Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

Underdogs

June 1, 2009

I was given the honor of speaking to the most recent graduates from St. Vrain's Adult Education school on May 22.  Here is the text of my remarks.

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It is a great privilege for me to be here with you tonight to witness this milestone in your life – to witness your accomplishment of reaching graduation.

I want to thank Mary Willoughby for inviting me to be here tonight.  I want to say congratulations, too, to all of the families who are here.  I know from personal experience that very few of us achieve a milestone like this on our own.  Teachers and family provide us with immeasurable support.

My wife and I supported each other as we completed our educations.  First, she worked while I finished school and then we traded roles.  I worked while she finished school. 

So, I would like to say thank you to the staff at Adult Ed and to the parents, spouses, significant others and friends who are here.

I want to talk for a very few minutes about a subject that is not often mentioned at graduation ceremonies.  I want to speak on the subject of Underdogs – people and groups who find a way to be successful even when the odds are against them.

Some, perhaps many of us on this stage have felt like an underdog at one time or another in our lives.  I know that I have had that feeling.

I never felt more like an underdog than when I graduated from high school and went off to college.

I grew up in a small town.  There were barely 1500 people in my town.  I had 40 in my graduating class from high school.  About the same size as your class.

When I went to college, there were more people living in my dormitory than lived in my entire town.  I went to my first class – a required class for freshman in a giant lecture hall.  There may have been more students in that one lecture hall than there were students in grades K – 12 where I had come from.

I didn’t know if I could do this.  I didn’t know if I could survive at a big University.

I became even more intimidated when I heard my college classmates talk about all the math and science classes they had taken in high school.

When I was a senior in high school, my science teacher took a new job the 2nd week of school.  My school wasn’t able to recruit a new teacher.  That was the end of science for me.

I wasn’t sure how I would be able to keep up in college.  I went to sleep feeling homesick most nights my first semester.

But, I had learned something growing up in my small town that would help get through college and succeed I had learned to work hard.  I’ve had jobs since I was 10 years old.  That was a gift my parents gave me.  It was a gift my wife’s parents gave her.  They made us work.

I learned that hard work can make up for a lot.  And the best thing is, we get to decide how hard we want to work.

I read a magazine article recently by a person named Malcolm Gladwell.  The whole article was about How Do Underdogs Win?  How does David beat Goliath?

Gladwell says that there are three reasons that Underdogs are successful.

1.       They work harder than most people are willing to work.

2.       They are willing to do things other people won’t do.  Successful underdogs don’t care if people say “you’re not cool.”

3.       Successful underdogs keep getting up on their feet when they get knocked down.  They don’t give up.

I want to tell you about the janitor at my high school.  Mr. Bray.

Mr. Bray had a big family.  He had five or six or seven children.  I don’t remember exactly how many.  Mr. Bray had a dream.  He wanted his family to have a house where every one of his kids could have their own bedroom.  Throw in a family room and a dining room – that’s a big house.

It’s hard to find a house like that on a janitor’s salary in a small town.  But, that was Mr. Bray’s dream.  He wasn’t going to be stopped by lack of money.

From the time I was about five or six, we would see Mr. Bray at different places around town – after school, on weekends and all through the summer.  Mr. Bray would tear down abandon buildings in town.  He would work out an arrangement with the property owner.  He would tear down their old building if he could keep the wood and bricks and pipes.

I remember people around town talking about Mr. Bray.  They would say things like, “I can’t believe he spends so much time tearing down buildings.”

I’m ashamed to say we kids weren’t so kind.  We said the things kids say before we know better. “There’s Mr. Bray tearing down another building.  What a dork.”

Mr. Bray didn’t care what people in town said about him.  He had a dream.  He was going to make it come true.

Mr. Bray carried himself with pride and dignity everywhere he went.  When he completed a demolition job.  The lot left behind was spic and span.  Mr. Bray did things right.

And, by the time I was a freshman in high school… Mr. Bray had built one of the biggest houses in town.

That’s what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things others won’t do.  They don’t worry whether or not people think they are cool.

