July 13, 2008

Bluffs Schools Superintendent Shakes Things Up in First Year

By Jason Kuiper, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 13--COUNCIL BLUFFS -- No one can say the first year on the job was uneventful for Martha Bruckner.

Along with shaking trees in the private sector to increase support and involvement, the Council Bluffs Community School District Superintendent shook up the way things are done in the district.

Many of the changes were aimed at tackling the district's high dropout rate, which is almost double the state average.

That problem is one of Bruckner's top concerns. Failure, she said recently, is not an option.

Though early numbers appear to show that the number of dropouts increased in the 2007-08 school year -- Bruckner said the numbers could get worse before they get better -- the school also saw an increase in the number of students graduating.

There were 594 graduates this past year, which is 98 more than the year before, though enrollment has been declining for several years. Enrollment for '07-08 was 9,301. The previous year the district had 9,407 students.

"That is phenomenal," Bruckner said of the increase in graduates. "That says we're doing the right thing and says we are going to be successful."

Early, unofficial numbers for the past school year show that 289 students dropped out in '07-08, compared with 224 the previous year.

Those early numbers change each fall when they are certified by the state to take into account students who re-enroll in school. The 2007 number, for instance, was lowered to 163.

Bruckner said the prior year's number also may not have been totally accurate. Enrollment numbers were only reviewed on the third day of the school year and again on Oct. 1 for state certification. Starting this past school year, enrollment numbers were gathered and analyzed quarterly, a change made to increase accuracy.

Board member Gina Primmer said she thinks Bruckner has done a terrific job.

"We handed her a real lofty set of goals, and she's addressed them head-on," Primmer said. "She is engaging the community, and we were looking for that. As a board member for the last six years, we have kind of struggled to find ways to engage people. We would hold forums, and people wouldn't show up."

New partnerships with community members include Project . . . Graduate 2016, which is coupling next year's Washington Elementary fifth-graders with the Centennial Rotary Club for events and mentoring. Bruckner is seeking more involvement this year.

Primmer acknowledged that some of the actions Bruckner has taken have been pretty bold. For instance, a plan to change Kanesville High School from an alternative school to a center for students who have fallen behind and need to make up credits drew criticism from parents of Kanesville students, who liked the close relationships between teachers and students there.

Primmer said Bruckner visited the school, found the things people cherished there and what made it unique, and used that input.

"Her style works because she's honest," Primmer said. "She completely backs up everything she asks of everyone else."

Marta Power, a parent of a student who was at Kanesville, said she just walked up to Bruckner's office one day without an appointment and found the door open.

"I had some concerns with the change for Kanesville. . . . but I understand her need for thinking it needs to be fixed," Power said. "She is very approachable and helpful. You might not hear what you want to hear, but she seems to be very sincere in wanting to fix the problems with Council Bluffs schools."

Peggy Whitsell, the parent of an Abraham Lincoln student, said she's impressed with what Bruckner has done so far.

"I think she has jumped right in with both feet making quite a few changes, whether you agree with them or not, because the district has a bad name because of the drop-out rate. Sounds like she is working very hard to change that," Whitsell said.

Bruckner said not being a superintendent before may work in her favor -- she can be free to break the "superintendent mold."

Before coming to the Bluffs, Bruckner was associate superintendent for educational services at Millard Public Schools. Previously, she taught English, speech and debate in Ralston and was a principal there. She has also taught graduate school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and served as a department chair. Bruckner, the daughter of retired Nebraska Supreme Court Judge John T. Grant, is a mother of two sons, two stepsons and a grandmother of eight.

Bruckner is the district's first female superintendent. The school board recently extended her contract one year.

One of the coming year's big issues will be attendance for all grades. Students will not be allowed to miss large chunks of time and still be kept with their class. Instead those students will go to academic centers, credit recovery centers or even night school.

The district is also working on changing the curriculum to better engage students.

How does Bruckner think she has done? "I think it was OK," Bruckner said.

Board President Marvin Arnpriester thinks she's done better than OK.

"From the time I first met her, two things stand out," he said. "Passion and integrity. She has a zest, a passion for life, a passion for education, a passion for children and a passion for doing a good job . . . and does it with integrity."

--Contact the writer: 444-1279, [email protected]


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