Archive for January, 2008

Rocky Mountain Tamales and Talk

January 29, 2008

I attended a Tamales and Talk hosted jointly by Rocky Mountain Elementary School and the Longmont Multicultural Task Force earlier this month.  It was a memorable event.

The purpose was to bring together school parents, teachers and community members (in particular members of the Longmont Rotary) to get to know each other better and discuss ways to support the school’s students.

I’ve been to a lot of meetings in schools.  Never was one so full and so positive.  I could not see all the tables in the crowded library from my vantage point.  I stopped trying to count people at 80.

I will remember the passion and commitment of the parents and educators in that room for a long time.  It is one of those occasions that makes you proud of the people who call Longmont home.

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Kudos to the Calendar Committee

January 29, 2008

The Calendar Committee is asking that the board approve the school calendar for the next two years.  The board will vote on February 13.  This will provide the committee with more time to do a long term examination of the school calendar.  For instance, the committee can consider extending the school year to build in more time to examine data, prepare and design differentiated learning strategies; examine the possibilities and implications of a year-round calendar and other possibilities.

Taking a fresh look at the calendar is long overdue.  I appreciate the calendar committee’s efforts to make this possible.

Differentiated Instruction

January 29, 2008

I have had the chance now to attend two Accountability and Accreditation Committee meetings since being elected to the school board.  I have seen firsthand the efforts of teachers and principals to implement differentiated learning strategies.

These efforts begin with tracking data and creating tools to monitor the progress and needs of individual students.  Some of the tools I’ve seen are powerful.  For instance, a reading chart that lists students by name, where they are in relationship to grade level standards and the progress they’ve made the first four months of school.  Quickly, students aren’t data points but people who need to learn and grow.

The efforts I’ve seen being made in our schools are good.  It’s clear that many teachers and principals are busting their butts to better serve our children.  We need to do more.

Here’s the rub.  Most performance incentives – driven by state accountability reports and federal AYP requirements – are to elevate aggregate test scores.  There is a temptation to focus on a handful of children who are the cusp of crossing from partially proficient to proficient (or on the cusp of falling) as a strategy to elevate aggregate scores.  I’ve seen evidence of this happening in our schools, too.

These aggregate scores are statistically bogus numbers.  They compare this year’s third graders to last year’s third graders.  By the fluke of who walks in the classroom door a teacher may appear to have her or his worst year when they’ve actually had their best year as an instructor – and vice versa.

We will not make the progress we need to shift toward emphasizing differentiated instruction unless and until we align data and accountability incentives with individual student growth.

The good news is that efforts are being made at the state level to collect and organize data to track the year to year growth of individual students.  This will help schools that are doing a good job helping students advance – even if there aggregate scores are lower than other schools.  This will push schools dominated by naturally high performing students; they won’t be able to hide behind a High  accountability rating if individual student growth is inadequate.

Individual growth data will be important for parents, too.  If most children in a school are advancing by a year a more, except your child, then you know that you need to focus on your child.  If most children in a school are not advancing by a year or more, including your child, then you know you need to look for a new school.

The efforts beginning at the state level are good ones but we don’t need to wait on the state.  We can make changes in our own district, too.  Each year the board sets goals for the superintendent.   Historically, these goals include elevating the aggregate performance of district students.  I would like to see the superintendent’s goals include more emphasis on individual growth of individual students.  Parents, after all, can’t worry too much about aggregate students – they only exist in data.

I would love to hear from educators about their views on this topic and what types of incentives and support would be helpful to accelerate efforts to emphasize differentiated instruction.

We Need Focus Schools But They Are a Risk

January 22, 2008

I support the idea of increasing the number of focus schools in the St. Vrain Valley.  As I have written in the past, I believe it is important that families with different needs and interests are able to find a home in public schools.  That’s why I support the idea of creating a Montessori , dual immersion language, fine arts, math and science, or another IB school.  A critical mass of demand should drive the specific choices.

Some people have pointed out that focus schools have the potential to further fragment and divide people along a narrow set of interests.

I also believe the public schools have the potential to play an important role in building community by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to learn from, with and about one another.  In fact, the potential to bring together diverse groups and build community is what sets public schools apart from other types of schools.

Some people argue that creating a portfolio of focus schools would undermine the potential of public schools to bring together diverse groups of people.

Are focus schools and building community antithetical?

People are right to be concerned that focus schools could further divide communities along education interests (or correct in pointing out the inherent conflict between two ideas I advocate).

It is often the case that public policy requires that we find balance between competing values and priorities.  That’s what makes public policy difficult, interesting and political.

How do we find that balance?

Some school districts have tried an approach of incentives.  These districts weight funding for students (typically based on income and other “at risk” factors) to encourage diversity.  Weighted funding, the thinking goes, will create the incentive for schools in open enrollment districts (such as exist in Colorado) to recruit a more diverse student body.

