By Jeff Keeling
With what she says are plenty of strengths upon which to build, the woman chosen to become Washington County Schools’ next superintendent hopes to “push the envelope” for academic excellence, talent development and character development.
“We’re going to celebrate what’s working, and I believe it’s my job to honor the traditions that are there in place while trying to help the school district move forward and progress at the same time with some innovative approaches,” Kimber Halliburton told News and Neighbor Monday. The Washington County Board of Education voted 8-1 March 29 to offer the director’s job to Halliburton, who has taught and been an administrator in Metro Nashville schools since 1988. Current superintendent Ron Dykes will retire at the end of this school year.
Halliburton spoke by phone from Nashville’s Waverly-Belmont Elementary School, a school she opened in 2014 after serving as principal at three other Nashville metro schools. Halliburton laid out the basics of her approach for running a system, which she’ll get a chance to do come July 1, provided contract details are worked out.
Waverly-Belmont is one of two technology demonstration schools in Nashville, and Halliburton hopes to see technology used wisely and well in Washington County, something Board of Education Chairman Todd Ganger said Monday was a priority for the board as well.
“Mr. Dykes has done a great job getting us ahead of the game with technology, and we’re hoping Mrs. Halliburton will be able to take us even further,” Ganger said.
Halliburton said taking the time to research and find the right technology products for educators and students is critical to getting a proper return on the investment. During at least six months of research in Metro Nashville, the team she was part of wasn’t looking for, “a shiny pretty toy that the community would be impressed with. Whatever devices we selected, we wanted it to be purposeful and meaningful for the teachers to utilize and for the students.”
Halliburton said the teachers and students at Waverly-Belmont are using “interactive panels” with a software called Snowflake. It allows as many as 10 students to work simultaneously on various projects. She also mentioned the schoolwide implementation there of teacher microphones. She said especially at the elementary level, with ear infections common, studies have shown the practice’s effectiveness.
Halliburton said teachers like it too, as they don’t go home as fatigued from having to use their “teacher voices” all day.
“The audio in my school has transformed the learning for students here and the level of understanding with the content. It’s amazing. You really have to see it to grasp and understand it.”
The three “R’s,” budgets and communication
Halliburton, who began her career as an elementary special education teacher, said Washington County’s performance data show strengths in third through eighth grade math, and in high school English I and II. High school algebra and lower grade reading/language arts have been experiencing declines.
From the math end, “I want to be a part of helping build on the success they’re experiencing in math in the earlier grades as we enter into high school,” Halliburton said. She said much the same for reading and language arts in the lower grades.
It’s all part of her desire to help Washington County’s schools achieve the performance excellence the individual schools she’s led have achieved, Halliburton said.
“I want Washington County Schools to be the premier choice for parents. I don’t want parents to feel they have to go private (other than for religious reasons). I want parents to have a real faith that if they come to Washington County their children are going to get an exceptional education.”
She recognizes getting the systems’ hundreds of employees motivated to improve involves an art that includes strong communication skills and an encouraging leadership style.
“I don’t believe in coming in and browbeating people about, ‘oh, this looks horrible.’ I don’t think that ever works. You have to be direct about what the expectations are, but there’s a lot of really good things happening in Washington County that we can build on, and there’s some things that need work.
“I think that people are more willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work alongside you when they know that you’ve recognized, ‘hey, we’re really doing this well, we can do it even better, and then there’s some areas we need to improve upon.’ I think you have to always recognize what people are doing well.”
“Pushing the envelope,” as Halliburton said she wants to do, will require a wise use of funds, and an ability to convince elected leaders there is a strong strategic plan that will yield a return on investment, she said.
“I’m going to need to take a look at the budget and see where the inefficiencies are, and try to find some ways where we can work within the parameters,” Halliburton said. She added that she’ll try to expand partnerships with businesses and the community at large.
Ganger said Halliburton’s experience with budgets was a plus, as was her gift for communication. “Everything comes down to funding,” Ganger said. “With Mrs. Halliburton being a good communicator, hopefully working with the (county) commission and finding the best ways to find funding to better our school system, I believe she’ll bring some new ideas and new perspectives and be able to take us to the next level.”
For Halliburton, defining that level is simple. Become the best around. She said she vetted Washington County’s school board members to see whether they seemed willing to, “push the envelope like I’m talking about,” and would be amicable to work with.
“I was looking for a board that would offer me some wise counsel, but also was hungry for some leadership at the same time and would allow me to have a big vision for the district,” she said.
The reason for her ambition is also relatively straightforward, Halliburton added. She believes K-12 public education offers a real chance to make a difference in children’s lives.
“It’s really building relationships and being there for the students. They need more from the adults in charge than just the academic piece. I feel like their teachers guide them each day. A superintendent stands as a model for boys and girls. You don’t ever, in my opinion, get so far away from the classroom that you get away from students. I’m looking forward to spending time in the schools and really getting to know the students and the teachers and our support people.”