I want to tell you one more story.  It’s from a book I’m reading with my daughter.  It’s called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor.  It is a true story about Juan and Lupe Villasenor – two immigrants who were driven from their homes in Mexico by a revolution almost 100 years ago.  They built a successful life in the United States.  (Their son is a well known author – he wrote the book.)

Juan and Lupe did not have easy lives.  Their families were knocked down many, many times.  But, they kept getting back on their feet.

There is a scene in the book that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Juan and his family are camped outside of Ciudad Juarez.  They are hoping to cross the border into the United States.

They have nothing.  They have to pick corn out of manure to keep themselves from starving to death.  One night, after a terrible sandstorm, one of Juan’s sisters goes blind.  The family is discouraged.  They want to give up.

Juan’s mother, Dona Margarita, calls her family together.  This is a women whose lost several children; her daughter is blind; her grandchildren are crying with hunger; they have to sleep on the ground through dust storms.

With all these hardships, this is what Dona Margarita said to her family, “We must open our hearts so that we can see the possibilities in our predicament.  If we do not look for the possibilities, we have nothing.”

I can’t imagine the hardships the Villasenor family endured.  It is humbling to hear the words spoken by Dona Margarita; to hear someone who has endured so much declare We Must Find the Possibilities in our Predicament.

But, that is what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things other people say aren’t cool.  They keep getting back up on their feet when they are knocked down and they look for life’s possibilities.

That is how Dreams Come True.

You all have taken a less traditional path to graduation than people who will graduate tomorrow from traditional high schools.  Some people might consider you underdogs.

Here’s what I would say.  You already have an advantage in life that others don’t.  You know how to overcome adversity.  There’s no softness on this stage.  I’m sure of that.

You know how to work hard.  You know how to keep going when others say you aren’t cool.  And, you know how to pick yourself up when you get knocked down.

You can accomplish your dreams if you keep doing what you’ve done to reach this place tonight.

Congratulations.

Thank you again for giving me the privilege of witnessing what you’ve accomplished.

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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.

Micronotes – Finances & Engagement

February 5, 2009

Finances

The fiscal world is changing daily – not for good.  State budget recisions (cuts in original allocations) expected to be close to $900,000 this year (budget that ends June 30).  Last week est. $600,000.

Expected reductions from planned allocations for next budget year still around $2.2 million. Stay tuned.

District health care premiums expected to rise significantly.  Initial estimates approximately 17%

Good news: We're in better financial shape than many districts. Our current budget built on assumption of no mil levy override.  Community support of mill levy override helps a lot.

We will be able to move forward our strategic initiatives despite state reductions.  But, no escaping that the pie will be smaller than estimates just a few weeks earlier.

Engagement

I am not spending as much time in community and schools listening and learning as I would like.  My biggest barrier is managing the logistics.

Need to build systems to facilitate engagement process. Ad hoc system does not work well.

Compared notes with other board members. We will be working on creating a system to get all of us out in community and schools more.  Essential to stay grounded.

Mead High School Boundaries

January 6, 2009

I wrote this post on a plane bound for Washington, DC. I am posting it in my hotel room.

There are two public comment sessions on the Mead High School Boundaries which the school board will be asked to approve on February 11.

(I will discuss the process of developing boundary recommendations and public comment sessions in a future post. Short version, I think we have the process backward. We should hold comment sessions and then develop options. This is a critiqe of board policy not staff. Staff are following the process in board policy and and I have not raised my opinions about the process.)

The first public comment session was held last night at Skyline High School. The second session is at Frederick High School tomorrow (Wednesday). Due to my wife's bookclub and my business travel schedule I am not able to attend either session in person. I look forward to the report.

Setting school boundaries is often a challenge because there are competing interests to balance. In the case of Mead High School the competing interests are ensuring the new high school has a critical mass of students so there are the revenues to provide a rich set of program offerings and protecting the integrity of communities – especially the Tritowns. Eric Doering, Mayor of Frederick, expresses the latter interest in a Times-Call editorial today (1/6/09). Unfortunately the electronic version of the Times-Call does not have his piece. There are also concerns about how a new high school will impact Skyline High School. These opinions were expressed at last night's forum according to the Times-Call article.

