PJ Caposey of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois is a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year award from AASA, The School Superintendents Association. The small rural district has 1,500 students, and Caposey has been in the role since 2013.
SmartBrief chatted with him about fixing broken systems, winning tough battles for funding, navigating sensitive conversations with the community and focusing just on what matters.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
Fixing broken systems
SmartBrief: Your bio says that you changed the foundational approach for ELA and math in grades K through five. What wasn’t working when you arrived, and how did you change it?
Caposey: When I got here just about everything was broken, with the exception of the teachers working really hard in the classroom with kids. We were fortunate in that regard.
But we hadn’t had new curricular resources in about 15 years. We got some new materials and started working, but so much in the district was on fire — outside of the academics — that we had to fix everything else. It took about four years to get everything running satisfactorily.
Then we looked at our scores. They were fine — we were recognized for academic performance — but they weren’t great. What do we do to fix it? Our first instinct was to get some instructional coaches and make sure that we were maximizing our instruction. We found that our instruction was sound but in some cases, our approaches were a little outdated or our expectations were too low. So if we wanted different results, we had to do certain things differently.
We looked for new resources so we could redesign the curriculum. We had two goals: increase expectations and take a different approach that would force the adults to change their behavior. We didn’t want to do something that just would have teachers teach harder or teach more. We wanted a foundational flip in what we were doing. We started with math and then followed up with ELA. We are an early adopter of the science of reading. We’re a bit ahead of many districts with that.
When people talk about learning loss, we don’t have it right now. We haven’t had any gains but we are exactly where we were pre-pandemic by all of our internal metrics.
SmartBrief: What do you mean by changing teachers’ behavior?
Caposey: In the last 15 years, there’s been more cataloguing and describing of effective instruction than ever before, with the ushering in Danielson and Marzano and the big evaluation tools and systems. Teachers are teaching soundly. They’re doing all of the things in the mechanisms they should. So if we wanted different results, we had to do certain things differently.
My belief is almost always that either there’s something that we’re missing — which would just be curriculum, like the science of reading — or our expectations are just too low. For us to move forward, we had to flip both of those on their heads. We had to find things that demanded kids to think critically — that demanded them to curate information, decide what’s important, connect it to what they’ve already learned and then have in-depth conversations using their own critical thinking skills — or we had to fundamentally shift what we were doing. I think we’ve done both with our approaches and our curriculum base at the K-5 level.
Hard lessons and ubiquitous access
SmartBrief: Meridian has gone from not having working email to now being a one-to-one district with ubiquitous WiFi even in students’ homes. What did you do to make this happen?
Caposey: When I was hired, we didn’t have email. I was the fifth superintendent in three calendar years and one of the first things I asked for was an email address and they couldn’t give me one.
It was a long, long road. It was incremental progress. We needed WiFi and wireless in our buildings. We’re about 40 miles from Northern Illinois University which meant that we could advocate for and get fiber near us and to our schools earlier and more comprehensively than other rural districts. That was more good fortune than good planning.
We wanted to switch to one-to-one but we’re in a community that doesn’t necessarily support technological expenditures. One thing I’ve been decent at as superintendent, though, is taking hot-button issues and finding ways to call them something different. We didn’t go one-to-one, but we put a cart with Chromebooks in every classroom that every student could use. At all times throughout the day, students were one-to-one. I called it ubiquitous access to technology.
We had pushed hard for Google Classroom and for teachers to become Google certified. We paid for the certification and gave them a financial incentive when they completed it. It paid off. When the pandemic hit, we were uniquely positioned to move into a digital atmosphere.
But then we hit a new snag: A lot of kids didn’t have Internet at home. We were able to partner with T-Mobile and order a bunch of hot spots — the week before everyone in the world needed them. Fortunately, we got in early and our kids were able to have access to WiFi in their homes through T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots.
This experience was a hard lesson for me. We’re in a district where talking about diversity, equity and inclusion is tough. But talking about providing access and opportunity is okay.
I feel compelled to do it both ways. If I need to change policy in the short term or if I find out something’s an equity issue and I call it a “gatekeeper policy” or talk about opportunity or access, I can pretty much have carte blanche.
But, I also think that in a position of power and authority and influence in my community that I need to talk about it as DE&I at times. I need to have that conversation. The handful of students in our district who are of color or come from different backgrounds have a fundamentally different experience than other kids in our district — and not necessarily worse, or tragic, or systemically racist, or oppressive, but different. If I know that, then I have a moral and ethical imperative to act on it. So I just try to have a strategy and courage to continue having those conversations.
