Wichita district’s chief operating officer Denise Wren to join international AVID program

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

June 18, 2012 06:00 AM

Denise Wren, chief operating officer for Wichita schools and a finalist for the superintendent post in 2009, will leave the district next month.

Wren told district leaders late last week that she has accepted a job as director of professional and leadership development for AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — an international program that prepares underachieving students for college.

She plans to remain in Wichita while working for AVID, which is based in San Diego. Her last day with the district will be July 31.

“It’s kind of a dream-come-true job,” Wren said of her new position.

“I’ve put a lot of years into this district, but I feel like the experiences I’ve had have really prepared me to do something like this. … Being able to use that expertise and experience to train others is just a wonderful opportunity.”

School board member Lynn Rogers said he was “disappointed for us but excited for her.”

“She’s done a great job for us, and just personally, she’s a great friend,” Rogers said. “I think her real strength is bringing people together, and her skill set is just ideal for an organization like AVID.”

Wren, 52, a graduate of West High School, began her nearly 30-year career with the district as a science and physical education teacher. She later was an assistant principal, then a principal at Pleasant Valley Middle School and North High School.

In 2009, after former superintendent Winston Brooks left the district, Wren was one of two finalists for the district’s top job.

Many in the community lobbied for the hometown candidate, saying Wren’s Wichita roots would serve the district well. In the end, board members selected John Allison, a former Mount Lebanon, Pa., superintendent, and Wren stayed on as assistant superintendent of high schools.

AVID in Wichita

During her three-year stint at North, Wren was considered a force for high school reform. Truancy went down. The dropout rate declined. Students’ scores on math, reading and writing tests rose. More students graduated and went to college.

Part of the reason, she says, was a then-fledgling program called AVID. The program steers students toward college who otherwise — because of low expectations, negative peer pressure or a lack of parental support — may not consider it.

“Working with kids at North, I’d say, ‘You need to be in an upper-level course.’ And they’d say, ‘There’s no one in that class that looks like me,’ or ‘I wouldn’t know what to do in that course,’ ” Wren said.

“It’s those middle-of-the-road kids who are not typically represented as college-going kids. Who’s advocating for them?”

Over the past decade AVID has become a key reform effort in Wichita schools, expanding into all seven comprehensive high schools and several middle schools. Last fall the program was piloted at two elementary schools.

As director of professional development for AVID, Wren will develop and implement training for principals and school administrators in nearly every state and in 16 countries or territories.

‘Bittersweet’ departure

Wichita school board members said they’re not sure who will fill Wren’s role as chief operating officer, a position she accepted last summer after longtime administrator Martin Libhart retired. She oversees building maintenance and construction, transportation, security, energy management and food service.

Wren and her staff also coordinate projects for the $370 million bond issue. Recently, that included a lengthy battle for private land near North High that led to eminent domain and condemnation proceedings.

“John (Allison) has an elephant on his plate at the moment, trying to find the right person for that job, which is huge,” said board member Barbara Fuller.

Wren’s departure “is bittersweet,” Fuller said. “I know she’s doing something that’s dear to her heart and that she sincerely believes in … But she’s also made a huge difference in Wichita public schools with her leadership.”

Wren’s ties to Wichita schools go back even before she started kindergarten at Kensler Elementary. Her mother was a home economics teacher at West High and tried to talk her out of becoming an educator because of the low pay.

“Emotionally it’s very tough. It’s like leaving your family,” Wren said. “I’ve got a lot of people out there who I’ve loved working with and (who) influenced my life so yeah, it’s a tough call.

“But honestly, stress-wise and politically,” she added, laughing, “it’s not so tough.”