ELKO – Elko County left its mark on Dr. Michele Robinson years before she became superintendent of the Elko County School District.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Robinson said she heard of Elko but didn’t know much about it. Then, at an education conference, she met someone who described the county and the school district to her.
“After a long discussion about the school system and the county as a whole, I remember thinking, ‘Wow! Elko is a growing and interesting community, that great things were happening in it,’” Robinson recalled.
“Now I’m here, and I’m seeing those wonderful things I was told about Elko.”
On July 1, Robinson took the helm of the school district one month after a school year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered schools nationwide.
Her career began in Las Vegas as the superintendent of Odyssey Charter School. She moved to Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 2011 to lead its school district. Four years later she became the superintendent of Paramus Public Schools in New Jersey.
In May, Robinson was hired to replace Todd Pehrson, who retired after 29 years in the school district, two of them as superintendent.
Robinson sat down with the Elko Daily Free Press to discuss her thoughts about moving to the area, meeting some of the challenges brought on by the school shutdown, and getting to know a community that has long intrigued her.
Q: What drew you to apply for the superintendent’s position in Elko County?
A: I grew up in Las Vegas. I’m familiar with Northern Nevada and had family who lived in this area, not Elko specifically. I think what I’m enjoying the most is that feeling of being home in the state where I grew up, I started my career, my family. So that feeling in itself is the best.
[The job was] the opportunity to be back in my home state. I have my daughter and granddaughter. They are in Las Vegas, and I wanted to be closer, and I didn’t want to be 3,000 miles away from my little grandbabies who are growing up. So, this was a great opportunity. Las Vegas was very good to me, and it’s a great community but it’s not where I want to be, [however] I do want to be close to family.
Q: What are you enjoying about Elko County so far?
[What] I’m enjoying about Elko, specifically, are the people. There are great people here. Everybody here has been very welcoming; this is a community made up of people moving in from other places, so you don’t feel like you don’t belong because everybody is from someplace else. So everyone has been very welcoming. I really appreciate it.
Q: In April you toured the school district, visiting all the school sites throughout Elko County. Can you describe the experience?
We did it in three days, [which] was a lot for three days, but it was doing what I love the most, meeting people and truly knowing what is important to people. What their aspirations are in the different corners of Elko County. I thoroughly enjoyed that, and I loved people wanting to know what I thought about certain things. It was great to have that opportunity to have [those] discussions.
I got to see this corner of Nevada and get a feel for the different communities. What I understood is that we are one big county and one big school district, and there’s got to be consistency. But there also has to be room for appreciating what is different about the small communities. Every community has its personality and aspirations again for their children.
I think any school district’s major goal is to provide as much opportunity for children to be successful, and that means progress academically and progress in skills and social-emotional resiliency, and all of those things that become the charge of the school district. We provide these opportunities by having a variety of programs. We want to provide as much opportunity for kids, and we want to make sure that we are seeing our children progress academically, which is what the community wants for their kids.
But we have to follow state mandates and what the state requires. I think education has got to be one of the most heavily regulated professions. There are mandates and requirements, and we have to meet all of those while at the same time saying, ‘Parents, what is important for your children?’
Q: Your background includes experience with charter schools and distance learning, which is applicable now under the pandemic. What are some of the strengths and lessons from those experiences you are bringing to Elko County?
The entire country went distance learning with like a day’s notice or two days’ notice, and you’re not going to make things work perfectly under those sorts of conditions. I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the experience that happened in Elko County and across the county.
When I was overseeing the charter schools, the distance learning piece of schooling didn’t exist. So, we were creating the structure and laying the foundation for it. Some of the pieces that I know, which research supports, is that you have to have really solid professional development for teachers who do distance learning. We are all trained on how to teach in a brick-and-mortar classroom, but when you are changing the vehicle by which you are giving the instruction, you have to have a whole different set of tools to work with to do that. So you’ve got to invest in professional development.
The other important piece is that you have to help parents and give them the tools to succeed in the home. That’s an investment in time and support that you provide to parents. [Both of these] components are hugely important. Again, all these districts across the country didn’t have the time to put those pieces into place.
Research also says the most successful model is a hybrid model with a combination of online and face-to-face. That face-to-face component is so important, and not being able to provide face-to-face was, I think, a very important piece that was missing, but the situation was what it was, and that piece couldn’t be a part of it. But those other pieces can be shored up as well, and ultimately the students will get what they need.
Q: What does the funding issue look like now, which is more complicated due to the pandemic?
The Legislature had a commission that they put together to look at [the funding formula], what it means and impacts of it. The commission had some meetings, and then COVID hit. From what I could tell, it slowed down things in the works, so it’s been kind of quiet. And then, of course, there’s the impact on the economy with COVID. The governor last week called a special session, and they did a lot of work. We’re waiting, and we should be getting some information soon about anything that came out of that first special session and how that impacts education.
Q: As you become familiar with the school district and work through the issues concerning the upcoming school year, what will the district look at in the future?
I’d like to spend the first year getting to know the district, getting to know the people in the communities, and again, what aspirations they have for their children. I don’t want to jump in and start making changes or movement and be ill-informed.
So, as we create a vision for what we want, moving forward, I also want the community to be involved in that and for the community to tell us.
Once this is settled and we move beyond this, then begins that work of who are we as Elko County School District and Elko County. What do we want for our children? What do we want to achieve together on behalf of our children? And that’s going to be the work that we jump into at that point.
Q: Is there anything else you would like the public to know?
Right now, what’s important is that families know the work that’s being done in preparation for opening up the school year. [Reopening is] first and foremost on people’s minds, and that’s what I want people to know is that the work is being done. We are going to share it with the community, continue to share it with the community. We’re going to figure this out together. But I think that’s the priority for families right now, so everything about [reopening] is a priority.
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