Ask Justin Hayes why he took the job as superintendent of Santee Community Schools -- where school achievement rates are among the lowest in the state -- and he’ll take you back to his days as a student.
A 2001 graduate of Lincoln East High School, Hayes said he struggled in school.
"I wasn’t the most studious kid," he said.
Still, he graduated from high school and then college and taught school in Council Bluffs, Bellevue and Omaha and with the Educational Service Unit in Neligh, often working with special education students and those with behavioral issues.
In July, he became the superintendent in Santee because of his own experiences in school, and because he's convinced things can get better in Santee.
“From the student who got in trouble and was on an IEP (individualized education program for students with special education needs) to superintendent,” he said. “I like to work and be in the tough areas.”
He’s got his work cut out for him. Severe poverty, drug addiction and other issues plague the Santee Reservation in northeast corner of the state and several superintendents have come and gone in recent years.
The district’s mobility rate is more than three times the state average, and just 14% of grade school students and 7% of middle school students literacy skills are at grade level on national standardized assessments.
Those issues prompted the state department of education to devote the majority of its resources set aside to help low-performing schools to Santee, designating its elementary, middle and high schools as priority schools.
The state education department designates up to four schools as “priority schools” and provides assistance to district officials to help improve achievement. A school in Schuyler also is designated a priority school.
That work brought Hayes and other Santee officials to the state board of education Thursday to explain the plan Santee and state department of education staff have put together to change the trajectory of student achievement. The board is expected to approve the plan on Friday.
Since Hayes began his new job, he’s hired a special education director, who also does some work as a school psychologist, a secondary school principal and an instructional coach to work with teachers.
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When he started he said, there were no science or special education teachers. He’s hired two science teachers and four special education teachers.
The state education department has hired a coach to work with Hayes and another to work with the school board.
Hayes said one of the reasons he came to Santee is that he wants to prove that good things can happen with a good team and the right people — a mix of both longtime Santee staff and those new to the district.
The plan set aggressive goals it hopes to meet by May 2020. They include:
* Increase students who meet meet grade level literacy expectations on national standardized tests to 40%. It hopes to increase proficiency on state test scores by 4% and improve performance by high school juniors who take the ACT by 2%.
* Lower chronic absenteeism by 5%. Now those rates are at 38% for elementary school students, 62% for middle school students and 75% for high school students.
* Increase the graduation rate from 32% to 50%, make sure 80% of middle school students are on track to graduate and ensure 50% of pre-schoolers meet benchmarks on the kindergarten readiness.
Hayes said they’ll work toward those goals in a number of ways, including having an instructional coach work with individual teachers over a six-week period; and improve how they help struggling students so they don’t fall behind.
They’ve purchased a new English Language Arts curriculum and staff will adjust it so it follows state standards. They'll find ways to make school more engaging to students so they'll want to be in school, he said. For instance, the science teachers plan to start a robotics program.
They want to reward good attendance and other achievements, and begin using restorative justice practices that focus on helping students take responsibility for their actions, rather than punishing them.
Hayes is optimistic.
“I have a heart and desire to do things people say can’t be done,” he said.