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Interview with Tim Harkrider, Ed.D. - Superintendent of Willis Independent School District in Texas on Educational Leadership

About Tim Harkrider, Ed.D.: Tim Harkrider is the Superintendent of Willis Independent School District (ISD) in Texas. As Superintendent, Dr. Harkrider oversees fiscal operations and budgeting, student learning outcomes and enrichment, and teachers’ professional development for all 11 schools within the District. Under his leadership, Willis ISD has integrated innovative educational solutions within classrooms at all grade levels, as well as in career-focused extracurricular programming for students. Dr. Harkrider is the recipient of numerous awards for his education leadership, including the K-12 Chief Technology Officer Council’s 2019-2020 Empowered Superintendent Award, and the Texas Association of School Boards Annual Program’s 2018 Region 6 Superintendent of the Year Award.

Dr. Harkrider has worked in public education for over 21 years, first as a classroom teacher and coach for four years, and later as a Principal at Grand Prairie ISD. In 2012 he became Principal of Willis High School, after which he assumed the role of Superintendent of Willis ISD in 2013. His extensive experience in public education at the instructional and administrative levels has given him the perspective and empathy to help teachers and administrators succeed in optimally serving students’ learning needs and interests in the rapidly evolving and increasingly tech-centric education space.

Dr. Tim Harkrider received his Bachelor’s degree from Stephen F. Austin State University and his Master’s degree from The University of Texas at Arlington. He earned his Doctorate in Education in Educational Leadership from Sam Houston State University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of your role and responsibilities as Superintendent of Willis ISD? How do you develop, implement, and oversee programs and initiatives that support all of the schools across your district? Could you elaborate on both your typical short-term responsibilities as well as your long-term goals as Superintendent?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] As Superintendent of Willis ISD, I essentially function as CEO of the District and its 1,100 employees. I in turn report to the seven members of the Board of Trustees. Our district has 8,600 students across 11 campuses, including one alternative campus. When I started at the district ten years ago, we had about 6,500 students. We have had a tremendous amount of growth of approximately 2,000 kids. It is expected that we will almost double our enrollment, growing by about 6,000 to 7,000 students within the next eight years, which is three times the growth over the past decade. I think this huge increase in enrollment has been one of the biggest challenges facing our district. Specifically, it calls attention to the need to develop and expand opportunities for both our new and current students.

For example, as our district has grown, we have had new building needs. We passed school bonds in our 2015 and 2020 elections, and just passed our most recent bond in May 2022. These bond measures have enabled a lot of construction projects to get underway, which has been a fun and exciting challenge. For example, we built a new career technology center, amongst many other new buildings, to accommodate the future growth in our student body.

Our focus on our community guides our development of programming for our students. We offer several certification pathways for students right now, and it is really gratifying to see students find their niches. Some students will get a certification and enroll in a four-year university while working part-time. These students can command a higher salary because they have an existing skillset, and as they build further upon their experiences they only become more competitive. I believe that if our students graduate with only a high school diploma, without a foundational professional skillset, then we are not setting them up to be successful. We don’t educate kids today in the same way we did 20 years ago.

I think another big challenge for our staff over the last ten years has been the fact that teachers are no longer the sole source of information for students. Kids are born now with iPhones in their hands and a knowledge of how to Google everything. Kids have access to computers and can find answers to a million questions with a Google search. Lectures and passive learning are now outdated. Our district has had to change our approach to teaching and learning because teachers are not the gatekeepers to all information. This shift in knowledge-sharing dynamics requires that educators establish a more interactive partnership between themselves and students. Our district and teachers have tried to improve our art and craft of teaching kids so that our students are energized and excited about coming to school.

[] You mentioned how the nature of the instructor-student relationship has necessarily changed, becoming more interactive and engaging. What went into the process of establishing these new forms of teaching and learning? And how does that relate to your integration of innovative learning technologies into both classrooms and extracurricular programming?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] Going from pencil and paper to technology has been a shift that we have made. Over the last nine years, we have worked to become a one-to-one district, which means that students in sixth through 12th grades are issued Chromebooks. We charge a small fee, basically an insurance type fee. Those devices go home with kids. They all have an iPad in their classroom and they have access to technology all day. We use a learning management system, called CANVAS, which a lot of universities use, so everything is embedded in what they’re doing.

