Retiring BRSU superintendent Jackie Wilson talks career, education
In a move announced more than a year ago, Jackie Wilson, superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union since 2016, will retire on Wednesday. During a short but wide-ranging interview over the phone on June 22, Wilson spoke with the Bennington Banner about her career arc, Act 46, equity, distance learning and more.
BRSU serves a dozen towns that cover in total about 460 square miles in southwestern Vermont. Upon her departure, Wilson will be succeeded by Randi Lowe, the supervisory union's assistant superintendent. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Could you recap your education career in broad strokes?
A: I started as a student-teacher at Manchester Elementary School in the spring of '92, and then I was hired as a sixth grade teacher there for the fall of '92. I spent seven years teaching. I was then kind of roped into being an assistant to the principal my eighth year, and I didn't have a license to do that. They were kind of desperate and I said, "OK, I'll try it for a year." I ended up liking it; I did that for a couple of years. Then I became a co-principal with Jackie Parks. When she left to go to Williston, I was then the principal at MEMS. And, boy, I can't remember exactly the year I ended doing that, but I did that for about 11 years, and I've spent the last 10 years at the central-office level. I started as a curriculum director, director of teaching and learning, and then I moved to assistant superintendent, then superintendent. And I spent two years as a principal at the Main Street Middle School in Montpelier.
Q: What was that like to transition from the classroom to being an administrator?
A: Of course, the hard part is (missing) that day-to-day contact with kids — that was the most challenging (part) for me. But what I shortly realized was that you still have the ability to make a tremendous impact on education for children, it's just in a different way. It really becomes working with the adults and community to do what you need to do for kids and their learning. So I never felt shortchanged on that end because I felt that I still had that ability to really strengthen our public education system.
Q: One of the major challenges you dealt with as a superintendent of BRSU was Act 46.
A: We had two significant mergers happen in the BRSU — one was the formation of the Taconic & Green (Regional School District), which took nine separate school districts and became one. And then we had the Mettawee School District, which took three districts and became one. They were challenging in different ways. The Taconic & Green — I think that was, overall, a fairly positive process, and I really was impressed with how all of the folks who were involved in that merger committee work really came around and really began to look at how they could serve all kids. They really redefined "local" and they did that in a very effective way. If you go to meetings now, there's no territorial feel to anything.
The Pawlet-Rupert (merger) was a little more challenging. It took us a couple of votes to get that through. The complication with that was that, at the time, they were designating New York schools for grades 7 through 12. In our first run-through with bringing our proposal to the State Board of Education for approval, we maintained that designation and that was turned down. That was a situation that was really fraught with a lot of emotionality. Communities really struggled working through that. We'd have 100 people show up at a forum, and those are small communities to have that happening. We eventually eliminated the designation; now there's choice (for grades) 7 to 12. My hat's off to the new board that was formed because they came into a really, really tough situation. They've really worked well together.
Q: Earlier this month, amid nationwide anti-racist protests, you, administrators and school principals sent out a letter affirming the supervisory union's commitment to addressing "racial inequities that currently exist within the system" and "assembling a team to plan for implicit bias and equity training." Can you talk a little bit about that work as well as the work that you oversaw during your tenure within the supervisory union?
A: Equity has been a pretty significant topic for both of my boards, Taconic & Green and the Mettawee board. The Mettawee board worked with Vermont-NEA and brought the video "I am from here." They watched it and brought it to their community and had a community discussion. That was right before COVID. We were outlining what are next steps were going to be but definitely knew that there had to be a commitment to that work moving forward. The Taconic & Green board has an equity statement that they constantly visit and want to make sure decisions they are making are in support of what equity means to them. Just recently they approved and will adopt an interim ends policy at their next meeting in August, and that has an equity statement. The part where we still have a lot of work to do — and we're committed to doing that work — is making sure that all employees in the BRSU engage in implicit bias training and have a handle on what that means, because all of us carry those biases around. We've done some of that work as a leadership team but we had not brought that to our teaching staff.
Q: Now that the school year has ended, how would you say that, overall, distance learning went within the supervisory union?
A: I think it was mixed. I'm not going to say it was a huge success. It was emergency remote learning, and that's very different from distance learning. We hope that if we have to rely upon distance learning in the fall, we really put some thought into a plan that makes that work. Overwhelmingly, the most positive response we got regarding this whole experience was that folks felt that relationship-building had really increased — that there were a lot of strong relationships built between teachers and parents, and teachers and students. I think our teachers did a fabulous job with connecting with families and being there for them. And for some kids — they loved it. But I would say for most kids, we're worried about the social and emotional end. We're human beings and we're social learners. It's hard to be separate from each other.
Q: What did you enjoy most about your education career?
A: If I think about my tenure as a leader, I think I really enjoyed governance. I know a lot of people think that's crazy, but I really do enjoy it. I really enjoy working with boards to get them to a place where they really are effective and thinking about the future and supporting the whole system. I also really enjoy building leadership capacity in the people that I work with. I think a really important part of any leader is to get to know the people you work with and (ask) how you grow them.
Q: Last but not least, what's next for you?
A: I've got a few things. I wasn't able to really think, "Oh, I can walk away from this work, period." I am going to be doing one thing that I think will bring me right back to where I started. I started as a middle-school teacher and I wasn't very involved in what was then middle-school programming. Starting July 1 — and it's a very part-time gig — I am the executive director for the Vermont Association for Middle Level Education. That organization has a real focus on student voice and choice and middle-level students. I'm really looking forward (to it) in this time, especially. I'll have a chance to hopefully get more connected to kids again, so that will be really cool. I may do some work with the Vermont School Boards Association around governance and superintendent hires. Then I've got a couple of superintendents I'm mentoring. So I've got a few things in the works, but I'm also going to just enjoy life and slow down a little bit.
Contact Luke Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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