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New Olathe Superintendent's Priority Is To Reconnect Kids With Their Schools Post-Pandemic

Olathe Public Schools
Brent Yeager will start his new job as superintendent of Olathe Public Schools in July.

The largest school district in the Kansas City area will have a new leader starting in July.

Brent Yeager is currently Olathe’s assistant superintendent for learning services. He previously worked as director of elementary programs and as a principal. He spoke to KCUR about his plans to lead the district out of a global pandemic.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

ELLE MOXLEY, REPORTER: How do you go in as a superintendent and take the reins during a period of so much change, where no matter what decision was made or how much thought was put into it, there are going to be stakeholders in the community who think it was the wrong decision?

BRENT YEAGER: First and foremost, I think for any educator, not just a superintendent, we have to remember why we got into education in the first place, recognizing that every student in our district has one shot at third grade. They have one shot at ninth grade. And certainly, it's much easier if we can (work) in a way where our community says, ‘Yes, this is what we need to be doing.’

The period of time that we're just coming out of has been extremely challenging. And I say coming out of it intentionally because I hope we will be coming out of it over the next few months. Kind of hard to see that right now, in some ways, but I think we're going to get better at some things based on this pandemic. That might be naive because I haven't sat in that seat yet. But I think we can do it.

EM: Tell me a little bit about your current role, what you've been doing kind of up until this point at the district.

BY: My first job in the district was to be a principal at Fairview Elementary School, which is one of our Title I elementary schools in the district. And honestly, that's one of the things that drew me to Olathe in the beginning. The exciting thing about that is we became one of the top-performing elementary schools in the district, the state, and even in the nation, which was really important at the time because, our students in that school, by and large, had a lot of the risk factors that we talk about for kids.

And I think that's where we are as a district. You know, we have students in our system who perform really well, but our number of students who receive free and reduced lunch support grows every year, our number of students who receive ELL (English language learner) support grows every year. We have to be sure that we have those high expectations and really important opportunities for all kids.

EM: Talk to me a little bit about the diversity that you do have in the district. It's easy to paint suburban school districts like Olathe with a broad brush and say they're majority white, they're mostly affluent, there are more families that have means. And that's not the case. They are much more diverse than that.

BY: We have to be real about it. When kids graduate from the Olathe Public School District, there's not a world where we say, ‘Those of you that have qualified for free and reduced lunch, go over here. Those of you who speak Spanish as your primary language, go over here.’ I mean, we have to prepare all of our kids for the world that awaits them. And you know, to me, we have to be willing to have honest conversations about our achievement gaps and those kinds of things within our system.

And it's kind of what you said. I mean, our averages are great. We outperform every state and national measurement always, but we have students we can look at who aren't doing that. And to know that what we do for one of our very affluent schools, we may need to do something a little bit different at one of our Title I schools, to make sure that we can make the playing field fair for all kids.

EM: We have learned, I think more than anything else this year, that schools provide a lot more than education, especially for families that need more resources. They are the resource center. What are some of the things you've been thinking about in terms of child well-being to make sure that students can come to school and focus on learning?

BY: My mind immediately went to Maslow's hierarchy of needs when you said that. I'm proud because our district and our community have worked hard to make sure our kids are fed (during the pandemic). ... From a school perspective, kids have to be connected to their schools. Not just academically, but in a social-emotional way, relationships with adults, those kinds of things. And for a fair number of our students, those things have continued to be strong, but it’s been an inconsistent year at best despite everyone’s best efforts. And as we go back to school in the fall, the No. 1 thing we’re going to have to do is connect kids back to school.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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