Superintendent Reflects on Life to Help Deal with Budget Cuts
Stacks of file folders and piles of papers consume the desk in the small corner office of a charter school superintendent. A middle age woman stares blankly at her computer screen while tapping her fingers as if she is waiting for the answer to jump out of the computer and hit her on the head. The only noise in the room is the humming of the computer and noise from the ceiling fan. This is a typical moment that has happened almost every week for the last two years and is in response to an issue that many public schools are facing across the countr
The middle age woman is Debra Slagle, superintendent for Westwind Charter Schools and is on the Board of Charter Schools for Arizona. The issue is budget cuts and has caused Slagle lots of stress for the last couple of years. This isn`t a new issue or even the first road block that Slagle has encountered in both her professional and personal life.
Life was relatively easy for Slagle growing up in a middle class family in Atlanta. This was the first time she had to deal with adversity and put on a happy face despite the family. Slagle moved from Michigan to Atlanta when she was in middle school.
“Moving from the North to the South at that time seemed like it wouldn`t be a big deal,” Slagle said. “However, the people in the South still had their grudges against Northerners and my teachers made their feelings known. The first two years that I lived in Atlanta weren`t fun and it was hard to make friends.”
Instead of becoming an introvert and not trying to fit in, Slagle used humor to relate to the other kids. “During this period I knew that I needed to find a way to relate. It was at this time that I realized sometimes the best way to get through tough situations is to use humor,” Slagle said. This coping tactic would be key in helping Slagle overcome other obstacles in the future.
Enjoying the exciting events that surround a teenager’s high school life wasn`t an option for Slagle. She focused all of her energy and time on her school work avoid being at home so she could graduate at 16. Slagle`s two sisters and dad were the major cause of her lack of desire to be at home.
“My sisters were not fun to be around when I was in high school. One had a severe eating disorder and was constantly babied by my parents and the other was borderline bi-polar,” she said. “And then I had to deal with my dad and his need to constantly control me. I felt the only way to escape these issues would be to get out of the house as soon as possible and go to college. I had to work really hard to graduate at 16 and looking back I still feel like it was worth it because of the stress that it caused.” Being able to check out of certain situations helped Slagle deal with these issues.
After graduating from The University of Tampa with a major in Psychology, Slagle worked several jobs to pay her bills and rent. The job juggling went on for several years before Slagle was hired to be a social worker for child protective services. Working at CPS helped Slagle to see her situation earlier in life wasn`t that bad and gave her a better understanding of the issues many children faced in her own backyard.
“I had compassion for struggling kids before but this situation opened my eyes and that was when I became passionate about making a difference in a child’s life,” Slagle said. After eight years at CPS Slagle moved on to impact kids lives in a different way, she became a social worker for a local high school in Phoenix, AZ.
Sitting in an office at the back of the library waiting for the next high schooler to shuffle in became Slagle`s daily routine for the next 10 years. She listened to the high schoolers spill their problems to her. She gave advice or sometimes had to call the police if the situation was severe enough. The problems brought to her attention ranged from simple issues like school stress to helping a student cope with being raped. The issues and problems were different than what Slagle saw at CPS but through it all she knew that she was helping these kids and giving them skills that others didn`t give them.
Jennifer Johnson, a close friend and previous boss, worked with Slagle for 10 years and observed the impact she had on the students lives.
“I admire what she did for those students. To be a sounding board for them and hear about the wrongdoings in their lives everyday had to have been hard,” Johnson said. “For some of those kids, she was the only adult that actually cared about them and their well being. That takes a lot especially with you have two of your own at home.”
The advice that Slagle gave over and over to her students was to just breathe in difficult situations and then tackle what was wrong. Slagle still keeps in contact with some of the students who she helped. After 10 years, Slagle was ready for a new challenge.
In the spring of 1998, Slagle was approached by a children services organization that wanted to develop a school who would assist students who didn`t do well in a traditional high school setting and help them succeed so they could get to college. The organization, Westwind Children Services, and Slagle created their first charter school Westwind Preparatory Academy. At the time Slagle received a lot of criticism and she knew it would be hard but that it was the right thing to do.
“As her boss and someone who had invested a lot of time at the district level, I was mad and felt betrayed that she would go behind our backs and start this school,” Johnson said. “It took me a long time to forgive her and to understand that what she was doing did benefit the kids we couldn`t help. I think a lot of her previous colleagues haven`t forgiven her and it`s been over 12 years.”
This period took Slagle back to her life in middle school when she was the outcast because of where she was from. Once again she was the outcast because she saw a problem and believed that she could help solve it so she acted in the best way she knew how.
The first five years of Westwind`s existence was a struggle. Slagle dealt with the backlash of leaving a very powerful organization in education, a district school, and had to figure out a way to brand her school in a way so that it wouldn`t be categorized like every other charter school in Arizona. The solution was to make it a college prep program and to focus on athletics and build a strong basketball program. These solutions helped set the school apart and for seven years helped the school succeed. They grew by adding four more schools. Budget cuts in education have caused the current struggles in the organization even with the school`s success.
Charter schools are generally at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to dividing up education budgets. Westwind is no exception and has been struggling financially for the last few years because of the cuts. Dawn Revere, Slagle`s administrative assistant, has worked alongside her for 10 years and has seen the ups and downs.
“There have been times when she has spent school funds on things like advertising instead of paper for the teachers and I felt like that money was being wasted,” Revere said. “Ultimately, I trust her judgement and I know that advertising could bring in more students, which will in the end bring in more money.”
This isn`t the only school facing this issue. Most public schools across the United States are having to make cuts to keep up with their budgets. Just like those other schools, Slagle struggles to with what to cut, keep, pay and defer.
Running an organization can be a stressful task and Slagle knows that she just has to focus on the day to day and trust that everything will work out.
“I knew this was going to be hard and that there were going to be road blocks,” Slagle said. “I also knew what I believed in and that was to help kids and help them to have a better life. Going against the grain is hard and I still get criticized for that but I knew what I did was right and everyday I think about the students lives that we changed for the better. That is what gets me through the day.”
The hum of the computer and the noise from the fan still fills the little corner office but now the piles of papers are filed in the file folders. Finished with the day`s battles, Slagle shuts down her computer and sits back in her chair. She lets out a sign of relief and like the advice she gave her students 13 years ago, she just breathes.