‘We have work to do for our kids,’ says new Shepherd Superintendent

By Megan Whitworth

Rick Hartley walked into his new office July 13 on his first day as the new Superintendent of Shepherd ISD.

“Nervous is not the right word, excited I think is a better word,” Hartley said after he was asked how he felt about his first day.

Recalling the moments after he was announced as the lone finalist on June 19 by the Board of Trustees, the new superintendent said he felt “a lot of elation.”

“My mind started thinking, ‘Alright, this is happening. This is good. I’ve been named the lone finalist,’” he said. “My mind immediately started thinking work - all the numbers, all the information I had. I started processing where I needed to start.”

On July 11 Hartley was officially voted in as superintendent in a special meeting where he met SIS principals, along with their spouses. Calling the evening a big celebration, Hartley said it was good to get that initial contact. Getting to know the staff, school district and community is a priority for the Superintendent, which is part of his 90-day plan as he begins his new job.

“I’ve got the big learning curve. I need to learn Shepherd,” Hartley said. “Most everybody here has lived here and knows everybody. I don’t have that yet. It will take me time to get there. I need to start meeting people – all of the different aspects of the district and the community. The two work together to educate the kids.”

Hartley said his top priority will be to work on removing the Improvement Required labels on some of the schools in the district. Shepherd Intermediate School and Shepherd Primary School both received IR ratings on the 2015-2016 report cards, according to Texas Education Agency reports.

“I’m not walking into this nervous. There’s a job to be done,” he said. “We need to remove the IR label, for that to happen we need to change some things on the campus as far as the students at the rate they are learning. How do we do that? It’s a variety of things.

“That’s our first goal, but that’s not our only goal,” Hartley continued. “Just because the other campuses are meeting accountability, we can look at different aspects of it; find out where we can be better there. What more can we do for our students? … I want to make sure we are always providing what our students want, because they are the ones who drive what we need to provide.”

Another item Hartley said he wants to work on is forming a Parent Teacher Association in Shepherd.
“I want to reach out here, and reengage a strong communication between the schools and community,” he said.

One way to build strong communication, Hartley plans to visit local churches to get to know parents and students.

“I need to be in the community, I need to engage the parents,” he said. “I need to go into the community to have a dialogue. I need to find out if there are any misconceptions, because if you don’t have a dialogue, there can be perception the school is doing this, but the school may not be doing that at all. Whether it’s good or bad, I want full disclosure - here is what we’re doing at the school; here are all the fantastic things your kids have a chance to do.”

But changing things around this year is not something Hartley is focusing on.

“There is a process I need to go through, and most of it is learning. This is not the year of change. ..If anything it’s the year of tweaks. We know what we need to do. We’ll find out what’s happening, we’ll make a few tweaks along the way so we can improve the instruction.

“Just because I see something different from what I’m use to doesn’t mean it needs to be changed, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s different. I need to find out about it,” Hartley said. “Some of the things that are going to be different, I’m going to get the history on why it’s there and go, ‘It makes perfect sense.’ Somethings I’ll look at and realize it’s that way because it’s always been, but nobody knows why, and I might tweak that, either the way I’m use to or the way that best fits Shepherd’s needs.”

Hartley got his start in education while studying criminal justice in college. He used to tutor math students after the professors left for the day. After a plan to go into the FBI failed because of his eye-sight, Hartley remembered the love he had for tutoring those students. He quickly decided to pursue education. His first teaching job was at the lowest performing elementary in San Diego, California with a district population of 143,000 students.

“I walked in; saw a pile of curriculum I’d never seen before. We survived that year. It was fun. It was a great learning experience,” Hartley said. “I learned a lot of things I did wrong, because as a brand new teacher – it doesn’t matter what you learned in the classroom, classroom management is bottom line. You have to have that down.

"You can be brilliant in your content knowledge, but if you can’t build rapport with the kids, and engage them where they want to learn or at least actively participating. Learning is going to happen when that happens. You’re in trouble. I was in trouble a lot.”

During his second year of teaching, Hartley said he shifted to middle school and that’s “where I found my calling.”

“I was definitely cut out to be in middle school,” he said. “That was my fit.”

After eight years of teaching in California, Hartley and his family packed up and moved to Waco. He went straight into teaching middle school with 498 students, from a previous 1500 student population in his previous school.

“I was responsible for every eighth grader. Every eighth grader that left our campus had me as their math teacher,” he said. “That’s something I really liked. I knew I was personally responsible for every child leaving with a strong math base heading into high school.”

After serving as a teacher, Hartley then became principal over a struggling school in South Waco.

“We were able to come into a campus that was struggling a little bit, and turn it around. We quickly became at that point …the highest performing middle school. I had a great staff. They also didn’t leave. That’s important.

“We need teachers to stick around, because the relationships they build with the students and families, and each other, build a strong team. That’s important,” Hartley said. “That’s what this team of teachers did. We got in there. Looked at what we needed to work on, and we were able to move these kids forward. Actually drove those students into academic students we needed to be.”

Over the years, Hartley moved through different positions in Waco ISD, lastly serving as assistant superintendent. His first campus assignment was four struggling middle schools. During his first summer, he had had to replace four principals. But without a doubt, Hartley, and the middle school staff, were able to turn around the schools and move them forward with higher scores.

Hartley said he applied to be superintendent in Shepherd ISD after a friend notified him of the open position. After researching the school district and seeing the areas that needed improvement, Hartley said it was almost as if he was called to his new position. His years of experience in helping middle schools raise their testing scores, and other areas of service, Hartley knew it would be a perfect fit to help the students move forward.

“I looked at it, and I saw the areas where improvement is called for, greatly matched exactly the previous three years I had worked on the middle schools and high schools I was working on back in Waco,” he said.

The new superintendent has already met with directors a couple of weeks ago to discuss curriculum, but to also get to know the staff. He also plans to meet with students, starting with the high school students, to not only get to know the students better but to see what can be improved and what needs to be changed.

“I want to hear from them,” he said. "The fact that they’re in high school, and most of them will be all Shepherd, I need to know their experiences – the experiences they’ve struggled; the experiences they think are fantastic, and what they would like us to provide an opportunity we don’t have just yet. The curses we offer are driven by students’ desire. …’We really want to learn this, whatever this is’ – and if it’s one of the courses TEA offers, it’s our job to put it into place.”

Hartley said it can be daunting when a new superintendent comes into a new school district – what will they change, who will they be - are some of the questions staff may ask. But Hartley said he wants to move past those questions, and “just get down to it; we have work to do for our kids.”

“I’m Rick. We’ve got a job to do,” he said. “I want to help educate kids.”