One-on-One: New Janesville superintendent shares goals for school year

School District of Janesville Superintendent Mark Holzman talked about shifting focus to students’ mental health and his plan.
Published: Aug. 24, 2022 at 6:19 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Most area schools, including Janesville, welcome kids back in just over a week. This year, a new superintendent is going to be taking the reins.

School District of Janesville Superintendent Mark Holzman talked about shifting focus to students’ mental health and his plan to address the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.

Leigh Mills: Welcome to Janesville. We are just chatting. You spent seven years as superintendent in the Manitowoc School District and have been here now for a handful of weeks. So I have to start with- how’s it going?

Mark Holzman: That’s great. It’s great. People have been really welcoming. I’m learning a little bit about the town, the community, the people and how we do things here in Janesville. It’s been really a great opportunity for me to just listen and learn about the great people and resources we have.

Leigh Mills: So you have a couple of weeks here before you’re back in the thick of it with a new set of students. What is your Biggest concern, do you have one yet now that you’ve been here a little while, what’s kind of your main focus heading into this school year?

Mark Holzman: Yeah, I think the concern isn’t different in different places. Here in Janesville, it’s trying to meet the needs, both academically and socially, of all of our kids and trying to find, attract and retain quality educators to support the student’s needs. Moving forward, I feel like we’re in a great spot for that, but those continue to be the big picture pieces for us.

Leigh Mills: So staffing shortages like everyone’s seeing, is that one of the concerns?

Mark Holzman: I think not so much the shortages. I think we’re at as of today about 98% fill. So we have still done a great job, our human resources department, our building administrators are finding people and hiring them, but still trying to make sure that we train them and find the right people to be available to support the needs that our kids have. And that’s something that we want to continue to do.

The pool of applicants for educators and professionals is smaller than it has been in the pact. And so we want to make sure that we’re doing our best to find people who are a good fit and then keep them and train them and make them part of our culture in our community. So that they continue to want to be in the Janesville school district.

Leigh Mills: Is COVID still a concern? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Mark Holzman: Well, I think COVID will also always be in the back of our mind. I don’t know that we’re concerned as much about it. We will follow the protocols recommended by our local health professionals.

We continue to follow the CDC and what they say, but right now our plan is to continue to provide an open opportunity for our students and staff to come back. You know, it is on the back of our minds, but right now we’re not seeing an influx of significant cases in our region.

Leigh Mills: Let’s talk about the lasting impact of the pandemic. We know that mental health issues, that’s a topic that’s kind of has a bigger focus and concern after kids being home and weathering the pandemic. We also know that some students are behind academically because of their circumstances, sometimes having to do that work at home. What do you see as the lasting impact of the pandemic on students?

Mark Holzman: Yeah, I think the first thing that we saw was being in isolation. Students coming back weren’t used to the routines of school and maybe also from the school perspective, we didn’t spend as much time ‘cause we’re anxious to get everybody back of the routines of school.

And so the routines, I say just how to do school, and how do we have the resilience to stay focused for a period of time over the entire school year and school day. The idea that our staff also needed to be more resilient and and continued to see the stresses that the variety of needs had from our children. And then sometimes there is more disconnect between our students coming to school.

We saw increased number of absences and trying to connect with our parents to make sure that they understood the value and the importance of being in person while we’re here.

So originally I think our plan is to continue to make sure that we have 4K and 5K kids engaged in our student learning. That’s one of the areas that we saw in the pandemic. lots of families chose to either keep their 4K or 5K kids at home, and now they’re first and second or second and third graders and just keeping an eye on that and then continuing to support the academic needs of all of our kids. We saw students who were made gains last year, but they still are a little bit behind where they were pre pandemic in a system wide and so making sure that we’re continuing to make more than one year’s progress academically because we’ve got to catch some kids up.

Leigh Mills: Are you worried? Do you feel like it’s a doable fix? Do you need parents buy in to get to where they need to be or or do you have concerns about how that’s going to play out academically?

Mark Holzman: Well, we need parents buy in no matter what.

