Wausau Schools Leader Joins ‘Top-Notch’ District

Wausau Schools Leader Joins ‘Top-Notch’ District
Posted on 07/19/2018
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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

​​Wausau schools leader joins ‘top-notch’ district

Haley BeMiller
Wausau Daily Herald
USA TODAY NETWORK - WISCONSIN

WAUSAU - Keith Hilts says he’s driven by a central priority — ensuring schools meet the needs of the whole child.

"If I were to put a theme on my work, it’s really expanding education beyond academics to all aspects to help children become successful," said Hilts, the new superintendent of the Wausau School District.

Hilts assumed the role of Wausau superintendent on July 2 after being hired by the School Board in February. He came to Wausau from the School District of Ashland, where he had served as superintendent since July 2010. He will earn $170,000 for the upcoming school year.

The School Board selected Hilts to replace former interim Superintendent Michael Schwei, who filled the role last year following the retirement of Kathleen Williams. Schwei is now the district’s director of human resources and employee relations.

Hilts’ appointment was clouded in part by news of two racially charged controversies that occurred on his watch in Ashland. In 2016, the district faced criticism after a student-created homecoming float depicted then-candidate Donald Trump’s "wall" along the United States-Mexico border and included white students dressed offensively as stereotyped illegal immigrants.

Hilts previously told USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN that what appeared in the parade was not the

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approved float, though he was aware it would be themed around Trump and the wall. The students dressed as Mexicans jumped onto the float in the middle of the parade and weren’t supposed to be there, he said.

Hilts later spoke with those students, he said. The school also conducted conversations about race and respect and changed the policy for parade floats, he said.

The district again received flak in 2017 after suspending an elementary school teacher who posted on Facebook about a police shooting of a Native American teenager. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin sent a letter to Hilts saying the district violated the teacher’s rights. The teacher was later reinstated.

"I addressed that issue the same way I address any other issue, whether it’s academic or anything," Hilts said. "I learn."

Looking forward, Hilts said he wants to ensure Wausau students have access to social and emotional curricula to help them solve problems and communicate better. He pointed to a program in Ashland that allowed students to choose areas of improvement themselves to meet their goals.

Hilts also believes this focus on non-academic needs can play a role in addressing bullying.

"When students learn how to regulate their own emotions, regulate their own behavior, resolve conflict in a productive way ... that’s really getting to the root cause of why kids are mean to each other at all," he said.

In the short term, Hilts said he plans to review student behavior management practices and determine whether School Board policies on bullying are properly implemented. He believes there may be some inconsistencies on how it’s handled from building to building,.

"We want to have a real solid across-the-district view of how we respond to those things," he said.

Beyond that, Hilts wants to prioritize overcrowding at John Muir Middle School, and said the district is assessing whether it should pay for an expansion. The fine arts and technical education areas in particular are in need of more space, he said. The school also needs to be able to support a middle school model, he said, which uses classrooms less efficiently than a junior high model but allows students to work in the same areas with the same teachers.

But for now, Hilts said he’s focused on meeting district officials and people from various community groups to learn more about Wausau and its schools.

"This is a really, really top-notch school district," he said. "Lots of opportunities for kids. I’m proud to be a part of it."