Q&A: Peoria Public Schools superintendent says teacher retention, growing arts are top priorities
Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Kherat says she's happy with the work the district has done to improve staffing and arts programs.
But there's more work to be done.
The school board recently approved a plan to help substitute teachers get full teaching credentials. State grants have also allowed new investments in the school's music programs.
WCBU's Camryn Cutinello spoke with Kherat about the how the school plans to improve staffing, fund the arts, and how they manage truancy.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
There are currently vacant teaching positions in the district. What is being done to fill these positions?
Sharon Kherat: There are a lot of different things we're doing. We're doing the Grow Your Own. We just got funding for through the Illinois State Board of Education to also add a middle school club, teacher club. We're getting ready to revamp our high school teacher pathway. And so my vision is any high school student who, who's interested in getting into the education field, they can graduate from Peoria Public Schools with 12 to 15 credit hours already. And so I'm really excited about that.
Last night, you probably heard our board voted on the Teacher Ready Program. So we're targeting, we have about 200 individuals in our sub pool. So they have a degree and they are subbing for us. And we'll even open it up, and they are interested in just getting their license, we will pick up that cost. And then they will once they've gotten the license, we'll help with everything from the fees, all the fees, the grants will pick that up, and then they'll teach for Peoria Public Schools for three years.
We kind of got into sort of the long term with recruitment, but also a big thing is retention and keeping teachers within the district. So what are you looking at as possible ways to get teachers to stay for 5,10 years?
Kherat: So we have to focus on retention, and retention is huge. And that is part of this grant. And we are going to have to do better in that area for sure. And at least personally, I would like to make that a big project of mine. We were working with. I was thinking of working with a partner, Hanover, to do some group studies and interviews and come up with a good reference guide for us. But that is still on the table.
There's Peoria Start that just got started up to address this truancy issue. Have they been in contact with you at all about that?
Kherat: We work very closely with ROE and Beth Crider and her team. And actually we share some staff as well. We do a lot in that area. It's been a piece that we have been focused on since I got back in 2015, where every building has its own attendance plan. Part of the plan, of course, is being aware of, you know what we call the red kids, right students who are you know, they're missing school for whatever reason. So we monitor that every principal, each principal receives data, is building data. So they get a list of the red kids and the yellow kids. And there's a lot of celebration going on as well. But yeah, missing one day of school each month is enough to be deemed as a chronically truant child, so a chronically absent is a student who misses 10% or more of the school year, whether it's a valid excuse or not.
What is the district's current policy if a child is chronically truant? What happens after that?
Kherat: Yeah, so a lot. I mean, they get phone calls, they get home visits, we have a lot of support. Our board invests a lot with external partners. So we have FamilyCore, they've got over 20 employees, practically the majority of buildings have, like for example, Manual has two, Stan and Marvin. They're all FamilyCore and their job is to assist with individuals who need support. Especially during COVID. Man, we were going into the homes, if they needed laptops, if they needed...whatever they needed. So then that that still continues. And that's their job. If they need a ride if they needed to get here [and] there.
We got a pretty thorough presentation on the new arts program last night, but I wanted to talk to you about the improvements being made to the arts offerings at Peoria Public Schools?
Kherat: The vision is really to reimagine and design and foster robust, equitable, quality district instrumental programs for us. So the whole idea of also is to increase the performing arts opportunities for our kids. So it was very, very great to share with the community that the board has invested over $5 million in fine arts programs the last couple of years. So the line items included the music studio at Peoria High. That's very, very exciting. The teacher gave a presentation to the board. We're inviting individuals to come and take a look at it. And also the idea is to even open it up to the community as well.
Do you have any information on what's happening with art classes and theater programs and the non-music arts?
Kherat: Yeah, so that's still there and kids get get to choose those. So those are still very vibrant and robust, just like a regular college course catalog. They can pick there; there are a number of options they can select from.
And then with the splash pad, can you clarify what you mean that the money had to go towards that?
Kherat: Yep. So it was it had to have been a new project and out of the box, still had some fine arts overtone to it. And certainly, it could not be something that we could not supplant. Like we couldn't use it to do something we already were already doing, like uniforms and stuff that the district can pay for.
Have there been conversations with the teachers union about advancing the arts?
Kherat: Well this is all this is, you know, this is Mr. Render meeting with teachers and working with them. And and it's unfortunate you have one or two, and, I will not say the union, because it's, you know, one or two hiding under that umbrella trying to sort of be a distraction, but here's the thing. You know, it's like look at what's happening. Okay? Be part of the solution. Okay, Mr. Render's out there. The kids are performing out and about in the community. They're all over the town. Let's do that. Let's showcase our children. Let's prepare with kids, okay, let's take the hard assignments and move forward and be part of the solution.