Dr. Sara Hahn-Huston finished her first six months as Superintendent of Hood River County School District on Jan. 1.
Prior to coming to Hood River. Hahn-Huston had worked for Gresham-Barlow since 2015. She has nearly three decades experience as an educator, including 10 years as a teacher and experience as a principal in dual-language schools. Hahn-Huston sat down last fall for an interview with Hood River News Editor Kirby Neumann-Rea for an interview.
Part 1 appeared in the Jan. 8 edition.
At the end of part 1, Hahn-Huston discussed the topic of equity for students, saying, “If we know what we value, we’re going to live what we value ... knowing the value is there, setting the expectation for what that looks like, and creating the time and opportunity to make it visible and live and authentic is really our primary task.
“Every principal has different leadership styles and how they go about it might look different, but as we get to know people through relationships we can find ways to encourage and engage them, too. So I think helping principals knowing, if they don’t know already, the best strategies to get them the tools to develop that.”
HRN: These themes are a big part of professional development, which has had a big emphasis in this district.
Hahn-Huston: I’d agree. Leadership around all levels in our district is pretty impressive, and it shows in the evidence of not only academic achievement, how students achieve in relation to the benchmarks established by the state but also the growth of our students, around our district.
We have students demonstrating growth. Some might have growth and they might not hit that significant standard, but the growth part is there, which is really what we want to see. We want all kids to meet standards, too, and we look at that from an equity perspective, but we look at what we maybe could do differently or continue doing well. But the growth aspect of it we couldn’t have if we didn’t know the kids well in relationship.
HRN: Can you define what you mean by “the growth part”?
Hahn-Huston: Achievement growth — where the kids start at the beginning of the year and where they ended up. We look at it both ways: How they did in relation to the state standards and how well kids performed — did we take them from where they where they were at, and did everyone move forward? Which is what we want to do.
In recent board meetings we’ve had some achievement updates and I’d encourage people to get into the weeds of board meeting minutes and see the power point display. It’s also on the district report card that came out last fall.
HRN: What stands out for you from that recent report card and what is it you feel the district needs to work on the most?
Hahn-Huston: I see a lot of strengths, especially in the area of growth. In the area of English Language Arts, we’ve been performing well.
Areas we still need to focus on in the district appears to be math. Math continues to be a barrier, especially in middle school as kids begin to transition into high school. I think it’s a state and national issue and not specific to us, but math will always be an area that needs more attention. We’ve completed our goals conferences with principals and district office leaders and that’s an area we’ll be collectively looking at. One of the things that I think is really healthy and strong in our district that also speaks to growth is that from the board and all the way down into our organization, we have unified and aligned goals, so our school board goals align with mine as superintendent, those goals align with all the leadership, and their goals who oversee their departments, and that’s the ideal.
HRN: How do you assess the goals and monitor them and, if you see the need, adjust them?
Hahn-Huston: We do a lot of progress monitoring and a variety of data points to measure it, because a lot of the state data is like an autopsy, an after-the-fact: After learning took place, where did we land? Internally, throughout the year, we’re always using formative measures, we’re always doing our checkpoints and checking to see how the kids are doing, keeping our hand on the pulse of learning across the district to see, ‘Are we continuing to move everyone in the same direction, not just the kids who are already at benchmark and continuing to meet it? Are we taking out groups, such as our English Learner groups or students with disabilities, are we effectively helping them reach their goals?’ We are really looking at all of our sub-groups of students, not just everybody as a whole: Is it working for everybody? I think that’s important.
HRN: How well do you think the district’s efforts in terms of equity are really working and how does the district need to improve?
Hahn-Huston: That’s one of the key questions I’ve been gathering as I’ve been gathering input during parent community and staff surveys and in-person meetings.
