The new superintendent of Brown County Schools believes in teaching to each individual child, and she stays up at night trying to figure out the best ways to do just that.
“We have such a fundamental responsibility to empower our educators to understand that all of the boys and girls that walk through our doors are representing a diversity of need,” Laura Hammack said as she sat in the conference room at the Brown County Schools’ administrative building — the same room where she had her first, and only, interview for a special education teacher position at the former Nashville Elementary School.
“We have to recognize that we can control the conditions for how we deliver the instruction the boys and girls need.”
Making sure all students are educated to meet their needs stems from Hammack’s start in education.
Her undergraduate degree is in general elementary education.
But during her time as a third-grade student teacher, she worked closely with a special education teacher as they started to include special education students in the classroom where they received differentiated services rather than sending them to a resource room.
“Just that relationship of working with special education students I thought ‘Oh, this is really special and really cool,'” Hammack said.
She decided to pursue her master’s degree in special education at Indiana University immediately after she graduated from DePauw University.
“If I am going to be my best general education teacher, I need to know how to work with all of the boys and girls,” she said of her decision.
While at IU, Hammack saw a notice for an opening at Nashville Elementary School. She was hired after the first interview and taught special education for two years before becoming a sixth-grade teacher there.
As a sixth-grade teacher, Hammack began including special education students, including those with emotional disabilities, in her classroom.
“(It) worked so beautifully. A special education teacher would come with them or an aid. Now that’s just what we do. That’s just what we do, which is kind of cool to have been kind of a part of the beginning of that,” she said.
On July 1 Hammack became the new superintendent of Brown County Schools. The Brown County School Board of Trustees approved her hire with a 4-0 vote May 31.
But she had already been working and training under current Superintendent David Shaffer.
“Laura has always been a hard worker and always been a very complete thinker and a very intelligent young lady,” he said. “I don’t know that I see great changes from how I knew her before, but she’s a little older and maybe a little bit more mature, not that she had any problems in that area before.”
Hammack was the assistant superintendent of Brown County Schools before she left to serve as the director of quality learners and eventually as the assistant superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools for seven years.
A lot can change in seven years. When Hammack left the district, there was still a Nashville Elementary School. Now the intermediate school stands in its place.
“You know I have changed and grown, hopefully, a lot over the seven years, so what’s been really affirming is that they have too,” she said. “Beginning to understand kind of the new us has been exciting.”
The public will not see any big changes now that she has taken over the position. She plans to have “very intentional strategic teams working on different topics with representative groups from across the school corporation,” she said.
“I really like the idea of kind of a team working together,” she said.
Ideas for teams include groups that focus on district technology and district safety. And the invitation is open to any educator who wants to participate, she said.
“I need to understand that our folks are invested in the idea and likely they are going to be able to say ‘Laura, no. This might really not work for us because of X, Y and Z. That’s where then you get kind of that group think happening where you end up having such a beautiful profound solution at the end instead of just Laura just sort of saying ‘OK, you’re going to do this,’” she said.
Since June 3, Hammack had been conducting two hour listen and learn team meetings with school principals, assistant principals and district office staff members.
“I think what I have been encouraged to hear is that they’re excited that I am coming with a different perspective and that I’ve been somewhere else. They’re excited to learn or new different ways of doing things,” she said.
The words “us” and “team” are often heard as Hammack talks about her new position.
“This is an incredible school district. We clearly have room to grow as I think any school district would, but we’ve got great team members in order to be able to do it. How lucky am I? It’s incredible,” she said.
Addressing the issues
Hammack also looks forward to negotiating with the Brown County Education Association this fall to try and establish a placement salary schedule for teachers — which will be funded by the referendum that was approved by voters in May.
For example, a teacher with seven years of experience will be in a salary placement lane and if money is available, they will be able to move up in the lane the next year, Hammack said.
Due to state law, pay raises can no longer be based on years of experience.
“I generally want to know their thoughts,” Hammack said of the negotiations. “Clearly we need to be responsible in the way in which our dollars are expended, but hopefully we can come to a consensus on the best way to be responsible while achieving our goal of getting us to a place where we’re more competitive.”
As a former teacher, Hammack said she knows how important it is for teachers to be able to look at a schedule and be able to plan for the years ahead based on what they will be making.
The school district continues to face declining enrollment and is losing teachers to nearby school districts who can afford to pay them more.
Declining enrollment means less money in the general fund for the district and its teachers. The only way to get out of using referendum funds to supplement the loss of students, and ultimately funding, is to increase enrollment, Hammack said.
She hopes to increase enrollment by showing how great Brown County Schools is by using social media, attending community/school events and sending out a weekly email that updates the community on the happenings in the schools.
“I just want to sell the story of how great Brown County Schools is so folks will move to our community. This is such a great place to raise a family, and we’ve got to see more boys and girls faces in our buildings,” she said.
One piece of advice Shaffer has handed down to Hammack is to listen to what people have to say.
“And you don’t always have to make a decision immediately,” he said.
