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WATCH: Full interview with Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Brian Yearwood


Brian Yearwood has reached a critical point as the Columbia Public Schools superintendent.

This will be the third year under Yearwood's leadership and he is faced with improving the lagging attendance rates the district reported last year and maintaining progress in academic scores.

Yearwood sat down with ABC 17 News as part of a series of interviews with superintendents as the new school year begins. The interview took place last week. Questions are edited for brevity and clarity.

Nia Hinson: Tell me how the summer has been getting ready for school?

Brian Yearwood: Yes, it's been quite busy, lots of planning going into place, you know, getting ready to make sure that No. 1 our schools, properly prepared, cleanliness and making sure that repairs are done making sure that, again, the issues that affect safety are in place.

And then, of course, then looking at the logistics, making sure that No. 1, we have quality teachers, which we do in our schools that we are able to recruit and retain, or teaching staff. And then of course, the support staff, which is also very critical to the successful school, making sure those highs are done, and then working with food services, working at transportation, making sure that all of those are done.

And then of course, informing parents, you know, that, hey, school's about to start, let's get the forms in, let's get addresses changed, let's get, you know, enrollment in those that are, you know, opting in for busing, those that are needing additional information for their scholars, making sure they have that. So it's quite a planning, you know, organizationally that that happens now.

Hinson: I know, in the past, there have been some issues with parents not filling out those forms, and then come the first day of school, it's kind of chaotic. Are you guys anticipating that the numbers that you have right now are accurate?

Yearwood: Yes, I think that we are pretty close, you know, communications office has done a magnificent job of sending out the information, making sure that parents are informed and doing it repeatedly. So again, you know, we anticipate that numbers will be up. And that ... we'll be seeing less of, I call it a "last-minute dash" to get the scholars ... to opt in for busing.

Hinson: Any reason to believe you'll have to consolidate lines or anything?

Yearwood: There will be some of that happening. We did a study last year on lines and to be able to be more efficient with our buses and STA, which is, again, a private company, they did a study to determine which lines they can consolidate, and there'll be some of that happening. But, you know, for us, it's to ensure that every scholar makes it to school every day. We should be discouraging scholars from staying home. And one way we do that is making sure that our transportation to and from school is in such a condition that we are hitting the mark 100% of the time. Now, I must admit, you know, last year, we saw some situations where bus driver was sick, or the numbers started dwindling.

Bus drivers will be leaving. But again, we are anticipating some of that this year, and we are positioning ourselves in such a manner that we should see less of cancellations with our buses because that is no good for anyone. And that's something we strongly discourage. We want scholars in school every day

Hinson: And so when you say you are doing things to make sure that doesn't happen, what does that look like?

Yearwood: Looking at hiring, you know, enough drivers having I guess, substitute drivers that are there, and just setting up our systems to where if there, we do see a reduction, we can still consolidate in some areas. And make sure that again, we're prepared for any lack of drivers, as one would say, or anything like that happening at this point right now.

Hinson: Do you foresee having enough drivers?

Yearwood: Yes, yes. I had a report from yesterday from my director, your director of transportation, and he said we have the drivers. Now, the key there is to maintain the drivers because again, STA is a private company. And so they have their mechanisms in place that you know, outside of CPS. And that's what we're hoping to see.

Hinson: What will that consolidation look like? And how will that affect students and parents trying to get their students to school?

Yearwood: So they'll be informed perhaps of a different stop or different time for pickup. And the number of scholars on the buses will see an increase. There's a threshold for buses that we must abide by, by law. And we will continue to do that. We're just going to make sure that in places where perhaps you see a bus that may be a quarter full or less than half full, we can actually consolidate with another pickup area. So that way ... they're brought to school in a bus that's full of scholars. So that's one strategy.

Hinson: And then how and when will parents be informed of that?

Yearwood: It's going on right now, as they are opting in, their plans are being made. Today's (Monday) the last day, as you mentioned. And so they'll be informed, I would say within this week, and it will be ongoing. You know, there'll be accessing that information on websites and things like that.

Hinson: Tell me about the school board's discussion on school resource officers?

