As educators know, the idea that they have summers off is a bit of a myth.
“People think that summers slow down for us, but we are very busy with hiring, training, planning and reflecting on what went well last year and where we can improve,” says Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri. She does acknowledge, however, that the stress level does go down a bit when the school year ends.
“I will admit that when all the kids were home at the end of the day on June 10, I felt my shoulders relax.”
She has been on the job for a little over two years as the head of Kalamazoo County’s largest school district, which has more than 12,000 students. She took the helm on June 1, 2020, the result of a year-long search after Michael Rice stepped down to became state superintendent of schools.
“Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here for a long time, just because of the sheer volume of things we’ve been able to do, but two years is not a long time, and people still refer to me as the new superintendent,” she says.
Raichoudhuri arrived to face the challenge of organizing the 2020-21 school year for KPS students and their families against an ever-changing Covid-19 landscape. It was a daunting task for even the most seasoned administrator, never mind one new to the job and the community. But Kalamazoo Central High School social studies teacher Clifton Fraley-Burgett, who will mark 22 years with KPS in October, says Raichoudhuri’s steady hand helped the district during a challenging, confusing time.
“I thought it was smart to go virtual for a year to help stop the spread of Covid among our student population,” says Fraley-Burgett. “I appreciated Dr. Raichoudhuri’s ability to not waiver on what we should do during this unprecedented time. We had many misinformed people trying to change how we conduct our school business, and she continued to maintain the course she laid out since this all began.”
Now, in the third year of the pandemic, hopes run high that the worst of it is over, but Raichoudhuri knows the next crisis is never far away.
“We are perhaps out of the pandemic crisis mode, but the urgent issues of public education have meant we are always in crisis,” she says. “Michigan has one of the lowest levels of education funding in the country, and I don’t believe we have experienced all the pandemic fallout in terms of labor shortages, inflation and supply-chain issues — all of which have affected our planned construction projects. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole sometimes.”
Good news on learning
On a positive note, in June the district released data showing a jump in student academic growth during the 2021-22 academic year.
“In every single federal subgroup in every single grade our students have grown academically at a level unheard of even in a normal year. It’s beautiful because it counters the narrative about learning loss, especially in urban districts,” Raichoudhuri says, explaining that the data came from standardized assessments for grades 3-8.
“It’s a real morale boost. We were pleasantly surprised, and I am so proud of the work we’ve accomplished. Our teachers worked incredibly hard this year, and I was mindful that I was asking a lot of them. Our district is not an easy place to teach, and I’m grateful that our staff has persisted through this challenge. They have been doing an amazing job that has been borne out in the data.”
Crooked path to the classroom
The first educator in her family, Raichoudhuri, 42, grew up in San Francisco and started her teaching career in the same district where she had been a student.
“I come from a traditional Indian/East Asian family, as stereotypical as they come, with the hope I would be a doctor or a lawyer,” she says. She was planning to become an environmental lawyer before realizing it wasn’t the career for her. A view of life in the classroom changed her career path.
“I was working with elementary school kids around being an environmental citizen, and I was struck by the academic curiosity of fifth graders and the agency they have to feel they can change the world. I was 19 or 20 at the time and was so surprised. I didn’t think little kids cared about the world.”
After graduation, she decided not to attend law school, left her parents a letter, and “took off for three months” to figure out her next steps. When she returned, she admits, she spent months in her pajamas trying to discern a path forward. “I had no clue, since I’d had a one-track mind for so long,” she says.
Her brother, Avik, reminded her about the classroom internship she had enjoyed and suggested she check out the kindergarten class his girlfriend taught.
“She (the girlfriend) was happy all the time, gushing about her kids, and she loved her job,” says Raichoudhuri.
“It was the first day in a long time I had put on professional clothes,” she says of that day in September 2001 when she visited her brother’s girlfriend’s classroom for the first time. “I heard my parents watching the news. I came out to see what was going on, only to see the second plane hit the second World Trade Tower.
“What I saw that day was a huge learning experience. My first introduction to the school system was an emergency staff meeting. Everyone was calm — that’s what educators do, remain calm when everyone’s freaking out. The principal was coordinating our response even as there was a rumor there was a third plane heading to the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time, there was nothing in the manual about terrorist attacks, and they were creating emergency contingencies on the fly.
“I was there for six weeks and loved it.”
In 2010, Raichoudhuri moved to Chicago, working in a variety of capacities for Chicago Public Schools, including as principal of Wells Community Academy High School, director of the Office of Professional Learning, and senior manager of the Office of Performance. Before being tapped to head KPS, Raichouduri was serving as executive director of CPS’ Early College and Career Education, where she established secondary-school-to-employment pipeline programs that helped students gain college credit and professional credentials. It’s a mission she has also brought to Kalamazoo.
Boosting career pathways
Raichoudhuri credits her own experience switching career paths in her 20s with why she is “so hot on career pathways” as KPS superintendent.
“I was very privileged, with parents to support me while I figured things out, but I don’t want our students to find themselves in that position, so far down a path that switching seems impossible.”
