prepares all students to achieve college, career and life readiness through an innovative and rigorous educational experience."

Wichita's graduation rate stood at about 74 percent in 2017 — significantly below the statewide average of 86.9 percent. Officials haven't said precisely how they plan to raise the graduation rate, but individual board members have mentioned using an expected boost in state funding to pay for more secondary-school counselors and programs for students at risk of dropping out.

The district's goal to increase third-grade reading proficiency echoes a call from educators nationwide to focus on early childhood literacy. Research shows that students who can't read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19. If the child also lives in poverty — as nearly three-fourths of Wichita students do — he is 13 times less likely to graduate on time.

Wichita's pledge to increase the percentage of students pursuing college credits or industry certifications also follows a statewide push. In 2012, the Kansas Legislature passed a measure that provided nearly $12 million in tuition support for high school students to earn college credit by taking career and technical education courses. That program proved more popular than expected, however, and in recent years, funding hasn't kept up with the demand.

The district's final goal focuses on school safety, a renewed priority in the wake of February's mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Five years ago, Wichita rolled out a $3 million school security upgrade that included buzz-in entrances at many schools, and it implemented the Hall Pass visitor management system. But in recent months, teachers union officials and others have raised concerns about unruly and sometimes violent behavior at some schools, and they urged officials to do more to keep schools safe.

School board vice president Sheril Logan said the district's new strategic plan is a crucial step toward naming and then addressing big-picture issues.

"We've had these pieces (before), but we've not had the strategic plan that fits below it and gives it legs and the accountability piece," Logan said.