New Shawnee Mission superintendent talks philosophy on embracing diversity, improving student achievement, collaborating with teachers

Dr. Michael Fulton will officially take over as Shawnee Mission School District superintendent July 1.

We sat down with incoming Shawnee Mission School District superintendent Michael Fulton on Friday to ask about his philosophy on a number of issues, from embracing changing demographics and diversity to special education services, to collaborating with teachers and staff.

You can listen to the full interview directly below. Summaries of Fulton’s remarks on individual topics follow:

What attracted Fulton to the Shawnee Mission job?

Fulton said that when the district posted the opening for a new superintendent, he was drawn in by the candidate profile Shawnee Mission developed after getting patron input.

“I paid special attention to what the community said they wanted in the next superintendent. As I read through that profile, I felt that fit both my temperament and my experiences pretty well,” Fulton said.

After spending the past 23 years in the Pattonville School District, the past 11 as superintendent, Fulton said the time was right to transition to a new phase. He saw Shawnee Mission as an ideal spot to use his experience working in an increasingly diverse community and in building collaborative relationships among communities and staff.

“That’s pretty much the way that I’ve worked over the past 20 years,” he said.

Accommodating changing demographics among students, closing the achievement gap

In the late 1990s, as the Pattonville School District was beginning to see a major demographic shift, Fulton was responsible for the creation of a strategic plan addressing how it would meet the needs of students from different backgrounds.

At the heart of that plan was a call for every Pattonville student to be a proficient learner, a responsible citizen, and to be college or career ready. With those goals in place and clearly communicated to staff, the district outperformed its peers on a number of metrics.

“As diversity grew, so too did achievement. And that happened because the community [and] staff worked together to put into place a plan that really focused on learning for every single child as the ultimate outcome for what we would achieve,” Fulton said.

He believes such an approach will be key to Shawnee Mission as it looks to address changing demographics. He said public education systems need to focus in on closing the achievement gap.

“We’d better do a great job with every child, and get out of kind of the path that we’ve been on in previous decades where some kids achieve and others don’t,” he said.

Fulton indicated he was open to the recommendation of the group of district parents who have helped create a strategic plan for improving cultural competency that there ought to be district-level officials responsible for diversity and inclusion issues.

Fulton noted that in Pattonville the district had taken more of a “distributed approach” to those responsibilities, but that he believed a district the size of Shawnee Mission likely needs someone formally tasked with the duties.

“When you get into larger systems, it’s reasonable to think that someone’s going to have that assignment,” Fulton said.

Addressing students’ social and emotional needs

Following two months in a row where groups of parents have lobbied the school board and administration to provide more counselors at elementary schools, Fulton noted that public education systems across the United States are facing similar issues.

“I think what Shawnee Mission is experiencing is the exact same thing that schools are experiencing across the country,” he said. “Trauma is on the rise. The need for strong social-emotional supports are critical if kids are going to be able to focus on learning.”

He said that he believed it would be crucial to look at a variety of options for providing access to counselors, social workers or other mental health professionals. Fulton suggested schools may look to collaborate with private or county agencies in addition to providing school-level services.

“Everyone is struggling with resourcing that effectively,” Fulton said of providing access to emotional support systems for students.

Special education services

Fulton said he’s committed to providing quality services to special education students in part because his own brother was a special needs student.

“He grew up at a time when there was no requirement to meet the needs of special needs students,” Fulton said. “For me it’s a very personal and sensitive topic because I absolutely see the importance of trying to do the best we can to meet  every child’s needs.”

As with social-emotional supports, resourcing such programs can be a challenge, he said, so it’s often advisable to look for ways to work with other education systems to collaborate.

“Some of the needs become very expensive. And so that’s where you have to probably look toward not just internal resources, but are there ways to set up collaboratives with other districts to meet those needs.”

Building positive relationships with teachers

Fulton said that he is a collaborator by nature, and would be spending his first few months on the job focusing on building relationships with staff and members of the community. While he noted that you are “never going to have 100 percent agreement” on big questions about direction, it was important to build a culture where people had the ability to speak up.

“You do want to create an environment where people feel like they have voice,” he said.