At a Cascade Locks parent meeting, I asked, ‘When you look from an equity standpoint, do all kids have equal access and opportunity to resources and opportunities and if they don’t, what would be some ideas to close that gap?’ Equity is always on the forefront of my mind, it’s always been that people who worked with me know that it’s always my lead-in. It may make some people uncomfortable when I resurrect inequities that may already exist.
In September, my work with our principals and our leadership asked, ‘Are there institutional barriers in our system, and what are they?’ If there are barriers, we need to identify them, because if we can’t identify them, we can’t fix them. I took them through an exercise where we went through and a number of things that came up from their perspective of some systems that used to be more equitable but over time as demographics or things in our schools have changed, or our communities changed a little bit. We need a different opportunity to look at it and hear multiple perspectives.
HRN: What’s an example of that?
Hahh-Huston: I really value student voices, too, and at the high school I had a chance to meet with some freshmen and some juniors in the AVID class, and they were telling some of the things that, as an example around some inequities that might exist, is where some homework is given electronically, an electronic assignment, and some students don’t have access to Internet at home, and the things they have to do just to get the job done so they don’t get a bad grade in the course. That would be a barrier. Transportation came up as a barrier for kids in Parkdale and Cascade Locks. It helps guide me in being able to know where are the holes and what can we do to fix it.
I don’t think it’s exclusive to just the district working to fix it. I know our CAT transit is meeting and there are partnerships and opportunities to consider ways to help close those gaps. I think community partners have a really strong role in that, depending on what the gap is. The transportation gap has come up.
HRN: Is there a conversation you’ve heard that stands out, something someone said that really made you think?
Hahn-Huston: I don’t know if it would be one conversation, but I’d say collectively the spirit that flows throughout our district is to really around making sure that ‘all means all,’ that it does not mean ‘most of us,’ but it means everybody.
I think that’s the part for me that has been really exciting to see: The culture of collectivity and community, and that’s been great. Coming from larger districts, it’s nice when people do get involved, but it’s not always the norm. We have to seek that out as educators and here I feel like more people have come forward, to say ‘Here’s what I do, here’s my family, here’s what I can do to help.’ And that’s impressive.
HRN: What’s it like as a parent in this district? Can you ever separate yourself from being superintendent?
Hahn-Huston: I think I can separate myself. You always wonder if the people you lead who are working my kids can separate. I think about, if I’m in jeans at a community event and I have my parent hat on, if people can see me as a parent in that moment. I’m not sure. I’m not sure how folks can do that. I try desperately to.
I strongly believe in the district here, or I wouldn’t put my most precious investment of my kids into the care of the district by any means. As a superintendent, this (HRCSD leadership) was really the only job I was interested in. I was pretty selective not only about where I want to work but also because of my kids and where I want them to learn and grow and reach their potential.
HRN: This article might make it more likely people who don’t know you are superintendent will now.
Hahn-Huston: Yes, it might mean that someone will see me and think, ‘Oh, that Mom has a kid in my class, too,’ and they might connect with me in a different way.
HRN: You had impressions of Hood River before you arrived. Now that you’ve been here six months, how have they changed?
Hahn-Huston: I knew the community was involved in the schools, and I had my own perception of what that looks like coming from larger district, and so community involvement and engagement is awesome, but coming here and now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s at a completely different level than other places I’ve experienced, and everyone here has their hand on the school district in a positive way in a hope that it will always grow and get better each day, and it’s exciting to see.
HRN: With school districts as with any public agency, the financial health is an ongoing concern, especially with the state of the PERS funding situation; what are your thoughts of how well Hood River schools will manage all this?
Hahn-Huston: Saundra Buchanan (district finance director) has done a great job with the budget and keeping enough money in reserves to counter-balance the changes with PERS and increased costs, and I feel like we’re in a really great place with the budget and still having a conservative budget and still making sure people get what they need and delivering for our students at the level we want to.
We are moving into a really unique time. I think seasoned superintendents are really jealous of us first-year superintendents, we come in for the first time and have all this access to (2018) Student Success Act Funds coming through to help fill some gaps.