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New D91 superintendent discusses growth, safety, divisiveness and his vision for the future

Education

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IDAHO FALLS — Dr. James Shank began his job as the new Idaho Falls School District 91 superintendent following the retirement of George Boland at the end of last school year.

Shank was principal of A.H. Bush Elementary, Clair E. Gale Junior High and the Director of Federal Programs and Assessments in D91 before he moved to Washington. He has also worked in Utah and founded online learning schools over the course of his career.

He received a Doctorate of Education degree from Idaho State University, Master of Education and Bachelor of Science degrees from Brigham Young University.

Shank is married to Sallie Shank, who is a senior technical analyst for the Hospital Corporation of America. They are the parents of six children.

He sat down with EastIdahoNews.com and shared his thoughts about major issues facing the district. You can watch the entire interview in the video player above and read his responses below.

GROWTH IN THE DISTRICT

In my experience, oftentimes you’ll see a lot of housing growth but it’s all about how many kids are in those homes. You take a look at that very carefully and make sure you’re estimating and projecting correctly where those kids will need to go to school and then you make decisions.

Some of those decisions are harder than others. It could possibly be a boundary change or if a new school needs to be built, we discuss that with the community and ask them lots of questions. If we’re ready to go out to bond and build a new school, then that’s what we do but there’s a lot of things we need to do before we bond.

FUTURE OF IDAHO FALLS HIGH SCHOOL

Ten minutes before coming here, I asked the Build Up D91 group to form and have a meeting with me to discuss the past history of the bonding efforts and what they feel is needed. The need still exists in terms of the high school facility problems we have so there’s going to be some things that need to be accomplished. The issue with that is we’re going to have to do it together.

We’re going to have to create some unity and make sure people are all on the same page as to what needs to be done with Idaho Falls and Skyline high schools. I think your (users) will be interested to know that this is a question that will be asked at the next board meeting. The question of timing has to be part of it because that’s so important.

STEM INNOVATIONS

We look to innovation in STEM and career technical education issues. Not only is it about getting the kids the basics but providing additional opportunities for them to be able to engage.

We’ve got some great things going on in the district at Compass Academy and other programs perhaps there’s more we can do. We’ll take a good look to see how many kids are engaged and how many kids want to be engaged and then make greater opportunities.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

Parents obviously want to have a choice and certainly, we want to create opportunities for people to engage and have a choice. If it’s something that fills a need for parents, then certainly we can work together.

When I was down in Utah as a superintendent, at the time I left I think there were 118 charter schools in the state. There are a lot more there now. In my work in Washington state, there were a lot of private schools – not necessarily charter schools but private schools – so I’m not unused to working with charter school administrators, teachers and these sorts of things.

We’re all in the business of educating kids and learning is what we all want to have happen.

SAFETY FOLLOWING THE RIGBY SCHOOL SHOOTING

It is certainly of concern especially when it happens so close to you. What we know about intruders and school shootings is that when teachers, students and people visiting the school are behind a locked door, usually they’re safe.

So those are things we look at in our safety plan – how we can get people behind locked doors quickly and then get a response. We want schools to look like they’re still welcoming. We don’t want them to be these terribly hardened facilities where it looks like you’re going in and out of some sort of lockdown type of thing all the time but those types of measures sometimes need to be taken.

We balance that out with the culture and what’s wanted. Fortunately in Idaho, we’ve had very few of these types of incidents but they do happen in other places. There are lots of things to be learned so we try to build a response about what’s effective and I think what happened out in Rigby – it’s a tragic situation but the response was very, very good.

COVID-19 DIVISIVENESS

COVID-19 was hard on everyone. There’s no question. There were lots of people out there trying to figure out what was going on from day-to-day so if you haven’t experienced things like that in the past, it might have been a challenging moment and we saw that across the country.

My position going forward is we have to talk about and unite around why it is that we go to school – which is learning and growth. My hope is that in those type of discussions moving forward we’re able to talk about children and talk about why it is we’re coming together. We want to become better and unite around that and try to help students progress in growth rather than those particular crises that were caused by COVID.

All the changing and shifting (last year) – those are hard things especially when you’re on a school board. We need people to help us with these things but there isn’t always a tremendous amount of expertise about what needs to be done. If you speak with more superintendents across the country, you’ll find we were trying to do the right thing having never seen anything like this in our careers.

PRIORITIES MOVING FORWARD

You come in as a new superintendent and you look at what can we do together to unite around our purpose. If you think about why we come together as a school district and why we ask our parents to bring their kids to school, it’s all about learning.

Those elements of learning are not only in the classroom but also outside of the classroom and how it is that we unite around that purpose and then develop the things that are necessary for us to become better in what we do.

You’ll hear a lot more in the future about this idea of high-reliability schools. I look forward to talking about it.

One of the things you’ll see me do in the next month or two is I’ll start a ‘State of the District’ type of discussion and anybody that’s willing to listen to me, we’ll talk about where we’re at, where it is we need to be and how we’re going to get there. One other thing I’ll plan to do is Facebook Live events and the first one will be July 30.

WHAT PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT DR. SHANK

“I think one of the things people need to realize is what drives me is learning. We want people to be able to succeed and have high levels of learning. I’m talking about all students – and I really mean all – should have that ability to be engaged.

I would like people to know that our work together will be one they can feel like there’s a collaboration and that we’re working together as a team in order to bring the best possible educational program to the school district. My experience working here before is we’re a dynamic, energetic, engaging system where kids could receive a very high-quality education.

There have been a lot of innovations and we really want students to engage. Then we help prepare and make sure kids can make choices after high school that they can have confidence they know what it is they may want to do and if they don’t, that they have the skills and background to seek after other things a well.

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