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Superintendent Garrison Looks Back on his First Year in Beloit

BELOIT — In November 2022, Dr. Willie E. Garrison II hit the ground running in the Beloit School District. He got straight to work, collaborating with administrators, school board members, faculty and staff to address problems within the district while learning what makes Beloit special to both students and educators.

Beloit was still in a phase of pandemic recovery, something Garrison was familiar with, having been working as the director of teaching and learning for the Brown Deer School District in 2020.

“Walking into the superintendency with a very large set of needs that our district had, together, we were able to make the best of it,” Garrison said. “I truly believe we're in a better position as a school district than we were a year ago.”

Garrison worked on improving issues within the district that were apparent from the start — student achievement was far lower than families wanted to see, and the budget was doing little to prevent deficits that would cause other issues for Beloit schools.

Beloit’s Department of Public Instruction district report card has seen small improvements in Garrison’s tenure, with the superintendent hoping that improvement will continue in coming years.

“You know, it's not where we want to be because it's not where we want to be yet,” he said.

The district plans for schools to meet expectations and exceed in areas as soon as the 2025-26 reporting year.

“So, we are three points away from that ‘meeting state expectations’ conversation this year as a school district. I believe that by the reporting year of 2025, we will be there as a school district. Naturally, a lot of things have to transpire between now and then. But I do believe we're on the right track for that to happen again,” he said.

The second priority for Garrison as an incoming superintendent was balancing the district budget, something that needed to happen.

“You know, it's really hard to operate a school district when funds are sparing,” he said.

Despite efforts to balance the budget, and with significant reductions in spending, the district will still be asking voters to approve a referendum on April 2. The operational referendum was proposed last year as well, but it failed.

“I do believe balancing our budget last year showed our public that we were willing to do some tough things and in order for us to position ourselves for the second year ask,” Garrison said.

Garrison likened the operational referendum and budget to a car payment — something that must be paid off even if the bill was paid last month and the one before it.

He has made an effort to be open with voters ahead of the vote this spring, hosting informational sessions at schools for district families and community members to understand the district’s financial position and current needs.

The district hosted a referendum information session in February and March and engaged in conversations about issues facing the district during the meetings.

“We want people to really engage with their school community in the conversation, and we are out there presenting the information as well,” Garrison said.

“We're trying to make it a little more personable approach, making sure people get the information where they are used to traveling,” Garrison said.

Next to student achievement and the budget, Garrison has spent the beginning of his time as superintendent focused on communication between the district and community, trying to prevent assumptions from being made about the district and try to counter negative opinions.

“Who are we talking about when this stuff is happening?” he asked. “At the end of the day, you’re impacting students. What you say, what you do, what you don't do.”

Perceptions of the district, Garrison understands, reflect on the students who come to school each day and learn with Beloit teachers and staff.

If students believe that their school district is less valuable than other districts, or that their schooling is inferior, it will affect their academic confidence and performance.

“It’s a space that we consistently have to navigate in school districts across the United States of America,” Garrison said.

He’d like to show students that no matter what someone else may think of them, they have value and potential.

Having grown up in Florida, Mississippi and Oklahoma, Garrison understood what struggling communities across the country look like before he landed in Wisconsin.

“I believe that diversity in Beloit is actually what should be celebrated…I believe it’s very important in this conversation, but I also think that there’s a level of care that comes with this as well,” he said.

“And I know that’s a different conversation for some superintendents, but I say embrace it, because I think sometimes people forget we’re dealing with people, and how you take care of something is oftentimes very important,” he said.

Garrison’s prior work in different administrative capacities prepared him to encounter a variety of problems within school districts and be able to help a variety of student needs.

After earning his master’s degree while working in Milwaukee Public Schools, Garrison began an administrative run in which he spent more than a decade working in public schools, across elementary, middle and high schools.

“That comes with a level of care that is oftentimes not spoken about in my field, but I’ve learned over the years how to take care of something all the way through, and that didn’t start in my professional career. It started with my mom,” he said.

He also credits the influence of seasoned administrators in Beloit who have been able to sit with Garrison and share their own experiences. Having often been the younger, newer administrator in districts, Garrison appreciated the help from administrators who knew the district well when he first arrived.

Looking back on the year and a half Garrison has been with the district, he is pleased to see improvements where it counts, and looks forward to continuing his work as superintendent with upward momentum.