Archive for the ‘Public Opinion’ Category

Mead Boundary Decision

February 12, 2009

Last night, the school board set boundaries for Mead High School.  The Times-Call story is here.

I read this statement at the conclusion of our discussion.

I would like to thank everyone who spoke tonight but especially the students – that takes guts.

I had a bottom line when I arrived here tonight.  While these boundaries are not my first choice the proposal meets this bottom line.  Any student who lives in the Tri Towns and wants to attend Frederick High School will have that choice.

I am making this vote in an effort to show respect for the Tri Town communities, to give students and families options and to enable Mead High School to open successfully.

That’s the bottom line and it’s a good one.

I also want to thank staff and Long Range Planning committee for their work.  They followed the guidelines set out in board policy.  They did the work they were asked to do.

I do want to say a few words to the elected officials who are here tonight – my colleagues on the school board and the elected officials in the audience.  I appreciate everyone’s indulgence.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, it is important for us to acknowledge when we could have done better.  This is one of those times.

I will begin with myself.

I have been a part of the boundary setting process in the past.  I knew from experience that the process we have is backward.  We ask the Long Range Planning Committee to make recommendations first and then we ask the public for input, second.

This creates a very contentious atmosphere.  The committee feels beat up.  The community believes our process is just for show.

We end up scrambling for data at the 11th hour which we then try to discredit depending on our point of view.

I knew this from past experience but I did not speak up.  I let the process unfold without saying a word.

As my colleague Bob Smith reminded me, Steven Covey teaches that people who are affective are proactive.  I did not meet this standard.  As a board, we did not meet this standard.

Looking forward, I want to make clear we need to redesign this process.

We also have known for a while that the elected officials in the Tritowns – speaking on behalf of many of their constituents – had concerns with the proposed boundary areas.  The concerns were valid and worthy of discussion.

Yet again, I was not proactive in reaching out to officials in the Tritowns to say, “let’s figure this out.”

I could have done better.  As a board, we could have done better.

Having said this, the same applies to the elected officials from the Tritowns.  They could have been more proactive, too.  There was no meaningful effort to engage us in constructive dialogue.  I did not receive a single phone call from an elected official asking, "John, what do you think?"

The public hyperbole that we’ve witnessed, especially over the past week, is not helpful.  It’s effective in the sense that it gets a lot of people riled up.  It fills up board rooms.  And, it may create a sense camaraderie among those who got fired up.

But, this public hyperbole did not bring us together to figure out a solution. It just made people defensive and put people on edge.

People want to know that elected officials understand their concerns, that they will account for these concerns, and that they have the abilities to work and play well with other elected officials.

People understand that compromise is part of the process.  They will accept decisions that work reasonably well for everyone even if it’s not exactly what they want.

That is what I believe we have here tonight.  A compromise that works reasonably well for everyone because families get to choose where their child attends school.

So, I claim responsibility for my lack of action that led us to the place we are today.  I can and should do better.

I hope that all of the elected officials who are here tonight or watching on tv or who may read this on my blog will also consider ways to be more proactive in the future, too.

We have more issues to work on.  Let’s look forward.  Together, let’s do better.

The people in our communities as well as our municipal and district staff deserve it.

Thanks for your indulgence.

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Go St. Vrain Discussion Forum

June 4, 2008

 Most of you are probably awared of the web site Go St. Vrain Discussion Forum.  It is a site developed by a grassroots group of parents working to support St. Vrain public schools.  Check it out.  Participate.

A word on behalf of newspapers

May 16, 2008

Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, is credited with saying that the newspaper is the first rough draft of history.  The notion of the newspapers as a rough draft is a good one.

In my work, I have the opportunity to interview a wide range of people about a variety of public issues and public institutions.  Newspapers are not people’s favorite institutions.  It’s typical for people to complain that newspapers are too incomplete, misleading, and "biased."

When it comes to St. Vrain School issues, it is not uncommon for people in our communities to be critical of the Times-Call.

Let me suggest for your consideration that one of newspapers’ deficiencies lies not with the newspapers at all but with we newspaper readers.  I would suggest we have unrealistic expectations of newspapers.

Daily news is reported in a matter of hours and must be made to fit space constraints.  This daily news is, indeed, a rough draft.