We are moving away from pencil and paper. Using technology in the classroom prepares kids for the real world and the world we live in now. You walk into a university classroom now, and everyone has a tablet. It is the same situation in our schools, and it’s incredible seeing the dramatic differences between now and ten years ago.

I think the next shift we’ve made is getting away from the teacher being the sole source of information. Over the last several years, we have hired instructional coaches who are at each of our campuses, and their job is to support our teachers in classroom instruction and delivery. They help come up with engaging lessons, but they don’t work directly with students. They are there to coach, teach, and help teachers be successful. This has been a huge piece, to have this partnership so that principals are not teachers’ sole resource for support. For example, if a teacher is struggling with a particular standard that a student must learn, the teacher can go to the campus’ math specialist who can help the teacher build a lesson. This is a neat resource for teachers to help them improve their craft and continuously learn.

For my leadership team, we practice and share what we have read in books. We can’t tell kids, “Hey, you need to be a lifelong learner, but I’ve already learned everything I need to learn.” We try to model that you never stop learning. Hopefully the goal is you learn something new every day for the rest of your life. If continuous learning is your goal, then you’re constantly motivated, and you shouldn’t be bored because you’re constantly challenging yourself.

This is a mentality that we strive to cultivate in all of our teachers. I think a lot of people struggle with the idea that to learn anything involves failure. Even as teachers, we don’t have to know everything. Kids ask their teacher questions, and if the teacher doesn’t know the answer, I think the mature response is, “I don’t know, but let me find out and I’ll get you that answer.” Let kids challenge you. This keeps us on our game, and it also lets kids understand that it is okay to ask questions, because kids want to know why. Inquisitiveness is a valuable trait, and one we encourage in our students and our staff. For example, our principals need to do a good job of explaining the why. Teachers may not agree with it, but they need to be able to understand the thought process behind it.

[] You mentioned that Willis ISD recently passed a new bond measure that has enabled new construction projects for enrichment programs. Could you elaborate on the bond process and your role in it as Superintendent?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] Before we go through the bond process, we first establish our needs as a school district. Throughout the bond process, we work with a planning committee, which is comprised of teachers, community members, business owners, parents, and anyone in our community who wants to participate in the bond process. We talk about our needs as a district and the committee shares their needs and what they think we should do as a school district. Then my team and I work with them over the course of several months to craft what the bond election would look like. We talk about tax rate implications and financing. Then they basically vote on what we are going to do. Once they reach a decision, they present their recommendation to our school board, and our school board decides if this is something they want to pursue or if they have changes. The school board doesn’t have to take the committee’s recommendation.

All three years that we’ve passed our bond elections, the school board has accepted the recommendation directly from the committee, which helps me sleep better at night knowing that we are all on the same page. In the 2020 bond, it was about $50 million dollars to make improvements to campuses, such as the HVAC systems. The other part was a state-of-the art learning center that we will open this August. There is nothing like it in the entire country. We designed it from the ground up with our architects at Stent Tech Architecture. The center is a cool deal that combines indoor learning space with outdoor learning. We are excited about opening that up in August. Finally, we have an expansion to one of our middle schools planned.

The last bond that we just passed in May 2022 was $143 million dollars, which was the largest one in the history of our district. This will fund multiple things in different schools. Each bond had a different committee, and each bond was different. It is easier to pass a bond when you have a new building, with exciting bells and whistles. It was a tougher process for the 2020 bond due to it happening during the pandemic, as well as the fact that we needed funding for a lot of invisible but nonetheless important infrastructure needs that people don’t realize need upkeep. Taking care of the nuts and bolts of things is just as important as building new centers and developing new programs.

