Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Union County Schools Superintendent Patricia Sheffer has received two awards in the past year: the Kentucky 2021 Superintendent of the Year from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators and, in 2020, KSBA’s F.L. Dupree Outstanding Superintendent Award. Sheffer has spent her education career in her home county, first as a teacher and then in administrative roles including the last 10 years as superintendent.
Q. You’ve been named superintendent of the year by both KASA and KSBA. How does it feel to be recognized for your work?
A. I’m honored and humbled but the awards are really a reflection of the great team I have around me, including colleagues across the state. These awards could go to any superintendent on any given day because we all have similar responsibilities and face similar challenges.
Q. Through regional co-ops like the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, as well as your involvement in statewide organizations, you connect with other superintendents. How valuable are those connections?
A. We talk constantly about the good, bad and ugly of what we face. It is collective advocacy, where we work through any issues and decide on what is best for students.
Q. Lu Young, chair of the Kentucky Board of Education and a former superintendent, nominated you for the KASA award; you were chosen by other superintendents for the Dupree award. Does it mean more to be recognized by your peers?
A. It is meaningful. Leadership is all about influence. When I became superintendent, I told my board I wanted to grow our community, not just the school system. So I have secured a lot of buy-in from our internal and external shareholders to develop meaningful relationships with them. That has transformed into powerful partnerships and some of those partnerships involve people like Lu and my board. In this work you can’t do it alone.
Q. Your grandmother was a powerful influence on your career. Tell us about her.
A. She raised eight children and never went to college. She had a strong faith, saw the positive in everyone and taught me that every problem has a solution. I’ve got her picture hanging here in my office. She talked me into going to college at a time when no one talked to you about college. My grandmother always said you should be doing great things for others and she instilled in me at a young age a faith in God. I believe I have been called to this position, not for any personal glory, but for such a time as this, going through Covid.
Q. You were only the fourth woman to be named KASA Superintendent of the Year since the award was created in 1988. Why are there still so few female superintendents in Kentucky?
A. I think we are starting to see more women stepping up to fill leadership roles. Sometimes though I think women are OK with being the assistant superintendent, because they are the workhorses. They might not like the politics of the superintendent’s job and enjoy other aspects of education like the students, deeper learning, curriculum. To be honest, I would still be happy in my K-1 split classroom, but I know in this position I can empower others to do more things. Someone was behind the scenes pushing me every step of the way, and I always encourage women to get certifications so they’ll be ready if opportunity comes.
Q. You prefer to stay behind the scenes, yet you do see now that being recognized could inspire other women.
A. When aspiring woman leaders see me become superintendent of the year they might think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do that.’ These awards are also great for my community because they see all the hard work we’ve done collectively and how it has paid off.
Q. How does Kentucky Women in Education Leadership (KWEL) provide support for female educators?
A. Each year we have a different cohort. The first year, those in the cohort will have a mentor. After you are in the organization, the entire group is there to help. As part of KWEL, I have been surrounded by strong women like Lu Young and others who have encouraged me. We have annual conferences and this year we have had virtual regional meetings.
Q. Your district was one of the few that stayed in-person for much of the fall even while Union County was in the red on the state’s COVID-19 incidence map. How were you able to do that while many districts closed due to high numbers of quarantines or positive cases?
A. First, we created a pandemic committee to look at how we could open in the safest manner. Our committee includes internal shareholders like teachers, a student representative, custodial staff, food service and central office staff. External shareholders include the sheriff’s department, county judge, health department, fiscal court and parents. A key was to get as many people involved in the planning as possible so they could spread information about our plan. The committee came up with our priorities: health of all, safety of all and education for all. In every decision we made, we considered those priorities. We followed the Healthy at School guidelines the Kentucky Department of Education provided and, even though at that time you only had to follow the expectations, we followed the expectations and the guidelines.
Q. Talk about some of the specific steps you took to make in-person school safe.
A. We did a phased-in approach that reduced the number of students in the classroom so teachers could see that it was going to be doable. We followed the mitigation steps, did frequent evaluations, kept our own dashboard of quarantines and positive cases and stayed in contact with our health department, hospital, county judge and others. We used multiple data sets to make decisions. We had parents notify us within 24 hours if anyone was positive. We were open 7.5 weeks and had no cases but we had to close because of staff quarantines. All those quarantines were the result of community spread and not anything that happened inside the schools.
Q. What else did you do?
A. We kept a manifest of where students were 24/7. Our staff recorded when any student spent longer than 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone. That was valuable if we had to have quarantining. I told everyone, “if you have any kind of health issue, I would rather you stay home and work instead of coming in and risking everyone having to quarantine.”
Q. What would you tell your peers in other counties?
A. What worked in my county might not work in another. There are so many variables that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all opening plan.
Q. You’ve been vocal about state assessments not driving instruction in your district. What changes would you like to see in the state assessments in the future?
A. We need to always ask what’s the purpose for it? Whatever data we have must be used to make improvements for the next step. I feel like state assessment is a quick check but it might not reflect everything the students have learned.
The one thing that aggravates me more than anything is what happens with our special needs population. They are forced to take a state assessment and sometimes we are giving that assessment to students who cannot speak – it just seems like abuse to me. As far as special needs, I would like to see that you look at their IEP goals for the year and make sure they have made progress. If they haven’t made progress, you take corrective action.
There are options to a one-time state assessment. I’d rather have ours through course assessments where teachers create assessments and use that formative data. There is so much more to the value of public education than instruction. It’s about socialization, leadership and ways to demonstrate knowledge that go beyond a paper-and-pencil test. Every child should be able to express themselves the way they feel best. I know we need accountability, but we need to look at how we do that and the purpose for it.
Q. When the coronavirus pandemic ends, what will Kentucky education’s biggest challenge be?
A. I am worried about kids’ social and emotional well-being. We are seeing effects, especially in the middle grades. Even with a supportive network at home, parents are calling to say their child is depressed, they are missing friends and activities. Then you take those you aren’t hearing from, who might be in an abusive or a neglectful setting. We worry about having the time and resources for the social emotional, basic academic standards and essential skills interventions that will be needed. I hope the next package of government financial relief will have resources for staff to spend additional time with these students. We will have to be creative about how and when we do it – weekends, evenings, summer.