Student behavior, parent rights, school choice: New superintendent weighs in on issues
When Kelly Bielefeld takes over for outgoing Wichita Public Schools Superintendent Alicia Thompson on July 1, he will inherit a district that’s grappling with a teacher shortage, disruptive classroom behavior and the impending end of federal COVID-19 relief funding.
“We’ve got a lot to do but it’s an exciting time,” he told The Eagle.
Bielefeld (pronounced: BEE-luh-feld), who was selected earlier this month by the school board after an internal search process, has been USD 259’s executive director of college and career readiness since 2020.
He has also served in teacher, principal and assistant superintendent roles in the Clearwater, Derby, Renwick and Goddard districts, and at St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Kingman.
He and his wife have eight children, five of whom will attend Wichita schools in the fall.
The Eagle sat down with Bielefeld recently to discuss his priorities as superintendent and to hear what he has to say about key issues, including COVID loss, special education funding and student behavior. Responses have been edited for length.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments as USD 259’s director of college and career readiness?
“The Future Ready Center concept that we started at North High School for advanced manufacturing is a new concept for the district where we pool all of our equipment and resources into one building and then bus students to that building instead of trying to replicate programs at every high school. We put everything in one spot and then we bring the students to it.
That was a new, kind of innovative model for the district. We started one this year for health care that we’re doing the same kind of model. That has been exciting. It’s been a neat way to get kids excited about their post-secondary opportunities and even to get the training they need for the workforce in high school so they can go straight into the workforce and get local jobs.”
How do students get involved with Future Ready and what sort of training do they receive?
“It’s for juniors and seniors. Any junior and senior in Wichita Public Schools can attend. There’s no prerequisites and it’s all eligible for concurrent credit through WSU Tech. There’s numerous credentials that students can get. They start with the first semester of what we call core. They learn the basics of safety and measurement and some of the overall concepts of general manufacturing. Then they can pick a track — an automation tract, an aviation tract or a maintenance tract. . . .
The health care one is at WSU Tech South, so right across the street from St. Joe hospital on east Harry. That construction is currently underway, and we’ll probably fully launch it in August of next year. That will be CNA, home health aid, EMT — all of those certifications, which we already offer but we’ll be able to expand the offerings a lot.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80% of public schools across the U.S. report the pandemic has negatively impacted both student behavior and socio-emotional development. Would you say the district’s current restorative practices approach is on the right track?
“I absolutely believe it’s on the right track. Restorative practices (which de-emphasize student discipline in favor of facilitating conversations between affected parties) is all about building community within the classroom. . . . That’s what our kids were lacking during COVID, right? That’s what we were all missing was that community connection, the feeling of being together and working together as a team.
That’s really what restorative practices is all about. There are certain strategies that are fairly intensive, but for the most part, it’s really just about connecting and building community. We hope we can do that in every one of our schools, from the kindergarten classroom all the way up to senior year. We hope students feel connected to school, they feel like there’s trusted adults around them at school, and I believe, we believe that as a system, the more we can do that, the better student behaviors will become.”
So much has been made recently of parents’ rights in education. Those rights certainly go hand-in-hand with responsibilities. From your perspective, what are some of the most important rights that parents of WPS students have and what are the key responsibilities they have for ensuring their child can succeed in public schools?
“To use restorative practices language, what we would really like to do with all parents, and really patrons and businesses in the community, is to work with one another. That word ‘with’ is really the key. We don’t want to do this to the student without the parent being on-board, but we also don’t want to also do it for the parent without any accountability from the parents either. . . .
We do have a responsibility to the parent to take care of their kids while they’re in our care, to give them the best, most rigorous education we possibly can. But at the same time, we want to work with parents. What do you want for your student’s future? What are your goals and aspirations for your student? Because sometimes in education, we make assumptions about what we think parents want instead of listening to them and working together.”
Lawmakers in the Statehouse have tied special education funding to a school choice bill that would allow families of K-12 students up to $5,000 in state funding for alternatives to public education such as homeschooling and private education. What do you make of that legislation?
“That particular bill has lots of complexities to it. As a district, we fully support fully funded special education. That hasn’t been the case over the past years in Kansas. We fully support high-density at-risk weighting (a school finance formula component that emphasizes districts with a high percentage of students who receive free meals). That’s another thing that’s being talked about in Topeka.
And we are against anything that would deplete resources from public education. . . I believe that public education is the foundation of democracy. The ability to teach all kids, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, their background, their income level — in Wichita Public Schools, we welcome all kids. We want to encourage their growth and get them to flourish. Any time Topeka tries to take resources away from us doing that, we fight against it.”
Some lawmakers cite student achievement slipping with COVID and say this is the time that we should start looking at alternatives to public education. What would you say to that?
“Some of what’s being suggested, the data from other states that have done similar measures like [the education savings account] have not shown that there’s a lot of choice that’s being taken advantage of. A lot of times, these programs just end up funding students that are already in a private education system.
There’s definite, definite need to bounce back from COVID. We know that as a system. We know that there was learning loss, and we’ve done a lot of things with ESSER (federal pandemic relief) money to try to mitigate that through summer school and tutoring programs and specialized curriculum. There’s no denying that across the nation, COVID had a negative impact on our students’ learning. But we believe we’re putting a lot of great measures in place to overcome that, and we’ll be right back — our graduation rate already is back to what it was pre-COVID and we believe our achievement will follow.”
Special ed funding
Kansas law requires the state to fund 92% of excess costs related to special education (costs beyond the per pupil average). That obligation hasn’t been met in years. According to the Kansas Department of Education, 67.7% of Wichita’s excess costs were covered last year. Is that acceptable?