The bond process is interesting. It’s a majority community vote. There’s no set percentage of the votes that you have to get. One more yes vote than no vote and you pass the bond proposition. If it’s one more no than yes, then you lose. There is also no threshold that you have to hit for voter turnout. For this last bond election, only ten percent of the registered voters voted. I think a lot of people have the misconception that their vote doesn’t count or doesn’t matter. Voting does matter, especially in a bond election because every vote in favor of the bond creates opportunities for our kids.

In the future, we have to make sure we keep our voters educated about upcoming challenges and needs. You can’t keep it quiet, and then suddenly say that we’ve grown by 5,000 kids and need funding. If we’re doing our job, we will communicate our needs throughout the course of the next few years. So when we have our next bond election, our community is not going to be surprised. Communication is very important, and we are adding an additional person to our Communications Department this year.

Additionally, people can decide where they live, so there is competition amongst school districts. If you can afford to move somewhere, you are generally going to put your kid in the best school district. We have a wonderful county with a lot of great school districts, so our school district has to make sure that we’re putting our best foot forward and painting a great picture of what our staff does to support kids’ learning and growth, making it an attractive place for people to live.

[] Within Willis ISD, 37.3% of students are Hispanic/Latino, 7% are Black or African American, 58% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 15.7% are English Language Learners. How do these student demographics impact the programs and policies that you have developed and implemented to support Willis ISD’s student population and its unique needs?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] There is a misconception that socioeconomically disadvantaged students don’t perform as well academically as students who are not economically disadvantaged. Changing this misconception starts with the mindset that all students can learn. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds haven’t been exposed to certain things that students who are not in poverty have been exposed to, so we have to fill those gaps.

I think a lot of times when you have campuses that are economically disadvantaged, it takes a little bit more money for them to educate, and from a budgeting standpoint, we have to make sure we take care of that. I think the longer that I’ve been in this business you just understand each campus may have different needs that require a different amount of money, and you’ve got to make that happen. To meet each campus’s needs, the involvement of parents and making them feel a part of the process is a big part of the success of students from poverty backgrounds.

For some of our students who are from poverty, their parents may not have been successful in school because the day-to-day classroom setting didn’t work for them. It doesn’t mean their parents are not smart. I think we sometimes use academic performance to label kids as smart or not smart. It’s not that. Where’s the desire? Where are we building relationships with kids? Learning is hard, and I think a lot of times people don’t understand that. Kids learn at different paces, and the fact that some students learn at a slower pace doesn’t mean that they can’t learn. It just takes them a little longer. So, I think that patience is important in addition to meeting the needs of all kids.

It starts with the mindset that every kid here can learn. Our staff takes some culture training to teach them that there will be students who don’t look like them, but we can teach them. For our Hispanic students, it is about getting them into our building and welcoming them. All our communications are in both English and Spanish. When we do callouts on the phone, they are in English and Spanish because we want to knock down every barrier there is, so parents know that they are a part of their child’s education with us. We will communicate with you about what we need from you as parents and what we need for your child.

The fun process is when you break down barriers for a kid whose family never went to college. We had a couple kids this year who are the first generation from their family to go to college and that’s great. I think a lot of times the families don’t understand that there are other opportunities out there, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the life you’ve had. These parents sometimes sell their own kids short by thinking that their kids can’t go to college. There are opportunities out there for your kids, and we just have to make sure to expose them to those opportunities.

I think as a society we don’t give kids enough credit for how smart they are. We’re starting to ask kids for more feedback about their educational experience because they are our customers. If we’re missing the boat, we need to ask them how the schools can get better and structure our product to their needs.

[] Willis ISD is unique in that it has a dedicated Innovation, Teaching & Learning (ITL) Department that develops curriculum and instruction for all students from pre-K through 12th grade. Could you elaborate on the inspiration for this department, the programs it has developed in recent years, and how ITL has provided leadership and direction to Willis ISD’s school campuses?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] Our state has many standards that are required for us to teach to kids, and there are not enough days in our year to cover every single standard. It’s overwhelming. We had to do a better job of supporting our teachers because some of the expectations from our state are not realistic. We can either make excuses or we can get better. We decided to get better and spend the money to support our staff.

