As he concludes his seven-year tenure as superintendent of Unified School District 410 this month, Steve Noble sees himself as the captain who kept the ship on the board’s innovative course during unusually challenging times.
Noble will step into the superintendent position at the Topeka Seaman school district July 1, but spoke to the Free Press about some of the challenges and achievements that occurred during his tenure at USD 410.
“Hillsboro has prided itself on being an innovative district for years,” Noble said June 15, his last day in the office. “We simply continued that innovation.”
Funding was the overriding challenge as state revenue declined—by choice and by circumstance.
“Enrollment decline had sort of begun,” Noble said. “At Hillsboro in particular, we had the combination of declining revenues as well as loss of enrollment, so we kind of had a double whammy going on here.”
On the positive side, as Noble stepped in, the district was wrapping up a $6.625 million bond issue that had funded significant facility improvements. The final project to complete was the new stadium being built in partnership with Tabor College.
“The stadium literally was just a big pile of dirt—there was nothing out there,” Noble said. “I got to come in at an exciting time. I was at all the construction meetings with Tabor College.
“That threw me right into the spirit of collaboration that exists in this community,” he said. “I learned very quickly how important it is to form partnerships with the other leaders and influential decision makers of the town, of the school and of the county.”
At the same time, the district was launching the first stage of its 1-to-1 laptop initiative, with the goal that every student would have access to a laptop to use both at school and at home.
It began in 2009 with students in grades nine through 12; the program expanded to middle school students the following year.
“We were one of the first districts in Kansas to offer 1-to-1 laptops that they can actually take home, and remove from school in grades 6-12,” Noble said.
The impact of the move changed the game for teaching and learning, he added.
“It provided access to the World Wide Web for every student, all the time, if they wanted it,” he said. “That was the catalyst that changed our teaching and learning.
“The teachers helped our kids navigate what is appropriate information, what is inappropriate information—what can be used, what can’t be used, and to be more discerning with that tremendous opportunity to access the World Wide Web.”
Noble said faculty and building administrators were up to the challenge.
“I just kind of came in that first couple of years, frankly, and just steered the ship in the direction the current was already going,” he said. “I didn’t have to do much in terms of change.”
With the completion of several facility projects, including a new central office complex, the challenge of dwindling revenue began to demand more and more attention.
Noble looked to the community for input.
“Enrollment was declining, we had to make some adjustments for that,” he said. “We started a period of three or four years where we would have at least one community meeting a year.
“That first year we had more than a hundred people come to our community meeting to voice their input on what we should prioritize with our children’s education.”
From there, Noble sought input from administrators and teachers regarding educational priorities.
“It was a lot of conversations to have, but it began to bring to light the challenges we were facing,” Noble said. “I think that began to create sort of an understanding (among patrons) that this is challenging. There’s not a lot of fluff in a school district’s budget.”
Noble said the district developed a strategy to become more efficient.
“For example, we cut nonessential bus routes, like the town route,” he said. “That was controversial.”
Another bold move was to combining the teaching schedules of the middle school and high school to maximize teachers.
“We knew the number of teachers was going decline in number because we knew about some retirees and some attrition that would happened—and we didn’t hire those positions back.”
At the time, the high school was on a block schedule and the middle school was on an eight-period day. The board decided to put both schools on an eight-period day.
“At the same time, we shortened the school year by trimming days off the calendar, which saved significant costs in food service and transportation, plus some custodial and other costs,” Noble said.
“We shortened the number of days, but expanded the day by 30 minutes. If we’re going to bus kids, let’s bus them and teach them an extra 30 minutes so we get a better cost-to-benefit ratio.”
Noble said those decisions were not easy. The community was used to a school day that started at 8:30 a.m and ended at 3:30 p.m. Now, classes would begin a half hour earlier.
Noble said he is grateful for how patrons responded.
“I had very few complaints about the change,” he said. “I think they understood it, from being a part of our discussions previously— and the board was very proactive in getting the message out that this is what we had to do.”
Noble said the changes actually enabled other innovations.
“By lengthening the school day, we could keep an eight-period day in tact for our high school kids,” he said. “That’s important because it allows our kids to have one extra elective a year compared to other students who have seven periods a day.
“Over four years, that’s four additional electives our kids get experience in.”
The additional electives provided the opportunity to offer students more online courses.
At the start, courses were taught through the TEEN consortium.
“Most of those were what we called interactive distance learning classes,” Noble said. But IDL class became challenging.
“It still depended on the teacher at the other end, and whether his or her schedule matched our kids’ schedule so they could have that teacher in front of them.