I mean, that is an important key concept, our parents and our community to be engaged in school, but I am concerned about where our students are and the development that they have and how they need to come back. You know, we’re asking our students to learn lots of information. We’re asking our teachers to be resilient and continue to provide all kinds of different avenues for student learning.

Within that process, though, we have concerns about the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic, just not being in person. So if students are in you know in 3rd grade and they’re at the 2nd grade, 9th month level, we’ve got three months and a year, this year, to catch them up, just to get them to grade level specific. and you know some of our students haven’t seen that progress and some of our students have seen that progress. So the gap becomes wider. But we’re really working hard on trying to make sure we’re focusing on our core instructional practices and the foundations that are necessary for our kids to build that strong base.

Leigh Mills: I’m a parent so I can put together what are all the things that I’m worried about. I’m excited about many things too, but one of the other concerns is violence in schools and certainly when we saw the shooting at Uvalde, I think that just reinvigorated that concern for a lot of families. And then there are mass shootings that continue to happen all over our country.

What do you say to parents or what is your plan to reassure parents and make sure that school safety is also a top priority?

Mark Holzman: Yeah. One of the fortunate things we have here in Janesville is that we’re finishing up some referendum spending that was approved in 2020 to put secure entrances in, in our buildings. And so that allows the public to come into a secure area, go through the main office before they actually have access to the school building facilities. And that was needed in our facilities.

In addition to that, we have a strong working relationship with the police department. We have regular radios that can connect with our police department, if necessary, immediately so we don’t need to wait to respond to make a 911 call. we can call on our radios. And we have regular conversations with our police about how we might provide a safe and welcoming school environment.

That being said, we do know that we have to provide resources for our students and staff so that if they see something, they say something. And it’s really important for us to make sure we’re continuing to have those conversations to engage students and families that if they have concerns about potential violence and the mental well-being of our students and staff that they’re talking to us about it so we can investigate ahead of time. We know that probably throughout the pandemic we didn’t learn how to handle crisis in the way we needed to, and sometimes we’re seeing that throughout our school and our community. And we need to do a better job of making sure we’re just talking about the issues that are at hand so that we can get ahead of that and not have to respond to incidents of violence.

Leigh Mills: The other, I think the final kind of big topic facing families right now would be the economy and inflation and how that’s affecting families and I know from stories we’ve done that local food pantries are seeing an increase in need. They’re seeing more families coming in and asking for help or asking for help with school supplies and other things like that.

How does that impact, you know, as you think about students returning and you know that this issue is becoming a harder one for some families, how does that impact them when they get to school or impact the learning environment and do you have a plan to kind of help students walk through that?

Mark Holzman: Well, fortunately we have great partnerships with Lots of local nonprofit agencies that help our students and provide resources like backpacks, school supplies, if in fact we find that kids come to the schools without that. We try to inform parents about opportunities and resources prior to the school year. That’s important, but Janesville has been a school district that has 50% free and reduced prior to this school year, so we anticipate probably a similar model moving forward.

So all of our schools are ready to meet the students where they’re at and there are issues that come with that and we’re trying to reduce the barriers, whether that’s transportation, whether that’s social, emotional, whether that’s academic, whether that’s feeding them. We want to make sure that we’re doing that on a regular basis and we’re prepared for that, so we know that kids come to school and they’re ready to learn to the best of their ability.

We have free lunch at all of our facilities so that students can start with a healthy breakfast and we’re ready to go from that standpoint moving forward. But it is a challenge, and it’s a challenge that our entire community needs to respond to, to make sure that our youngest people have the resources they need to be successful in our schools.

Leigh Mills: Yeah, ‘cause, when we’re talking about, I know with our work with Second Harvest during the holiday time and maybe you’re not familiar with that yet, but you will be, I can assure you it’s a big effort we have all across southern Wisconsin. But we know that kids cannot function to their best ability when they don’t have what they need, and certainly that nutrition.

