Springfield superintendent: ‘It finally feels like back to school’

Bob Hill talks about how school has gone since students have been back, staffing levels, expectations, struggles and accomplishments.

Springfield City School students have been back to school for a month and the superintendent says it finally feels like “back to school” after nearly three years of issues impacted by the pandemic.

As schools have continued to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, there have also been some highlights as students have returned for the school year, Superintendent Bob Hill told the Springfield News-Sun.

Hill spoke to the Springfield News-Sun at length for a question and answer about what he’s looking forward to in the new school year, staffing levels, what the expectations are for the rest of the year, and the struggles and accomplishments of the district.

The interview was edited for length.

SNS: What’s the new school year been like?

Hill: For the first time in nearly three years, ‘back to school’ finally feels like ‘back to school.’ It’s been so refreshing to visit each of our buildings and see kids who are smiling, learning, and genuinely enjoying their time with their friends and teachers. Without the dark cloud of COVID-19 and its resulting restrictions, our educators can solely focus on reaching their full potential as teachers. Every day, we challenge them to create innovative and engaging ways to teach our students – and every day, they exceed our expectations. After speaking with many of our staff, I can say it feels as though a very heavy weight has finally been lifted from their shoulders.

Even though the district has several new leaders in place, I feel that the transition into the new year has been incredibly smooth, and that speaks volumes about the dedication and effort that each of our administrators and staff have put in to make this school year the best yet. The district is continuously evaluating what procedures and methods are most effective for our students and working diligently to improve what could be functioning better.

What is changing this year?

Hill: Our school year kicked off with our All-Staff Back to School Celebration, traditionally referred to as Convocation. For the first time ever, the district changed the format of Convocation for it to truly be recognized as a time of excitement ahead of the new school year. All district staff gathered in the football field stands for a quick pep rally led by district leadership and the Springfield High School Wildcat Marching Band and Drill Team. Staff then enjoyed a picnic lunch and yard games on the football field. It was my hope that taking time to celebrate with our staff in this way helped to instill a sense of community in them that they could take with them back to their buildings for the first day of school.

A collective identity across our district is especially important this year, as we retired all our elementary and middle school mascots over the summer. Each student is now officially a Wildcat, regardless of their grade level. This decision was made after receiving input from hundreds of students, staff, and community stakeholders during our strategic planning process. By connecting our youngest Wildcats with our oldest, we begin to bridge the gap in a district of nearly 7,500 students and create a feeling of Cat Pride that our city has yet to see the full potential of.

Our educators have done an incredible job of embracing this change, which was evident even on the first day of school. Buildings like Warder Park-Wayne and Perrin Woods greeted their new Wildcat students with blue and yellow hallway displays, balloons and confetti. It makes me very excited to anticipate how each building will celebrate our ‘One Wildcat Family’ in their own way.

What’s it been like for students?

Hill: The students and staff have been extremely excited to be back in school. It’s a good feeling in the Springfield City School District right now. Our Clark Preschool students were the last to return to their buildings after Labor Day, so it finally feels as though our Wildcat Family is complete. To see kids literally running to school in the morning is an experience that makes you feel so full as an educator, and I hope it only reaffirms to our building staff that they are much needed and appreciated.

Are staffing levels at where they need to be?

Hill: The district filled nearly 100 positions over the summer. The district is thrilled to welcome dozens of new faces to our Wildcat Family, as well as celebrate the transitions of many of our existing staff members. These changes bring about a new energy that is essential for our district to grow and improve. With that said, the district is still hiring for a handful of positions in various sectors including high school teachers, paraprofessionals and intervention specialists at all age levels, other support staff positions and substitutes.

There were several more teaching positions to fill this year compared to years past due to retirements, as well as employees who chose to leave education entirely due to stressors brought on by the pandemic. However, our Human Resources Department did a phenomenal job of recruiting for vacant teaching positions and onboarding our new teaching staff.

We are always looking to boost our substitute pool for teaching positions, paraprofessionals, intervention specialists and support staff (custodians, secretaries, cook helpers and bus drivers). Recently, the district increased the hourly rate for substitutes in order to attract more candidates.

What are your concerns about COVID-19?

Hill: Thankfully, the district is not experiencing nearly the amount of COVID-related illness with students or staff that we have had in years past. We have put out district quarantine procedures as a precaution and are constantly monitoring any new information from local and state health authorities. While mask wearing is not a requirement, we will not discourage any student or staff member from wearing a mask if they choose to do so.

What are your expectations for the rest of the year?

Hill: I expect that each member of our Wildcat Family will do their part every day to make us a better school district. We are only as strong as our weakest asset, so I encourage our staff and students to build one another up to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.

I expect our leadership team to make decisions with our new Strategic Plan vision and mission in mind. After many of our goals were put on pause due to the pandemic, this is the year to get back on track and really turn some heads with some of the projects we have in the pipeline. For example, we are very excited to begin the third phase of the renovation of The Dome, or the former Springfield South High School. This will transform the remaining space in the building into additional classrooms, offices for administrative staff and the rejuvenation of Tiffany Gymnasium, which holds a special place in the hearts of many Springfieldians.

What are your challenges this year?

Hill: Time and time again, it is evident that some of the district’s biggest accomplishments are born when we are faced with our biggest challenges.

Inclusivity and diversity, for example, prove to be two of our biggest challenges and our biggest accomplishments. With an influx of new families from several different locals, our Federal Programs and Multicultural Outreach teams are rapidly growing. We are proud to offer among the most engaging ESL services in the area, that seek to empower children with necessary language skills so they can confidently enter general education classrooms and succeed. The district is currently piloting a bilingual program, where students of different native languages will learn in the same classroom together while also acquiring a second language. The district’s changing population causes us to constantly adapt, hire additional staff and re-strategize how we can communicate with all of our families, regardless of their native language.

In addition to different nationalities, the district also serves students who face challenges with poverty, homelessness or other external factors at home. However, in the 2021-22 school year, the Federal Programs and Family Programming Departments, with the partnership of The Nehemiah Foundation, piloted an online portal in which local churches can meet the needs of students and families that cannot be met through other means. During the pilot launch of ‘CarePortal’ in the district, over 40 children were served – which equated to approximately $8,000 in goods and services. That program was piloted in eight schools but will be expanding to all Springfield school buildings this year.

The district continues to be the most inclusive school district in the area. Every effort will continue to be made to serve each of our students and propel them to succeed – no matter their needs or life situations.

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