Alicia Thompson brought the energy in her first year. Wichita schools benefited

Since taking the helm of the state’s largest school district last year, Superintendent Alicia Thompson has seen her base pay increase more than 11 percent — from $240,000 to $266,864.
Since taking the helm of the state’s largest school district last year, Superintendent Alicia Thompson has seen her base pay increase more than 11 percent — from $240,000 to $266,864. File photo

For the occasional unflattering headlines the Wichita school board created last year, it should also receive credit: It got Alicia Thompson right.

Hiring Thompson as superintendent proved to be a good move at a time when Wichita schools were languishing — poor teacher morale, stagnant student achievement results and a district in need of a spark.

Thompson provided the spark with an infusion of energy and a positive attitude. Many of her decisions during her just-completed first year suit the state’s largest school district well going forward.

While former superintendent John Allison was a solid leader, he preferred to work mostly behind the scenes. Thompson, 48, worked from the front of the stage, listening to the community and engaging early with business and community leaders.

A business leader who works closely with the district said Thompson was so busy in her first year that finding an opening on her calendar was a major achievement.

More than energy, Thompson and her leadership team made several decisions that benefited students, parents and teachers.

▪ Last fall’s listening sessions gave employees and parents an opportunity to engage with Thompson and top administrators. Many of the things they heard became part of the district’s new five-year strategic plan.

▪ Collaborating with WSU Tech and aviation companies — led by Texton — created Aviation Pathway, a curriculum that high school students may take to learn about advanced aviation manufacturing. Graduates would earn a diploma and a technical certificate that would make them job-ready immediately.

▪ Recognizing two years of longer school days and shorter years created problems and frustration for many parents, the district will return this fall to a 173-day calendar (15 more days) and 7-hour, 10-minute sessions (30 fewer minutes).

Thompson handled delicate situations well. When high school students across the district threatened to walk out of school in March to protest gun violence, the district suggested student rallies be held before or after school, or during the lunch hour. Seen by some as a poor alternative, the decision kept in mind possible walkouts for other causes and the need to keep students in class. Kids still left, but received minor punishments.

There’s a sense that morale has improved in the district, partially because of a belief that top administration is more receptive to employee views. Teacher retention may be higher this summer, especially after a 4-percent negotiated pay raise last fall.

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said communication has improved under Thompson, a union member while a teacher. He said they talk, text or e-mail 3-4 times a week, which adds to the feeling that teachers are being heard.

“I believe that we all have one thing in common, and that is we want what’s best for the city of Wichita and we want what’s best for the kids and the teachers and the school district,” Thompson said of communication with the union. “When we have something like that that’s in common with one another, we may disagree with how we go about getting there, but we all agree on that fundamental principle.”

Much of Thompson’s effectiveness in her first year can be traced to her background. She’s the district’s first homegrown superintendent, a Heights High graduate who has worked in the district 26 years and was aware of major challenges before she was chosen. Thompson is also the first female and first African American superintendent.

She is vested in the district’s success in ways Allison and no other former superintendent were. Job success is fundamental, but success for a school system she’s been a part of for all but a few years of her life has more meaning.

Thompson knows there are challenges. “We have to break down perceptions of what people think of the Wichita public schools,” she said.

Discipline and behavioral problems continue in the district and are the biggest obstacles to long-range success in achievement and image. Students are too often distracted by classmates disturbing a learning environment. Numbers for the just-completed year aren’t available, but elementary discipline incident reports increased 53 percent a year earlier.

The district will re-open Bryant Elementary in west Wichita this fall as a kindergarten through sixth-grade school focusing on behavior and character development. With a goal of preparing students to return to their regular schools, Bryant will be home to about 100 kids — likely short of the number of kids who need such an environment, but still a step toward addressing disruptive behavior.

Long-term success for the Wichita district is dependent on many factors. State education funding is better now than the past six years, but that could change on a legislative whim. Achievement on standardized tests needs to see sustained improvement, as does graduation-rate numbers.

All factors fall on the superintendent’s desk. It’s a hard job with high expectations. Thompson proved in her first year, though, that she will lead as part of a collaborative unit that attempts to make more progress with a regained spark.