Yearwood: The school board has not made a decision yet on whether or not we will have school resource officers. We've worked with the city, and we are putting forth again, a plan or contract to the school board for them to approve because they have the authority to approve or disapprove the contract. And, of course, the school resource officers are just that -- there's additional officers within the school that work with our scholars to build relationships, community relationships, and to just be a helping hand. You know, I have to emphasize the one area that they're not there for is discipline, they're not there to work with discipline, they're there to build community relations with officers and to serve as a helping hand for scholars.

Hinson: What would be the reason for not having them?

Yearwood: At this point, I can't think of a reason for not having them. Looking at the records from last year, and what they've been able to accomplish, I think, you know, it was, it was a very good initiative for us to have and working collaboratively with the city and working with our current police department. I think there were many positives that came from this.

Hinson: But you guys are expected to vote on whether or not you want to keep those?

Yearwood: Yes, the school board has the authority to do that. So they'll be voting on that on Monday, as to whether or not they'll keep them or keep them and they get it. That's their right, as a school board to make that determination.

Hinson: How would not having school resource officers affect student safety?

Yearwood: We have our own internal safety and security officers here in the school system. And they play a very vital role to ensuring that, again, our schools are safe, and they're responsible for all schools. As you know, SROs were assigned to the high schools. And so this was as an added feature to also allow that safety net, to be widened as far as utilizing the school resource officers. But we do have an internal safety and security team that helps us with that,

Hinson: What does that look like?

Yearwood: Right now we have about eight I believe, and they're distributed throughout and they ... have certain sectors that they are responsible for. And, you know, they go in, they make themselves known to administrators, they work with teachers. And by the way, SROs also do that. They also work with scholars in the hallway, they have classes, and they have sessions with them, and so does our safety and security team. So that way, not only are they there for safety, but they're also there to build relationships with scholars, and to also allow the scholars and administration teachers to get to know them as well. And I think that's important, especially as we develop a stronger safety net for Columbia Public Schools.

Hinson: Is there any more talk about a weapons detection system?

Yearwood: We're continuing to investigate that. There are several companies that are coming forth. And, you know, we want to make sure that whichever system is chosen, it does what it says and it's effective. So again, it's not a decision that's being made overnight. We're taking our time we're doing the research. We're, you know, calling other school districts to see what they have and their success stories, as well as you know, areas that perhaps did not go so well. So that is being currently studied. And I think we are on the trajectory to get such a system. But we're just making sure that we cover all bases. So when we do implement ... it's a strong implementation, and it's implemented with the ability to have a great level of success for the safety of our schools.

Hinson: What's the status of video intercoms in schools?

Yearwood: So it's important for us that we seek to have a secure school. So we're doing what we call secure vestibules at every school, and we are about three or four schools away from having that totally complete. So if an individual comes to a school, they are basically having to be buzzed in and we are making sure that again, there's a line of sight with that individual and that they just can't walk into a school, you know, but they have to be buzzed in as a security feature. Because at the end of the day, we want to ensure that all scholars are safe. We want to make sure that our teachers or staff members, everyone is safe. So again, this is an additional feature that we're putting in all schools. And we are just about finished with that initiative.

Hinson: When do you foresee you'll be finished with that?

Yearwood: I think by the end of this school year, we should see that complete.

Hinson: What is the status of current expansion and construction projects?

Yearwood: So Russell Boulevard should be finished. By the end of this school year, we have Rock Ridge Elementary that will be starting up. And by the next school year, we have the Career Center, that's also undergoing a major facelift, they haven't been renovated in years. And, you know, we want to make sure that our workforce development programs are robust. And so we creating that environment for them. And then we have a new elementary school is coming online, they have started building that they're doing design right now.

And so by the end of the school year, we expect to break ground and begin that work, which will take probably another two or three years. So we're very, very, very excited about that. And then there's a major initiative that's taking place. This is the creation of a health clinic for CPS scholars, this will be strictly for them. And that's taking place at what we call the Field building, that's where we have our Gifted Center. And that's undergoing renovation right now, because of the contributions of Brightli, that works with Burrell, the company's one in the same, and they're actually undergoing renovation to make that space, a medical clinic, as well as an optometry clinic, so that all scholars can have access to eye exams, access to medical care, you know, whenever they need it.