“That began to morph into a different idea: What if we put content online? Then the kids could access that content anywhere and anytime.”
Today, the “old” TEEN has become TEEN Virtual Academy. Students—even those who aren’t associated with the sponsoring districts—can take courses virtually. This past year 88 student participated.
TEEN benefits from the additional revenue.
“We ran a surplus of about $65,000 on the TEEN Virtual Academy this year,” Noble said. “We’re going to put the money back into the academy next year, recruiting more kids, getting more students to sign up, teaching more virtual courses.”
Meanwhile, additional electives led to the career education Pathways program.
“Career ed pathways have really separated Hillsboro High School from the pack,” Noble said. “That was probably the most publicity our school district has seen from around the state of Kansas, as other educators came here to see what we were doing.”
“Your new superintendent, Max Heinrichs, was the leader of that initiative,” Noble said of the former HHS principal. “He pushed that through, and having him come back to keep the ship steered in the right direction is going to be critical to the success of the district and those programs going forward. ”
Expanding the school day by 30 minutes has had a positive impact on the elementary school, too.
“We were able to keep things like elementary art in place, elementary music in place, and we were able to expand—we do a foreign language through their computer time,” Noble said. “Kids get foreign language in the elementary school—that’s never been done before.”
The district also shepherded the Farm-to-School initiative that will enable students to interact and care for live farm animals on campus.
“We’ve had great partnerships with our community members and people who really want to see that go—parents, for example,” he said. “That will again get our kids exposed to real life.”
A walking culture
When the school eliminated the city bus routes, a new initiative emerged: the Walking School Bus program.
“We had to become innovative and still get kids safely to school—where parents don’t have the convenience of having the bus come pick their kids in town—so we started the Walking School Bus.”
This past school year, the program has 25 to 35 students each morning walking to school with adults.
“It sort of has begun to transform the culture in Hillsboro that we are a walking-to-school type of district,” Noble said. “Many kids are doing it now. We hope to expand that.”
Walking to school was enhanced this past summer with the Safe Routes to Schools program initiated in partnership with the city. The new wider sidewalks enables young students on bikes or on foot to travel safely from the west end of town to the elementary school on the east end.
Noble said the district’s partnership with the Hillsboro Community Foundation has been another enhancement. The district transferred its various small scholarships fund that were collecting minimal interest in CDs and invested it in HCF’s stock-market funds.
“Over time, the market has proven to be pretty reliable in growing money,” said Noble, who has served as president of the HCF board. “We’re able to provide scholarships now back to the original intent that donors had intended. That helps our kids.”
One of his personal favorite fund is the Marga Ebel Health Fund.
“We believe dental care is one of the most overlooked needs of children,” Noble said. “So we put money into that and we have a great partnership with Hillsboro Dental Care, who has been a wonderful partner with us.”
Another initiative during Noble’s tenure was the decision to offer the option of all-day kindergarten.
“We talked for years, even decades, about when we are going to put in all-day kindergarten,” Noble said. “We always put it off because we just didn’t have the money, or we couldn’t pull it off.”
Some parents expressed concern about the expanded program.
“We allow parents to opt out of the program if they want to,” he said. “But out of a class of 45 kindergarteners, we’ll have 40 who will be all day.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive from the parents,” he added. “And I can tell you this: our first- and second-grade teachers see the difference because those kids are better prepared than ever before.”
As Noble moves on to Topeka Seaman, he carries mixed emotions.
“The opportunity to lead a district of about 4,000 students and 700 staff was a challenge that I welcomed,” he said. “I was excited to take on that job.
“But the closer I’ve gotten (to leaving), it’s become incredibly bittersweet,” he said. “I’m saying good to people I know. We say we’ll see each other again, but you know how reality gets tough.”
In the same breath, Noble added: “This district is ready for some new leadership. Max is ready to take the reigns and go with it. The board is ready. Since Monday night, after that last June board meeting, I started feeling that I’m plugging up the pipe and it’s time for me to get the Drano out and clear the pipe and let the next person in.”
Noble said Hillsboro has left an imprint on his family.
“Our family is incredibly grateful,” he said. “This community was our home for seven years. I hope most people understand that we didn’t treat this like a stop on the road. We invested in this community.”
He said Hillsboro will always be “hometown” for their two daughters.
“The opportunity that Hillsboro provided me and my wife and my kids will be forever remembered. It’s a special place because of that.
“The people coming together, the support, the encouragement from everyone at Hillsboro—they seem to get the big picture. They understand it and how important it is to keep the big picture in mind.
“That’s been so inspirational.”