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Profile                                      Page 43

 

Engaging All Parties in Arizona

 

 Profile Pletnick

 Gail K. Pletnick

In a conservative Arizona school community where one wouldn’t expect wide support of public education, Gail Pletnick not only listens to the critics, but also engages them, dispatching buses to their homes to bring them into her schools.

 

Pletnick is in her seventh year leading Dysart Unified School District, based 20 miles northwest of Phoenix and encompassing Sun City, a retirement community that’s a hot bed of tea party members and conservative legislators. To build the support a diverse, rapidly growing school system requires, she finds ways to bring community members, including critics, into Dysart classrooms. You don’t debate the rhetoric, she says, “but show truly what is happening.”

“Bringing everyone in” is Pletnick’s calling card, says Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit working to see more students complete high school ready for college and careers. “She has a vision, but she brings others in to help shape and share it.”

Nikki Frye, president of the Dysart Education Association, says Pletnick listens, responds and includes her in every initiative affecting teachers, whether evaluation, hiring principals or setting district goals. “I’ve never worked for a better superintendent,” says the teacher of 40 years.

Pletnick’s vision is reflected in Dysart’s strategic plan — what she calls “our contract with our community and our roadmap” — designed over years with teachers, parents, students and community leaders. She promotes shared leadership in which everyone plays to their strengths.

“Sometimes you are in the driver’s seat,” she says, “sometimes you are the co-pilot, and sometimes the navigator.” Even students get involved. At Shadow Ridge High, students in English classes teach architecture students about Shakespeare’s works; architecture students help English students design a replica of Globe Theater.

Pletnick acts on her vision, says Wise, moving “rapidly from aspiration into implementation.” She is building a district that engages students with learning options and a proficiency-based system that allows them to move at their own pace. Students can take college courses, complete high school early, take courses online and earn credentials on career paths in areas such as architecture, phlebotomy and auto mechanics.

“They can apply their creative thinking,” she says, “by having control over their time.”

She encourages teachers to take risks and to keep learning online, in district-run workshops and from one another.

Since Pletnick took command of the 27,000-student district in 2007, her first superintendent’s post, student performance has climbed. Eighty-one percent of Dysart students meet or exceed state reading standards, up from 59 percent nine years ago. The district tripled in size since 2000 even as voters rejected bond measures and the state slashed funding by $962 per student.

Dysart is a distant world from where Pletnick grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, the granddaughter of Polish immigrants and daughter of a coal miner, and the first of 34 grandchildren to earn a college degree. She taught at every level from preschool to college and was a principal in four districts in Pennsylvania and Arizona before joining Dysart as assistant superintendent.

Her influence now extends beyond Dysart. The Alliance for Excellent Education has showcased her work in special reports, seminars and classes, and Education Week last spring named her “A Leader To Learn From.” Educators regularly visit her district, including about 70 recently from Wyoming. Local parents and community members clock thousands of volunteer hours.

“If people understand the vision,” Pletnick says, “they want to get involved.”

Bill Graves is a freelance education writer in Beaverton, Ore. E-mail: billgraves1@frontier.com. Twitter: @Billgrav



 

BIO STATS: Gail Pletnick

Currently: superintendent, Dysart Unified School District, Surprise, Ariz.
Previously: assistant superintendent, Dysart Unified Schools
Age: 59
Greatest influences on career: A 7th-grade speech teacher took a special interest in a shy girl and modeled for me the power of a dedicated teacher.
Best professional day: I truly can say each new day holds so much promise and opportunity in this profession that I find something to celebrate every day.
Books at bedside: Getting More by Stuart Diamond; The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz; and Drive by Daniel H. Pink
Biggest blooper: Once, in a speech at a parent awards dinner, instead of calling the contributions of our volunteers valuable, I said valueless.
Why I’m an AASA member: AASA allows us to be a voice for the students we serve, making certain their needs are considered in educational policies and regulation.

 

 

 

 

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