We should read the newspaper to pique our curiosity rather than for definitive information from which to draw conclusions.  Indeed, newspaper reporters should begin every one of their articles with this preface:  "You should check this out more for yourself if you find it of interest but here’s something I’ve learned" (of course to do that in practice would be tedious and absurd).

Now, I’m not suggesting that newspapers should be let off the hook for enduring journalism values such as accuracy and fairness.  Those standards are essential.

My brief experience with the Times-Call as a public official, as one example, I’ve been treated very fairly.  The articles written about meetings I’ve attended or have been part of have been accurate.  It also is true that these newspaper articles have not included all the nuance or complete context of the issues.  But that is the very nature of a first rough draft.

I had a chance to talk to a group of Skyline High School students about news coverage and I encouraged them to be curious first and jump to conclusions second (after you’ve done some homework on your own).  I encourage that of us all and to cut newspapers a little bit of slack.

Conversation Themes – Teachers

May 2, 2008

Yesterday, I posted themes from conversations with parents.  Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a teacher who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential?Top of Form

Over arching theme:

Teachers are proud of what they are able to accomplish given the resources they have to work with.  They are concerned about the present as well as the future.

Most commonly mentioned issues:

Class Size (instruction time).  Teachers are extremely concerned on the impact of larger class sizes.  They list a number of ways in which larger class sizes will negatively impact their abilities to serve students.  Bottom line:  Teachers suggest that it is structurally not possible to close the achievement gap or stretch the high performers.  In effect, teachers say they are forced to choose between students.

High school teachers indicate that the total number of students they have in their combined sections makes it extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with their students.

Also, teachers say they are, in essence, being asked to do more work in the same amount of time.

Technology.  Technology is an important issue to middle and high school teachers (it was not mentioned as often by elementary school teachers).  As one high school teacher said, “We are desperate for technology.”  There also are concerns about how difficult it is to utilize existing technology.

High school teachers, in particular, are able to enumerate many ways they would use smart board technology.  However, as Math teachers said at the last board meeting, laptops and projectors are the first priority.

Student Remediation.  Teachers express concern about the number of students who arrive unprepared for their grade level.  This concern is expressed at all grade levels.  It is most pronounced at the middle and high school levels.

Student Support.  Teachers are concerned about cutbacks in and/or the limited number of positions such as literacy teachers and counselors.    Teachers say that when students are not able to receive individualized attention when they need it the classroom environment is further compromised.

Equity.  Teachers at the higher income schools indicate that their work is far easier than at lower income schools.  “It changes everything,” said one middle school teacher.  Teachers at all buildings indicated concern about equity issues.  The equity issues they described focused primarily on teaching tools (e.g. technology, extra books, etc.)

Compensation.  Many teachers made it clear that they are looking at other school districts in the area.  The gap between St. Vrain’s base pay and that of nearby school districts is getting large enough that many teachers are willing to consider a change – though that’s not necessarily their first choice.

Prep Time.  Teachers indicate that they don’t have adequate time to meet in teams (especially vertical teams) and use assessment data to guide instruction.  Given this, some teacher question the merits of the number of assessments students are required to take.  If there’s not time to use the date, the teachers don’t gain any value added.  Other teachers see the assessments as highly valuable but say they need more time to make effective use of this data.  Teachers say, consistently, that they would like more PLC time to focus on horizontal and vertical team meetings to, as one teacher said, “Figure out how to make the curriculum we’re using work for my students in my classroom.”

Teachers would like the community to be more aware that other school districts provide far more prep time to teachers than does St. Vrain.

Vision?  Teachers in four of the five schools said they are unclear on the district’s long term vision.  They indicate that they are seldom part of conversations about the direction of the school district.  At the building level, many teachers recognize that principals are consumed with daily operations and have little time for big picture thinking.  At the district level, they indicate that they are hungry for more communications.

Schools I visited after the Public Policy presentations found the meetings to be extremely helpful.  People said those types of conversations are important to have on an ongoing basis.

Communications.  Teachers want to make sure people in leadership positions are doing the work that’s needed to convey the school district’s message and needs to the community.  They are concerned the stories about the good work in schools are not getting out.  They recognize that there is an important role for them to play in helping to communicate with the community. 

Conversation Themes – Parents

May 1, 2008

Since January, school board members have been making a concerted effort to visit each of the schools within the school district.  We have been holding conversations with parents and teachers in our respective representative areas of the school district.