ITL was just a curriculum department when I got here. I started by hiring a new assistant superintendent, and he is a big technology guy who came to me with initiatives he wanted to do.

He was overseeing all the teaching and learning aspects related to technology and came up with the name of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning (ITL) because his mantra is, “We want to innovate and create opportunities for students to learn.” This is where our process came from, and I think that the biggest aspect that I like about ITL is that all the different components of innovation, teaching, and learning are under the same umbrella.

We have instructional coaches at every campus, and we also have i-Coaches, which are technology coaches, at every campus. We have some teachers who are a little scared of technology, and they don’t like the computer. They don’t want any part of it. Well, guess what? We are going to make you feel good about yourself, so we will help you.

As new technology comes out, there are technology trainings after school to better support students or to help students with their lessons. ITL provides trainings and helps teachers learn how to use the technology a little bit better. We basically enveloped everything that has to do with student learning under one umbrella – working together to support teachers to make sure they have everything they need to help students be successful. ITL is a great department.

We have also done a tremendous job of hiring some great people who know teaching and learning or know the technology piece. We cross-pollinate so that those who are curriculum experts are learning more about technology – and the same for those who know the technology, they are learning more about curriculum. This way, it didn’t matter who a teacher goes to see. Either side can help them. They have done a great job. This is the fourth year that this team has been together, and they just continue to get better every year.

[] On a related note, could you elaborate on the process of school and education program evaluation at the school, district, and county levels? How is student performance measured, and how is this data used to improve education programs and opportunities for students? How do these evaluations and assessments help to ensure equality and equity with regards to students’ experiences and learning outcomes in the classroom?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] We used to use a program called Star Data, which is our state accountability test. We evaluated the data, but in the end, that was just a snapshot in time of how our students performed. It was not a true representation of the job our teachers do, or the success or lack thereof for a student.

Three years ago, we started using a program called MAP testing from a company called NWEA. We give K-eighth grade students these tests three times a year. We administer this online assessment at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. It’s aligned with our state accountability curriculum, and the neat part about this test is that it measures students’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s student-specific which means students are not taking the same test.

The assessment adjusts based on students’ responses. If a student is doing well, the questions get more difficult. If the student is not doing well, the questions get a little bit easier. So, you are truly measuring the strengths and weaknesses of all kids. At the end, you get a report and a breakdown of where students are doing well and where students are not doing well. It’s awesome data. As teachers, you know where to intervene to help with students’ weaknesses. It’s a great evaluation tool for how to help kids as well as a great evaluation tool for our teaching staff.

A lot of time in education we tend to only deal with kids who struggle, but you still have your higher achieving kids. What are you doing with those kids? They can also learn a little bit more. All students have a weakness in some form or area. Even your brightest student is not going to be great at a couple of things. As a teacher, you may not see it because they get a 90 or 95 on everything you give them, but they have not mastered every single standard.

By doing the assessment, we can evaluate the growth of kids over the course of an entire year. As a teacher, you’re not responsible for how students perform at the beginning of the year – that is how they came to you. However, the middle and the end of the year is how they’re leaving you. And our mantra is growth.

Every student should grow. Some will grow more than others, but there’s no excuse for a student to be in your class for an entire year and not grow. They should improve. It’s just a natural process. So, we spend a lot of time on the MAP data because it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, and it measures kids individually for who they are.

Who is growing kids? Who’s not growing kids? Just looking at passing and failing of one state assessment doesn’t give you a true picture of whether a teacher is really growing kids or not. We have used this evaluation tool for the past three years, and we’re getting better and better at it. It’s extremely detailed.

There is a lot to process and learn, and we have our student set goals. They will have a score at the beginning of the year, and they set goals. Then when they take the next assessment, they will see where they are on their goals. “Did I reach my goal? Did I not reach that goal?” And it helps them to take the test seriously, and it gives them something to shoot for. It’s pretty cool when the kids take the test and want the data back quickly. Life is a competition, and it’s good for them to compete for something. It’s fun to watch them hit a goal, and it’s okay when they don’t. Life is full of failures, so we have to build them back up to do it again. Our world today coddles everybody. We don’t want anybody to fail but that is just not realistic. We’re going to fail at some point in time.

