SHERIDAN — Jillian Balow will serve as the top education administrator in Wyoming for at least the next four years. Balow began a four-year term as Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2014 and is running unopposed as a Republican in the 2018 general election.
Balow stopped by The Press offices Monday for about 35 minutes to discuss school safety, requiring schools to offer computer science by 2022 and what keeps her up at night.
Balow believes all aspects of school safety and security — such as potentially allowing certified teachers to have firearms in their classroom — are handled best by local school districts.
“It’s another tool for school districts to think about putting in their school safety and security toolbox,” Balow said.
“As soon as there’s a mandate from the national or state level, the work done at the local level becomes about compliance and not thinking carefully about whether it’s best; how to make it the best; how to make it most efficient and effective … This is a really serious topic and it looks very different (across school districts).”
Here’s a look at the rest of the Q&A with Balow:
Press: For the K-12 computer science initiative, why is that important?
Balow: There is not one job that exists in tomorrow’s world that doesn’t require us to utilize technology. The jobs of the future that we don’t even know about today are going to require workers to go one step further and not just use technology, but actually solve problems and innovate using technology. I would anticipate that 10 years from now, the conversation will be, “Why didn’t we do this 10 years sooner?”
If we want to continue to prosper as a state and we want our young citizens to prosper as individuals, then they need to have a strong literacy in computer science … Some people think computer science is thinking only about coding, and the reality is that computer science is about a plethora of skills that our students need to be able to apply to a number of fields after high school.
Press: Do you worry about staying up to date with computer science curriculum?
Balow: Yeah, so this is something that keeps me up at night, and here’s why: Our teachers today likely did not learn computer science in high school or college. They definitely in their pre-service training were not taught to teach computer science and it’s not something that our kids have learned (before), most likely.
The whole reason that we’re doing this is to create jobs that don’t exist yet. Computer science can never be static … This has to look different than how we’ve approached traditional subjects. We must meaningfully partner now and in the future with business and industry to have them drive what skills they need in the workplace, and there also has to be a close partnership with the tech industry as well, to help provide the most up to date training.
We have a really ambitious goal of training 500 teachers (to teach computer science) in five years. That’s not 500 new teachers in Wyoming or new teaching positions. Those are STEM teachers who have a passion for computer science and are willing to train with industry experts … with the understanding that the computer science they teach from year to year is going to look different.
This is not a blueprint that we already have. This is a brand new blueprint, but we understand the architecture of that. At this point, we have 54 months and counting until this is implemented and what lets me sleep at night is the knowledge that we have a lot of schools and community colleges and the university and business and industry who are really interested in doing this right.
Press: It seems like it will be more of a community effort, different groups working together.
Balow: I hope it is. I hope that some of the computer science that is offered in Sheridan County looks different than some of the computer science courses that are offered in Sweetwater County because they’re tech-specific or industry-specific. Sheridan County has a lot of little startups with technology companies, and I hope that that helps inform what’s taught here. I hope (Sheridan) College helps inform that, and really allows us as a state to customize the computer science experiences of students
Press: What else keeps you up at night?
Balow: One thing that I’ve been really passionate about is career in technical education. We have about an 81 percent graduation rate statewide, which is average nationally. That keeps me up at night because that means that for whatever reason, school isn’t relevant to 19 percent of our students in Wyoming.
One other thing that really keeps me awake at night is thinking about our preschool population, and making sure that we’re doing all we can as a state to support our communities in their efforts to make sure that all students are ready for kindergarten and that kindergarten is ready for all students. That isn’t necessarily a result or decision of any policy at the state level, but it is a result of support that we give to the communities to make that happen.
Press: So that’s more up to the local school districts on working with whoever it may be on that sort of thing.
Balow: Yeah, and some states have systems for universal pre-K where pre-K is almost like kindergarten or it’s offered in a public school or what have you. I’ve never been a supporter of universal pre-K or universal preschool, but I am a big supporter of community efforts to make sure that any family that chooses for their student to be in preschool is able to include their child in a high-quality preschool.
Press: Where do you hope to see the state, education-wise, five years from now?
Balow: I hope that we are talking less about school finance and more about school improvement … I would also really like to dispel this notion that Wyoming isn’t one of the best states in the nation in terms of our public education system and make sure that we bring the metrics to the surface that show that we are, and that takes time.
Press: What is the perception nationally of Wyoming education?
Balow: What I realized when I went to national meetings was that a lot of folks across the nation were saying, “Wyoming, we haven’t seen you here for a while. We haven’t had you here at the table.”
So I’m just stubborn enough and probably overly passionate about education to try to change that perception. I’ve made a really concerted effort to be active at the national level in the education commission of the states, as well as the commission of chief state school officers, so that not only Wyoming education has a voice at the table but (also) rural education in general. My mantra has been, “If we’re going to talk education, let’s also consider rural education.”
Just like we consider different school groups — whether that’s boys and girls or ethnicity or special education or low-income — let’s always make sure that we’re considering how rural education is impacted by policy.