Wayne-Westland's new superintendent looks toward unprecedented school year
About two months into his new job, Wayne-Westland Superintendent John Dignan is going to steer the district through the most uncertain school year in memory. Dignan said the community will get through the pandemic school year together and was encouraged so many staff and teachers took time this summer to serve on back-to-school committees. "They're all in," he said. "They want what's best for our kids and they're working hard." In normal and atypical times alike, Dignan thinks Wayne-Westland has a lot of good programs to build on. He said the district's diversity, William D. Ford Career Technical Center, arts and gifted programs are all assets. In a lot of ways, he said the community reminds him of Ypsilanti, where he grew up. "This district has so many talented people and talented students and great community support just channeling everything together," he said. "That was probably the most attractive thing. This thing is ready to take off. They say great futures start here and I really believe that." Building community trust Dignan said he understands there's a lot of work to be done to get Wayne-Westland Community Schools and the surrounding community on good footing again. The district's former superintendent, Shelley Holt, resigned amid controversy and settled a lawsuit against the district. School board officials said the next superintendent needed to be the best person for the job. They felt Dignan is that person, having voted him in unanimously. In an attempt to prove that decision was the correct one, the superintendent said he plans to do a lot of listening. "I think the bedrock of any organization has to be trust," he said. "If you don't have that, you don't have anything. Building that takes time." Dignan thinks his desire to help students succeed will ultimately win the day. He comes from a family of educators and said they all agree it's a calling more than a job. "Education is a calling, and you live it 24/7 so you can't turn it off," he said. "To me, it's creating opportunities for communities. It's doing things that you really have the power and ability to change the course of people's lives." Back-to-school in a pandemic The school board won't approve the district's final back-to-school plans until Aug. 10, but the administration's proposal looks like those of surrounding districts. It prepares for three scenarios: online learning, part-time classroom learning and full-time classroom learning. Right now, the state is in phase four of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's reopening plan. If classes start in phase four, students and teachers will return to classrooms in interchanging groups. The district would combine online and in-person learning so buildings were never at full capacity. If the state moves into phases five or six, students and staff will return to buildings full-time. Dignan said heavily used spaces like classrooms and buses will be regularly cleaned when people returned to buildings, and this district is stocking up on things like masks and sanitation machines to prepare. "I think at different points in time throughout the school year we could move in and out of phases," Dignan said. "So if we do that, what does that look like? These are some of the things our committees are looking at." Should the state regress to phase three or lower, all classes would move online. Dignan said the district would work to provide students in need with computers and internet access. Teachers likely will do more to connect socially and emotionally with students, too. As the state moves in and out of different phases, Dignan said the district will give parents time to make needed arrangements and encouraged people to be flexible. "You can do all the planning in the world and, prior to Labor Day, could have the rug pulled out from underneath you," he said. "That's real. You have to be able to pivot from that point and move forward." Even though he's the new guy, Dignan is confident the district and community will get through the pandemic school year by working together. "These are trying times on many fronts," he said. "We're going to get through this. We're going to be OK."