In ‘State of the District,’ Gaines outlines Mehlville’s reliance on strategy

Pictured above: In the Rogers Elementary first-day-of-school scavenger hunt, second-grader Aleah Jacobsmeyer, right, and other students went straight to the top for help, asking Superintendent Chris Gaines if he fit any of their categories. He checked the box ‘I like vegetables.’ 

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines presented his fifth annual State of the District last week, highlighting Mehlville’s successes with its strategic plan, which is entering its next five-year phase.

“It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes, but this is my fifth one of these. And the first one that I ever did was on my 70th day in the district,” Gaines said to a crowd of nearly 30 people, mostly comprised of Board of Education members and administrators, at Mehlville High School’s Nottelmann Auditorium Sept. 16. “Since then, over the years, I’ve talked about a myriad of things… Today is my 1,539th day in the district and I’m doing this again. And tonight I just want to talk about our strategic plan and Mehlville Listens.”

The groundwork for the strategic plan was first set out in fall 2014 under interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, before it was formally adopted by the school board in February 2015. The strategic plan is built around three elements: student preparation, teacher support and being effective and efficient, said Gaines. The plan, which is planned in five-year cycles, is currently in year four.

“So really the management of that strategic plan is how we allocate our energy across the district and what that looks like,” said Gaines, breaking down each element of the plan and what the district has been doing to accomplish each element. “We’ve got these three elements… The first one is student preparation. So what have we been doing in that regard?”

Attention has focused on the district’s “Portrait of a Graduate” — goals for what every graduate will have learned by the time they graduate from Mehlville High or Oakville High — in addition to continuous classroom improvement and innovator models, the superintendent said.

“We started with STEM innovators in our middle schools,” said Gaines, referring to when the district and Discovery Education started partnering three years ago to train 32 Mehlville middle school teachers in innovation for STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Then we went to math innovators grades 2 through 8. We’ve done some high-school innovator work… and investing heavily in training and ongoing coaching for them (teachers). It’s really made a difference in student engagement.”

Gaines also highlighted the opportunities the district has made available for students, like Mosaic Elementary, the district’s lottery-based school of innovation, or the St. Louis Center for Advanced Professional Studies, or CAPS.

It gives high-school students the chance to take courses hosted by business partners in professional workplaces like medical centers, research labs, higher education and small-business coworking incubators.

“It’s fun to do all that stuff but… what are the results that we’ve gotten from that? Well, our results have been fairly positive,” said Gaines, citing achievement on the Missouri Assessment Program statewide test. “We’ve seen MAP scores are trending upwards, our ACT scores are trending upwards. We’ve seen growth in involvement in these programs.”

The superintendent said the funds from Proposition R, the 49-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters in the district in 2015, have allowed for increased professional development for teachers and staff as well as leadership development programs and support for English Language Learners, or ELL.

“We’ve been able to create smaller class sizes at the elementary schools… and we’ve really been able to increase student supports. The last few years we’ve been able to add ELL support, we’ve added support for math, we’ve added support for social/emotional learning,” said Gaines. “So what’s been the results of all of this? Better test scores trending upward, better ACT scores trending upward, our kids are more engaged… and we’re beating the industry average in terms of (teacher) turnover.”

Gaines acknowledged that compensation for teachers in the district was still behind its competitors with salary schedules and some other benefits. But he said no money is being wasted.

“On being effective and efficient, during Prop R campaigns… people said, ‘You’re wasting money in this way and that way,’ and we said, ‘OK, tell us all the ways we’re wasting money,’” said Gaines. “We looked at that list, and we said some of these are accurate and some of these aren’t accurate. So we implemented some of those ideas.”

Gaines said the district has done a lot around lighting and HVAC to make them more efficient and cost-effective, in addition to roofing.

The implementation of multi-year facilities plans also helps keep the district on track.

“So the results have been we’ve gained some efficiencies, and we’ve been able to turn around and invest those funds in the classroom. One of the ways that we’ve done that is being able to expand 1:1 (laptops) K-12 now,” said the superintendent. “We’ve been able to make capital improvements. We’re no longer falling behind. We’re not necessarily catching up, but we’re no longer falling behind.”

That all comes from following the strategic plan, he said.

“So what have we really been doing year one, two, three and four of our strategic plan? We’ve just been focusing on reaching those goals and not always focusing on the obstacles,” said Gaines. “So really all we’ve done is we’ve been working the plan…. Putting our head down and working the plan… So what does the next version of that plan look like?”

Gaines said the district has created a process to renew the strategic plan, with implementation of the process beginning this school year.

“We talked about this with the board back in June and that this year would be a year of engagement and listening to help us determine what the next iteration of our strategic plan will be,” said Gaines. “So this year will be all about listening, and next year will be about trying to put the plans together to make that work so that then we can implement and go into this five-year cycle.” The engagement process this year is called Mehlville Listens.

The Board of Education will hold four of the Mehlville Listens sessions during the 2019-2020 school year. Each session will focus on a particular aspect of schooling and the district, and will provide residents the opportunity to provide their feedback.

Additionally, the district will hold online survey ThoughtExchanges throughout the year. The first ThoughtExchange closed Aug. 30 and asked the community what the district should be doing to help prepare students for life after graduation.

“We’re gonna take all that feedback… We’re just going to slowly narrow down those themes and come up with ‘What is the community’s long-term vision?’” said Gaines. “And then what are the little pieces we need to put in place along the way so that we can get to that vision that the community has for its schools.”

The district will also gather feedback from its parent-teacher meetings.

“It goes back to something I’ve said over and over again. This is the community’s schools. You tell us what you want in your schools, and we’ll try to deliver that. So this whole year is about what you want out of the future of your schools.”