From working knee-deep in mud at the Eagle Classic to celebrating students as they walk across the graduation stage to working with a state senator to get an education bill passed and eventually signed into law, Laura Hammack has had a busy year.

Hammack took over as superintendent of Brown County Schools after former superintendent David Shaffer retired at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

“The year went by in a flash,” Hammack said as she sat in a small office at Brown County Intermediate School, where she was filling in as summer school principal for the day.

“It seems like this time last year, we were really starting with those meetings where I was meeting with the directors and the principals to really get to know, again, the community and the schools and what was going on.”

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Those system to system meetings allowed Hammack — with the help of her team of administrators and principals — to identify the school district’s strengths and areas to grow.

Out of those meetings grew a weekly district support team meeting, where all of the administrative staff at the school district’s central office and building principals met to discuss any ongoing issues, go through calendars and do professional development.

A strategic planning team was also created after Hammack took over as superintendent last July. The team began meeting in August.

“It allowed us to have a forum for conversation and aspirations to move this really incredible district even more forward than it already is,” Hammack said.

The goals set by that team are achieving highest student achievement; having safe and functional facilities and buildings and equipment; establishing strong parent, family and community involvement; having effective operations/fiscal responsibilities; and having highly effective, motivated and caring staff.

Those goals will now be what Hammack will have the school board evaluate her on next year. She reported at the July 6 school board meeting that she had accomplished every goal she had set for 2016-17.

What does she credit with completing 10 goals with multiple action steps?

“Us. It’s not me. That’s exactly how I credit it. We, as a district, decided these were some of the areas where we wanted to head, so it’s because of the great people of this school community, but also the community, that has allowed for us to really hit each one of these,” she said.

“It’s exciting and to just be able to empower folks to be able to realize kind of put out where we want to head. Then we get there and we’re just not satisfied with just OK, we want to keep pushing to greatness.”

Working together

Teachers delivering another “exceptional” academic year for Brown County students is just one of the high points from Hammack’s first year.

And bringing teachers and staff from different buildings together in various district teams — one of Hammack’s first-year goals — only helps teachers to continue delivering “highest quality instruction,” Hammack said.

“There were meetings where you walked away and you kind of had goosebumps because of the conversations that were able to happen that just hadn’t been,” she said.

District teams are: Curriculum and technology integration; math thinking and problem solving; district marketing; college and career readiness; new staff orientation; strategic planning; and discussion.

Coming together as a district in different teams was not something that had been done before.

“For kindergarten teachers to have a better understanding of graduation expectations, that’s just hugely important for us to have an awareness of what’s going on,” Hammack said.

The district has also been able to maintain their commitment to a positive energy and will continue to do so.

“I think it absolutely drives even more momentum to get great things accomplished for boys and girls,” Hammack said.

Another goal Hammack had set for her first year was to develop a strong relationship with the school board.

“The board has been very supportive, but also very challenging. They ask great questions, they do their homework. There are some school boards that show up to board meetings, but our board reads, they schedule specific times to meet with me throughout the week. I have a morning phone call with one,” she said.

“They are very, very engaged. That’s been really inspiring to see that we have that level of commitment from our school board.”

During the Indiana General Assembly, Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, introduced legislation — that would later be signed into law — that would allow for school districts to receive information from the Indiana Department of Education about where students are going when they leave a district using vouchers.

Hammack said that was another high point of her first year. Hammack went to the Indiana Statehouse to testify in support of the bill.

The bill began during the Brown County 4-H Fair last year when Hammack expressed concern to Koch about the district’s declining enrollment and needing to know where students are going in order to try to keep them here.

“All of these rural districts. Over 75 percent of school districts in the state are losing student population. We’re all in this boat together,” she said.

Profound lows

The death of Assistant Superintendent Dennis Goldberg and having to announce that the school district would have to cut nearly $1 million from the overspent general fund were the two “profound lows” from Hammack’s first year.

In May, the school board approved Hammack’s 2017 and 2018 budget-cutting recommendations for the general fund, which pays teachers and staff.

Hammack made 16 recommendations to the board, including reducing the number of paraprofessionals in the district and replacing all five certified preschool teachers with instructors who hold associate degrees and reassigning those certified teachers elsewhere in the district.

The total projected savings was $953,437.

Hammack said Goldberg’s passing last October resulted in her taking more time to get a “firm understanding” of the district’s financial position.

“That experience of working with Dr. Goldberg, genuinely when I looked at taking this job, that was one of my true hopes because I knew I could learn so much from him,” she said of Goldberg.

The first “wake-up” call was when the annual student count in September showed the district had lost more than 100 students.

“I remember a weekend when I was running the numbers and thinking of worst case scenarios and my worst case scenario, this was probably late July and early August, was 50 (students). I thought 50 kids was going to be tough,” she said.

“When we were up and over 100 that just really hurt. That was the wake-up call that we needed to be able to really dive deeply then and think about where we were financially.”

Over two months, Hammack presented her budget recommendations to the administration, the district support team, teachers and the community.

“That was a tough time,” she said.

“What was inspiring was folks were willing to listen and I think evidence that we tried to put forward with data to just really sort of tell the story, kind of where we were was well-received.”

