What it Takes to Lead a High-Performing School District

Wyoming City Schools, serving just under 2000 students, proves that small districts can achieve big results. Not only was their superintendent, Dr. Susan Lang, named the 2017 Ohio Superintendent of the Year for being an exemplary educational leader and innovator, but the district has also been regularly recognized at the state and national level for academic excellence.

Under Dr. Lang’s tenure, Wyoming City Schools has earned top rankings in US News & World Reports, the Washington Post and numerous national and statewide competitions. However, Dr. Lang attributes much of the district’s celebrated accomplishments to the school community, where stakeholders are committed to education and the whole-child learning experience.

We sat down with Dr. Lang to ask her about her career, her leadership style, and the “Wyoming Way” school culture.  

A Non-Traditional Career Path

Having graduated with a dual major in teaching and special education, Dr. Lang said she knew from the start that she was interested in working with and influencing adults who serve students. “I am the type of person who likes to see continuous improvement,” she said, “no matter where I am.”

Her extensive education background includes serving as the superintendent at Rossford Exempted School District, the superintendent at Canal Winchester Local Schools, a principal in Medina City School District, and a teacher in Bay Village School District. However, there was one experience that made a big difference in her professional life, Dr. Lang said.

“I left education,” she explained. “I stayed home for some time to raise my children, and I didn’t reenter education until after I had gone into business.”

She worked in sales and marketing for just over four years, representing technology companies and calling on schools at a time when computers where just coming into education. In the early 1990s, she returned to education, taking a curriculum and technology position with Clermont County Educational Service Center.
  
Among her earlier accomplishments, Dr. Lang earned the Governor’s Pathfinder Award for Educational Leadership for launching a fiber optic project that connected area high schools and the University of Cincinnati in an effort to expand distance learning.

“The project was all about sharing content so that schools could expand their resources and be more effective,” Dr. Lang said. “It was a very progressive initiative at the time, and it taught me the value of building business and community partnerships.” 

Educating the Whole Child 

It’s no surprise that maintaining a rigorous curriculum and high academic standards are among the district’s top priorities. Based on factors such as state test scores, SAT/ACT scores, graduation rate, AP course participation and passage rates, and others, Wyoming High School ranks among the country's top public high schools. In 2017, the school was named one of the Best High Schools in the Country by US News & World Report, earned a place on The Washington Post’s Top 100 Most Challenging High Schools, and ranked #48 on the 100 Best Public High Schools in the U.S list.

With only 650 students at Wyoming High School, the district offers thirty-one Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and roughly 85% of its students enroll in one or more AP courses before they graduate.

“We believe that all students should have at least an experience with an AP course,” Dr. Lang explained.  “We say, if you think you can do it, we want you to be in an AP course, but we do require that you take the test.”

But it’s not all about the curriculum at Wyoming City Schools.  “It’s so much more than that,” Dr. Lang said.  “Extracurricular activities are very important here.  In fact, we have about 90% of our students involved in at least one extracurricular activity.” 

To help students explore their own interests and passions, and to help them develop skills beyond the classroom,  the district offers a host of activities to students in K-12, ranging from sports and performance arts to world language clubs, science and tech summer camps, and “pay it forward” service organizations. 

A Framework for 21st Century Skills

Wyoming City Schools also emphasizes Creativity and Innovation as part of its strategic education plan and goal of teaching students the importance of problem-solving, taking risks in the learning process, and using critical thinking and creativity skills. 

One initiative, introduced four years ago, has exceeded expectations for collaborative, project-based learning. It requires all teachers, K-12, to incorporate at least two interdisciplinary Design Challenges into their instructional program.

“The goal is for teachers to team together, bring in a different content area, and have our students team together. By joining disciplines, students can apply what they’ve learned in a very authentic way,” Dr. Lang explained.

She described how a third-grade teacher decided to build a garden outside of the classroom as a Design Challenge project. “He taught the students not only the science part of it but included reading and mathematics as well,” she said. “In the end, students had to harvest the crops and make something from it, and they ended up serving lunch. All three primary buildings are doing it now and we have an annual Fall Harvest Festival.”
 
According to Dr. Lang, music and arts education is also a top priority at Wyoming, both a large part of the whole child educational experience. For providing numerous music learning opportunities (not to mention art instruction) beginning in kindergarten, the district was recently honored with the 2017 Best Communities for Music Education designation, ranking it among the top 4% of districts nationwide.
  
With two orchestra ensembles; a marching band; various choral, theater and glee clubs at the high school and middle schools, “we host approximately 30 musical and drama events each year,” Dr. Lang said.

She is also proud of the way the district has integrated technology and innovative spaces with its curriculum. “When you walk into our redesigned middle school, you see extended learning areas where students are using laptops to work on team projects.,” she said. “You see Learning Courtyards, a Wellness Center, an Art Gallery, and a 21st Century Fab Lab (Fabrication Lab).”

Having co-authored the book “Short Cycle Assessments: Improving Student Achievement through Formative Assessments,” Dr. Lang is a big believer in the power of formative assessment for promoting student achievement. The district recently launched a technology initiative to help empower teachers to create their own formative assessments and refine the processes that drive day-to-day instruction based on student needs.  

The Wyoming Way Community Culture

How does a small district, located in a residential community of 2.8 square miles, achieve such impressive results?
 
“It starts with this community culture,” Dr. Lang said.  “People self-select to move to Wyoming because of the education. And they don’t just talk about education, they walk education. We get tremendous support from the community.”

May Fete, a fundraising event run by the Wyoming Parent School Association, is a perfect example. Held on a Friday each year in May in Downtown Wyoming, the festival relies on hundreds of volunteers, sponsors, and donors, Dr. Lang explained. “On May Fete Day, schools are not in session, and parents stay home from work so they can come to the festival with their children,” she said.

Community engagement was also demonstrated at the polls this year when a new bond levy passed by a margin of 69.45%. “Our board members were very involved,” Dr. Lang said. “The campaign process included letter writing and giving presentations to community groups and gathering in private homes. I don’t know that this model would work in a larger district, because our population is finite, but do I think communications and outreach are key.”

Wyoming City Schools has a strategy for keeping residents, including 65% of the population who are empty nesters, involved and invested in their schools. Each year, they mail a district calendar to every household in the community. They offer free and discounted passes to senior citizens – for football games, art shows and summer exercise classes in the schools. And the district newsletter, “Know Your Schools” was recently incorporated into the city’s monthly newsletter mailed to all Wyoming residents.

“We want to make sure that everyone is aware of what’s happening in the district, including the concerts, the athletic events, and the plays,” Dr. Lang explained. “They are not just for parents and students, but for everyone who supports our schools.”

Wyoming City Schools’ hard-earned achievements, she concluded, would not be possible without  “our unique community and their shared priority of quality public education.”