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Q&A with Dr. V

Blue Ribbon News Editor / Senior Reporter Austin Wells caught up with Dr. John “JJ” Villarreal to hear his thoughts on his highly-successful first 14 months as Superintendent for the Rockwall Independent School District, and what more he hopes to accomplish for the district’s youth in the upcoming 2017-2018 school year.

What are some of the goals you achieved in your first full year as Superintendent of Rockwall ISD?

The first goal was to build relationships with staff. I think it’s important that staff knows they have a superintendent that’s approachable. When you model that collaboration between staff and superintendent, you get better answers to some of the improvements that we can have in the district for the students in our community.

Big deliverables from an instruction standpoint is how we can continue to improve our special education services for the new types of students that are coming into the district with different types of needs, and be able to meet their needs with excellence. We spent the year unpacking our current services and then working together to design improvements for our training for staff this summer and implementation during the school year.

With the brand new Linda Lyon Elementary opening this year, we accomplished through partnership with the community and our board the rezoning of Amy Parks Heath Elementary. We communicated well with our community in terms of what Linda Lyon Elementary will be like for their kids. We’re also on track and on target for the new Dobbs Elementary and College and Career Academy. Implementing the bond with integrity as presented to our community has been a priority, and those seem to be going well and currently under budget.

Student achievement while you’re maintaining growth was a priority for us. We saw some strong gains specifically in math and science, and if you look at individual campuses, strong gains in all content areas.

You really immersed yourself in the district by making it a point to go out and visit campuses. Talk about that experience getting to see how teachers interact with kids within a learning environment.

Our teachers love kids in Rockwall ISD, and so kids are actively engaged in the learning process. I saw a lot of highly-engaged instruction – students asking tons of questions, teachers asking tons of questions, and rather than remembering or recalling, moving more towards using their knowledge to analyze and synthesize that information and bring it together.

I also observed a need for more advanced math at the 5th grade level. Not only did I want to move advanced math academics to start in grade 5, I also wanted students to have three options: you have your 5th grade level math, you have your compacted math which gives you a little bit of 5th grade level math and a little bit of 6th grade level math, and then you have your students who are ready to advance beyond 5th grade and go straight into 6th grade standards at grade 5. Then when they move into grades 6 and 7, you have to build that cohort of courses that’s coherent and in-sequence. So we built that and that will start this year. We definitely want to meet the needs of all kids no matter where they are academically, and we think that’ll help.

There were many areas within the district where students saw a lot of success this past year, including in STEM-based programs like robotics, in athletics, and in academics. What in your opinion were the contributing factors to these achievements?

I think we have good instructors and I think we have strong students. When you have instructors that recognize what should be taught and what the state or the nation is going to expect us to deliver in terms of competitions and assessments, and put that together with aligned instruction and quality students, I think you’re going to have a lot of success. The thing you have in Rockwall ISD is the desire to be successful at the highest level, and our kids want to be successful at the highest level. It’s the level of excellence and parent and family support that’s expected here.

What are some ways the district will look to aid students in their learning this upcoming school year?

We have a year to prepare for the Dr. Gene Burton College and Career Academy that we developed. With that, you’re going to have more specialized instruction on the STEM level, and Health Sciences will be provided there as well. To have a state-of-the-art classroom to deliver the instructional services required by those content areas I think is more authentic and applicable to the workforce. We look forward to tying in the community and our business leaders to want to support our kids through internships, our teachers through externships, and I think those become more authentic experiences. I would say that would be the next level of innovation for our district.

We have a PSAT program called Superintendent’s Scholars where we looked at where sophomore students were at with their PSAT index scores. Based on their index scores and where they were, the number of students above that line were asked to come in and be a part of PSAT tutorials in preparation for competition their junior year. A lot of the scores of students who were participating in that program increased, which gave them an opportunity possibly for a scholarship in the future and to be recognized as a National Merit Scholar. We have more students this upcoming year participating in that program, which means we have more students who qualified for higher index scores their sophomore year to participate in competition their junior year. Providing that extra support to help them increase their index scores will definitely benefit kids when they go into college.

What are you looking forward to accomplishing in the 2017-2018 school year?

For me this year, the focus is going to be on curriculum instruction and even greater excellence on the academic side. We had great student performance, and I’d like to see even higher student performance in all that we participate in. Greater clarity on the academic side would be a goal. As a district, we want to make sure we are deep and rich in what we do and in the services we provide. In order to do that, you have to balance out time. Teachers generally have seven hours for instruction, and then planning and grading time. We have teachers who teach up to 150 kids per day, and give out different assignments to 150 kids per day. We’re going to emphasize respecting the time of the teachers so that they can deliver what we’re asking them to do.

Photos courtesy of Rockwall ISD.

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