Some school districts use limits – for instance, no school is allowed to have more than 50% low income students – as a way to encourage diversity.  Based on what I have read, this approach is complicated.

Other school districts use a magnet school approach, placing focus schools in neighborhoods with high proportions of low income or minority students.  This was part of the idea behind placing the middle years IB program at Heritage.

These ideas are worth consideration.  However, they are only one part of the equation.

We also must do a better job of making sure diversity adds value to students’ learning experience.  Sharing space is of little value.  We must develop practices and structures that enable students to learn from, about and with one another, rather than allow students to operate in cliques.  There are many practical ideas we can employ to ensure that diversity does in fact add value to the learning experience.

St. Vrain high school students suggest that we are not proficient (to use a common education term) at this.  Some principals point out that adults – parents – actively object to efforts to “mix” students.

Which brings me to the most important piece of the equation:  Political will.  We will make slow progress toward reclaiming public schools potential to build community unless and until it is a public priority.  Right now, it is not.

Based on my experience doing focus group research on education issues, I would suggest that building community among diverse groups is people’s fourth or fifth priority for schools (at best).  We all know that when something is that far down the priority list it is easy to ignore.

I am not deterred.  There are some issues that are important enough to champion even if they do not rate high in terms of public opinion.  This is one of them.

Our nation is more diverse than it has ever been (in the 1950s our country was about 90% white; today we are only 67% white).  Diversity is only going to increase.  We must learn to work together in a diverse nation or we will suffer.  Any casual student of history knows this to be true.

Our children must learn to work in a global economy and will encounter people of different cultures every day.  Those who know how to work across boundaries are at an advantage.

We are foolish if we ignore the need to learn from, with and about one another.

My Views

January 22, 2008

We heard a presentation from the school district’s attorney, Dick Lyons, this past Friday.  He mentioned that board members writing blogs should make clear that our posts represent our personal views, they do not represent the views of the district or the board.

That’s true.  My posts on this blog only represent my views.  I am speaking only for myself.

Meeting with Latino Leaders

January 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to meet with 19 Latino professionals, business people and service providers last week.  I would like to thank everyone who took part in that meeting for taking the time to share their perspectives with me. 

I would like to say a special thank you to Marietta Gonzales and Carmen Ramirez for organizing the meeting and to Carmen for taking notes.

I also would like to thank Marietta and Josie Vigil for speaking to the school board at our most recent meeting.

I have include the notes that we put on flip charts during the meeting.  I have many pages of of my own notes from the meeting.  My intention is to put together a summary of my notes as well.  As readers of my blog may have noticed, I am running a bit behind on posts.  Bear with me.  I will catch up.

I look forward to following up on issues we discussed.

Meeting Notes:

Welcoming and round of introductions.

Latino students, families, community and relationships with school district were the topic of discussion.

Issues are listed (no order/category):

Student Activities- lack of opportunities for student to get involved in sports, music, arts, etc.

                Due to economic barriers, lack of notice or recruitment from the school personal.

Suspension- there is a major concern that there is equity in how they are issues between Latino and Anglo students

                In addition that there is no options to avoid suspension, barrier to resolution

                Suggest: get part involve, offer mediation before it becomes a suspension or expulsion.

                                Skyline has a mediation program.

                District wide effort, policy and process should be clear and the same.

Drop out or Push out- continue to be a problem, more effort needs to be put in to prevention working with the student and the family before the student is discourage or of the age to simply drop out.  Encouragement from staff is low and discouragement is high.

Columbine Elementary – Parent Involvement was sited as a good example of parent involvement and why not duplicate that in other schools.

Immigrant communities face many soci-economic and cultural issues.

What is the district wide support for parent involvement, counselors, and teachers.

Need to have a clear mission and goals that needs to be communicated and have goals that include accountability for parent involvement at the district and school level.

There needs to be a basic understanding of how to build a relationship with Latino parents; because it is relational,

What communication methods work best, how can use community leaders or parent leaders.

Cultural competence for staff at district level.  Dr. Luna has provided training for Skyline, sunset and

Longs Peak

School

. Contact Mike Gradoz for more information.    Drive thru the learning for School board, district, to each school.

Latino students that are talented and gifted are not be identified and not being placed in IB programs.

Concern that they is misplacement of student in ESL classes, English speaking students with English speaking parents who have Latino surnames are placed in ESL classes.

Bilingual education-immersion there is no unified demonstrated and successful program.  District should be work to have one.

Board Retreat which Latino members can attend to bring these issues up to them?

There was discussion on various committees within the school district that needs people to participate; including the Mill Levy.

Suggestion that maybe a Mult-ethnic committee that could look at all of these issues for students of color Latino, African-American, Native-American, etc.