Go slow to go fast

There were also some lessons learned in Hammack’s first year as superintendent.

Hammack said she had a professor who used to say “Go slow to go fast” and that she finds relevance for that saying in this school district.

“While we might see things that we want to improve for boys and girls or to change to improve conditions for staff sometimes what you think is the fix there might be other issues that need to be better thought through, better understood before we can get to making it happen in an extraordinary way,” she said.

Hammack praised the district’s leadership team and said a personal goal for the next year is to do a better job at delegating duties.

“When you think of our principal leadership team, our district administrative leaders, we have some of the best and brightest minds really that a district could ever even hope for,” she said.

“It’s so exciting when I see someone take an idea and make it happen. That’s just a gift to be a part of that.”

Another lesson learned is that the district can’t communicate enough, which is why Hammack recently created a district-wide newsletter. The newsletter will be released bi-weekly featuring success stories from across the district.

She also learned to just listen.

“Folks around in this community are wonderful. They have wonderful insight into what works best here, so many times just stopping and listening or asking questions will result in unique insight that I might not have,” she said.

This also works for when parents or families have issues in the school district.

“If we’re able to unpack it a little bit, nine times out of 10 it’s like ‘Oh, I didn’t realize,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, that was completely a misunderstanding,’” she said.

Top 20

Where does Hammack see Brown County Schools in five years?

“Honestly, Top 20 in the state. Without a doubt. That’s where we want to be. We are nipping at the ankles of that. There is no reason why this district can’t be genuinely Top 20 and that’s what we’re going after,” she said.

Van Buren Elementary School Principal Christy Wrightsman is interning with Hammack this summer to learn more about marketing and the job of a superintendent.

The transition from Shaffer to Hammack was “seamless” because of Hammack, Wrightsman said.

“We absolutely knew the positive leader we were getting and it’s been a great year,” she said.

This is Wrightsman’s 12th year with Brown County Schools. She said she is excited to hear where the school district is heading under Hammack.

“Because as a student at one time here in Brown County Schools to see how that has transitioned over the years and to hear a superintendent say we’re going to be in the top 20 of the state, absolutely that’s why I’m here. I want to see that,” she said.

Accomplishing goals, setting goals

The goals the district’s strategic planning team identified this past school year are now the goals Superintendent Laura Hammack plans to have the school board evaluate her on next year.

She reported at the July 6 school board meeting that she had completed all of the goals she had set out for the 2016-17 school year.

In total, Hammack had set 10 goals, including developing organizational effectiveness, implementing district teams and promoting district wide improvement.

Each goal had multiple action steps.

Of those action steps, three are ongoing: Meeting with community agency directors who engage in partnerships in the district; establishing an evaluation process and performance criteria for the superintendent; and the identified strategic plan goal categories.

The strategic plan goals are: Highest student achievement; safe and functional facilities and buildings and equipment; strong parent, family and community involvement; effective operations/fiscal responsibilities; and highly effective, motivated and caring staff.

Highest student achievement includes ensuring students have a plan for after graduation and a “comprehensive approach” to STEM education, Hammack said.

Safe and function facilities includes updating safety plans for all of the school buildings for instances like severe weather or an active shooter.

Beginning next school year Brown County High School students will have a day of service in the community. This is one action step Hammack is taking under the strong parent, family and community involvement goal.

Next school year, high school students will try to hit a goal of 20 service hours in their community and the service day will allow them to get six to eight of those hours in, Hammack said.

“Our kids going out and serving is the way we can start to lay that groundwork,” she said of strengthening the parent, family and community involvement.

Next year is the pilot project for the service hour requirements. Some Indiana high schools require students have a total of 80 service hours — or 20 hours a school year — for graduation, which could be a possibility for Brown County students if the pilot project goes well.

”It’s amazing how the community’s perception of students changes by these opportunities. We know we have the most amazing boys and girls around, but some students, unfortunately, there are perception that students are naughty or bad, but they’re not. They’re amazing, but we just need to make sure there out there doing great work so folks can realize that,” Hammack said.

Under effective operations/fiscal responsibilities Hammack said she wants to establish fiscal dashboard with indicators that can be checked on monthly at school board meetings when claims are approved.

“It’s just a really nice way for us not to get into a position where we’re surprised by anything financially that we have our eyes on the ball,” she said.

This would also allow for Hammack and the board to monitor their goals, like for where they want their cash balances to be.

“Then making sure we’re holding ourselves accountable to those goals,” she added.

Under that same umbrella, Hammack said she will work with Tom Ferry, the director of maintenance, and custodial supervisor Jim Bond to develop long-range plans for buildins, including HVAC and keeping up facilities.

Finally, Hammack said she hopes to get an evaluation model that works for teachers implemented in the school district. under the highly effective, motivated and caring staff goal category.

Currently, the district uses the RISE model, which satisfies state law, but Hammack said she’s not confident the educators are getting everything out that model like they should.

“An effective tool allows you to take a great educator and advance them even further, so getting a model in place that would allow for that as well as an embedded professional development model where we can kind of introduce professional development that is during the school day,” she said.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.