High schools are built for the long term. In the short term, it will be difficult to balance all of these interests in a way that everyone finds satisfying.

I also took note from the Times-Call article the need to better publicize the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program being implemented at Skyline. Many people are unaware of the programs being developed at the school. Fine arts programs are being beefed up, too.

Students and families have an out if they don't like the board's decision about boundaries. Colorado's open enrollment laws make it easy for students to choose a public school outside their presribed boundaries. Thus, boundary decisions are becoming less and less relevant. I see this trend continuing. In  fact, we are moving quickly toward a time in which schooling is no longer entirely place based nor time fixed. Geography isn't what it used to be.

Meantime, I will strive to be thoughtful when trying to balance the competing interests when making my vote to set Mead High School boundaries. I am confident other board members will be thoughtful, too.

Mill Levy and Class Sizes

January 6, 2009

I am pleased to see the mill levy override dollars being put to use as promised – smaller class sizes. See Times-Call article for details. I would like to express my gratitude again to St. Vrain voters for making this possible.

Investment to Action

November 13, 2008

The investment the community made in public schools on November 4 is leading to immediate action.  Specifically, action is being taken to reduce unreasonably large classes; restore lost courses; move forward on focus schools; implement pre-AP programs at Longs Peak and Erie Middle Schools, and begin the process of implementing capital improvement projects.

We will see the effects of these actions when school begins again in January.

For more details, here is the Times-Call article.  And, the source documents distributed at last nights school board meeting are here.  Download sb_class_size_reductions.pdf

Blue Mountain Elementary School

September 21, 2008

I was asked to say a few words at the Blue Mountin Elementary School Grand Opening on Friday.  Here's what I said:

Thank you Principal Venrick.

It is a privilege to be here to represent the community and my fellow board members at the Grand Opening of Blue Mountain Elementary School.

As others have noted, this is a celebration of the hard work of many people over many years.  My first experience with Blue Mountain took place in a cramped conference room as parents, teachers and Mrs. Venrick – working together as a planning team – put ideas from community coffee talks into the school's action plan.  It is wonderful to see the results.

I can think of no better symbol of a community's hopes and aspirations for the future than a brand new elementary school.  Blue Mountain – along with Black Rock and Centennial in other parts of our district – is a physical testimonial that we respect our children, we are committed to a better future and we're willing to back up our aspirations with our dollars.  Blue Mountain is a concrete symbol of walking the talk.

Students… Congratulations.  Tonight is a celebration that each and every one of you is a leader.  For now and forever, you are first.  You are the first 5th, 4th, and 3rd graders; the first 2nd, 1st, Kindergarten and preschoolers to walk these halls.  The examples you set this year will influence the direction of Blue Mountain for years to come.  I know you will make your families proud.

Parents, I am excited for you.  As a fellow elementary school parent, I know how magical these years are.  I am excited that your families have the opportunity to be part of this new Blue Mountain community.  I am excited that your children will have the opportunity to be part of the schools science, technology and inquiry program.

Teachers and staff, thank you.  As a parent and a board member, I appreciate the stewardship role you play in our children's lives.  I already can hear the stories that these students will tell when they are my age about the special role you played in their lives.

I also want to take a moment to thank a special group of people who helped to make tonight possible.  Several years ago, before any of these elementary students were in school, before some of them were born, a group of people with an eye toward the future organized into a grassroots committee.  Though none of the people who were part of this group have any children in elementary school now, they worked countless hours as volunteers to rally the community to support a bond that made Blue Mountain possible.

It is time to rally the community again.  While we are here to celebrate Blue Mountain's new beginning, we face challenges as a school district.

Our neighbors to the  north and south take for granted small class sizes.  Our class sizes are growing.  Our neighbors take for granted competitive teacher pay.  We're falling behind.  Our neighbors take for granted a broad range of programming at all grade levels.  We're cutting back.

At the urging of many people in the community the school board chose to put two place two referendums – 3A and 3B – on the ballot.  On November 4th, we have the opportunity as a community to renew our commitment to our children, to ensure that our community remains a place that families want to call home and to keep our teachers in the St. Vrain Valley.

