Back in West Texas after a sojourn to Massachusetts to earn a doctor of education leadership at Harvard, Michelle Rinehart is back in Rankin as associate superintendent.

Previously an education consultant for Region 18 Education Service Center stationed at the Fort Davis office, Rinehart was looking for a Rhodes Scholar program, or a next-step leadership program within education, so she conducted some different searches to see what might be possible.

Harvard’s program appealed to her because it was specifically looking at creating transformative system-level leaders for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools in the United States, Rinehart said in a May 2019 interview.

Born and raised outside of London, Ontario, Canada, Rinehart earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and put in an extra year at Teachers College in Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Rinehart earned a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University. The Harvard program is three years.

She did a superintendent practicum with Superintendent John Phelan at Belmont public schools in Massachusetts the first year.

“I did a year-long internship with him learning how to be a superintendent and I did it all virtually, which was a really interesting experience that truly only could have happened, I think, during the pandemic crisis when everyone was really reimagining what virtual work could look like and to lead across the miles, so that worked out great,” Rinehart said in a recent interview at Region 18.

Although it was virtual, Rinehart said it was an incredible experience. The curriculum focused on many areas, but the one that was the most transformative was asking what it takes for leaders to work on things that keep them from moving up to the next level of influence. This work will help change schools and student outcomes.

“If we do that work, then it will really empower us to lead change in a way that we couldn’t do otherwise. …,” she added.

Rinehart started as associate superintendent in Rankin July 5. Sammy Wyatt is the superintendent.

The associate superintendency is part of the third year of her program.

“In that residency, you partner with a school district, or a state education agency like TEA, or a state or national nonprofit like Raise Your Hand Texas, and you’re hired to be in a system level role and to lead a strategic change project within the district. I’ve just started my 10-month residency in Rankin as assistant superintendent, and I’ll be leading a project there this year and then graduating in May,” Rinehart said.

She was first placed with Jill Siler at Gunter ISD, a small rural district north of Dallas. But Siler was recruited to work at the Texas Association of School Administrators, so Rinehart had to find another spot.

In mid-May, Rinehart was visiting with Siler and many others across the state to ask them who they would recommend and Wyatt was the answer.

DeWitt Smith, executive director of Region 18, said Rinehart and Wyatt are cut from the same cloth as they are both innovators and they represent what is possible for people in West Texas.

Rinehart taught math and science in Rankin from 2013-2020.

Considered property wealthy, Rankin gives $45 to $50 million back to the state in recapture every year. Rankin has 300 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The district has 77 staff members; it plays six-man football and is one of the smaller districts in Texas.

They may be small, but Rinehart said Rankin is embarking on some innovative and progressive things.

“… Sammy does an incredible job of leading locally and thinking about what’s in the best interests of Rankin kids. … He’s very well networked and informed and influential both at the state level and at the federal level. … What appeals to me about that is right now I’m an aspiring superintendent. That’s what I see as my next role at a district in West Texas, but longer term, I’m really interested in what does it look like to help a group of rural districts run by different superintendents to improve teaching and learning at scale, because right now … everyone does their own thing the best they can. But what would it look like as a region if we tackled the fact that some of our outcomes for kids are the lowest in the state, and how do we improve that at scale across rural districts in Texas.”

Rinehart said she’s really been impressed by the leadership Wyatt has been involved in at the state and federal level, while leading in a rural district instead of seeing it as a stepping stone.

She added that there are number of opportunities coming from the state tied to COVID funding or accelerated learning. She wonders what it would look like to have district-level leadership that partners with the principals at each campus to leverage those resources and programs as effectively as possible.

“We’re really thinking about an instructional or curriculum instructional focus and or an internal leadership development focus, and maybe also some work around teaming and collaboration,” Rinehart said.

“A lot of times in our smaller districts, people are very, very effective at their individual role, but what would it look like to actually build in collaboration so that teachers can learn from each other and leverage their strengths, but also administrators in the district can learn to team and take things to the next level. So those are some of the things we’re thinking about that will fall under my purview,” she said.

However, her first few weeks on the job have involved helping the district stay up on new legislation that came out the legislative session and new opportunities that came out at the beginning of July and thinking about how they can apply for those, she said.

Rinehart noted that Wyatt has strong ties with neighboring districts such as Crane, McCamey, Iraan and Glasscock County, so they can work together and share best practices.

Rinehart and Wyatt were at Region 18 for the aspiring superintendent certification program. They presented on politics and education.

“But one of the things we talked about was how do you deliberately foster connections across superintendents in rural school districts,” Rinehart said. “The superintendency can be a lonely job, if you let it be. … It’s much more powerful to build these networks where you’re meeting with people regularly, you’re sharing ideas, you’re sharing challenges instead of trying to keep those hidden, so that you can really leverage the expertise that exists across the region.”

She said they also heard from Education Partnership of the Permian Basin Executive Director Adrian Vega and Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri.

Rinehart said they are excited to be part of the partnership’s work going forward.

She said Rankin “is all about excellence, both in the classroom and in extracurriculars.”

Rinehart said Rankin is seeing strong outcomes on the STAAR test and students graduating with associate degrees and career and technical education certifications in welding, for example.

“We’re adding a new nursing program this year to help students become certified to be a certified medical assistant. We already had a CNA program, so Rankin is thinking very creatively about industry certifications, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, college, career and military readiness in a way that many 1A districts aren’t able to do,” Rinehart said.

State STAAR scores this year showed a 16 percent drop in math.