The best in the business, in whatever realm you want to talk about, have failed. But you know what? They learned from it and that is the biggest difference. We can teach kids that failure is okay and that it is a part of life. If they go out and lose a job, they can recover, work hard, and find another one. If we never let them fail, they won’t know how to respond to failure when they become adults. We live in a cruel world right now. Life’s not fair. We have to teach kids how to work and fight. It’s okay to struggle.

[] In addition to the ITL Department, Willis ISD has added agricultural and performing arts centers, as well as a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center under your leadership. Could you elaborate on how you established these centers for student enrichment, and the impact they have made on student engagement and learning outcomes?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] The Career and Technical Education program was important to me because at that time about 55% of our students were going onto a four-year university after they graduated, and roughly 40% were not. I felt like we were missing that 40 percent. We needed to change the rhetoric away from passively saying, “You can be successful without going to college if that’s not what you want to do” to “We’ve got an opportunity for you to do just that.” This mindset inspired the CTE Center.

Our job as a school district is to create opportunities for students. How do we create opportunities for kids to thrive? I think in the end our job is to figure out what kids love. Kids are trying to figure out what they want to do. It’s a little late for kids to be figuring out what they want to do their junior year of high school. We need to engage them early so they can find out what they love, and we have to create opportunities for them to be successful in that particular field. Then, how does that translate into a career outside of high school?

When we created the CTE Center, we had an idea of what programs we wanted to bring into that center, but we also did a survey of our high school students to ask them what they wanted. Our thought process was pretty much in line with the students. I think the worst thing you can do is build a center and have all these courses and never ask your kids if they wanted these courses. Otherwise, we would have spent $40 million dollars on a facility that offers five programs that no kids want to take.

As we think about growing into a second high school within the next five or six years, I’ll have to work with the committee and the school board to have different CTE opportunities at our second high school since the world’s changed over the last six or seven years. There is no need in doubling up the opportunities unless there are really successful programs at Willis High School. We would want to add new components to the second high school and then give kids a choice. In my mind, we would provide a variety of CTE opportunities and then students who live in our school district could apply to transfer to another high school outside of the student’s zone area for the CTE program that they want. You may be zoned here but you can go over there if you apply and get accepted into something else. This creates an opportunity that kids will be excited about. Attendance improves because they’re doing something they love, and academic performance improves because students get to do what’s bringing them to school every day.

We have a performing arts center that we built the same year as the CTE Center in 2015. It is a state-of-the-art center for the performing arts that includes band, choir, and theater. We put on musicals over the last three years in the center. Before the center, we had never done a musical in the history of the school district, but now we can blend band, choir, and theater all into these performances that our community has loved. You need the facility in order to be able to do some things that you couldn’t do before.

I tell our teachers that we don’t have a lot of kids that get up fired up to go to English, but they love choir, football, or whatever subject, which is fine. As teachers, you can help them love algebra and English more than they do right now. But this other program is what gets them out of bed to come to school that morning.

We were a very rural school district, and a lot of the farming industry over the course of the last ten years has changed. However, our agriculture and science (AG) program is still extremely popular here. So, we built a center where we hold classes. There’s a show arena where students can show animals and an area similar to a barn where students can raise animals. Since our students live in neighborhoods where they obviously can’t have a pig living in their backyards, they can raise a pig in our AG facility, which is pretty cool.

The kids have a key card, so they have access to come in at different times of the day and night when school is not open in order to feed, water, and bathe their animals. It is pretty neat to watch kids who would never have the opportunity to be involved in agriculture get these opportunities to understand the lifecycle of animals and the responsibility of taking care of an animal. The AG program previously existed without a facility. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have anything. I can’t imagine studying agriculture without a center like that where you can learn about the entire process of what agriculture is all about. It has been an amazing process to watch the kids be engaged in it, and I think our reputation for agricultural education in our county really changed to the positive.