I have held conversations at the following schools:

Parents:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School Education Foundation

·         Silver Creek

·         Westview Middle School (attended “town hall” as an incoming parent)

Teachers:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School

·         Silver Creek High School (Fall of ’07)

Combined:

·         Blue Mountain Elementary Planning Team

·         Rocky Mountain Elementary (Tamales & Talk)

Community:

·         Latino Advocacy Committee

Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with parents.  Tomorrow, I will post themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a parent who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed in my discussion groups was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential.

Overarching Theme:

Respect and support for principals and teachers.  Ready to support/work for more resources for the school district – as long as it impacts the classrooms.  Concerned that the school district is falling behind the times.

Most commonly mentioned  issues:

“21st Century Skills” (my label not theirs).  In every parent conversation, parents said they want their children’s learning experiences to place greater emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and collaboration/group learning.  These types of skills are of greater concern than elevating test scores in the “basics” of math, reading and writing.

More robust curriculum.  As a means toward “21st Century Skills” parents say they would like to see more science and nature (outdoor learning), language instruction at early grades and more emphasis on fine arts, more emphasis on algebra in middle schools.  High school parents are concerned about maintaining AP offerings.  Parents also mentioned integrated learning experiences that combine multiple subjects of the types of things they liked to see more.

Don’t squeeze out recess, play and movement.  Parents are concerned that budget constraints and an emphasis on standardized tests will lead to elimination of play and movement.  This is something parents (elementary in particular) would like to see more of not less.

Rethink Assessments.  Antipathy toward standardized tests came up in every discussion (especially strong among elementary and middle school parents).  Parents, by and large, do not like the current assessment regime.  Parents do not see how standardized tests, for instance, are serving their children’s needs and interests.  Parents do believe that assessments are important but not the current approach.  When asked for alternatives, parents emphasized these types of changes:  Individual growth over the course of a year (personal progression); a portfolio of work, and something that parents can do in response (again, emphasized at the elementary level).

At the high school level, parents want more emphasis on ACT tests and tests that build toward ACT.  These are more relevant and help students gauge themselves nationally, parents say.  I have heard similar comments from high school students.

Consistent (not uniform) Opportunities.  Parents, to varying degrees, accept and/or support the notion of different schools providing students with different options and opportunities.  But, parents are concerned about the unevenness of opportunities – e.g. some schools have a focus others don’t.  Parents also perceive that different schools have different standards.  They say it is difficult to understand what the districts’ standards are.  And, parents say, they don’t understand how decisions are made that enable some schools to provide options while other schools don’t.

Equity.  Parents expressed concern about the disparities that exist, in particular, between new and older schools.  Technology is where they found this most notable.  PTOs with strong fundraising capacities see that they can address these inequities but would rather direct their money in other ways – rather than what they consider paying for basics.

Support for a MLO.  With only a few exceptions, parents expressed willingness and an urgency to help pass a MLO.  Parents want to make sure that a MLO will impacts the classroom in a meaningful way.

Always Responding.  In three of my parent conversations, parents expressed a frustration that the school district always seems to be responding to issues.  “We never seem to be out front on issues,” one parent said.  Several parents said they are uncertain about the district’s long term plans.

Public Opinion Research

February 18, 2008

Here is some interesting public opinion research from Lake Research Associates.  I have attached a press release (Download LakeResearchPressReleaseFinal.pdf ) and a power point )Download LakeResearchPowerPoint.ppt).

The overarching message: many people crave for more creativity in our schools.  This research tracks with what I hear in may parent discussions here in St. Vrain and other school districts.  This survey data suggests that American voters believe U.S. schools are behind other nations in stoking imagination.  That is a difference from what I hear in conversations.  Parents whom I’ve talked to believe that America’s competitive advantage is creativity.  They don’t want to lose that and, in fact, want a greater emphasis on curriculum that will draw out students’ imagination.

Eagle Crest PTO Listening Session

February 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to visit with about 15 parents at Eagle Crest Elementary School on Monday, February 11 – I got home just in time to see KU blow its lead against Texas.  Alas.

The group of parents who I met with is thoughtful, enthusiastic and extraordinarily supportive of their children’s school.  The group is a role model PTO.  Every time I visit I get ideas to pass along to the Central Elementary PTO (where my children attend).  I want to thank the group for allowing me to attend.

I posed the following questions to the group of parents.  We had a non-linear discussion.