So what I’m hearing from you is such an important message that it’s the whole community’s responsibility. When you think about the second largest, I think you guys are the second largest district in our viewing area. There are a lot of kids who can make a huge difference in our world, right? And we’ve got to help them be the best they can.

Mark Holzman: Yeah, our job honestly is not significantly different than it was, you know, 20 years ago. We want outcomes for our kids to be happy, healthy, productive school, career and college, ready, and we want those resources to be available to all of our kids. We see that that poverty affects everybody differently, but we do know that our youngest learners have great needs, and sometimes those needs are more dramatic, sometimes than our older learners, who maybe have done a little bit better job of hiding the need. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means we need to be more aware of what resources that we can provide to all of our kids. And one of the things that we can use from our school community and our resources is that we do not want barriers. So if we have school trips, if we have opportunities for Co-curriculars, we want to make sure transportation. That all of our kids have opportunities to be successful because we know that there’s a component to school that’s learning about reading, writing, calculating, solving problems.

But there’s another component about how to get along and how to participate in co-curriculars and how do I engage and solve problem together. And those pieces come from opportunities sometimes that are after school and we want to make sure that we provide those resources for kids.

Leigh Mills: So I don’t want this to be a completely heavy conversation ‘cause I know there are a lot of things that are really positive about the school year and the start of school and I’m excited for my kids to go back to school. So when you think about kids walking through those doors very shortly, what is your biggest hope for this school year, your first school year here in Janesville?

Mark Holzman: Yeah, I think for me personally, I hope that I can make a difference for the lives of kids and for our staff, I can provide positive support and some inspiration and motivation at times of need. I hope that we all can respond to the needs of our kids.

Last year at this time, I think we were hopeful that the school year would just be pretty normal and we’d get off to a start and we’d move forward. And we learned pretty quickly that it just was different. And so we’re cautiously optimistic about what this school year is going to look like and welcoming our kids back, but I can’t wait.

I think school is pretty common that we can’t wait to get out you know, May comes around and we’re ready to go, but then August is here and September is coming We can’t wait to get back. And so I’ve had some opportunities to work with our staff this summer and with our administrators and our teachers, and we’re excited.

I can’t wait to hold the hands of kindergartners and, you know, walk through the hallways and stop in and read stories and just get to know the joy that kids bring every single day. So I’m looking forward to it.

Leigh Mills: Do you have any advice for parents? As they kind of go through these last few days, weeks and get ready to send their kids off to a new year?

Mark Holzman: Yeah, routines are good. So for all of us, just trying to get used to the night time, going to bed, getting them up in the morning, starting to get some routines. And again, that stamina of maybe doing some reading and learning activities during the school before school starts is always great.

And then if you have questions, you know parents are the number one advocate for their kids, so we’re always open to listening to what they have to say about how to support the students and the needs that they have. And know that our teachers are working hard every single day to do the best they can to be help your son or daughter or child be the best that they can, be so.

You know we’re in it together, and when you have thousands of students that you’re working with, they need to have advocates. And as parents you are the advocate. So make sure you stay engaged, be informed, ask questions.

When your kid comes home and they say, ‘what did you learn today?’ And their response might be ‘nothing.’ Then you know, look at the schedule and say, ‘hey, tell Me what you did in art. Did you read any stories today? Did you get to go to the library? What did social studies look like?’

Just ask some very specific questions so you can engage in that and probably you can learn a little bit about what’s going on in schools and in the world today.

Leigh Mills: Is there anything else you would want any families in your district to know, or anything I’ve missed that you think is important to touch on?

Mark Holzman: Yeah, I think I’m always encouraged that we have great partnerships throughout our community. We’ve got a 4K partnership that we have 4K in our schools and 4K in partners and I guess I would just say that If families are not sure about sending their kids to school as a four year old, we really encourage them. It’s a half-day program and our research will continually show that getting a jumpstart on learning early on really builds a strong foundation.

So if parents are wondering, you know, should I send them or shouldn’t I send them, I encourage you to send them.

We’re going to do everything we can to take care of them and and send them back to you happy.

Leigh Mills: Thank you and I wish you the best in your first year.