When we built the CTE Center and the AG Center, it was really gratifying to watch and hear the positive response from our community. I think people previously felt that we would never have things like this here; it was always somebody else who had these resources and opportunities. So, the pride for our facilities has been neat to watch and grow. Our centers galvanize people to support what we’re doing as a school district. It has been incredibly positive.

[] What are Willis ISD’s core values, and how have you and your team upheld these values through your management of all schools under your purview, including not only their fiscal and budgetary needs, but also teacher professional development, recruitment, and support? Furthermore, how do you as superintendent serve as liaison to local, state and federal governments, and how much of your work involves implementing, evaluating, and improving education policy at the local level?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] Overall, our core value is the success of our students and that success is defined differently for each child. If we have a child with disabilities, what level can we grow them to? What level can we push them to in order to be more successful? How can we make sure that they graduate high school and can live on their own one day despite the disabilities they may have? How do we give them something to be excited about? It is important to teach students to be lifelong learners. It’s a proven fact that some people struggle as they get older because the desire to live or desire to learn starts to vanish, and they don’t have anything to look forward to.

If we establish the core value of lifelong learning in students from day one, then as they grow, they will want to learn something new every day. They will have something to be excited about, which is what I think life is about. Our world is so negative right now. You watch the nightly news and it’s all negative until the last 30-second segment. It’s a great story, but it’s 30 seconds. And then, we go back to the drama when the 6:00 news comes on. We have to create life and hope in our kids. We can’t control everything that takes place outside of our community, but we can control what takes place in our school district. We want our school district to be a light of hope for our parents and kids. We are creating folks who can go out and be successful and help our world be a better place.

Our motto is “One team, one purpose.” We are all on one team, and our one purpose is our students whether you are a custodian, you work in our cafeteria, or you are in maintenance – it doesn’t matter your role in our district. We are here to support our kids, and it’s a challenging job. It’s gotten more challenging since the pandemic, but it’s a calling and it’s needed. I feel like we live in the greatest country on Earth, but we have to do more than we are doing right now to make sure it stays that way.

[] How did the COVID-19 pandemic and required quarantines of 2020 affect education programming within Willis ISD? In addition, what kinds of education inequalities and inequities did the pandemic expose? In what ways did you and your education leadership team employ innovation and collaboration to ensure students from diverse backgrounds received quality and equitable education during those challenging times? How do you feel the pandemic has permanently altered the way in which public education is delivered?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] We switched gears in about a two-and-a-half-week period. It was just insane. I think the learning that we got from it shows how resilient and good our team is – we could do something we have never done before.

Prior to the pandemic, we were really in a great spot academically and had made a lot of gains. We felt like we were fixing to fly as a school district, and then the unthinkable happened. Now, we are trying to figure out how to get things back to the way they were, which is a process. It can’t happen overnight. We had about 800 kids who were considered at-home learners, and they logged in when required and turned in some assignments. But in the end, there’s no way I can actively engage a third grader at home on a computer. I mean, you just can’t do it. It will take us another three or four years to get back to where we were before the pandemic.

From that standpoint, we have seen an uptick this year in student discipline. There are more severe behaviors and repetitive behaviors that we haven’t seen before. We have sometimes seen a disconnect between parents and school, when normally the partnership between parents and the school was the lifeline. The best thing I could say is that a lot of bad habits formed during the pandemic, and we are now in the process of addressing those bad habits. How do we get that partnership back with our parents where their child’s education was the most important thing for them in the world? We need their help to support their kids. And so, the struggle is still real.

This has driven a lot of folks out of the profession. A lot of teachers have decided that this is just too much. It’s sad. We have to figure out how to keep our staff engaged and how to recruit young professionals into the world of education. Twenty years ago, you may have 20 people apply for a job to teach 1st grade and now I would be lucky if I have 3 people apply for the job.

I think the importance of educating kids as a society has taken a backseat. Society doesn’t understand that we’re not a successful country because public education is terrible. It’s great. It’s like anything else. We can always get better, but we need the resources. We need the motivation. Now, we need the workforce to make sure that we provide everything for the next generation of kids to go out and be able to lead this country one day.

