Creating Pathways to Passion
Friday, November 15, 2019
by: Dr. A. Katrise Perera

Section: From Contributors


Superintendent Dr. A. Katrise Perera, Gresham Barlow School District



I grew up along the hemlines of my Creole grandmother, who had a love for cooking and a passion for helping others. She believed everyone deserved a helping hand when and where needed. She was no Mother Theresa, but if you knew her, then you knew she was a good listener, compassionate, empathetic, and you knew you could depend on her — no matter what. In her kitchen, if she was asked why she was smiling while she conjured up a daily meal or an everyday snack, her response oftentimes was that when you love what you do, you cannot help but show it with a big smile. She arose each morning with an intentional focus of helping others, to guide others, and in the end she inspired me to do the same.
I grew up along the hemlines of my Creole grandmother, who had a love for cooking and a passion for helping others. She believed everyone deserved a helping hand when and where needed. She was no Mother Theresa, but if you knew her, then you knew she was a good listener, compassionate, empathetic, and you knew you could depend on her — no matter what. In her kitchen, if she was asked why she was smiling while she conjured up a daily meal or an everyday snack, her response oftentimes was that when you love what you do, you cannot help but show it with a big smile. She arose each morning with an intentional focus of helping others, to guide others, and in the end she inspired me to do the same.

Naturally, I became a believer in recognizing your passion for what you do, and it has served me well throughout my personal and professional life.  While conjuring up my own recipe for life, I found my passion in 1994 as I began my career as a new teacher in Charlottesville City Schools (Virginia).  I am no longer leading a single classroom but I am privileged to serve an entire learning community in Gresham, Oregon as the superintendent. Along with other leadership skills, I believe passion is key. So, every day I intend to lead with passion and am conscious of how I exhibit it through my daily efforts to increase access and opportunities for each student. Although I have taken a few detours and veered off my path of passion a few times, I have found my way back.

After being named the 2015 National Association of Schools Superintendent (NASS) of the Year, I allowed corporate America to recruit me away from what I knew to be my passion. I was lured away from education by the opportunity to work with 70 different urban school districts, to travel, to have a larger impact on teaching and learning, to have a chance to relocate closer to family. During the first six months, I was excited, but the thrill of living out of a suitcase and sleeping in different hotels each week grew old fast. I kept waiting on my passion to kick into gear, but it never sparked and I missed interacting with students. Those who knew me could see the lack of passion in my work and encouraged me to return to what they knew to be my passion.

In July of 2017, I was selected to serve as superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow School District in Gresham. Since then, it has been a true honor to serve the community of learners. I was afforded a year of listening and learning to students, staff, and the community stakeholders to determine how to strategically lead a good school district to district of choice. After analyzing the gathered stakeholder feedback — both qualitative and quantitative data — I knew I would need help to cultivate a passion for teaching and learning that would help students achieve at their highest potential if we were to be successful.

Passion is the key ingredient!
 
A passion for access and opportunity for all
In the Gresham-Barlow School District (GBSD), we believe innovative learning experiences ought not be exclusive; they should be widely available, highly engaging, and designed to prepare all students for our rapidly evolving global community. Because of this, GBSD is working to develop and expand our Pathways to Career Success Program in six career clusters, including Industry and Engineering, Early Childhood Education, Natural Resources, and Business and Management.

Our teachers and industry partners are joining together to develop project-based learning that integrates academic standards, career exposure, and experience for students as early as grades 3 and 4. Last school year, we launched a Construction Pathway that partnered local industry with students at each level of elementary, middle, and high school. As a result of the exposure and experience, we saw many unintended benefits from the program, such as increased attendance, improved achievement, and a decrease in behavior of those who participated. The outcomes affirmed what many educators have known for years. We know that if students can discover their passion through real-world experiences, they will be engaged and everyone benefits. In addition, when students are engaged in their learning, they can envision and plan for their future, and graduate with success skills — no matter their address, socio-economic status, or learning abilities.

A passion for growing your own
Representation matters is not just a phrase for the times. There are several studies that support that representation (content and personnel) in the classroom matters to student achievement. And rightly so, if our public schools' student population is ever-changing and is becoming more diverse. But if our classrooms and boardrooms do not reflect the diverse communities they serve, then we should exhibit urgency that allows us to prioritize ways to address the imbalance. The core workforce in education, and more immediately in the classroom, has to reflect the students entering the buildings each day. I see this as a prime opportunity to ignite a passion for teaching and learning through our classrooms, but with diverse group individuals who are already vested in a community. Often, in education, we are focused on preparing students for a variety of career paths, but we fail to recognize that our profession needs help, too.

In Oregon, the Gresham-Barlow School District competes with 196 districts across Oregon for an already-limited number of candidates with the desire to become teachers and an even lower number of diverse candidates. To help strengthen our pool of candidates, we have partnered with Warner-Pacific University to provide opportunities for our educational assistants/paraprofessionals to earn a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in teaching.  The program is an 18-month program of study, and once they have successfully completed the program, the student will qualify for a state teaching license. We are excited about the potential benefits and the number of diverse candidates participating in the program. We believe that the grow-your-own opportunities will allow us to build a collective program of teacher development that is aligned with the needs of our community of learners.
 
A passion for using resources in a different way
The most important voice in education is that of those we serve daily — our students.  With a desire to continuously improve and to ensure we extend access and opportunities for all students. Their voice is key. We began the year leveraging opportunities to engage our stakeholders of students, staff, parents, the community, and especially culturally-specific groups who have historically been disenfranchised with the intent to learn more about what we are doing well and how we can improve. The impetus behind our community engagement work is a historic investment in Oregon’s education system. The Oregon Legislature passed the Student Success Act (SSA) last spring. When fully implemented, the SSA will invest approximately $2 billion for early learning and K-12 education, and close to $500 million will go directly to Oregon school districts and eligible charter schools through the Student Investment Account. 

This is a once in a generation moment for K-12 education in Oregon. As we engage our community, our message has been that we have been entrusted with new resources and that we are poised to collaboratively design new pathways of opportunities. These pathways have to include ambitious and bold plans that will entice each student to harness their passion. The choice of our students has to be viewed as a journey of ever-changing learning options — not a destination.
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