Shaffer said it is important to have all the information before making a decision.
“To me, that’s one of the potential pitfalls. If you get only a part of the picture, you can make a wrong decision because you didn’t have all the data,” he said.
In education, Shaffer said some decisions will be made where no matter what someone will be unhappy.
“You got to try to do the best you can and try to keep the needs of the boys and girls at the forefront and make decisions based upon the importance of how it affects boys and girls,” he said.
Shaffer said he knows he is leaving his district in good hands. He has a stack of about 20 files that Hammack can use to get a feel of “exactly where we are”, including files on technology, curriculum, the school’s budget and personnel issues.
“I want to leave with her ready to go, but I’ll also be available to answer any questions that she has throughout these first few months,” he said.
As for Hammack, she’s most looking forward to the first day of school when she gets to meet all of the students.
“We get to see the boys and girls come off those buses. All the excitement begins. They are the most important thing of my job. I want everyone in this school district to have their sole focus, no matter what their role, being the best possible educational experience for the boys and girls that come through our doors,” she said.
“I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
The public will not see any big changes when Laura Hammack takes over July 1.
She will make changes to the structure with the help of district teams as far as systems and processes. That includes having consistent team meetings throughout the course of the year, she said.
She also plans on presenting her first 100 days in office at a public school board meeting this fall where she will offer suggestions on possible district changes.
She provided the Brown County School Board of Trustees with a transitional plan that included goals to listen to school and community stakeholders, develop a strong board-superintendent relationship and promote district-wide improvement.
But as she completed her two hour listen and learn team meetings with building principals, assistant principals and district office staff members, other major themes began to appear that she made into five additional goals:
Evaluation feedback process
Hammack plans to implement an evaluation feedback process that is “consistent” and “robust” for principals, administrative team and district office staff.
She intends to meet with each individual three times a year. The first meeting will be at the beginning of the school year where goals and methods for measuring success will be identified. The second meeting, towards the end of the first semester and beginning of the second, will be to check in on the goals and determine any next steps. The final meeting will happen at the end of the school year where goal completion and planning for the next school year is discussed.
Comprehensive strategic planning process
Hammack will conduct a yearlong strategic planning process with a team of district employees, students and school community partners.
“This would be something that would meet monthly and ultimately at the end of the school year have a five year strategic plan. I am super excited about that,” she said.
During that discussion, Hammack believes three to five major areas will be identified, like secure facilities and fiscal responsibility.
“What I am hoping will happen is that the team that volunteers to participate will be big enough then that we can have subcommittees for each of those three to five areas,” she said.
“It’s really kind of an exciting process too because you get to really dream, but dream in a responsible way. Where do we want to be?”
Commitment to fiscal responsibility and transparency
Hammack believes in the importance of transparency, especially when it comes to the corporation’s budget. She intends to have Assistant Superintendent Dennis Goldberg give monthly updates at school board meetings on where the corporation is at financially.
“So that the community can always know where we stand with the referendum dollars as well as any of our other funds. There’s no secret to anything that we do in this business and I want folks to understand where our budget challenges are and I want them to understand where our successes lie,” she said.
District-wide technology integration plan
Hammack wants to establish a plan to integrate technology into education. The school district is currently lacking a district-wide technology integration plan including instructing teachers on how to incorporate technology into their instruction.
“They’ve been working very hard on pushing out some 21st century strategies for these classrooms, which is great. What is lacking though is a vision for technology,” she said.
There a multiple different kinds of devices being used in the district and Hammack believes the district needs to figure out what devices are working best and provide the staff development to integrate the technology into the classroom.
“We’ve got to strategically teach how to incorporate technology into our instruction in a way that’s meaningful. And also to identify when it is appropriate and when it’s not. Because I am not a believer that all day, every day our boys and girls need to be on devices. I think there’s magic in non-device learning and we’ve got to find sort of that fine balance between both,” she said.
Internal and external communication strategies
Hammack’s internal and external communication strategies is more about marketing the school corporation so young families will move here to send their students to Brown County Schools and ultimately solve the declining enrollment issue the district is facing.
She will be the “social media queen” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as she posts daily updates about the happenings in the school buildings.
“I think that public education is one of the greatest gifts to a community that could possibly be imagined. It’s one of the things that makes our country so great, but as well we need to do a good job of getting the word out as far as the great things that are happening in our public schools,” she said.
Beech Grove City Schools had The Hornet Blast, which was a weekly email of all the happenings in the schools including upcoming school events.
Hammack plans to implement that here by creating The Eagle Blast. Along with parents of school children, Hammack hopes the email update will reach those who don’t have any children in the schools, including senior citizens, by having people share their email addresses with her at community events.
She said wants everyone to be welcomed at their events.
“It will be a hugely successful day when I have a community member come to an event, introduce themselves to me and say ‘I don’t have any kids in this school district, but I just wanted to come because I hear the great things that are happening.’ That will be such a huge success for me. This is a community school district, this is not just a school district for the boys and girls who attend,” she said.