There are probably no tarot cards or crystal balls in the central office of North Carolina’s Union County school district. But you could be forgiven for thinking that someone there has a sixth sense about the future.
The district went big on intensive tutoring years before it became the go-to strategy for helping students regain their academic footing after months of virtual schooling. It invested in mental health access before many other communities embraced it to help kids navigate through the emotional turbulence of the pandemic. It revamped its technology professional development right before teachers really needed a keen understanding of digital tools, helping the district avoid some of the scrambling that characterized many other districts’ transition to remote learning.
Union County keeps children’s eyes on the road ahead, too, creating special, career-focused academies at some of its most disadvantaged schools. Students can learn about agriculture careers by using hydroponics to grow butter lettuce or immerse themselves in health care by watching a live heart dissection.
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At the core of these initiatives are two forward-thinking leaders: Andrew G. Houlihan, the superintendent, and Casey Rimmer, the director of innovation and education technology for the 40,000-student district, located just outside Charlotte.
The duo and their district stand out not just for their willingness to try new approaches but also for their commitment to sticking with those initiatives and doing them well, instead of moving on to the next glittering idea. They’ve strived to keep projects and programs going, even during a turbulent time.
- The Importance of TEAM: Continuously place an emphasis on and strive to build the most effective team possible. Understand that when it comes to leading any organization—especially a public school system—one person alone cannot do the job. Surround yourself with smart, goal-driven people and get out of their way!
- Being Competitive: A fundamental question education leaders should regularly ask themselves and the members of their team: Who/What is our competition? Identify, create sustainable strategies, monitor progress, communicate success, recognize and reward high performance, and act with a sense of urgency daily.
- Alignment Is a Must: School improvement, and especially turning around persistently low-performing schools, requires strong alignment between the district, the schools, and leadership at all levels. School-specific strategies coupled with a layer of district support is critical for success. The main question that should be asked by members of central services to school leaders: What can we do to support you and the efforts of your team?
- Be Flexible: In ed-tech things are always changing. You have to be able to go with the flow for so many things. Identify your priorities and what you value as a district and focus on those when things are moving and changing quickly.
- Be Purposeful and Act Quickly: Our students are with us for a short time. We must have urgency to get them the best education we can while they are with us. Dr. Houlihan has instilled urgency in our work as a district because if we “wait until next year,” we will have missed a whole group of students.
- Have Fun: It is so important to make sure everyone on your team in your organization knows that you can have fun and laugh a little. Leading districts and large teams is hard work and demands professionalism most of the time. Sometimes the laughs and jokes are rare, but make sure you take some opportunities to enjoy work and the people you do it with!
The two generously credit one another for generating the push and pull that makes their partnership work.
Rimmer takes Houlihan’s ideas and runs with them—she’s put, for example, an emphasis on the instructional side of ed-tech rather than the technology itself.
“She’s phenomenal. I’ve always been taught and believe that, in leadership, you gotta surround yourself with really good people that know what they’re doing and are superintelligent. And that’s exactly what she is,” Houlihan said. “I know absolutely, 100 percent that if she’s leading that initiative, or that project, it’s going to get done at a high level.”
And Houlihan anticipates what the district needs before it is obvious to everyone else, Rimmer said. “Oh my gosh, he’s a genius,” she said. “He can see the future. He’ll say, ‘This is what we need to do. This is the direction we need to go.’ I’m always [thinking], ‘Really?’ And then, [when] we’re wrapping up, I [think] ‘Wow, I’m really glad we did that.’ ”
An idea ahead of its time
Union County has suburban and rural pockets, kids whose families live in poverty, and the children of upper-middle-class professionals. That means that leaders like Houlihan and Rimmer need to be able to come up with strategies for a range of populations and settings.
Rimmer, who turns 38 this month, had always been a fan of school, she said. “I had some teachers that really made an impact on my life and made me feel like they cared about my success, and they wanted to see me grow,” she said. “And I felt like I wanted to do that for other kids.” She came to the district with her husband, a middle school math teacher, more than a decade ago.