1.      What skills and experiences do you want to make sure your children are developing as they move through school in the district?

2.      What is needed to help St. Vrain on the path toward being an exemplary school district?

3.      What is the school and school district already doing well?

4.      What does school accountability look like to you?

Here are the themes from our conversation.

Creativity.  The group emphasized the need for creative thinking to be part of every subject.  There is concern that preparation for standardized tests undermines creativity.  A specific example mentioned by the group is they would like to see far more emphasis on the fine arts.

I asked the group about how U.S. students compare to other nations, for instance, in math.  The group suggested that creativity is our competitive advantage and we must not lose our focus on developing this attribute in our children.  One parent talked about working with people all over the globe.  Another shared an experience teaching in Japan.  Both said that they don’t want their children to be like the children from other countries.  They perceive that other countries do not support creativity the way we do/should here.

Critical thinking.  Eagle Crest parents would like their children to have more experiences dealing with ambiguous problems in which there are not clear right and wrong answers but in which judgment is required.

Experiential learning.  Parents would like their children to have more hands on learning experiences especially in the area of science.  They also would like to see their children learning outdoors from time to time.  For instance, parents said, learning about the environment from a book or screen is not the same as being in the environment.

Preserve recess.  As the need for instruction time grows, Eagle Crest parents say that it is essential to balance this with time to move and play.

Alternative methods of assessment.  Parents question the validity of a single test as the way to assess a student or a school.  Parents in this discussion would prefer that student’s have a portfolio of work evaluated over the course of a year.  These parents say they measure the success of a school based on the growth of individual students – are children making at least a year’s growth.

Second language instruction at an earlier age.  Parents in our discussion say that we are doing a disservice to children by not making language instruction part of an elementary education – especially in today’s global society.  They see educational value beyond just learning a language.

Math and writing.  Parents had good things to say about the math and writing programs at Eagle Crest.  The math approach does stimulate creative and critical thinking, parents said.  And, the writing program is helping students develop and organize detailed thoughts.

Technology.  Parents said that it is important for St. Vrain schools to beef up technology; and to make sure that technology is standard (equitable) across the district.  One parent cautioned not to become overly enamored with technology – it’s not a substitute for learning, she said.

School calendar.  Parents are open to some type of modified year round calendar with more frequent breaks between segments of the year.  Most of the parents in the group do want to preserve a significant chunk of time in the summer for families and to let kids be kids.

Neighborhood schools.  The group of parents who attended this session are concerned about preserving neighborhood schools.  They believe too many families leave their community in search of a “focus” school.  Some of the parents in the group don’t see the wisdom in developing focus schools within the district that might contribute to more fragmentation.

Equity concerns.  Many students who attend Eagle Crest will attend Blue Mountain elementary next year.  Blue Mountain is considered the sister school.  Blue Mountain is considering some form of a math, science and technology focus for the school.  That is an exciting prospect to parents.  But, parents whose children will continue to attend Eagle Crest are concerned about the equity between the two schools.  And, some parents expressed concern that they are learning about this focus after the open enrollment process.

Note: It is still possible for parents to open enroll their children in other schools but students who open enroll now will be lower on the priority list once the open enrollment slots are known and filled.

I am sending the link to this blog entry to the Eagle Crest PTO president so that he can send to others.  It would be great if parents who took part in the conversation added comments – in particular if there are items I missed or if members of the group heard different themes.

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.

We should be furious… at whom?

November 13, 2007

We must be more candid and talk more honestly about students who are below grade level.  We are turning our backs on these students if we don’t.

We have multiple schools in which more than half of all fifth graders are below grade level in math.  Do we have any reason to believe that they are prepared to succeed in middle school?  How long until these students drop out of school altogether.

It makes some people furious when a majority of students in a school are below grade level but the message is “everything’s fine” or “we’re making progress.”

Others of us choose to look the other way.  It is more comfortable to focus on students who are doing well rather than get exercised about students who are below grade level.

I agree with those who are furious.  We should be furious.  But that begs at least two questions: furious at whom?  And, how should we respond?

Should we be furious at principals and teachers who can’t seem to inspire or cajole students at their school to perform better?  Some people would like to publicly brand schools such as Spangler (the school where fifth grade CSAP math scores are lowest) as failures.

