WICHITA, Kansas (KANSAS NEWS SERVICE) — Nearly two-thirds of Wichita teachers think the state’s largest school district is headed in the wrong direction, according to research conducted by a Wichita State University professor.

In addition, less than half of Wichita teachers support the school district’s strategic plan. And a sampling of survey responses reveal educators who are frustrated by student behavior and a perceived lowering of standards.

“Our staff wants to know what supports are going to be in place for them, to help them achieve these goals,” said Katie Warren, president of United Teachers of Wichita, which represents about 4,000 teachers, counselors, librarians and other certified employees.

“It’s nice to say, ‘We’re going to do this, this and this.’ But then the people have to implement it, so how is this going to impact our workload?” Warren said. “What are we taking off their plates? So, that’s a big thing.”

The Wichita teachers union commissioned the study, which was conducted by Jeff Jarman, director of WSU’s Elliott School of Communication. An email survey was sent to 4,000 Wichita teachers and about 37% were returned. The response rate offers a margin of error of plus or minus 2%, according to the survey report.

Most teachers have generally positive perceptions of the district as a whole, the report said. Nearly three-fourths agreed with the statement, “Overall, Wichita Public Schools is a good place to work.” Fewer than 5% strongly disagreed.

A vast majority of Wichita teachers — nearly 82% — also agreed with the statement, “My building is a good place to work.”

But asked whether the Wichita district “is headed in the right direction,” more than 62% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Only 3% strongly agreed.

Warren, the union president, said results likely were affected by timing. The survey went out during the spring semester, when the Wichita school board was grappling with budget cuts and school closures. Elementary teachers had also just learned of plans to scale back on technology in classrooms.

“Sometimes we make all these changes, and we don’t stop and think: How is this going to impact our teachers? What is this going to look like, when there’s so many changes coming at once?” Warren said.

Wichita school board members unanimously approved a new five-year strategic plan, titled “Every Student Future Ready,” in December. It lays out a vision, mission and list of top priorities for Wichita schools.

The district’s three long-term goals are:

  • Increase academic achievement and graduation rate
  • Prepare students for life, college and career success
  • Create and enhance safety and belonging

Each objective comes with several interim goals, such as increasing third-grade reading proficiency and increasing the percentage of students scoring a 21 or higher on the ACT college entrance exam.

Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said the teacher survey “wasn’t super surprising,” given its timing and the challenges facing the district in recent months.

“It was a hard semester, with the school closures and the disruption for staff. … Lots of change has come, and change can be hard,” he said.

“And we’ve been talking mostly about budget, not about the strategic plan, so that didn’t surprise me that people … just don’t feel like they know enough about it.”

Bielefeld, who was named superintendent about a year ago, said another survey of Wichita school employees showed that 92% said they are proud to work for the Wichita district.

In the recent teacher survey, some open-ended responses revealed concerns about student behavior, technology and a perceived focus on graduation rather than knowledge and skills.

A sampling of the anonymous comments:

  • “I agree with the main elements of the plan, I just don’t really see in action ways the DISTRICT is improving academics or graduation rates. Our absenteeism in the elementary is worse than it has ever been, which affects everything! Taking technology away certainly is a step in the wrong direction.”
  • “I agree with what the strategic plan says in words, but we are not seeing that put into action.”
  • “I like that we have a goal, but what is the plan to get there?”
  • “How can (we) get every student future ready when we don’t hold them accountable for behaviors or academics? Students are being pushed on regardless of their ability.”
  • “259 students are rapidly failing, yet the district is doing nothing. Students are chronically absent yet move on to the next grade without having adequate skills to be successful.”
  • “Families are not held accountable for student behavior and success. Safety is only extended to students not staff. Taking risks means larger classrooms and overworked teachers and staff. The risk being taken is further losing employees because of burnout.”
  • “It has become less about making students successful measured by current standards, but rather about lowering the standards until every student is successful by default.”
  • “In light of the financial struggles, we have taken our eye off the ball of WHY students and families are leaving 259. I have actual students/families who have left or are planning to leave 259 because of academics or safety and behavior. While the plan sounds good, our actual practices do not align.”
  • “Behaviors are out of control. We are not preparing students for the future by allowing them to be disruptive. Teachers are getting physically harmed by students. That is not teaching them to be successful in the real world.”
  • “‘Future Ready’ is a myth. The district only cares about getting kids across the stage. They care little about the education they receive.”
  • “How can we make students ready when our safety is at stake? Students that are disrespectful are not held accountable. We just move them from school to school.”
  • “Not realistic. Nothing will improve until the students with severe discipline problems are dealt with so teachers can feel safe and actually teach those who want to learn.”

Bielefeld, the superintendent, said he appreciates critical feedback and uses it to help guide decisions.
“I do think we have brighter days ahead,” he said. “It has been a challenging year, but I think, looking to the future, there are some exciting things on the rise.

“As we continue to move forward with the strategic plan, I think the community will see that we’re trying to meet the needs of the parents and the business industry and the community in general.”