To that end, the district’s new Career Launch Kalamazoo program, created in 2021, provides KPS students with apprenticeships in information technology, health care, and manufacturing. Its creation was funded by a grant from the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship. KPS partnered with Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the city of Kalamazoo, The Kalamazoo Promise, Bronson Healthcare Group, Flowserve and Mann+Hummel to develop the program.
Raichoudhuri describes the program as “a quadruple dip for students.”
“Juniors and seniors will simultaneously earn high school credit, college credit and industry-valued certifications — all while earning $15 per hour for workplace learning,” she says.
Career Launch Kalamazoo’s soft launch this summer saw 14 students signed up with employer partners, including Flowserve, Bronson Healthcare and Mann+Hummel, and enrollment is open for students to participate this year.
The school district has also created a new career pathway for school staff seeking to become teachers. The Urban Teacher Residency Program, also launched in 2021, aims to help support staff already working in the district’s schools to gain elementary or special-education teacher certification. It is a collaboration with Western Michigan University and is funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The program’s first cohort of 10 candidates just completed a year of accelerated training, undertaken while they were also working full time and taking college coursework. Each candidate is supported by a $20,000 stipend.
“These are staff who have already worked with students in our district, participants from diverse backgrounds that mirror student population, and this fall they will be in classrooms,” says Raichoudhuri.
Jennifer Wright, 46, is one of those people. This fall Wright has begun teaching fourth grade at Arcadia Elementary, where she served as a Title I tutor for the past eight years, after previously working in human resources. Through the Urban Teacher Residency Program, she took online WMU classes for four semesters, earning 28 credits, while spending the 2021-22 school year shadowing kindergarten teacher Alfredo Aleman.
“The program was very intense,” she says, adding that every spare minute — “nights, weekends, early mornings” — was given over to her training. The new teacher is nervous because she wants to do well, but she’s also excited.
“I’m excited about having a brand-new career and showing the students that you can tackle something new at any age, and how I’m still learning at nearly 50.”
In addition to making career pathways a priority, the district, under Raichoudhuri’s direction, has also developed programs to better serve international students, many of whom arrived as refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. KPS has enrolled students from 10 countries, and 61 languages are spoken by KPS families. To help these students succeed, KPS created Newcomer Centers last year at three schools — Lincoln International Studies School, Milwood Magnet School and Phoenix High School — to provide students who had no English-language skills or previous experience in the U.S. education system with dedicated support.
“When a refugee parent comes in, usually with their resettlement agent, we have a specialized intake process, sheltered classrooms for the student, and family supports to help them build job and language skills,” Raichoudhuri explains.
Lessons from virtual learning
While the pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for Raichoudhuri and for KPS teachers, staff and students, the new student learning data gleaned from that time has led to the district’s creation of a permanent virtual school.
“We found that there was a group of kids who did better during virtual learning,” Raichoudhuri says. “Those who might not have been doing well academically in a traditional setting because of social anxiety or due to sensory needs did better at virtual school. Going back to our motto — Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time — we identified an opportunity that works for some of our students, and we decided to keep it.”
The district’s fully virtual curriculum is created and taught by KPS teachers, and the program allows students to participate in extracurriculars and athletics. About 800 students participated during the 2021-22 school year.
School safety & security
The school year wrapped up amid a national wave of mourning and renewed arguments about gun control after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting on May 24 that killed 19 fourth-grade students and two educators. At the June 9 school board meeting, Raichoudhuri and KPS Board of Education President Patti Scholler-Barber went on record calling for Congress to enact gun-control legislation.
“After what happened in Uvalde, we are happy for another year without serious incident (at KPS),” Raichoudhuri says.
The Kalamazoo community voted in May to approve the largest bond issue in KPS history — $197.1 million to fund capital improvements, upgrade safety and security, and provide building and classroom mechanical upgrades and technology.
“The millage was passed with one of the highest margins, in spite of inflation and gas prices, while neighboring districts were unsuccessful or barely passed,” Raichoudhuri says. “I have immense gratitude to the community for seeing the promise in our district and what we do for our children.”
Upgrades to school security have been made throughout the district, including fortified entrances at all 25 schools and upgraded communications platforms that give teachers better access from classrooms to call for assistance, and principals the ability to take emergency action like a building-wide lockdown from their phones wherever they happen to be.
“All the systems in all our buildings are now connected so everyone can know what’s happening in real time,” says Raichoudhuri.
These changes, as well as the easing of pandemic restrictions, have brought about another benefit that Raichoudhuri is looking forward to: the return of volunteers and community partners to schools. They couldn’t visit last year because of safety protocols, and all learning was virtual the year before and for part of the previous semester.
“Fun things, like overnight camps, visiting artists, room moms and dads, will all be back,” Raichoudhuri says.
“A new school year means new opportunities. This is a wonderful school district to be in, and I wouldn’t have moved from Chicago if I didn’t see the potential and a very supportive community. People stop me all the time to tell me what an amazing experience their kids are having or had in KPS. It’s a wonderful place to teach and learn and be a part of.”