“We’ve just become accustomed to it as a system and used general fund money to pay for those expenses. The bottom line is, we’re going to take care of every kid. We’re going to take care of the needs of every student, but when it comes to special education, there’s a giant spectrum of needs. We have students that we serve who are wheelchair-bound or visually impaired or need 24-7 nursing support. So there are some high costs to supporting every single kid, and that’s what we do in Wichita.
That cost has to come from somewhere, and so it’s been a balancing act that I think Dr. Thompson’s done a great job with balancing, but if it were to be fully funded, it would help out greatly.”
What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you and is that going to be a priority during your tenure?
“It’s definitely a key. It’s definitely important. It’s different for Wichita, I think, because it’s part of who we are. We don’t have a majority of a certain racial group in the district. We are fifth-generation Wichitans and we’re immigrants and we are as diverse as our community is when you drive around it. And that’s a challenge because there are a lot of different voices, a lot of different points of view. But at the same time, it’s absolutely a strength.
We know from the research you see from business and industry that the really successful companies have very diverse board of directors or when it comes to leadership because diversity makes us better, makes us stronger. . . .
The feeling of inclusion for all of our students, I mean any school that I’ve ever been at, that’s been something that I’ve tried to instill. We’re a team. We’re included. There’s a spot for everybody.”
What responsibility does the district have specifically to its trans and non-gender-conforming students whose identities have increasingly been thrust into a divisive public discourse?
“It’s disappointing that it does become a political football. That’s a challenge. But like I’ve said, we are here for every student in Wichita. We’re here for every single kid, regardless of how they identify. We support our counselors and our social workers, we support our teachers to work with those students. There are other places where those kids would not be welcome. There are other institutions where that may not be the case and we hope that we’re not one of those. We hope that we welcome them and support them in whatever they need.”
The way schools go about teaching history has become a deeply polarizing topic in recent years. What responsibility do public schools have to educate students on the realities of U.S. and world history without sanitizing the ugly parts?
“As a district, we teach state standards in those courses, so our social studies standards are what we teach. I think the state has done a good job of articulating how to go about that and what it is we need to teach, and our teachers take that forward.”
New AI technology like Chat-GPT can very effectively answer questions, write essays and summarize information, among other things. That obviously opens the door to some potential misuse when it comes to schoolwork, so have you given any thought to how the district should approach some of these emerging technologies?
“I think the approach that we’ve got to continue to have as a district is to look toward the future. And I mentioned this a few times in my interview with the board that we want to hear from parents, we want to hear from community about how we can work together and respond to what they’re telling us. But we also want to keep our eye on the future when we’re doing that. We don’t necessarily want to just keep school the way it’s always been because parents say that’s what they’re most comfortable with. What we really want to hear from parents is, what do you want for your student in five years and in 10 years?
So, I think as these new technologies roll in, there’s maybe a knee jerk reaction to push it aside or be threatened by it. But there’s also an opportunity to learn from it and to embrace it. We’ve already started doing some professional learning with our principals around these tools. We’ve done some training with our teachers around these tools. Because whether we like it or not, our kids have access to it.
It may take away your job someday. Who knows? But the reality is, somebody is creating that technology too, so there are jobs that are future-ready jobs in IT and cyber and information systems that we also need our students to be ready for so they can create whatever the next Chat-GPT is.”
Kansas is still in the middle of its worst teacher shortage in history. What does 259 need to do to make the district a desirable place for new teachers and for retaining current teachers?
“As the CTE guy, I’m going to start at the high school level answering your question. We’ve done some exciting things. There’s some really cool energy happening in the teaching and training pathway happening with Educators Rising, which is a statewide group of pre-teachers. Emporia State hosted some summer conferences to get young people excited about the profession, and ultimately it starts there — reinvesting in our profession. . . .
In my area in particular, we’ve done probably more strategizing with alternative routes to the classroom, which can be a great option for people. A lot of times, we can’t find construction teachers or automotive teachers that have come through a traditional four-year college, so we’re hiring business and industry folks who maybe are at the end of their career or looking for a career change to come in. They know the skills but they don’t necessarily know the pedagogy and how to teach, so increasing that — I think anything we can do along those lines to really increase the pipeline brings more teachers into the profession in a general sense.
In Wichita, our HR has done good work in being creative and doing some fun things like our signing days and some interesting, novel ideas in how to get more teachers here. I believe we are the top tier when it comes to benefits and salary as far as anybody else in the region or even the state. . . But it also comes down to high-quality working environment, making sure teachers feel safe and supported in the classroom.”
If you were to talk to a parent for a few minutes, what would you tell them are your priorities as superintendent?
“We’re planning to do a strategic plan process. We’ll probably start this summer and move pretty quickly in the fall. The current board is excited about that. We also have the loss of our ESSER funding that’s coming within the next year too, so that’s a priority. We believe that we’ve done some really great things with ESSER money, so how do we keep those great things to help continue to support kids while looking at other priorities?
Beyond that, this really comes out of the strategic plan, but really looking at student achievement, student behavior and how we want to improve on those as a system, how we’re going to track the data to know how we’re improving on those as a system. Those really all come out of the board’s strategic priorities.
Through the superintendent search process, they had a big data gathering piece that they did at the beginning of the superintendent search, and those things I just listed came out of the public feedback from that. Not just public feedback but staff and students and everybody. . . We’ve got a lot to do but it’s an exciting time. Wichita is about ready to take off.”