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McNeill celebrates successes despite challenging years in state of education speech

By Kristen Hackbarth

Board of Trustees President Angie Taylor kicked off the Washoe County School District’s (WCSD) State of Education address Thursday night with a round of applause for employees in the district who have spent the last two years facing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The address, delivered at Lois Allen Elementary School in Sun Valley, was the first State of Education event since the start of the pandemic. It was largely a celebration of getting through the struggles of the pandemic, which Taylor pointed out included in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year when many other large school districts remained virtual.

“It has been a real, live boots on the ground experience. Every single day was a new challenge for the last two years, and it continues on,” Taylor said. “Let’s have a hand for teachers and nutrition service workers and bus drivers and office workers, and aids, custodians – everybody that held it down, and continued to hold it down for the last two years. And let’s face it: it’s been hard.” 

The night was also a sort of farewell to outgoing superintendent Kristen McNeill, who is set to retire at the end of June. McNeill’s retirement comes after a 30-year career with the district, many of them as an educator and school principal. 

Dr. Kristen McNeill
Dr. Kristen McNeill

“Her leadership has held this district…to the highest of standards during a time of great uncertainty when none of us were sure what the next day would hold,” Taylor said. “She has positioned us for success in the future.” 

McNeill took over the presentation following Taylor’s remarks and joked that her goals for the evening were not to cry and not to trip, but added that her leadership team was betting she’d cry. In the end, she did shed a few tears.

What followed was a celebratory, and at times emotional, speech where she talked about leadership, partnership and an “all hands on deck philosophy.”

“All hands on deck” is more than a philosophy in the transportation department, however. McNeill said that department has been hit harder than any other by staffing shortages and pandemic impacts. Mechanics, dispatchers and transportation administrators have gotten behind the wheel of buses to get students to school on time. Despite their efforts, the district has still reduced bus service and has cut routes to certain areas on alternating weeks.

McNeill thanked community partners for stepping up to provide food, computers and other resources for WCSD students during the pandemic, and also the Washoe County Health District for pandemic health guidance. She also gave credit to students and families who took on tasks and leadership roles, including learning from home and helping others in the community.

Ultimately, though, McNeill emphasized the district’s return to the classrooms in fall 2020 as key to the district’s and students’ success.

“We knew that the safest place for our students was right here in our schools, with their teachers and their peers and the caring school staff members, where their social, emotional and their academic needs were met in the school classroom,” she said.

McNeill also addressed many of the topics critics of the district, who include Trustee Jeff Church, have consistently cited as evidence of the need for an overhaul of leadership at both the trustee and district administration levels. She addressed student achievement, chronic absenteeism and low test scores, as well as the need for increased per-pupil funding.

“We know we have work to do to eliminate our achievement gap,” she said. “We’re not where we want to be and we know where we need to go. However, our schools are continuing to work so hard.” 

Some of that work, she added, includes expanded outreach services, wraparound services and school counseling, an intervention team to improve school attendance, and creative teaching opportunities.

In addition to the presentation, rooms within the school were set up with information and displays to highlight the district’s use of ESSER funds, school construction and infrastructure projects, career and technical education, and other key initiatives.

Watch the full presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiKSKXg0-dI.

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