We also don’t celebrate our successes enough. We’re so conscious of getting better, but we have to take the time to celebrate, even the smallest things. Our staff needs that and our community needs to hear about it. We need to make sure we counteract the negative that’s everywhere today with all the good things that are happening in our district. We have great things happening every single day, but we need to tell that story every single day. We can’t tell that story once a week. We need to tell it all the time.

Academic Questions

[] What key insights and skills did you gain during your enrollment in your Ed.D.? What was the topic of your dissertation, and did your research on this topic inform your future career goals and achievements? For current Ed.D. students who are considering their dissertation topic or working on their dissertation, what advice do you have for them in terms of getting the most out of this intensive research experience?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] My dissertation topic was disproportionality in student discipline, and it dealt with middle school students and the disproportionality in out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions by student demographics. For the last 40 years, our Black and Hispanic students and our poor students are disciplined with those types of consequences more often than any student group that we have. This data has been consistent, and the gap is getting wider. It’s not getting better.

We have evaluated our discipline protocols. I don’t think, for one second, Black students, Hispanic students, or poor students come to school every day to act up and get in trouble. That’s not what is happening. I know that. But there’s a disconnect between our staff and certain cultures—how kids act and talk and what they do. To address the disconnect, it comes through understanding a little bit more about different cultures and building relationships with kids that may or may not look like you.

You don’t have to be Black in order to have a strong relationship with a Black parent and a Black student. When we hire people, the color barrier is irrelevant to me. I’m hiring great educators. But sometimes, different cultures have a disconnect with our schools or campuses. So, we have to make sure we knock those barriers down.

How do we sit at a table and come to an agreement that we want what’s best for your student? It doesn’t matter what color they are or whether they’re rich or poor. It’s public education. We take all students, and our job is to educate them. But there’s a disconnect with how we issue discipline based on certain student groups, and you have to be cognizant of that.

You just can’t say “That is what it is.” To truly change it, you have to understand because the data doesn’t lie. How do we make these numbers better? I can’t just keep issuing consequences to this child – why does this behavior continue? What’s going on? What’s the disconnect with them? How do you make a connection and build that relationship with them? I told our team today – we use that term “build relationship.” I think it’s become too cliché. I think a lot of people don’t understand what that means. What does it mean to build a relationship?

Your great teachers build relationships because it’s natural to them. But you have certain teachers that really struggle with that. So next year, we want our campus principals to learn from their teachers who are awesome at building relationships and turn those lessons into a teacher-led training for other teachers. Building a relationship with students is not giving them forms to fill out about what candy they like at the beginning of the year – that’s learning about a child. But you take that information and ask them about that favorite video game in two weeks. The relationship piece is built every single day over the course of the whole academic year – 174 days – by really getting to know your kids and letting them really get to know you.

We’re a smaller town, so when kids see you in a grocery store, it’s like you’re a movie star. Students need to know you’re a real person who struggles and makes mistakes. I tell teachers all the time, “The best thing you can do as a teacher is to make a mistake and tell the kids you messed up.” You can admit failure. It’s okay. I think it allows them to understand that you’re not perfect so they don’t have to be perfect.

From that standpoint, we have tried to really evaluate our discipline process a little bit more. What does that look like? And if our proportions are off, why? What are we missing? We’re missing something here with these students because they’re continually acting out, and all we’re doing is sending them home.

It’s not correcting behavior. It’s punishment. Discipline is not punishing a child—it’s a consequence that has a positive learning outcome. How do we stop the cycle? That’s the question we have to take enough time to answer.

My dissertation chair has been in the business for many years, and he always focuses on discipline because he said, “It’s crazy. The research has been clear for years and years, and nobody wants to step up as a mass whole with a process of how we’re going to change it. It’s always left to everybody individually about what that’s going to look like.”