Houlihan, on the other hand, never intended to go into the family business. His mother worked as a school counselor and college professor. His father was a school superintendent, education adviser to North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Houlihan watched his parents work long hours and struggle with competing demands. That high-stress life wasn’t for him, he decided.
Then, in high school, Houlihan worked as a part-time tutor in an elementary school and got hooked. “I learned from that experience that I really enjoy teaching,” he said.
Long before policy wonks latched onto tutoring as a strategy to recoup pandemic-related learning loss, Houlihan, 43, launched his own program. In the 2017-18 school year, he noted that half a dozen of the district’s highest-poverty, lowest-performing schools were struggling with math, especially in the 4th and 7th grades. And he’d seen the power of small-group instruction in a previous job as a district leader in Houston.
Dozens of tutors received training designed by the district. They had to pass a test showing that their math skills were sufficient to help students learn. They worked with a few students at a time, helping to bolster the instruction the kids were already getting in class. And they collaborated with teachers in the building and received ongoing training on how to align to standards, best practices in teaching, and more.
The results have been enviable. All four of the targeted elementary schools are no longer on the state’s list of low performers. And the two middle schools ended up 1 point away from a C grade, based on assessment data from the 2018-19 school year, the last one for which student-achievement data are available. Tutoring was a key ingredient in the schools’ success, Houlihan said.
A huge reason why: daily support, said Elenia Daniels, the principal of Walter Bickett Elementary, one of the targeted schools. Many of her students hadn’t mastered the prerequisites for the new skill they were trying to learn. For instance, kids were trying to dive into division without a clear understanding of multiplication. The tutors helped students fill in those holes and then gave them plenty of extra practice.
“Students received that constant reinforcement, [whereas] teachers only had a certain amount of time to accomplish that” within the school day, Daniels said.
Now that students have returned from months of at-home or hybrid learning, the district is deploying the strategy again. Thanks in part to an infusion of federal funding to help with learning recovery, all schools in the district have launched some sort of tutoring program, whether it’s in school, after school, or on weekends, Houlihan said. Meanwhile, the original math-tutoring program has been extended to two high schools and is aimed at freshmen.
Sorting through the tech morass to help teachers
Shortly after he became superintendent in 2016, Houlihan made another prescient move: putting Rimmer in charge of professional learning, including for technology.
“If he had not done that approximately a year prior to the pandemic, we would have had a hot mess,” said Rimmer, who has worked in Union County for more than a decade.
Her first order of business was leading a “rebranding” of the district’s 1-to-1 initiative, to put a greater focus on using technology as a learning tool, rather than a collection of flashy gadgets. Rimmer refocused tech professional development in the district around four big buckets: connect, collaborate, create, and digital leadership. “Connect,” for instance, encourages teachers to personalize instruction for individual students and make sure they understand the purpose behind their lessons. “Collaborate” calls for students to play a role in choosing class activities, among other things.
“Casey really helped us think through the staff-development aspect, making sure that we’re challenging our staff to really think differently, and innovatively about how good quality instruction is being delivered every single day,” Houlihan said.
When school shut down and teachers were suddenly told to deliver lessons remotely, “it was like chaos,” Rimmer said. Technology companies seized the moment, allowing educators to use their products for free. But Rimmer thought that adopting new software or programs willy-nilly would do more harm than good.
“We really kind of buckled down as a district,” she said. “We never said, ‘Here’s a list of free tools that you should use with kids,’ because we felt we already had a pretty robust platform of tools that could do anything we needed to do. And we knew if we stuck with our core tools, we could support [educators] and sustain professional development on those.
We knew if we stuck with our core tools, we could support educators and sustain professional development on those.
“There’s no way any district in the whole nation could have taught every single tool that was free” when the lockdown started, she said.
