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Maurer brought stability to Southwestern educational system

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Dr. Paula Maurer visits with Facilities Manger Tyler Cooper before he unknowingly was honored by the school for his work during a Be Kind Week celebration.
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River Cooper, the youngest son of Southwestern Facilities Manager Tyler Cooper, meets Maurer. Also pictured is Tyler’s wife, Gina, and their other child, Wilder.
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Southwestern Schools Superintendent Dr. Paula Maurer reads to a group of Southwestern Elementary students after school in May.
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Southwestern Superintendent Dr. Paula Maurer, second from right, laughs while watching with Principal Curtis Chase, far right, and other staff members ashigh school students compete in a game of musical chairs at the end of school.

By ROSS FLINT - rflint@shelbynews.com

When the Southwestern school board asked Dr. Paula Maurer if she would be interested in advancing her career and becoming the school district’s superintendent, the economy was trying to recover from the recession. And because of that recession, the district had changed because of the lack of housing in the area.

Residents moved away from the area, presumably looking for jobs. It was one of the challenges Maurer faced early on as superintendent.

Perhaps as big a hurdle was the “lack of stability” in the administration, she said from her office on a sunny April afternoon. The school district saw a lot of turnover in the administration, something Maurer emphasized needed to change.

“And that was a problem because research shows that the stability of an administration has a great effect on student achievement,” she said. “Southwestern did not have the quality of student achievement that we do now. We struggled with that, and I would say that some of that was leadership.”

In her seven years as superintendent, Maurer has been the catalyst of that change.

Curtis Chase, the principal at Southwestern Jr./Sr. High School, has been in that position for six years. Josh Edwards, the elementary school principal, has been there for five.

And with that stability has come great changes in the district.

Southwestern is an “A” rated district and both buildings have received “A” grades from the Indiana Department of Education, Maurer proudly noted. The campus has a state-of-the-art security system that Maurer is understandably reluctant to go into much detail about. And it now has a wastewater treatment plant and greenhouse, “some things that take some vision and take some stability in your leadership to get those types of things done,” she said.

This is Maurer’s seventh year as superintendent after serving three years as the principal at the elementary school. Prior to her hiring as superintendent, the lack of stability was “a real problem,” she said.

The key, she said, was building trust among staff, both among administrators and teachers. Collaboration is key, she said. That trust filters down from the principals to the teachers and the staff.

“So it changes the culture and climate of (not only) the buildings, but of the district as a whole,” she said. “I do think it makes a huge difference when you have those close, trusting, collaborative relationships. It makes a difference in your culture and climate.”

Raised in Wells County, Maurer is a Bluffton High School graduate who went on to Manchester College, where she met her husband.

She then taught at North Adams for 10 years and had three children in 31/2 years.

The family moved to Ohio, where her husband is from, and raised their children there. In Ohio, she taught special education as an intervention specialist for two years. During her time there, the junior high principal, who was moving on to become the superintendent in that district, asked her if she would be interested in becoming the school’s principal.

“I just laughed at him,” she recalled. “I thought he was joking.”

At the time, she didn’t have a principal’s license. But he was not joking, and the school board agreed to pay for her to go back to school and earn her principal’s licensure.

So she moved up to the principal’s position using an emergency license and received free schooling courtesy of the school board.

She was in that district for 10 years — two as a teacher and eight as principal.

Once their youngest child graduated from high school, and at the same time her husband’s job changed, she decided it was the right time for her to move on to a new challenge.

She told her husband she would apply to jobs around Indianapolis and would accept the first offer she received.

That offer came from Southwestern Elementary.

She accepted and became the principal at a school that had seen a lot of turnover in the previous 10 years.

When the school board approached her about becoming superintendent, she was already in the process of getting her superintendent’s license because she wanted to receive her doctorate.

Her initial goal for her doctorate was to teach at the collegiate level. She saw teachers were struggling with how to teach students how to read and wanted to train them better.

“My love, my passion, is teaching,” she said. “That (teaching future teachers) was really my passion when I was going to get my doctorate. But the school board had different ideas.”

Ten years after coming to Southwestern, Maurer loves what she does.

No two days are the same, she said. Because of the district’s size, everyone wears two hats. In addition to being superintendent, she is also the transportation director, and up until a few years ago, she was the curriculum director.

In light of recent events, Southwestern has been a popular source for other schools and law enforcement agencies around the country looking for input on school safety.

Southwestern is well-known for the security system in place and it is a subject that brings great passion out of Maurer.

“It seems a little like deja vu,” she said. “Here we are again after (the Parkland shooting) and it has become a very pressing conversation for all schools, parents, and law enforcement. I hope that we never, ever have to have another student not have a safe learning environment, to the extent that they are killed at our school.”

She suggested that it’s time to install safety codes similar to fire and building codes.

“We, as a nation, when we had students die in fires in 1958 decided that we would not allow that to happen anymore,” she said.

While other schools may not choose to use the same security system that Southwestern has, she believes schools should focus on different layers of security, working from the outside of the building to the inside.

“If we can keep a perpetrator out, they can’t get to our kids,” she said. “If the perpetrator is inside, then we need to be thinking about what do we have inside that will keep our students safe.”

She would like to see the government come up with security standards and noted that Indiana is at the forefront of that. The state has been nationally recognized for school safety guidelines that have been in place since July 1, 2017, she said.

In her seven years as superintendent, Maurer believes her greatest accomplishment has been forming a team that has taken the district “to new heights in a variety of areas,” including student achievement, security, technology and general “Spartan pride.”

“It’s that collaborative, trusting team that has allowed us to excel in a variety of ways,” she said.