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Transformation via passion

Lancaster ISD superintendent has tunnel vision – by design
  •  Dr. Michael McFarland, Superintendent, Lancaster ISD, Texas
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    Dr. Michael McFarland, Superintendent, Lancaster ISD, Texas

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Administrators’ Corner

NETWORK: The Pitsco Network
MCFARLAND: Dr. Michael McFarland; Superintendent; Lancaster ISD, Texas

INTRODUCTION: Dr. Michael McFarland is in his 22nd year in education. After playing football and earning a degree at Baylor University, he played one season of pro football for the New York Giants. His first teaching position was as an algebra teacher and football coach at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas. From there, he went on to serve as an assistant principal at a couple schools; returned to Tyler as principal; went to Champagne, Illinois, as assistant superintendent; and now is the superintendent of the Lancaster Independent School District, located just south of Dallas, a post he has held for four years.

NETWORK: What prompted you to leave teaching and coaching and become an administrator?
MCFARLAND:
I had really good relationships with the kids on the team and really good relationships with the kids in my class, but every year at the end of the football season, we would move our seniors out of our class and the new kids would come in. It was challenging for me to see what happened to these students, who had done well academically and athletically during the season, after the season was over. These kids with the aptitude and ability to do well did not achieve because they didn’t have the support in place. So I felt like I needed to move up. I felt like I needed to move into the assistant principal role because then I could have more of an impact on the campus, be able to put some supports in place to make sure that when kids graduated, they had options.

NETWORK: Why have you chosen to work in primarily low socioeconomic areas?
MCFARLAND:
My ultimate goal was to be able to make a significant difference in the lives of students. What I recognized is that in the environments where you have high poverty and where you have diversity, it is in those schools, oftentimes, you have low expectations from the adults. You have students who are not really aware of what all is out there, and so basically they have very limited concepts of what reality is and of what their reality could be. . . . What I realized, though, in every one of those environments you have really good people that are working really hard. If you just put the right systems in place and the right programs in place, people can achieve and people will rise to the level of your expectation.

NETWORK: What do difficult assignments offer you as an educator/administrator?
MCFARLAND:
I want the difficult. I want the challenge. I want the job where people have given up. Because what I know is that in those situations where kids have had challenges, where adults have had challenges, where parents and families have had challenges, you’re going to find people that also understand perseverance and determination. It’s there. It’s just a matter of cultivating that and then going into that situation and looking at it – not with a deficit line of thinking, but going in there and looking at it saying, “Okay, here’s a skill. Here’s an asset.” These kids, these students, these families have been able to make it in spite of their situation. What if we did some things structurally within our system?

NETWORK: What was Lancaster ISD like when you arrived?
MCFARLAND:
The morale was low, and there were some performance issues as well. But I tell you, there was a lot of good, a lot of good things hidden below the surface. The district had done a really poor job of communicating the good message. The messages about the district were negative in the public and in the paper. As I did my research, I just kept finding all these good things. An example was that we had campuses that were 85% and in some cases 90% of our students receiving free or reduced lunch that were outperforming a lot of the schools in the neighboring areas. But, the public didn’t know that because they couldn’t get past all the other negative stuff that was out there. I saw that there was a foundation in place and initiatives that were really sound. I was able to see, “Man, this is a place of great possibility!”

NETWORK: What do you mean when you describe yourself as a possibilitarian?
MCFARLAND:
I look for possibilities and opportunities in every situation. How can we take this and turn this into something positive for us? What are the possibilities that, even though this is a bad situation, how can we take this, turn it, and make it something good for our kids?

NETWORK: How does Lancaster Middle School fit into your recipe for postsecondary success?
MCFARLAND:
When I first got here, I quickly noted that our middle school had some challenges with its academic performance. So, we decided to make this our starting point for the district transformation and began to look at different models of reform. We identified STEM as a possible option. Then, we began to look at all of our economic statistics within our city, in Dallas County, the North Dallas area, and across the nation. We saw that eight of the 10 most-available job opportunities were going to be within the STEM field by the year 2020. So, if eight of the 10 opportunities across the nation are going to be in the STEM field or connected in some way to the STEM field, that’s something that we need to be paying attention to.

NETWORK: How did you begin to shape the district’s STEM focus?
MCFARLAND:
We identified four areas where we felt like that if our kids developed a really strong awareness, they would be able to go forward and make good decisions. The first area was Global Arts Communication. We have a strong fine arts program and an excellent communications program, and we didn’t want to leave that out of STEM. Then, there’s Engineering with a focus on Aerospace Engineering. We have about four airports within our area and one here in Lancaster. So, we felt it was just a natural partnership. Health Science Technology is one of the fastest-growing areas in STEM. And then, the fourth one was Information Systems & Software Design. So, we have partnerships with Radio Disney, AT&T, and others.

NETWORK: So you reach out to and work directly with business partners?
MCFARLAND:
In every pipeline, we have a minimum of four to five major industry partners in the community, maybe not right here in Lancaster but in the DFW metro area. NASA is a huge, huge partner with us.

NETWORK: Tell us how the district received a Texas Instruments grant that helped fund the STEM for All initiative.
MCFARLAND:
Initially, we were only going to look at the middle school; but, as we continued to research, the more we recognized this is something that we need to do to scale. We wanted STEM for All. We felt like, if this is good, it should be good for all kids. We just have to figure out how to do it because no one else in the state is doing it. Texas Instruments actually advertised a grant opportunity, so we wrote a proposal and they funded that proposal. We were the only ones awarded because we were the only ones doing a STEM for All K-12 model.

NETWORK: How does Pitsco Education curriculum fit into STEM in Lancaster ISD?
MCFARLAND:
In our model, Pitsco is critical for us. It’s critical. At the elementary level, the goal is awareness and exposure. When students get to the sixth-grade center, this is where it’s critical and why we are so proud of our Pitsco lab experience. We have kids coming from seven different elementary campuses, and they’re coming to one sixth-grade center. At this grade level, they all are a part of our Pitsco labs. Within those labs, our students spend time working on projects in all of the different pipelines. We use the Pitsco software and curriculum to expose our kids to this wide array of opportunities that’s connected to each one of the pipelines. . . . At the seventh-grade level, we have additional Pitsco Modules and introductory classes that are more detailed, like Introduction to Aviation and Introduction to Health Science and all of that. At the early high school level, Engineering Module labs expose students to even more career possibilities.

NETWORK: How do you know the Pitsco curriculum is effective?
MCFARLAND:
I do superintendent site visits like once a quarter. And so, I ask students what’s your favorite course? Most of them say, “Pitsco.” I’m like, “Why?” “Because it’s engaging! It’s fun! We’re learning about aerospace and shooting rockets and the body systems and 3-D printing and all this stuff!” And I’m like, “Wow!”