Dr. Marci Shepard is the Superintendent of the Orting School District. She has been an educator for over 20 years. Dr. Shepard is also a recognized leader in education, presenting at national and state conferences, serving on state boards and committees, and teaching for the Educational Leadership program at Western Washington University.
We talk with Dr. Shepard about the changes that they have made in her district to better align what they do with their overarching goal of preparing each student in the Orting School District for College, Careers, and Life.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we are talking with Dr. Marci Shepard who serves as the superintendent for the Orting School District. Through a cohesion direction and a focus on culture of learning and caring, she seeks to support the whole child and ensure all students are ready for college, careers, and life. Dr. Shepard actively serves as a leader in the Washington Association of School Administrators at the state and regional levels as well as in the American Association of School Administrators redefining ready work, and has earned her national superintendent certification. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Dr. Marci Shepard.
John: All right. Thank you so much for being on the CharacterStrong podcast with us today, Dr. Shepard. It's great to have you. I love the work that you're doing and have been looking forward to this moment for a while.
Dr. Shepard: I'm really glad to get to join you today. So thanks for the invite.
John: Absolutely. I think one of the things is we have a lot of people that listen to the podcast from around the country in different roles in education. You don't get as many opportunities to talk to people that are in your position, and not that people aren't willing to, it's just having that connection. You have a lot on your plate as a superintendent and yet I've been incredibly impressed with the vision that you've had in the Orting School District and how when schools all over are talking about college and career readiness and there's the academic piece, but there's also this life readiness piece that we're hearing more and more about.
John: You have really intentionally brought those things together. Can you just talk a little bit about that, that journey for you and what you're doing in Orting with the amazing staff and community that's there?
Dr. Shepard: Yeah. Well, we have been saying for several years now that we're making sure that all students are ready for college, careers, and life. What the board and I had reflected on is we focused more on college and career ready. Life ready was part of our mission, but what we really didn't have was a way to deliver on that promise to our community. The board and I were talking about we wanted to build this life readiness and we felt like that was an opportunity for an all play for our community. Because the community, we want them deeply involved and meaningfully involved in our work.
Dr. Shepard: They weren't thinking about life ready as explicitly. What we realized is if we're going to have a culture of caring for kids, that has to happen in schools and a district, and our school and district work has to happen in a community of caring. So it really couldn't be something we just do with kids without working on that ourselves as all the adults-
John: Yep. Well-said.
Dr. Shepard: ... without our whole community.
John: The idea that it takes a village.
Dr. Shepard: Yeah, exactly.
John: I mean one of the things I feel like I'm hearing from your voice is that we automatically in education, because it's always been the task of education to think about that on the academic side, that we need to be explicit in what we're teaching. It needs to be system-wide. There needs to be consistency in what we're teaching. When it comes to math and reading, we want all kids to get strong instruction in these different academic areas. Would you agree though that that is a paradigm shift for many when it comes to the life ready side of things, being that explicit with we're also going to ensure that our students are getting the social-emotional learning side?
John: I mean you could frame it a lot of different ways, that caring piece and a culture that cares, and branding that, which could be another part of this conversation, is incredibly important to make it relevant. But would you say that in your experience in education that's a paradigm shift for many?
Dr. Shepard: I think it was a significant paradigm shift for us and I think that probably is for many too. We had to think about what do we want for all kids and, quite frankly, all staff. We looked at opportunities even throughout the year and what do we want for community, so filled it in. The other thing we've done is ... I'll talk somewhat at a board superintendent level as well. Our board meeting agenda items to college, careers, and life, and then our three strategic goals. Print out actual reflections of how much time are we spending on college ready, career ready. We said college, careers, and life are all important, but that's not how we were spending our time.
Dr. Shepard: So we've really shifted to define what life ready looks like and what it means for us to invest our time in it. And then I guess the epiphany was when I brought a small team to the CharacterStrong conference and the light bulb went on. This is the life ready work. We say we're life ready. We want to be life ready. We want to mean what we say. Now we have some tools and strategies to do it. And we knew we couldn't do it alone. So the next time we came to CharacterStrong, not only did we have administrators and teachers but we brought our educators and bus driver and a maintenance supervisor and central office staff, school secretaries.
John: Yeah. I mean you were so all in that you hosted it. To be able to bring all of these people, we want to actually host it, which was I mean also an impressive piece-
Dr. Shepard: The bus, we bused a whole bunch of ... a school bus to one of them-
John: Yep. First time I'd ever seen that. That's cool. How many? What, two hours away?
Dr. Shepard: Yeah. Yeah. Then we brought it to our system. But that really was our thinking of trying to get it. It needs to happen with kids in the classroom, but it needs to happen in all parts of our school and our school system and our community. We're using the leadership and advisory curriculum in our secondary schools, but we also picked a character trait of the month to just as a school system, students, staff, and as a community. Then we've had what you call, Character Dare. We say, Dare to Care, that we are all engaging. Students, staff, and community are all engaging in one character dare around our character focus of the month.