This has been done, because, again, we need to ensure that our scholars can see. If they can't see, they can't read, they can't engage in the classroom environment like they should. And the younger we can catch any issues with eyesight, then to me that rules out any deterrence to learning and to reading and to, you know, seeing what's, what's ahead. So that initiative is being more proactive, you know, as far as the health of our scholars, and then the health clinic is in addition, because we noticed that one of the issues that we see is that we have a great nursing staff here, you know, and they can only do so much, but being able to refer or interact with a medical doctor and be able to help get a scholar from school to that clinic. And that's having total access for all regardless of socio-economic condition, regardless of any factors. It will be an open clinic for all scholars of CPS.

Hinson: Are the construction projects needed because of overcrowding?

Yearwood: Yes, yes. What's happening is there's a long-range committee, and they do like a 10-year plan. And they look at projections and you know, look at our enrollment, which is increasing, it's creeping up. And so we never want to be stuck, where we have overcrowded schools, that's no good for anyone. So because of that long-range planning, because of the team that looks at this every year, and actually, not just every year, but they meet every month. We saw a need several years ago for a new elementary school, and that's coming online now. So lots of planning, lots of working with demographers, lots of interaction with our community to ensure that, No. 1, we are serving our scholars well. And that's one way to ensure that classrooms are not overcrowded, buildings are not overcrowded.

Hinson: The Nature School is still on track to be completed by March of next year?

Yearwood: Yes ... there may be a slight delay, because what we're finding is access to materials, as in the construction, well, that's an ongoing issue. So there might be a slight delay, but it's on track in terms of we're continuing to see progress, you know, as I've driven by, I've seen the walls going up in the buildings and you know, we see it coming online, very close to that timeframe. It may be a slight delay, but we see it definitely coming on track.

Hinson: And then kind of looking at the school improvement plan, something that kind of caught my eye was attendance rates, and you guys are trying to get that increased to I believe 90% by 2026. How do you go about doing that?

Yearwood: Lots of planning lots of hard work. Lots of outreach to appearance. So what we've seen is there was a slight, there was a wain in attendance, especially coming back from COVID. And, you know, we were in the 70s, you can see our 70% attendance. And remember, this number indicates the number of scholars that attended school 90% of the time, it's not this flat attendance metric. It's 90% of our scholars attending school. So 70% of all scholars attended school 90% of the time, and we're working with our chief equity officer, Mrs. London was taking on that initiative with a team. And this year we ended at about 80%. So again, we're seeing a climb in attendance, but it's not near to where we want to be. We want to be closer to 95, 96% attendance, you know, and again, with our strategic plan, it says by 2026, 2027, and we plan to get there. And I think we will based upon the trajectory that we are in right now.

Hinson: How does CPS plan to boost teacher retention?

Yearwood: So, you know, that's a difficult one, because that's a national issue, recruiting and retaining teachers. This year, we recruited approximately 175 teachers, and that's slightly down from last year. In other words, we didn't have as many openings as we did last year.

So again, the numbers that we needed to recruit are lower. But that's, you know, typically every year in Columbia, we've recruited anywhere from 190 to 225, somewhere in that range, teachers. See at 175 shows a bit of a drop, so we are retaining more teachers. And of course, they leave for various reasons, you know, family, you know, husband moves, wife has another job offer, and so on. We are actually being ... more targeted in that. We're going out to different job fairs. And we're looking at not just job fairs within the state, which is what we've traditionally done, we now are looking at expanding and looking at national searches, because you know, quality teachers come from all over, you know, not just home. There's some that are homegrown, which are really great. And we are continuing to say, look at those job fairs and sending individuals out who will actually be responsible for recruiting, or teachers redeveloping more retention plans, by providing training, by providing interactions with our community, for example, at a new teacher breakfast yesterday, our teachers were surprised with receiving a $100 gift card by our foundation. I mean, never happened before.

