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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow focused on stabilizing ed agency

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Change is a work toward stability at the Wyoming Department of Education. At least that's according to new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

She recently took over the agency from former State Superintendent Cindy Hill, who chose not to run for re-election.

"In our first days in office, we've been very focused on stabilizing and strengthening what is already there," said Balow, a Republican from Cheyenne.

In addition to seeking to stabilize the department, she is working to fill open staff positions, increase the department's proactive work and build relationships with school districts, the State Board of Education and legislators.

Currently, she said, she is in the process of defining a "vision of a vision" and putting together a strategic plan for the department. The document is a work in progress, she said.

It is partly based on a widespread survey her administration put forth to those involved in education statewide.

"Folks are concerned for a number of different reasons about assessment, curriculum, quality teaching, and retaining and recruiting the very best teachers," Balow said. "I would anticipate that as we go forward building this vision for Wyoming education, that some of those issues that were identified in the survey and strategic planning will continue to be front and center as we set goals for education."

A goal of the planning process will be to make the department into a more proactive agency, rather than a purely reactive one, she told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Since the November election, Balow said, she has been putting together leadership teams of former and current educators in the state.

"Almost immediately after the election, we put together a team including former Gov. (Jim) Geringer, former superintendent Judy Catchpole, two former school district superintendents and a current district administrator and really got a lay of the land as far as what's going on in education," she said. "We asked them to go boots on the ground and talk to as many folks as they could."

Balow also has tried to reach out to different groups involved with education, including school districts, the Wyoming Association of School Administrators, the Wyoming Education Association, the State Board of Education and legislators.

All are "working on rebuilding and renewing those relationships, so that we're all partners in education and can recognize that common vision," she said.

Throughout the current legislative session, the department will be "triaging" the bills coming through, Balow said.

The focus will be on bills that relate to students.

"During a legislative session especially, it's tempting to be reactive and kind of jump or speak at whatever the de jour is," she said. "But we want to be really conscientious about moving forward with the bigger vision."

Some of the bills the department is watching include those that deal with standards, accountability and testing, she said.

She added that she is supporting a repeal of the footnote that ended consideration of the Next Generation Science Standards and ultimately halted work on revising the state's science standards.

"I support the repeal because we need to be able to talk about science standards. But ... there's a huge 'but,'" Balow said. "That is this: When the footnote, or if the footnote, is repealed, we cannot put the Next Generation Science Standards right in front of the State Board of Education for adoption."

Instead, she said there needs to be a process to allow people from across the state to comment on standards development.

"We want to make sure that we work together on an inclusive process that ensures that we have Wyoming standards for Wyoming kids," she said. "We need to have high, rigorous science standards, but we also need to make sure that we have an inclusive process that ensures we have Wyoming's standards."

Within the department, Balow said she has been working to both make sure that the right people are in the right positions and to start filling positions.

"There are about 34 vacancies at the Department of Education, so truly, in almost every area of the department, folks are trying hard to just fulfill the basic responsibilities of their job, oftentimes doing the job of two or three people," she said. "So it is a priority to make sure that we're operating at capacity, so we can do our jobs."

The process of filling all of the open positions may take six months to a year, she said.

But to fill some of them, including those in her leadership team, she is looking to school districts.

"The school districts have been incredibly benevolent and cooperative, and it is no small task to pull people out mid-year," she said. "We are so grateful to the school districts across the state that recognize this greater mission of strengthening and stabilizing the Department of Education."

A benefit of looking to district employees is that their involvement will help building the department's intuitional and historical knowledge, Balow said.

Within the department, there also already has been some reorganization, she said. But most of it has been at the leadership or administrative level. The work hasn't gone further into the organization at this point because there needs to be staff input, she said.

Also, the Legislature may indicate changes or priorities that need additional staff attention.

"Leadership is much less about authority and power, and much more about facilitating a vision," Balow said. "I'm humbled to have that opportunity to facilitate a vision with so many incredible educators and leaders across our state."


Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

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