I can make data look different. I can tell people not to suspend kids. I can make the data look like whatever I want to, but it’s not real data. How do we truly fix the problem? And I think the true problem is our inability to connect with certain student populations. I think culture training helps – really building relationships with everybody. It starts with the mindset that “I can help all kids.” If you don’t have that mindset, it’s not going to happen. You have to believe that you can do that. It starts with parents and getting them involved. The tough situations are when parents don’t want to be involved, and we have a discipline problem. How do we help this child? Because they are only with us eight hours a day and they are home the rest of the time. How do we help kids and their parents see that this is what’s good for them?

[] Having worked in the public school arena for over 15 years and held leadership roles in public education for over a decade, how have you seen public education at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels evolve? What challenges do you see new education leaders facing in today’s rapidly changing education landscape? How do you advise these leaders best prepare for and meet these challenges?

[Dr. Tim Harkrider] Giving less money and 10,000 excuses is not going to fix where we’re going. There are more challenges than we had growing up as kids because kids today have social media and everything. There are a lot of things being thrown at our kids now at a young age that’s not good for them, ranging from the pressures from social media to the temptations for evil that are out there. In the end, what I see evolving is people diminishing the need for public education and trying to privatize educational dollars. This is a concern for us because there’s a population of kids (58%) who are economically disadvantaged. Public education is their only option. Mom and dad didn’t have another option. To not be funded properly and to not be able to provide is an issue of equity and equality. Having public education provides everyone with an equal opportunity, but is it equitable?

Is it equitable for an inner-city school to have 99% of their kids be economically disadvantaged versus a suburban school with only 10% of their kids being economically disadvantaged? That’s not equitable. The context of what they have out here in the suburbs compared to the urban areas is not the same. However, the funding is the same. This is the issue. The funding should vary by the demographics of your kids.

I think the lack of support from parents lately has been disturbing. This will be debated long past I’m here and probably for the next hundred years. However, I remember growing up when those in the teaching profession were revered. You were almost like a saint or were like the preacher in your church. I see now that people seem to almost dismiss or denigrate public educators. I tell our teachers all the time, “You have a degree. You’re trained to be a teacher. You have a skillset that people don’t appreciate.”

I’d love to make some of these folks who don’t like public education be a substitute teacher for a day. I would give them about 45 minutes and they’d be gone. Where the heck did they go? They left because teaching is tough.

We still have enough people that love teaching, and I think as my mentor told me, “Teaching’s a calling.” She said, “It’s the greatest calling that there is because you truly have an opportunity to impact the world.” And it’s fun. The upcoming challenges will continue to get bigger, but we have survived in public education for hundreds of years. We’ll continue. But some of the challenges are getting too large that we do need more support in order to be able to deal with it.

I’ve seen us evolve, and the way we educate kids has gotten better and better every year that I’ve been in the profession. What I have seen change is the lack of support from our legislators on the importance of public education. Financing has been an argument and a battle for 100 years, and it’s going to be a battle for another 100 years. You’re only as good as the next population of kids who are coming through. However, the solution to helping school districts address upcoming challenges will need to come from the state legislature.

When you look at the state of Texas, the population of our state is growing by millions every single year. Over 80% of those kids are going to public education – that’s their pathway. We have a successful state financially and are business oriented. People are moving to Texas from all over the country to start businesses and do things, which is great. Most of the people who are successful here went through public education. So, we need the support to continue. The success of our leadership wasn’t due to private schools because that’s less than 10% of the graduates in the state of Texas.

I think what I would like to see is just a commitment from the state legislature to helping us improve what we’re doing. While we can always get better, we have to start celebrating what we’re doing instead of diminishing what we’re doing. We’re doing great work. We’ve got great school districts. There are over 1,100 school districts in the state of Texas. They all love kids. We are working as hard as we can. But how do we make sure that we have the resources we need to educate our kids? Every community and every school looks a little bit different. I spend too much time thinking about the negative and what we have to fix. We have to spend more time celebrating some of the great stuff we’ve done. We need that to continue to have that motivation.

Thank you, Dr. Harkrider, for your excellent insight into your role as Superintendent of Willis ISD, and for your commitment to student growth, instructional innovation, teacher support, and equity in public education!

About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of She specializes in writing in-depth content that helps students navigate important graduate school decisions. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.