Let me ask, if all the teachers from Longmont Estates (where fifth grade CSAP math scores are highest) went to Spangler and vice versa, do you think student test scores at Spangler would go through the roof and scores at Longmont Estates would fall through the floor?  No one I know believes this.  Most people believe the scores at both schools would stay about the same.

I understand people’s frustrations that there is public silence about student performance at Spangler.  I wish that principals and teachers would be clamoring for significant changes to the system.  But, I’m not certain how a “scarlet letter” makes things better if there’s not public support for action.

Should we be furious with parents who don’t value education and who don’t show their children enough support?  I can understand some of this frustration.  It makes me mad.  But, I think we must be more honest about differences in family capacities.  It is ridiculous to think that a parent who had a bad educational experience themselves – or immigrant parents with multiple jobs as is common at Spangler – can provide the same level of support as well educated and “stay at home” parents.

We have to decide are we going to take a get tough approach with “slacker” parents or should we offer parents more help to support their children.  It should probably be a combination of the two.  There are some initiatives to boost parent capacities, but I can’t discern whether we have a system wide strategy.

Should we be furious with lazy and disrespectful students who don’t appreciate the opportunities they’re being given?  Again, I can understand this type of frustration.  It bothers me when students show disrespect.

We need to take a look at our retention policies.  We need to empower principals to be more directive about when a student is ready to advance to the next level.  We don’t do a child any favors by just letting them move to the next grade level.  We can’t be so deferential to parents who ignore advice.

But, I also know that a “do better or else” strategy will have limited impact.  And, in some cases, the get tough approach alone will simply drive up student dropout rates.

Here’s the thing.  The only strategies that consistently help low income students (and let’s be honest, that is who we are talking about) make academic gains are schools such as KIPP.  These schools extend the school day, week and year.  It is common for KIPP students to receive 60% more schooling than students at traditional schools.  If we were serious about supporting St. Vrain’s low income students, we would be clamoring for this type of school model.

Is there the political will to provide Spangler students – and other low income students – with more instruction time?  I hear more complaints than compliments when low income students receive a fraction of extra support let alone 60% more.

So, should we be furious with community critiques that complain about student performance but refuse to get behind strategies that are known to work?  I can understand frustrations toward the critics, too.

But, quite frankly, I think we all can look in the mirror and find fault.  As Martin Luther King often noted, he was less concerned about those who actively opposed civil rights and more concerned with those who knew civil rights were important but said nothing.

We aren’t going to make progress in supporting our children as long as we keep calling each other failures, liars, bigots, hypocrites and Pollyannas.   But, we’re also not going to make progress as long as we in the community sit silent and hope “those schools” will take care of the problems.

Name calling and silence breed unhealthy conditions.  Under these conditions people are prone to be deceitful, to make things seem better than they are or to ignore problems altogether.  There is a strong human drive to avoid conflict.

We must be more candid about what’s going on and what’s need to create change.  We’ve got to starting by toning down the rhetoric and breaking the silence. 

Our children need us to act like adults.

Choice and Achievement – They’re not the same

October 23, 2007

I believe we must provide families with more public school options to remain relevant as a school district.  Students leave our school district every day in search of options – estimates of lost revenue to the district range from $4 to $5 million dollars.

Some families want dual-language schools.  Other families prefer the Montessori approach.  Still others may prefer a science or arts focus.  And, some families prefer traditional schools.  As online learning becomes more imbedded in our daily lives the demand for options (and differentiated learning) is only going to increase.

The reason we need to provide families options is so that we can keep public schools aligned with public sensibilities.  We live in a world in which people can create their own music “albums,” choose their own news, set their own television schedules, design their own postage stamps and choose from 19,000 varieties of Starbucks coffee.

Clearly schools are not the same as Starbucks, but a certain bottom line sensibility has take root in our society.  People expect to have options.  One size fits all is a relic of the past.

Public schools cannot survive if they fall too far out of sync with this public sensibility.

Now, many proponents of choice argue that choice will lead to higher student achievement.  In those places where education choice exists, even robust choice, there is not clear evidence that choice does anything to elevate student achievement.  Paul Hill, a nationally recognized proponent for choice admits this to be true.

So, as we talk about the critical importance of providing families with a variety of educational options we must be careful not to conflate choice and student achievement.  Student achievement is a critical issue, of course, but it is a different issue.  If we separate choice and achievement as the separate issues that they are perhaps we can make more accelerated progress on both.