Retaining teachers, staff
SmartBrief: You’ve had extraordinarily low staff turnover during your tenure — and I know that you have competition from other higher paying districts. What are you doing to foster retention at Meridian?
Caposey: We have a saying: “Known, honored and valued.” We believe that if our staff feel known, honored and valued, they are less likely to leave.
One way we’ve done this is with our instructional coaching program. We wanted to give teachers a systematic way to grow in their craft and better support kids. Motivation is misunderstood many times. Whenever we can connect people back to their ‘why” and the impact that they can have and help them work toward mastering what they’re doing and take money off the table as a disincentive, then we have an opportunity to create a place where people want to work. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with this coaching program.
Another way is through marketing and branding. We’ve been intentional about this and I get crushed publicly by our community for it. “Why are you doing all this? Why are you so showy?” But last year our county had seven principal jobs open. We had more applicants than the other six jobs combined. It’s because we’ve branded our district. It’s a place people want to come to.
If people choose to leave us, we hope that it’s a really difficult decision for them to make. We just lost one of our high school counselors because the auto factory that’s 40 minutes away in a bedroom community is closing – it’s moving to Tennessee. She’s not choosing to leave; she has to go with her family. She cried when she left. I’m not happy that she cried but I want people to feel that way – like they’re breaking up with someone they love as opposed to getting away from a toxic relationship.
SmartBrief: Of everything you’ve achieved since arriving at Meridian, what are you most proud of? And what one important achievement do you hope to be able to add to your list of accomplishments five years from now?
Caposey: The moment that was the most impactful happened when I first got here. We were almost bankrupt; we were on the verge of closing. The majority of the board had just turned over. We let go of 26 people at one of our first board meetings. That was a lot of people and it was just to make payroll. It was a mess.
And then I had to go out to a community that didn’t know me — I was 30 years old — and say, “Hey, we need more money. I need to pass a referendum.” If that referendum didn’t pass, I certainly wouldn’t be here and I don’t think the district would be here either. We were bare bones at that point. No junior high athletics. Massive class sizes. Very few electives. We had just the bare bones to get through.
The night of the vote, we had the staff get together for a watch party at a nice restaurant in the county, to watch the results come in. When it passed, and I was able to announce that to the staff, it was huge.
Because when I got here there were houses and houses and houses for sale. People were just exiting. But in that moment, when the referendum passed, people realized they could stop worrying. They didn’t have to sell their house. They didn’t have to find another job. And we could start making progress.
That moment is still my favorite in my career. It was a tough, tough fight. I don’t know if that’s an achievement but that is the moment for me.
One of my biggest professional regrets happened at the district where I was principal. When I took the job, it was a historically low-achieving district. We worked and were able to turn it around and win a bunch of national awards. It was the same kind of turnaround that we had here. But within two years after I left, it went right back to where it was.
In five years, I want to see that success has continued here at Meridian. I hope it gets better. I’m leaving the district in a year-and-a-half. The board has named my successor and he’s an amazing educator — super talented. I think he can be better than me and do wonderful things. My hope is that this district stays not just where it’s at but on the trajectory of moving forward.
Figuring out what matters
SmartBrief: What’s your superintendent “secret sauce”? What do you do that other superintendents around the country might not but that they might benefit from doing themselves?
Caposey: I believe that the reason I’m a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year is not just because of what’s happened in Meridian but because of my other contributions to education. I’ve written books. I go around the country speaking and have done a Ted Talk. I coach people. I teach at multiple universities.
All of this is in addition to my work as superintendent. I am the district office. I don’t have HR. I don’t have finance. I don’t have a communications department. I am all of those things.
But what I do differently — even though I just told you I do more — is I do less than most everyone else. If I’m talented at anything, it’s figuring out what actually matters and then doing that really well and not concerning myself with the minutiae that bogs people down. That stuff is a thief of joy in the job.
I do a lot of leading. I love coming to work because I spend most of the day talking to other humans about how they can be better leaders and better serve kids. That fires me up. That’s because I just don’t concern myself with a bunch of the other stuff people do. So when I coach other superintendents and they talk about things they’re doing, I tell them to quit doing it. They’ll argue that they can’t and I tell them they can. They just can.
So if anything’s been my secret to success, it’s that I do more than everyone else comparatively, because I do less than everyone comparatively – which is a really interesting juxtaposition.
Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
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