“… We had a 0 percent drop, and so we consider that a huge win in the midst of an incredibly challenging year for students and teachers,” Rinehart said.

“We are excited for the areas that we have to improve on and the people that we have on board to do the work to keep growing,” Rinehart added.

Wyatt said the district was fourth in the Lone Star Cup at the 1A level. The Lone Star Cup, he said, is a compilation of kind of extracurricular sports and academics. It includes things like one-act play, debate, along with sports like track and football.

Wyatt said the district came in fourth in the UIL academic meet.

“We were second in the UIL state track meet. We won state in one-act play and we won state in calculator applications,” he added.

He said the broadcast team, called the Red Devil Network, was recognized nationally with the 2020-21 Event of the Year award by Mascot Media.

“We also have a state qualifying barbecue team,” Wyatt said. “We had three teams that qualified at the state level for barbecue. They were also featured in Texas Monthly magazine. …,” Wyatt said.

Rinehart said those are just a few of the things Rankin ISD has excelled at and all during a pandemic year.

She added that it was a really interesting place to come and learn about the superintendency.

Wyatt has been in Rankin for 11 years, including eight as high school principal.

“I’m starting my fourth year as superintendent,” Wyatt said.

He became a district chief to impact not only students, but educators.

“It’s a domino theory. You impact an educator, you impact a whole flood of kids. I look at as a top down approach and if I can impact the educators underneath me, they’re going to impact so many kids in different ways. That’s my job as a superintendent is to make sure that the educators and the people on our staff have kids at the forefront of every decision they make,” Wyatt said.

He grew up in Rochester, a small, six-man school north of Abilene. Wyatt got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and his superintendent’s certification from Angelo State University.

His view of being a superintendent came from looking around Texas to see what schools were the best, contacting the superintendents, being part of superintendent’s organizations and talking to them to see what they were doing.

“We focus a lot on the outputs. We may have some really clever programs, but if they’re not doing what we need them to do, then they’re just a waste of time. So the main thing I did was shop around, visit with other superintendents across the state, and I joined many organizations,” he said.

“There’s a whole multitude of organizations that are very helpful for superintendents. It takes a lot of our time, but we have to go to conferences and learn from the best and take notes and take those things seriously. But then figure out how you can apply them in a rural West Texas school like Rankin ISD,” he said.

Rinehart said Rankin is one of the smallest districts that a Harvard resident has ever chosen to work with.

“Some of my cohort mates, there’s 25 of us in the program in my year, and so my cohort mates are working with the New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, LA Unified; the biggest three districts in the entire United States. It was a deliberate decision for me to come to a district like Rankin because every community, regardless of size, deserves great leadership and great outcomes for kids. What you can do and how you do it in those big districts is vastly different than what you can do in these small communities. What I believe about the value of rural schools is that in a large district they might talk about …  we serve this many tens of thousands of kids, but in a small district you have the ability to fundamentally improve a community, or underserved community … and transform 100% of the lives of the people that live there,” Rinehart said.

Wyatt is the director of the Texas Math and Science Coaches Association.

“That’s kind of a love of mine, and we host one of the largest academic meets in the United States. … They have a junior high meet, or middle school meet and a high school meet every year in San Antonio at UTSA. I’m a part of a board that does all the planning and organization for that meet … Some of the work we’re doing there is extremely valuable across the state of Texas,” Wyatt said.

During the last legislative session, he also was involved in lobbying for or against certain bills that would either benefit Rankin or hurt it.

He added that he wrote some “bill killer legislation” to help legislators fight on their behalf.

“We did also phone calls with Tom Craddick and Sen. (Charles) Perry and lobby for things that were maybe not good for Rankin and then some things that were good for Rankin,” Wyatt said.

He added that was on a committee at the federal level to help share information with other superintendents nationwide that would help the Secretary of Education prepare for his hearing.

Back in Texas, Wyatt is the incoming chair for the Region 18 TASA group. He’s vice chair currently.

“We have a multitude of meetings throughout the following spring. We bring in some really high-powered speakers. Kim Alexander is on board now and LaTonya Goffney. I’m in charge of helping the (service center) bring in some powerful speakers to speak to the Region 18 superintendents,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt also has served as the representative for Region 18 in the Commissioner’s Cabinet.

“There’s one representative from every region in the state of Texas. We go there and we give the commissioner information. He shares information with us. He asks us how it impacts our region, then we come back to our region superintendents and I share the information that I learned from those meetings,” he said.

The associate superintendent position is new for Rankin. Wyatt noted that Harvard is paying Rinehart’s salary.

“It’s atypical for a 1A school, perhaps even for a 2A school, to have an assistant superintendent position, so it’s one that we’re really reimagining together, or … figuring out together,” Rinehart said.

Wyatt said Rinehart has been baptized by fire.

“… She’s right in the mix and it’s been very fast paced. I think she would share that with the cohort, people across the United States, etc., and her same internship that she’s done much, much more than they have already,” Wyatt said.

Rinehart said the experience has been invaluable so far.

“The learning that you get in a small district where the superintendent has to do so much more of what gets delegated to other roles in big districts. There’s just so much going on the superintendent has to know so much about all these different areas. So it’s been an incredible learning curve, but that’s what I came here for,” Rinehart said.

Wyatt said he thinks he has learned just as much from Rinehart. Having her has also taken some of the workload off him.

There are many federal grants they have an opportunity to obtain and the state’s Teacher Incentive Allotment.

“… It’s good to have another person, another administrator, to help fulfill all the requirements that will entail,” Wyatt said.