Rimmer helped create on-demand modules—essentially mini courses—to help teachers master different digital tools when they were suddenly thrust into remote instruction. The modules were driven in part by teachers’ feedback. Someone would ask for a session on a particular topic, and Rimmer and her small team would cook it up. Or the team would ask themselves, “What questions are we getting this week?”
She also made a point of lifting up teachers’ best work through “innovation showcases,” which teachers could attend through a video platform. The showcases helped teachers see how they could creatively present material in a digital format.
Supporting mental health at a critical period
Similarly, Houlihan gets some of his best insights from those working under him. He consults a handful of advisory councils, including one for parents, another for teachers, principals, and students. He meets with each four times a year.
In his first meeting with his student advisory council in the spring of 2017, he asked them what their biggest challenge was. The unanimous answer? A lack of mental health counseling. It turned out that the district of about 40,000 students had just three social workers, which Houlihan knew was vastly insufficient.
He and his staff put their political skills to work, persuading the county government to cover the cost of an additional 10 social workers and therapists each year. Now, the district has a dedicated counselor for each of its nine feeder patterns, so that students can get some consistency in mental health services and aren’t sharing a counselor with kids at some 50 other schools around the district.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strained even those additional mental health resources. “Even with the growth we’ve made, the demand we have is far exceeding what we have available,” Houlihan said. “So we’re probably still not where we need to be. But we’re in a much better position on that,” compared with 2016, when he joined the district.
Terry Grier, a former superintendent of the Houston Independent school district, worked closely with Houlihan, who served as the Texas district’s chief academic officer and chief human-resources officer, among other roles.
In Houston, Houlihan helped create Arabic and Mandarin immersion schools. He played a big role in turning around a struggling middle school by refocusing its curriculum on health-care careers, an idea he later brought to Union County. Grier considers him one of the top young superintendents in the country.
“He’s out-of-the-box creative. He’s articulate, he’s bright, he has a boatload of common sense,” Grier said. “He knows how to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’ve made a mistake.’ He’s humble, and he hires good people.”
And although their day-to-day portfolios differ, some of the Houlihan and Rimmer’s best work has been in partnership.
In the fall of 2017, Houlihan worked to get 1st and 2nd graders in Union County who have been slow to get hooked on books and reading the opportunity to read one-on-one with a volunteer for a half hour each week. The program gets the students some additional reading time and introduces another supportive adult into their lives.
Then social distancing hit. So Rimmer trained all the volunteer coordinators at the district’s elementary schools to help readers serve kids virtually, ensuring that the program could continue during the pandemic.
The district’s career academies are another, more ambitious collaboration. Back in 2017, the district partnered with Atrium Health, which operates a local hospital, to create a health-career academy at a high-poverty middle school. The program is modeled in part after one that Houlihan worked on in Houston. Students get exposure to health-care careers that go beyond nurse or doctor.
They can learn about the business side of health care or the way that robotics help doctors perform procedures. The program has been expanded to include elementary schools, where students learn about nutrition and neuroscience, and high schools, where students get more hands-on work experience.
That’s where Rimmer comes in. She works with Melissa Hines, the health-academy service coordinator and an Atrium employee, to make sure that teachers have the support they need in delivering the health-care curriculum.
“She’s just a wealth of knowledge,” Hines said. “And she’s a really fun person to work with, plus she’s mission-driven and solutions-focused. If there’s some type of project or assignment or goal that we’re not meeting, we can have really honest conversations … [asking] what are missing?”
The model has been so successful that the district later opened an agri-technology academy in a more rural area of the county, which Houlihan is also helping to oversee. When implementing such a complex project, it’s easy to forget the purpose behind all the work, Hines said.
“Both of them stay focused on the vision” of a project, she said. “I think sometimes it’s really easy to lose sight of.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as On Tutoring, Mental Health, and Tech, N.C. District Stays Ahead of the Curve