Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Be Exceptional: Words of Encouragement to Faculty and Staff on the Eve of 2016-2017

We have had one crazy summer around here! We have been delayed by rain, asbestos removal, leaking roofs...had I mentioned the rain yet? All of these roadblocks caused delays, but never once did the team get discouraged. We were behind, and although a few items remain on our punch list, I have every confidence that come Monday night’s open house our facilities are going to look great! I also want to thank each teacher who has shown patience and grace the last several days while waiting to get into classrooms so Sandy could finish waxing the floors. They look great by the way, don’t they? So please, take a few minutes when you see the custodians to thank them for all their efforts!

This summer we have replaced almost all the carpet in the elementary and finished remodeling the restrooms on the first floor. We are currently in the planning stages of an elementary renovation project that, when completed will consist of an investment in excess of $1 Million. It is our intention to have the first phase of this project ready for bidding in January.

Sandy working hard to get the building ready for students.
Additionally we have improved our performance venues, by sanding and refinishing the competition gym floor, and replacing the carpet and painting in the high school auditorium. We now have a great opportunity to redefine instruction with the addition of our new inquiry space, an experiential based room where students and teachers can collaborate and learn together using the latest and most cutting edge technologies available in K-12 learning.

I recently shared with our new faculty that they represent the future of the educational landscape at Hudson. At the same time, we honor the skill, experience, and commitment our veteran staff bring to our schools. Indeed, each of our employees; no matter if in the first year of their career or thirtieth, bring a special talent and skill to our district. We wouldn’t be who we are without them. They all, are exceptional!

Nevertheless as we look around our schools today it is abundantly clear that we are facing change. And it is an exciting kind of change for sure! As we embrace this rapid pace of change, not only in our school district but all throughout Iowa, take comfort in the work that we have accomplished, and the path that we have blazed serves as a guidepost for many around the state.

High School faculty exploring the Inquiry Space.
We continue to lead the way in the development of a comprehensive teacher leadership system in Iowa. While this year the remainder of Iowa schools will embrace teacher leadership, one fact will always remain true: Hudson was among the first. Those schools will continue to look to us for guidance and leadership. We begin this third year of teacher leadership light years ahead of where we were at the beginning of this journey. Teachers took the time, while encouraging me to be patient as the system developed. They were thoughtful in approach and worked hard to ensure our leadership roles were well defined and meaningful. I am happy to announce that this year all our teacher leadership roles are filled. Our challenge now is to put these teacher leaders to work! They are here to serve by being a teacher centered resource designed to strengthen the instruction delivered in classrooms through embedded professional development. Our faculty is poised to take advantage of what they have to offer—from learning labs in classrooms to Wednesday afternoon ‘tech labs’—they are only here to help improve instruction! All of this is done for the benefit of the students served daily; and the proof is in the results.

Consider this: In mathematics, where we have been intently focused the last three years, our results are quite telling! When considering ALL student cohort groups, 7 out of 8 met targeted growth. And the one that didn’t? It missed meeting targeted growth by one half point! If that didn’t impress you, perhaps this will: In 5 out of the 8 cohort groups, the average students’ percentile ranking is at the 75th percentile, which is one standard deviation higher than the average pupil! Not impressed yet? How about this: students from 5th grade to 6th grade were expected to show growth of 14 points. They gained 24! Students from 9th grade to 10th grade were expected to grow 10.5. They grew 17! As I stated in this column last week, Hudson students in these cohort groups are anything but average—in fact these students on average—are above average! Our students are exceptional because our faculty and staff are exceptional!

First Grade students arrive for the first day of school.
Yet much work remains. While scores in reading and science can stand on their own, we are committed to our efforts of ensuring all our students are reading at grade level by the time they finish 3rd grade. Indeed we are on our way: In reading, students from grade 3 to grade 4 were expected to grow 16 points, and instead showed 27 points of growth. In science our attention is beginning to shift to the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards. I am pleased with the path that has been charted by our teacher leaders to ensure this implementation is carried out with fidelity—and there is much to be proud of there as well. For example students from grade 7 to grade 8 were expected to show 13 points of growth, but instead grew 20 points.