Dr. Shepard: Where the community partners in, I think, it really made it not a district initiative is we have a different community group who sponsors a character trait each month. In October we were doing patience. Senior center sponsored patience and put out a message around it, around patience, and they just owned it. In November we were working on humility and our Orting Valley Fire and Rescue went and did skits at schools. They showed that they're big tough guys and ladies and they ask for help when they need it. In September we had selflessness that the food bank sponsored. So those are just examples. But what's been needed really is a community thing.
Dr. Shepard: One of the biggest celebrations I had was so simple. But I was driving into town, the city's reader board ... and I didn't know this was happening. I didn't ask this to happen. It's January right now, so they said, "It's January and we're all focusing on kindness this month and here's the Dare to Care." What a specific compliment.
Dr. Shepard: I thought, "I didn't even ask for that."
John: Yep. That's influence.
Dr. Shepard: The city put it up on the reader board. The district thing, it really belongs to all of us. I think that's where we're all working on this together. It's a culture caring for students within schools, within a community that all cares.
John: That's so well-said.
Dr. Shepard: It's been neat to see.
John: Well, there's a couple things. I just think about so much of the power behind what you're sharing and one of the things that I think has been so impressive in meeting you is, one, anybody who can get up and personal with you and see the way that systematically ... I mean you are incredibly gifted when it comes to systems-level thinking and how you've mapped all that out. I've seen it's almost like your war room, even though you probably don't call it a war room, where you've got, okay, this, this, and all that. But how important it is that a person in the role of influence and leadership that you are in has that kind of vision and is surrounding yourself.
John: I know you've surrounded yourself with strong leaders. But I just think about when people in positions of leadership not just talk about the work of life ready, but actually get behind it and what that does. What I'm hearing that it does in the instance of what we're talking about here with Orting is if I'm a teacher in a classroom I can work really hard and I can gain influence, but it would be hard for me with everything else going on to get an entire community behind this work. Whereas you can help to leverage those contacts and those relationships to help the greater cause of going after supporting the whole child.
John: I just think about the examples you gave that I hope that our listeners hear. I mean you literally got a school bus and took an entire group of 30 educators two hours away on a Friday, took them to dinner, had them stay, and then came to CharacterStrong conference because you said, "This is important." And then the next move is you're hosting one. We make time for that which is most important. Where we put our resources and our time and our energy says what is important and you have done that. My guess is you're starting to see the rewards.
Dr. Shepard: I think you're right about what we prioritize because we, from the beginning of the year, we brought the tip of the fighting sword on that school bus, all these different kinds of staff, stakeholders. I used to use that analogy because my husband was in Special Ops and they were like, "Tip of the fighting sword." So they were like, "First in."
Dr. Shepard: And then we hosted it and broadened that circle even more. But from the beginning, we carved with students, so had the Serve Us conference. Then you come in and work with strategically throughout the year. We have staff meetings where you're coming in working with staff throughout the year, but also where we have it where we're intentionally working with staff embedded throughout the year so that items don't just happen, but we've already made space for this throughout the year on purpose. Our leadership team from the beginning of the year, I have placeholders where we are focusing on this with your support and then also on our own. It doesn't just happen to us.
Dr. Shepard: Same with the board calendar, we're looking at life ready. We're not just doing a report at the beginning and end of the year when we do school improvement plans and then at the end when we're looking at how we did it for the year. We've embedded it throughout the calendar so that it keeps getting our attention and we're keeping it at the forefront.
John: Love it. That is with our actions and our time and our energy and the policy piece and the shifts that you made with the work you're doing with your board and then all of that makes the statement that this is something that we prioritize, that is important, that's worth our time because we know that when we take care of the foundation, the other pieces that we know are also so critically important start to fall in place. It's not that we're not working hard in those areas. We are. But we don't sacrifice the foundation, the piece that we know has to be there to be able to thrive in those other areas.
John: So I just applaud you more than anything else. It was an honor to have you on because you're in the work. You're doing the work that so many people talk about doing, but don't always necessarily make happen. So if people were to want to ask questions, I don't want to put anything more on your plate. But is there a way that people can connect with you? Would it just be the Orting School District? Is there any social medias that you're on? How can people connect with you?
Dr. Shepard: Lots of ways. I'm on LinkedIn, Twitter, all just Marci Shepard, one word on Twitter. If you go to Orting School District, you'll see the email link for the superintendent. They can email me directly.
Dr. Shepard: We have a great team and we're happy to ... We're not experts. We don't know it all. We're just growing in this. But yeah, we're happy to help and support in any way and also have any feedback too.
John: Well, I will tell you, being in a lot of places, that you are living it. You are doing the work and you have a great team. I'm proud of the work that Orting is doing. I'm proud to be a part of that. But thank you so much for your time, Dr. Shepard. I know that you are busy and have more work to be doing even today. But hopefully we can have another conversation at some point about these important matters, but grateful for you. Thank you for your time.
Dr. Shepard: Thank you for your support for me and my leadership and our system and your influence. I just see it. So thank you for your work.
John: Thank you. That means a lot. Well, I will be seeing you soon.
Dr. Shepard: Yeah. See you soon.
John: Have a great day. All right. Take care.
Dr. Shepard: Okay. Bye.
John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.