So initiatives like that with our community is happening, we're talking to different things like car dealerships, about what sort of incentives they can provide. I know that Joe Machens has stepped up and said, yes, they will help with that, as far as, you know, serving as a recruitment tool for teachers. And then just creating that environment or that welcoming environment where when teachers come here, especially those that come from outside Colombia, they have a mentor, someone that can, you know, make sure that they know where are the fantastic restaurants. So you know, the list of things that are happening within Colombia ... we are paying very, very close attention to that. And we're being more intentional in the things that we're doing to be able to not just recruit but to retain our teachers as well.

Hinson: Are there enough teachers for these students?

Yearwood: Yes, right now we are doing well, we do have enough teachers for us. Of course, things happen at the last minute, you know, the illnesses and people have emergency moves, they have family members, they get sick. So we also support that by having a robust substitute pool. And we working with a private company for that. And so far, so good. Every classroom will have a teacher in it. If there's not a teacher, there'll be a quality substitute that will be in that classroom for a short period of time. But, again, we're starting off very well, I would say, with classrooms being filled with teachers.

Hinson: How do you ensure that these substitutes are qualified to teach a class?

Yearwood: Well, they go through a screening process, and thye have to make sure that they're able to ensure a certain level of proficiency. And also, they have to receive a level of certification through a state agency as well. So we do background checks, making sure that we have a quality candidate. And then, of course, you're provided with a mentor within the school. So there are other teachers that will work with them to ensure that, you know, the lesson planning and delivery of instruction is happening. So again, there's several facets of that that are happening there.

Hinson: What is CPS doing to boost test scores?

Yearwood: So if I may, it's interesting what state scores that we have on MAP scores. And so we have done that, you know, I think this year, there will be a slight increase in our math scores, because we're looking at hiring more instructional coaches, and being more targeted with our lesson planning, and looking at more things like "What does rigor look like in that classroom environment," providing additional training for teachers as well as support.

So, again, I think we all see, especially in math, that it's, it's paying off by having those slight increases. And we know that, as we put these initiatives in place, typically, initiatives take three to five years before we actually see the benefits of them. So, you know, we're not in the sprint, we're in the marathon. But in the meantime, we're hoping to see that all scholars are thriving in the areas of math in particular, and then trying to get students into more AP-level classes and things like that. There's also a part of the plan.

Hinson: How do you go about that?

Yearwood: Well, we are working with a company called Equal Opportunity Schools. And they went through and they reviewed transcripts, they reviewed scholar performance levels, because what we discovered is there are scholars who are capable of taking advanced classes, and they were not enrolling in them. So they went out, they found them. And they are actually helping to recruit scholars to take more of these advanced classes, these dual credit classes or early college high school classes. Now, it's one thing to recruit, but we also have a retention plan. In other words, if we take a scholar and we say, okay, take an advanced math class, we want to make sure they will be successful. So now we're providing supports for them. So as they enroll in those more rigorous classes, we ensure we, not guarantee, but we ensure that there's a greater level of success by providing those supports that are necessary for them along the way.

Hinson: How can CPS keep its ACT scores above the state average?

Yearwood: Just the quality of teaching that's happening in our high schools, you know. Here every junior takes or enrolls in the ACT classes. And we have a very high number of scholars that take the test. And when we compare it to the successes that we are seeing, yes, it speaks to the quality instruction that is happening in our classrooms, especially at the 11th and 12th-grade level with our scholars. You know, it's been a tradition here in Columbia, and we plan on keeping that tradition along the way. ... We celebrate, we have several scholars at Rock Bridge and Hickman that max out on the ACT scores every year. So again, it speaks to the existing quality instruction environment provided by all outstanding teaching staff here in Columbia, especially at the high schools.

Hinson: How does CPS plan to reduce out-of-school suspensions?

Yearwood: So we, you know, this year, for the first time, we've implemented what is called a behavior educational plan. It was a plan that was developed by input from administrators, teachers, community members, and so on. And we rolled that out, sort of in the middle of last year. And because it was new, where we were just beginning to see some of the benefits of that. So this year, we should continue, we will continue with the plan. And the expectation is that we start seeing a decrease in the number of out-of-school suspensions that we have.