While it would be inappropriate to measure the success of our efforts with the rise and fall of our test scores, it is undeniable that we are on the right track. We are on the right track because of our faculty and staff's commitment to exceptionalism. We know and understand the challenges that face us, and with our teacher leaders have laid the groundwork and know what we need to do.

So then, this year marks a new beginning! No longer will schools shoulder the burden of the failed federal accountability law, ‘No Child Left Behind’. Instead we look forward with eager anticipation as we transition to the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’. Yes, this will come with new challenges, but we have the resources and personnel to meet these opportunities head on and take our students to the next level. I continue to be humbled that you are the ones to do this very important work.

The beginning of a school year is always an exciting time. New teachers nervous with the excitement that will come the first time they stand in front of a group of students alone—and without a net. Veteran teachers looking forward to a fresh start with a new group of students eager to learn and take the next step on their educational journey. Students looking forward to returning to the routine of school—seeing friends they may not have seen since May. And for some of these students, returning to the only ‘normal’ and safe thing in their lives.

Have a great start to the school year and continue to be exceptional. And always remember, It’s great to be a Pirate!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Need a Dishwasher? Buy a Couch Instead

In the past three weeks we have identified priorities the board has established and targeted for advocacy efforts in the upcoming legislative session. I will continue to remind you of the importance of these issues for not only Hudson schools, but schools all across the state as we approach election day. On November 8th we will go to the ballot boxes and cast our votes, and I want you to understand the issues that are important to your local community and school district. Hopefully my commentary will enable you to ask candidates where they stand on specific issues, enabling you to make an informed decision. Unfortunately there is not a candidate or party out there that completely aligns with everything you or I value. Believe me, there are plenty of times legislators from both parties take a stance on issues that I disagree with! 

To remind you, the issues that we have taken a position on include: adequate, predictable and timely school aid, the preservation and extension of the statewide penny for school infrastructure, and the opposition to unfunded mandates on schools. Today in the final article of this series, I will outline the last advocacy issue identified by the board: flexibility in special levy funds.

Like the issues identified above, this is not a new subject of conversation. Indeed school budgets are incredibly complex and the rules governing how and what funding is spent on creates inefficiencies in how we do business. Our school budget consists of several different funds, and within some of those funds are sub-funds. The idea is to create silos of money to be utilized for specific purposes, and thus to specifically prohibit the use of funds for some purposes. Some of this makes a ton of sense and I am totally in agreement. Other prohibitions and rules; well there is room for improvement. Let's first discuss some of the good in these rules and prohibitions.

The statewide penny or SAVE Fund (Secure an Advance Vision for Education) is a good place to start. Like the PPEL fund (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy), this funding source can only be used for capital improvement projects, the purchase or procurement of computers, or the purchase of vehicles. Now I am generalizing a bit here, there are certainly other appropriate expenditures but what is most important is what is not permitted: salaries and instructional material. This we agree with. Indeed it is important to ensure these funds are protected for the intended purpose. In this case, the rigidness of the guidelines for this fund is about right. 

However, that isn't to say that flexibility shouldn't be permitted in others cases or funds. We have made some progress in this regard. It is now permissible for school districts to use the management fund to pay for costs associated with mediation and arbitration proceedings as a result of disagreements with local education associations in matters of contract negotiations and other labor relations issues. This can be viewed as a good thing as well. Prior to this change, those type of expenses had to be paid out of the general fund, and attorney fees for these issues can get to be quite expensive.

Where real flexibility is needed though is in many of sub-funds that are included as categorical money. Now, I believe it is okay in principle to earmark and designate funding for a specific purpose. But what happens once the need is met and money remains? In Iowa schools, it remains there in perpetuity. In some cases, school districts may end up spending it on allowable purchases that they really don't need.

Imagine this for example. You set aside $5,000 for furniture in your family room. Once you purchase all the furniture you need, you still have $1,000 left. Good for you! You have purchased wisely and come in under budget. Now, a month later the dishwasher and stove break down. Lucky for you, you still have $1,000 in savings from that furniture allocation that came in under budget. But wait....that money was designated for furniture. You can't possibly use it for the new dishwasher and stove. So instead you purchase another couch that you really don't need. The dishwasher and stove, well I am not sure where you will find the money for that. 

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Well, that is how categorical funding sometimes ties our hands in schools. For that reason, the board supports increased flexibility in the use of special levy funds.