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The difficulties the superintendent of the year sees in this school year and forward


We're nearing the end of what will be the third school year disrupted by COVID. Students are experiencing significant mental health challenges, teachers are facing more behavioral problems in the classroom, and, outside of class, parents and lawmakers have been fighting over what can and cannot be taught.

And that is why we wanted to take a few minutes to check in with Curtis Cain. He is the superintendent of the Wentzville School District in Missouri and was named the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year by the School Superintendents Association. Welcome.

CURTIS CAIN: Ailsa, hello. How are you?

CHANG: Good. I wanted to ask you about something that you had said when you accepted your award. You said that, you know, March of 2020 was really hard, but that somehow 2022 is even worse. What did you mean by that when you said that?

CAIN: In March of '20, you didn't know where you were going to actually find toilet paper, right?

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

CAIN: We're still working our way through supply chain and other challenges, but people are just in a different place. And I would say socially and emotionally, and I think mentally, folks are in a very, very different place, and I think it's important that we acknowledge that context. It doesn't mean we cannot work our way through this as a nation. We will have complete confidence that we will do so, but I think it is important to recognize the context, in that it's a different set of conditions that we are all working our way through at this particular point in time.

CHANG: You know, a lot of school districts have been struggling with staffing shortages the last couple of years - whether we're talking about shortages of teachers, bus drivers, custodians. Can you talk about how your district has been weathering through that?

CAIN: One of the challenges in the Wentzville School District - let me give you an example of what the past few years has looked like. Two years ago, we opened a brand-new elementary school. This past year, we opened a brand-new high school, and next year, the district will be opening a brand-new middle school.


CAIN: So dozens, in some cases hundreds - over 100 staff members just to staff those respective buildings.

CHANG: Right. I mean, you are the fastest-growing school district in Missouri, correct?

CAIN: We have historically been the fastest-growing school district in the state since around the year 2000.


CAIN: There were 6,000 students at that point in time, and there are now over 17,300 students in the Wentzville School District. So when you start adding those layers of complexity to the equation, it becomes challenging, right? We're all dealing with retirement, and then, obviously, you have people that are choosing to move elsewhere, work elsewhere. There are spousal moves that are impacting things. There are a lot of factors that are at play right now.

CHANG: How many open jobs do you have right now?

CAIN: Well, we're nearing the end of the school year, so we are in a much better place than we typically would be.

CHANG: And how many slots are we talking that are still open?

CAIN: I'd say we're talking dozens at this point in time.

CHANG: Wow. That's a lot.

CAIN: It is, and it creates a situation where we have teachers that have combined classrooms, taught over their own plan periods, especially as things were really trying to - or were trickling up during the omicron variant, right? And so people really extended themselves to keep classroom doors open.

CHANG: Do you think the pandemic has intensified the challenges inherent in a lot of these positions that you are striving to fill - in which case, it would make the pipeline even harder to staff going forward into the next year and the year after?

CAIN: I will say this - I think that, over the past couple of years, of all the points of criticism that have, I think, worried me the most, it's that our teachers don't care. What our teachers do is - they're in tight quarters, so to speak, with a large number of students. And what they ultimately want to do is be able to go home and experience a set of conditions and environment for their own families, right? That's what they're looking at - not that they don't or that they no longer care about their students. They are pouring out to our kids on a daily basis.

I think what our kids are asking for looks different than it has in the past, and so I think it's going to be about us developing the holistic student - not just academically - making sure that students are regulated, able to handle themselves socially and emotionally as they're matriculating their way through our schools as well. I think these are the factors that we're going to have to work through as a country. I - again, I have full confidence we're going to do so. We're just going to have to do so differently moving forward.

CHANG: Curtis Cain is the superintendent of the Wentzville School District in Missouri. He is also the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CAIN: Thank you so very much - very humbled and very honored. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.