One thing to note, although our numbers are increasing, what we've noticed is it's about less than 5% of our population, that are really responsible for the number of out-of-school suspensions, a small number we even looked at, there are close to 80% of scholars that have never been referred to the office for any reason for any discipline infraction. But again, that small number, that small population is contributing to a lot of those issues that we have, and we plan to deal with that.

For example, I know Battle High School, I have to commend them. Their past principal, Mr. Taylor, Adam Taylor, he instituted a school-within-a-school program. This is where our scholars that perhaps weren't successful in a traditional high school environment, they could actually experience success by having an alternative pathway, meaning they'll still have their classes, they will be able to come to school, but in a smaller, more intimate environment with their teachers. And what we've noticed is that has been a great payoff or great success for scholars as far as decreasing discipline infractions.

Hinson: Are any age groups overrepresented in suspensions?

Yearwood: It's all the way. It's kindergarten, it's from elementary, middle and high school, it's all the way and we were ramping up or increasing our training in different discipline techniques. This, in particular, we've instituted techniques from a book called "Teach Like a Champion." And this is where we begin to give teachers tools that they can use in their interactions with scholars because you know, discipline starts in that first interaction, whether it's in the classroom, in the hallway, and so we wanted to ensure that teachers are given tools that they can use in those interactions. So you know, there'll be less likelihood for a situation to escalate and then turn into a major disciplinary infraction.

So again, we're looking at that. We're revisiting our restorative practices that we use within the schools. And we're looking at things like ... Positive Behavior Support for Scholars, we're increasing the number of social workers within the schools, because coming back from COVID, we didn notice behaviors that we hadn't quite experienced the quantity before COVID. And coming back, I think our scholars had to get back to a sense of normalcy of this is school, this is how I am supposed to behave at school and, and so we're we're watching those numbers and working towards that decrease as well as and providing support. So we're doing trauma-informed training, which we hadn't done as intimately as we should in the past. And we were bringing in consultants to talk about what does a scholar with a level of trauma look like? And how do we mitigate that and actually training teachers about that? So, again, yes, we're putting things in place, trainings in place, supports in place to decrease that number.

Hinson: When does this training take place?

Yearwood: Well, this training will most of it will happen in October. We implemented three days of professional development training in October. We've never done that before. And it'll be very, very targeted. We wanted to have a time on this trip time and a time that was pretty lengthy to ensure that we provide the training in such a manner that it will, as one would say, it'd be meaningful. So we anticipate this training really coming online in October, you know, giving staff time to get school started, get routines in place, and then focus in on that training. So I anticipate that that will be a very important part of us helping to diminish the number of out-of-school suspensions we have.

Hinson: What are some other projects in the works?

Yearwood: So we're looking at our literacy and numeracy much more intimately. We want to make sure that our scholars are reading at or above grade level, with kindergarten all the way through to 12th grade. And we also want to ensure that their levels of success are increasing. So we're looking at things like Lexile levels, which is actually a reading level that every book is given. And we also have that measurement through our local assessments. And it's a metric that we'll be using more and more off, because if we know where a scholar is reading, if you know their reading level, then we should be working on improving that reading level, increasing that reading level.

And the same thing for numeracy. And that is going to be a major shift in how we look at data. And we hope to institute that this whole year. So very strong push on Lexiles. And we call it quantitative measures which measure our mathematical skills. In addition to that, we are also beginning to engage our parents in that endeavor, because we know that, you know, school should be very much united with parents, because we have the most precious scholars within the schools. And we'll be informing parents, teaching parents about what they can do to help their scholars in terms of reading and math, so that we can look at Lexiles and quantiles.

