Michelle Hubbard, Shawnee Mission’s next superintendent, on returning schools to ‘normalcy’

Michelle Hubbard

The Shawnee Mission School District's next superintendent, current Deputy Superintendent Michelle Hubbard (above, at a recent school board meeting) says the district will be dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student progress and academic development for a long time to come. "I think just transitioning back into some sort of what we might consider normalcy for those kids, I think it's going to be a big challenge for us," she told SM Post Editor Kyle Palmer. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

This summer, the Shawnee Mission School District will have a new leader. The Board of Education last month approved the appointment of Dr. Michelle Hubbard to lead the district under a three-year contract.

She will replace Superintendent Mike Fulton, who is retiring July 1 after a three-year stint at SMSD.

Hubbard is a familiar face in the district. She has been a central office administrator in SMSD for six years. She currently serves as Deputy Superintendent, a promotion she received in January. Before that she was Associate Superintendent of Leadership and Learning.

Prior to coming to SMSD, she worked for more than 25 years in the nearby Turner School District in KCK, where she served as that district’s superintendent for the final seven years of her tenure there.

She has lived in SMSD for 17 years and currently has twin daughters in high school in the district.

You can watch the entire interview at the Post’s Facebook page or in the embedded link below. What follows is a condensed transcript with time stamps.


What will be SMSD’s biggest challenge going forward next year? [1:10]

I think we’re still going to be in the pandemic to some extent after July 1. We still don’t know what the start of school is going to look like, but I think it’s fair to assume we could still be in masks and still have mitigation factors that we have to consider.

I think many of our kids are going to have difficult transitions, especially those that have stayed remote the entire time [this year] for many different reasons. Our high schoolers and middle schoolers really haven’t been in any normal school day for almost a year now. So I think just transitioning back into some sort of what we might consider normalcy for those kids, I think it’s going to be a big challenge for us.

And most importantly, the academic gaps that we know exist. We have preliminary data that tell us those gaps exist, especially in the area of mathematics … I’m really looking at how we’re going to address those gaps and student learning for both social, emotional, as well as academic needs.

What do you think is going to be the long-term impact of the pandemic on student learning and academic development? [3:25]

I don’t know that I can completely answer how long it’s going to take. But we will be very focused and intentional about closing those gaps [created by the pandemic.]

We’re compiling, as we speak, the first semester data: attendance, behavior, academic performance, failures, grades. So looking at all those factors and saying, “Where do we need to intervene?” Looking at that data and really knowing what that data is telling us so that we can build interventions moving forward

This year, you have been the administrator most directly in charge of designing the district’s remote learning plan. In what ways do you feel you have met students’ learning needs? And in what ways do you feel you’ve come up short? [5:35]

I just want to be clear that administrators didn’t come up with those reopening plans on our own. Teacher leaders, social workers and counselors all played a huge role in those reopening plans.

I think we learned that we’re really good at taking care of kids’ social, emotional needs and wrapping around families in that. You know, maybe families who needed Internet access, or maybe needed housing at difficult times through this pandemic. So I really learned that we’re really great at taking care of kids and families.

[In the spring, when we went to remote learning] I think everybody can agree that that could have been, probably should have been better. We didn’t know what we didn’t know at the time, but, and I feel like our reopening teams really worked hard over the summer to ensure a rigorous remote model when we opened [in the fall].

You are a parent of SMSD students. Does the district have any work to do in rebuilding trust with parents and families after this year? How do you plan to continue to try to give parents a feeling that they can trust and be invested in Shawnee Mission Schools even if they were deeply frustrated at times this year? [9:35]

Schools are constantly worrying about building trust, building relationships. I mean that that’s our business, right? We want to build great trusting relationships with kids, with parents, with our community. Obviously the pandemic made that very difficult, and I think we are constantly working on that. [After last spring], we knew we had to be better. Even as a parent, then, I was very frustrated.

We do have some parents that are extremely upset with the district, either because we’re going back or we went back too soon, or we have a set of parents that are upset because we’re not back or we haven’t gone back soon enough. But without question, we all want kids in school, and we want it to be done safely.