Community support to rally around one issue be it reading or math; create community wide engagement & support.  Mutual support & accountability.

Celebrate the assets of school dist. Teacher, staff, community and students.

Lack of funding down plays lack of educational need

John agreed to follow on 4 items

1. Retreat w/School Board                    2. Regular or more frequent attendance at school board mtg to raise issue @ public invited to be heard.

3. Vacancy on committee- maybe consider a multi-ethnic committee                             4. Mill Levy Committee representation

About My Blog

January 6, 2008

Craig Colgan writes a blog that covers public officials who blog.  It’s called the Municipalist and can be found here:  http://municipalist.typepad.com/.

Mr. Colgan provided me with some questions and request to cover my blog.  In looking at his blog, I notice that many officials answer the questions in Q & A style.  I used the questions as a guide to write an essay.

Here’s what I submitted to Mr. Colgan.  The questions he sent to me are posted further down.

I began my blog when I announced that I would be a candidate for St. Vrain Valley School Board.  My intention is to continue to blog as long as I am in office.

My goals for the blog are to foster conversation about education issues, specifically in our school district; to build connections with constituents; to add transparency to the school board process, and to hold myself accountable by being “on the record.”

I have had some interest in writing a blog for some time, long before I decided to run for school board.  However, I am not a big fan of vanity blogs.  I am more motivated to write when it serves a purpose.  A blog about my experiences as a member of the school board seemed relevant.

The most difficult aspect of writing the blog is the time commitment.  I don’t always meet the test of openness that I had hoped because there are occasional stretches of time when I post nothing.  So, I am less transparent than I might be because I have “silent” stretches.

Our school board is a volunteer position.  As such, the work I do to pay our mortgage must occasional – and sometimes often – take priority.  When my work is busy, the blog is often the first thing that slides down the priority list.  My first priorities on school board are to make sure I am prepared for my duties and to listen and learn from constituents.  Keep the blog current falls down the priority list.

I do find that having a blog has a positive impact on my personal behavior as a public official.  I feel compelled to think through issues thoroughly.  I know that when I post my ideas and opinions on the blog a diverse group of readers will see what I have posted.  The diversity of people who I know read my blog helps to hold me accountable.  I can’t say what’s convenient or what I guess various people might like to hear.  An example of that is when I posted responses to campaign questionnaires from various interest groups.  I purposefully put them on my blog so that those with different interests could monitor if I am being consistent.

I appreciate the feedback I receive on and off line.  I know thought people are reading which makes writing worthwhile.  There are a few aspects of blogging that I don’t find completely satisfying.

First, I would like to see more people comment on the blog.  I would also like to see more people comment on one another’s comments.  I know that more people read than comment, which I am sure is normal.  I am hopeful, over time, that more a conversation will develop.

Second, I have not come to terms with the “thinking out loud” approach to blogging that many people encourage.  I would like it if people in public positions could think out loud more.  I believe that would be healthy.  There is a price to be paid for thinking out loud.  We live in a culture in which people expect public officials to think through issues before speaking.  There are pros and cons to this culture.  As I noted before, because I know my blog is read, I am challenged to be thoughtful.  That’s good.  But, because public officials often get chastised when they do think out loud (readers assume thinking out loud is a conclusion) it leads officials to be evasive.  That’s not good.

I am not always willing to pay the price that goes with thinking out loud,

I encourage public officials to blog.  On balance, the benefits far outweigh the costs.  The time commitment is worth it – even if what the official is able to do ebbs and flows.  In addition, we are only beginning to discover how online technologies can enhance public institutions, public service and democracy.  The only way that we will accelerate what we’re able to do is if public officials are active participants in the online world.

The blogs I read tend to be of two types.  I try to keep up with blogs written by people in the communities I serve and who write about topics relevant to the work I’m doing on school board (as well as professionally).  I do not tend to read blogs written by public officials from other regions.  Given the amount of material I must read on a regular basis, this is about all I can keep up with.

I would like to be more of a student of blogging so that what I do can improve over time.  For instance, I am far from proficient taking advantage of blogging tools such as trackbacks.

If people check back on my blog in a year, I hope that I am much improved.  I also hope that I am meeting my initial goals of fostering conversation, adding to transparency and holding myself accountable.

QUESTIONS that served as a guide:

* What is the history of your blog? What got you started? What are your goals for your blog?

* How has the experience of blogging changed you or your work, if at all?

* What are you some of your favorite moments or results or examples of impact of your blogging? What some of your worst moments (if any)?

* What advice would you give other school board members about whether they should blog?

* Did having a blog help you at election time, hurt you, or neither, and why?

* Should all elected officials blog?

* Also: I am starting to ask more people this: What other blogs by elected or appointed officials out there in your state or region or nationally do you read and/or admire (if any)?