And there are websites out there like this one called Lexile hub, or parents can go to where they can actually take a Lexile score, or, which is their scholar's reading level, put it into the hub. And it will give them a variety of games, books, that the scholar can choose their level of interest. For example, if somebody's interested in sports, it will pull up books around sports, and it will allow them to read at the Lexile level and then slowly start increasing that Lexile number by having books that perhaps may be more a little more difficult. So again, the engagement with appearance and community, we are having a stronger push because as a community is strong, so is a school, if a school is strong, then that is reflected in our community as well. So it's a very close relationship that each would benefit from and so we have to engage more and we want to engage more. In addition to that, we're looking at improving our community response to ... reading buddies that are coming online mentoring. We are ramping up in our mentoring opportunities within our schools.

I just found out there are close to 100 individuals that have signed up to be reading buddies within our school. So ... that type of initiative and those kinds of volunteerism activities. That's what we needed going forward to ensure that Columbia is successful.

Hinson: How does the district plan to communicate with parents?

Yearwood: Yes, there'll be sessions at schools. There'll be information sessions at schools, there'll be individuals within the schools that will be reaching out to parents to share this information. I know there's a fantastic group of home-school communicators that interact with parents here. This is something that was started with Bureau Ralph, when she was with us, and carried on by Mrs. London. And they've actually been through the training on Lexiles and quantiles. And they are planning to start reaching out to parents about that we provide training for teachers, for our central office staff here, so that we will all be on the same playing field as far as that's concerned. But that is something that will be coming with us.

And then you know, as we look at our trajectory over five years, these initiatives take three to five. So again, we're hoping to start seeing these initiatives actually manifesting themselves in a three- to five-year time period.

Hinson: How about other construction projects?

Yearwood: I know that one of the construction projects involves the high school, and we're still looking at that, because again, our high schools ... I mean, they're almost bursting at the seams, you know. And so we want to ensure that, again, we don't become overcrowded. And yes, there there's the Long-Range Facility Committee will be looking at the high schools and looking at the data to see when it's going to be needed, you know, may not be next year, over the next two years, but I would maybe within the next three years, I think we'll be moving towards it.

Hinson: And then the current schools that are being built right now, where are those funds coming from?

Yearwood: So these are bond funds. And this, as you know, bond funds can only be ... used for construction. You can use any of the fund but all bond funds, and we receive bond funds by our voters, by the support of our community, we go out and we, you know, let the community know that, "hey, this is what we like to do, and why we will need to do it."

And the community has to vote on that. And Columbia Public Schools have been very fortunate, because of the support of our community, we passed a bond two years ago. And because of that, we're able to have the funds now to build the elementary school that we have. And again, we're hoping to see this happen in a few years down the road. As we look at our high school.

Hinson: Just from your perspective, what is the biggest thing you're looking to change in Columbia Public Schools over this next school year?

Yearood: For me, it's achievement, achievement.

I look at data, I make decisions based upon data. And I want to ensure that we continue to be on the pathway of providing a quality educational experience for all scholars, regardless of condition. And to be able to do that we must have a quality, an inert belief system. And we must have a belief system where every individual in our school system knows that every student whom I call scholar has the potential to thrive and be successful. And it's one thing to say it, but it's another to actually act on that belief system.

And so we're hoping to, to grow that to where we see more of our scholars, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of socio-economic condition, that when they walk into our schools, they receive such a high-quality experience, that they're able to thrive and they are able to be all that they can be. That's my dream. That's my push. That's my No. 1 goal is to ensure that all scholars receive a quality experience within Columbia Public Schools. And that way, we set them off on a trajectory that will allow them to be successful in a post-high school or post-public school experience.

Hinson: Is there anything else that you want to add that I maybe didn't touch on that you think's important?

Yearwood: Yes.

Again, I would like to ask parents, we need your support. We need your support and ensuring that your scholar gets to school every day, because if for us to grow scholars, they must be present. And that means we want them in our school system. It's important that our schools remain safe. It's important that again, our teachers, our quality teachers, know that they're appreciated, our quality staff, our administrators.

It takes everyone working together to the benefit of Columbia Public Schools and we want to ensure that our Columbia family embraces, continues to embrace, our parents and our community as we work together for the No. 1 reason that we exist and that is the success of all scholars.

Article Topic Follows: Columbia Public Schools

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