New HISD Superintendent is talking….customer service
By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
Last of Six Parts
SCOTT SHEPPARD HAS a road map for improving the Huntsville Independent School District. It comes more out of some cutting-edge leadership approaches that involve everyone from the superintendent to someone mowing the schoolhouse lawn.
And, it involves some direct talk to parents and locals about the need to have them give the schools a fighting chance and look more at what is coming than what might have happened in the past.
“We have attracted some top talent from some very high-performing school districts. We have dispelled the myth that no one wants to come to Huntsville. We have brought people in from all around the state. They are bringing ideas from high-performing districts to Huntsville,” Sheppard told Walker County News Today.
He’s heard all the past complaints for why Huntsville schools are the pits – too many minorities, gangs, prison families, teacher pay, immigrants. He isn’t buying them. Most he calmly shoots down as overblown or fixable with a focus. His message for people wondering what is going on in the schools this year is to talk to people who are there.
The thing about the past is that it can get so loud it drowns out the future. Sheppard wants people to talk about the schools, but not about what went wrong years ago.
“Before they judge, talk to our current employees, those that are here. Ask them about this year’s start, and how they feel about where we are going. Overwhelmingly what they are going to hear is we are going in the right direction. That’s from our teacher’s, campus leaders,” he said.
He said a top priority is giving staff resources. He said teacher resources have been improved and increased. More focus is being put on staff development. The discipline program has been strengthened.
“We are creating a more positive culture within our buildings and I am sure that will trickle down to our students, and I think our community,” he said.
As noted in the WCNT series on the recent TEA report and HISD”s “F” grade, Sheppard and his team are going to focus on what happens inside the classroom. He has heard about the infamous bond issue of a few years ago for $75 million that was shot down by voters. But, he also points out voters overwhelmingly approved last year a shift in dollars from the debt reduction fund to management and operations so teachers could get raises.
“Had voters not approved that, not only would we not have a balanced budget today, we would have been at the opposite extreme. We would have been in the red and in reduction mode. That is how much of a difference it made and we can’t thank voters enough.”
THE BUILDING PROBLEMS haven’t gone away, but Sheppard said he won’t be asking for bond issues until trust has been earned.
“There are needs in our future. What people should be understanding is that we are spending gobs and gobs of money to keep our facilities afloat, to remain operational. That impacts our ability to pay teachers, to staff appropriately because we are spending so much money on aging facilities,” he said. But he quickly noted, first comes the classroom.
He laid out the path at the convocation for faculty and staff this summer, and he doesn’t mind sharing it.
“It wasn’t your typical program before the school year. We didn’t talk academics. We did not stress tests,” he said.
What he did stress was the five ways champions think from author and speaker Jon Gordon, outlined in our previous installment.
The second and third ones may come as a surprise to people used to watching school districts over the years.
“Be polite and professional,” Sheppard said with a laugh. “You might chuckle at that, but the way we treat everyone is going to dictate our success or failure. So, when I say be polite and professional, I mean to our kids, our parents and our colleagues. We have to be polite and professional and serve each other.”
And finally – customer service. Sheppard is serious about that one.
“We want to provide exceptional customer service. We based our discussion with staff on Disney and how they do it. We talked a lot about who our customers are and who the competition is. Well, the competition is not just another school, it is every business and organization out there.
“If one of our parents is on the way to a campus and they pull into a fast food place and have a great customer experience, then they get to the campus, walk into our building and the service they are greeted with doesn’t compare to the fast food restaurant, the we suffer. Whether they intentionally compare the two experiences, we all tend to do that at some level. If my bank doesn’t treat me as well as the person behind the Whataburger counter, I’m not going to feel good about my bank,” Sheppard said.
“Our level of customer is going up. The bar is being raised, and substantially.”
Sheppard knows building culture doesn’t happen overnight just as he knows reversing years of decline doesn’t happen in one year. That’s particularly true in a state where the funding system seems to constantly be moving schools backward.
But, looking to Gordon’s Five Ways Champions Think, he really does believe that all the small victories, all the time spent on finding good people and allowing them to help find solutions, giving students a chance to grow, involving the community all will make a difference.
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-293-0293.