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Wichita’s new superintendent offers insight on the challenges of running an urban school district

Kelly Bielefeld, right, will become superintendent of Wichita schools in July. School board president Sheril Logan introduced him during a news conference after Bielefeld was appointed in March.
Suzanne Perez
Kelly Bielefeld, right, is the new superintendent of Wichita public schools. School board president Sheril Logan introduced Bielefeld at a news conference after he was appointed in March.

Kelly Bielefeld will start his role as Wichita superintendent in July. His priorities include developing a new strategic plan for the district, adjusting to the end of federal COVID-relief funding and dealing with an ongoing teacher shortage.

Kelly Bielefeld was recently appointed superintendent of Wichita public schools, the largest district in Kansas.

When he assumes his new post in July, he will have to tackle several challenges, including student behavior, special education funding and criticism from state lawmakers.

Bielefeld (pronounced BEE-luh-feld) talked with education reporter Suzanne Perez and The Range about those issues, as well as the ongoing teacher shortage.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

PEREZ: How do you go about attracting and retaining teachers to work in Wichita, specifically?

BIELEFELD: We have good salaries, good benefits, a lot of good things to offer teachers. We support new teachers in a phenomenal way, compared to other places. The (school) board is interested in continuing to fund teacher salaries and a great working environment that's productive and safe for teachers.
When it comes to the overall teacher shortage, we've got to think differently. In my current role, working with college and career readiness, I'm in conversations all the time across Wichita about the pipeline, whether it's the manufacturing industry or public service — firefighters, corrections officers, that sort of thing. We need to do the same thing that those other industries are doing — starting them young, encouraging kids, supporting them along the way, maybe looking at creative ways to get people into the pipeline that we haven't thought of before.
Because we're all struggling with that shortage of labor, and if we want Wichita to continue to flourish and grow, we have to have a solid education system in order for any of it to work.

It’s been a few weeks since you were named the new superintendent. What’s on your agenda?

The first few days were kind of a whirlwind, wrapping my head around everything, lots of messages of support and encouragement. Over spring break I started talking with Dr. (Alicia) Thompson, and we are meeting regularly, working on transition. She is setting me up for every success possible and has been a great mentor.

So now it's meeting with board members, meeting with district leaders, really talking to them, getting to know them and hearing about what they feel the vision is and where we need to move forward.

You have a long history with suburban school districts, but you only just came to Wichita in 2020. What brought you to this district? Why did you want to work here?

I've lived in the Wichita area for the last 20 years. When I was a principal in Derby, I was at Oaklawn Elementary, so that’s really in south Wichita. I got a feel for what an urban school was really like, and I loved it. The only reason I left there was to move back to my hometown at the time, which was Clearwater. So the move to Wichita was an opportunity for me to get into a big urban district.

(Deputy Superintendent) Gil Alvarez hired me. We got our master's degrees at WSU together in 2005. Just knowing him and Vince Evans (assistant superintendent of student support services) and some of the other people in the district, they advocated for what a great place it is. So that really sold me on and got me excited about Wichita.

Wichita is the largest district in the state 10% of Kansas school kids go to Wichita schools. What are your top priorities as you start your service here?

The school board would like to create a new strategic plan in the next few months, and really create that plan for, ‘What does it look like from 2023 to 2027?’ That'll be the first step, which entails a lot of listening sessions, input from business and industry, community members.
We have other things on the horizon, including the end of federal COVID-relief funding at the end of 2024. We'll have to start making some priority decisions about what things we want to continue and things we won't be able to. And just keeping an eye on what is going on in Topeka with the Kansas Legislature, and how that might impact not just next school year, but school years to come.

Let's talk about student behavior. That's been a huge concern for a lot of parents, teachers and lawmakers. What, if anything, can you do about that?

I don't think any of us really anticipated, coming out of COVID, that it would be like this. We tried to start school back as normal as it was in 2019. And as we look back, we can see that the lack of community that kids felt during COVID and being isolated had a bigger impact than we realized. That isn’t a Wichita issue. That's a nationwide issue.

We've done some work with restorative practices, really trying to get kids connected to adults and teachers at the school. That's a long-game answer; that’s not a Band-Aid answer. But I do think there are strategies we can use in the next year to mitigate some of the behaviors that we're seeing, and try to respond as effectively and as quickly as we can to support all kids.

There's a lot of talk about student achievement and the learning gap, both COVID-related and otherwise. What goes through your mind when you hear criticisms, especially in Topeka, about how public schools are failing our kids?

There are groups that pick and choose what data they tend to focus on. State assessments in Kansas are some of the most rigorous in the nation. We believe in high rigor, and we want kids to achieve at a high rate. But when you have that level of rigor, it also sets you up for criticism that kids aren't meeting that level of rigor.

Sometimes Florida is held up as an example of what we need to be doing more of in public education. Kansas has a higher average ACT score than Florida does. So when you look at that data, Kansas isn't failing kids, by any means. We are actually achieving well. So it really depends on what metrics you look at.

We have students in our district of all shapes and sizes. We have Newcomer students who just came to the country as immigrants. We have students with language barriers and students with disabilities. So to judge them all on the same scale isn't always fair or equitable. But if you look at how much progress they're making, these students are really making good gains.

How much of a factor is the negative rhetoric around teaching and education?

It doesn't help any, obviously. I think the best way to combat that is to have our great advocates who do the work and show up every day and know the difference we're making in the lives of kids to continue to tell that story. We haven't been telling that story loud enough, and the people that have been telling a different story have had their megaphones out. There's some really exciting things that we're doing … to get high school kids excited (about becoming teachers). That's playing the long game, of course. But we're hoping we can start to inspire a new generation of kids to know that education is all about building a democracy, building a community, making a difference in the lives of people and really investing in the future.

You’re a father of eight, ages 4 to 19. How will you juggle parenthood with your new role as superintendent?

I have a lot of support, of course. Our oldest is a freshman in college, and as they get older, it does get a little bit easier in some ways. I have an awesome wife. And it does give me a particular perspective — I have a child in pre-K, kids in elementary school, at a magnet middle school and in high school here in Wichita. So we have every kind of developmental stage going on all the time, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It’s a lot of fun, and it helps me stay humble and grounded, that’s for sure.

What can community members do to help Wichita schools?

As we head into a strategic plan and other decisions on the horizon, we want to know what they want Wichita to look like in the future. We want to prepare students for what's next. We want to create kids that are future-ready. That might be CTE programs, or specialized training, or things like eSports and coding, but it also is things like communication skills, working in teams, problem solving, critical thinking. So if the community has insight into that, we want to hear about it.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.