Sheila Briggs, who has lived in DeForest for 20 years, is running for state superintendent of instruction at a time when educators are faced with unprecedented challenges.
“In the fall, it’s going to be a whole new ballgame,” said Briggs, referring to efforts to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Briggs announced her candidacy in late May, becoming the second to do so. Jill Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica Area School District, was the first. A general election will be held in April 2021 to decide a winner.
Briggs has served as assistant state superintendent since 2011, when she was appointed as such by then State Superintendent Tony Evers. She was reappointed to the position by Evers’ successor, State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, in 2019.
Taylor is not seeking a new term in the office. She made the announcement a few months before Briggs threw her hat into the ring. Taylor’s departure means the state superintendent race will not feature an incumbent for the first time since 2009.
Briggs’ interest in education began through an extra-credit course in college.
“I was working with a little girl at a community site,” said Briggs. “I fell in love with the idea of meeting the needs of kiddos.”
The first stop in her career was a job as a kindergarten teacher in Madison, later serving as a principal because she wanted to make “a broader impact.” She became a school administrator, eventually going on to become elementary lead principal of 32 elementary principals in the Madison School District.
Interestingly, as a student, Briggs spent her time in rural schools. As a professional, she’s worked in urban school districts.
“I think it’s all given me a depth of experience at every level,” said Briggs.
As assistant state superintendent, Briggs said she’s had a “front-row seat” to everything that’s gone on in the world of education in the state. She said she’s loved working with all schools across Wisconsin.
At the moment, Briggs feels exciting work is being done to close achievement gaps in the state.
“Every kid deserves to have a high-quality school that meets their needs,” said Briggs.
She acknowledged Wisconsin has some work to do in this area, as the state has the largest racial achievement gap in the country. She said COVID-19 has shone a light on inequity in the state with regard to access to the internet and computers.
One possible solution that appears to be working is ensuring that instructional materials are aligned to state standards, especially in the areas of math and literacy.
“In places that have used new materials of high quality that are aligned to the standards are showing great results,” said Briggs, who explained that they’ve lead to higher engagement for students and increased job satisfaction for teachers.
Briggs wants to make sure that every teacher has access to such materials.
Two other challenges Briggs identified include providing support for teachers during these times “when there’s a lot of fear, when there’s a lot of uncertainty” and school funding.
Briggs said adequately funding schools to meet the needs of kids is always a concern, but the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. She believes it will cost more to educate students this fall in class due to providing personal protective equipment and social distancing practices.
Adding to the concerns is President Trump’s recent statement about withholding federal funding if schools don’t reopen in-person.
Briggs said it’s hard to predict what school will look like in the fall. She said teachers stepped up in the spring to continue providing students a good education. Some different methods educators tried while everyone was in lockdown worked and some didn’t, Briggs said.
Describing herself as a “big listener,” Briggs wants to hold listening sessions to find out what’s working and what’s not in schools. Among those she wants to hear from are teachers who’ve left the profession.
“We’re already hearing stories of things that have been better in this new environment,” said Briggs.
One example is how a group of teachers in a remote setting created videos for instruction. Briggs said their students loved to go back and watch them, which helped them with their lessons.
Briggs also cited the use of tele-help features for social workers, counselors and other such staff to provide services to students, especially in rural school districts where that kind of assistance might not otherwise be available.
Some of the features of virtual learning that was conducted this spring could continue in state schools, according to Briggs. She said that certain kids were engaged more and built stronger relationships with their teachers during the period.
On the other hand, Briggs realizes that it didn’t work for everyone. “Some kids didn’t engage at all,” she said.
Briggs resides in DeForest with her husband Aaron and has had two kids go through the DeForest Area School District. They have a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who is now in the Army going through basic training. The son graduated from DeForest this spring and experienced the drive-thru graduation ceremony. Briggs said the processional of cars was sweet, but wondered how the kids and the adults dealt with such an untraditional event.
At the same time, she’s encouraging those in education to think outside the box and “not rely on what’s in their own box.”