Did the pandemic dent the credibility and image of public schools more broadly? Do you worry about that? [12:30]

I’m not going to try to speak for, for the nation in regards to whether public schools have been dented or not. I think what I would say to that is I believe public schools are the hub of communities. And we have to do everything in our power to ensure our public schools are great. And that’s what I’m committed to in Shawnee Mission.

Do you feel like as a district you have been cut off from the greater community during the pandemic? [13:10]

It’s obviously much harder. I call it the “Brady Bunch box.” [A reference to learning and working online, on apps like Webex and Zoom.] It’s much harder to have a conversation and to facilitate groups in the “Brady Bunch box,” right?

I would much rather be in person with someone sitting next to them, building those relationships, working on solving those really difficult problems. I feel like everyone is sort of adapted and made the best of the situation. I personally do not feel cut off.

Teacher morale was an issue before the pandemic. Do you have plans to address teacher morale and take on that issue [14:55]

Those people who have worked with me in the past and know my leadership style, know I’m really about two things: people and learning.

Those are two things that are extremely important to me and really fostering and strengthening those relationships, both strengthening the internal relationships and continuing to build new relationships. I work really hard at building relationships and knowing people so that when I see them I can connect with them and I can say, ‘Hi, Kyle,’ instead of, ‘Oh yeah, maybe they might work here.’

I feel like I do have a really good relationship with our teachers union and the president of the NEA. And then I sit in on the [contract] negotiations process last year. I have a great relationship with that team. Doesn’t mean we always agree and we probably won’t always agree, but I do think that we can have really tough conversations and at the end of the day still make the best decisions for kids and staff members in the Shawnee Mission School District.

Digital technology and the use of 1:1 devices has long been a topic of heated debate in SMSD. Did the pandemic and the emergency conditions it forced upon the district with this vast experiment in virtual learning, did that strengthen or weaken the case for 1:1 technology? [17:30]

I haven’t really thought about it from that perspective, but immediately I would say it’s been strengthened with the exception of too much screentime, for both staff members and kids.

Even myself, I can remember when we first went into the pandemic, I would literally look at a computer screen, sometimes 12 hours a day. And I think that’s a lot. It’s a lot for anybody regardless of age.

I’m always going to look for the silver lining though. And I think one thing the pandemic has done in regards to instructional technology is we have changed more in education in the last 10 months or 11 months than we have in decades before this.

I mean, there are teachers that probably hadn’t even been on a WebEx or a Zoom call ever, and then they had to learn how to teach from that in a really short period of time. And we weren’t all great at it initially, but both as a parent, I see that our staff [teachers] are engaging. Teaching kids remotely is really quite phenomenal, so I am super proud of our teachers and our administrators.

Has the pandemic changed anything about how you do things that will stick permanently? [19:20]

I think we’re more efficient with communication in regards to our platforms like WebEx.

Having WebEx chat rooms and individual spaces for people to collaborate, I absolutely think WebEx and WebEx spaces and principals meetings, collaboration among teachers at the high school level has gotten more quick and efficient. Like, a Spanish teacher — rather than drive 20 minutes across town to be able to collaborate with other Spanish teachers, just have those meetings on WebEx.

I fully anticipate, especially at the middle and high school level, that Canvas [the district’s new learning management platform] becomes a tool. I’m going to speak as a parent now, but I love going to one place and get everything [my kids are working on.] Once we continue to get better and better with Canvas, you’ll really see it being utilized even more.

Several board members when your appointment was approved in their public comments noted your involvement in crafting and writing the district’s strategic plan under Dr. Fulton. Will you be sticking with that plan? And if so, in that plan what are your priorities? [22:40]

I don’t intend to change anything in the plan but just continue to move us forward. I am very committed to this plan.

I don’t know that I’d say one strategy is more important than the other. I think all five of them are very important: systems, culture, people, facilities, and academics. Those five things are what make us make the system work.

All five of those parts are very important to make the Shawnee Mission School District continue to have great traditions and great academic success.