More than 800 volunteers have already stepped up to help with this effort.  For those of you here who are volunteers, thank you.  I encourage others to do the same.  Visit WeChooseExcellence.com.

So, as we celebrate Blue Mountain's Grand Opening, let us remember the those who did the hard work that made tonight possible and let us keep an eye on the future, too.

Congratulations Blue Mountain.  Congratulations to all of us who are proud to call the St. Vrain Valley home.

Why I’m for the MLO and Bond

August 25, 2008

On Wednesday, I will vote to put a Mill Levy Override (MLO) and Bond on the November 4 ballot.  I think it is a good thing that voters decide whether or not to raise taxes.  It is an opportunity for a community to decide how to invest its money.  Here is why I believe the MLO and the Bond are critical investments.

 

For me, the MLO and Bond come down to a very basic question.  Will we, as a St. Vrain community, keep out the Welcome Mat for young families or will we slam the door in their face?

 

When my wife and I moved our family to Longmont in early 2001, we were struck by the community’s family friendly nature.  We found it to be a great place to raise young children.

 

The family friendly focus in St. Vrain communities is at risk.

 

We do not have the resources in the St. Vrain School District to provide educational basics that are taken for granted in most other school districts in the state and nation.  It is not hyperbole.  It is a fact that St. Vrain is one of the lowest funded school districts in the nation.

 

In most school districts in our state and nation, people take it for granted that class sizes in the elementary grades should be in the low 20s, at most.  We have many elementary classrooms in the high 20s and low 30s.

 

People take it for granted that we should be expanding course offerings in math, science, language and the arts to meet the needs of 21st Century students.  We are cutting our course offerings.

 

People take it for granted that school infrastructure must include ready access to high speed internet and modern classroom technology.  We’re falling behind.

 

People take it for granted that early targeted intervention for students who need extra help and need opportunities to stretch themselves is of critical importance.  We’re rolling back programs we know work.

 

These are the consequences of being one of the lowest funded school districts in the nation.

 

All of this sends a strong message to young families.  Look somewhere else to raise your children.

 

Young families will not put up with large class sizes, limited course offerings and a lack of education basics that people take for granted in most other school districts.  At least, not for long.

 

I do not want to slam the proverbial door in the face of young families.  Young families are the cornerstone of any vibrant community; the lifeblood of sustained well-being.

 

I want to hang big banners across the entrances of our communities that say, “Young families welcome here.”

 

I can think of no better way to raise those banners than voting yes on the MLO and Bond.

Schools with Poverty

July 18, 2008

All evidence suggests that it is bad policy to concentrate children in schools with high rates of poverty.  It’s not good for the students.  It’s not good for educators.  And, it’s not good for the community.


The only schools with high rates of poverty that consistently outperform peer schools require students to attend school 50% more a year – long days, weeks and years.  That takes resources.


This is something that our school district – like most school districts across the country – must confront.  But a school district cannot face up to the issues of poverty on its own.  A community must get behind and support school district leaders and managers.


Here are a handful of reports/books on the topic.  I have not yet had the opportunity to look at the Pew report in depth.


Pew Hispanic Center, The Role of Schools in the ELL Achievement Gap.


Piton Foundation, The Case for Economic Integration.


Piton Foundation, Mixed Income Schools Gaining Favor.


Richard D. Kahlenberg, All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice

Big Schools or Small

July 15, 2008

My bias is for small schools.  This bias comes from experience not data.  I attended extremely small schools and had a great experience.  There is amble evidence that students can receive an excellent education at large schools, too.


There also are arguments to be made that large schools are more economically efficient.  Large schools are able to provide a much larger selection of courses and hold the line on overhead costs.  Many school districts have chosen to build very large schools.  Cherry Creek, one of the top performing districts in the state, tends to build schools with a capacity of 2,000 students.  We build schools designed for 1,200 students.  On the other hand, there is a movement known as the “Small School Movement” whose advocates – including Bill Gates – argue that no high school should be larger than 750 students.


Which is better?