Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Professional Learning Communities

During the month of January, you have probably picked up on a theme running throughout this blog. Specifically, how we manage students time during the course of the day, week, month, and school year.  Last week I discussed the importance of teacher professional development and the purpose of early dismissals in the calendar.  As discussed last week, we recently come to the conclusion that teachers do not have enough time to complete the various tasks that have become necessary to ensure that your children are being exposed to a rich and viable curriculum that ensures success for all students. 

Under our current system, we have approximately one early dismissal per month.  It is during those times that we conduct professional development such as research into the characteristics of effective instruction, alignment of our curriculum to the Iowa Core Curriculum that ensures our intended curriculum becomes our enacted curriculum (and is properly matched to assessment), additional training on new technology that is designed to improve instruction in the classroom, and annual training that is required under Iowa Code.  This is not to mention other meetings that come up to address building or district specific issues, or other administrative requirements and logistical discussions that must take place.  Wouldn't you agree that three hours per month just isn't enough?

We have recognized that, while at the same time realizing that if we work together using a collaborative process, we can do amazing things!  This year we have started to deliver much of our professional development through a collaborative process.  It has worked for us, but we have also discovered that by the time we start to make headway, our time together has drawn to a close. With the next meeting being an entire month away it feels like starting over again.

Because of this disconnect our calendar proposal for next year considers the addition of early dismissal days in our calendar.  What we have essentially done is added one early dismissal per month, and instead of dismissing our students at 12:30, we will dismiss them at 1:30.  This is proposed in an effort to provide our teachers with the time they need to collaborate. 

Think about the power of collaboration!  We recognize the importance of working together so much that it is one of our learner performance goals.  Our district will be implementing a research based collaborative model that is commonly referred to as Professional Learning Communities (PLC).  The work of these groups will focus on learning that is occurring in each classroom and will be deeply rooted in student assessment data that will be collected and analyzed by the PLC. 

The PLC model that we implement will be a commitment and focus on the learning of each student.  Not a focus on ensuring that children are taught, but ensuring that each child learns the essential knowledge, skills, and character.  We have been hearing a lot lately about how Iowa children stack up internationally, and one thing that we have discovered is that in countries where the greatest student achievement gains have been made, teachers are provided regularly scheduled time for collaborative work aimed at student learning.  To guide our work, the PLC will be focused on 4 critical questions:
  1. What is it we want our students to learn?
  2. How will we know if each student has learned?
  3. How will we respond when some students don't learn?
  4. How can we extend and enrich the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?
We are very excited to implement this research based model into our school district, but also recognize that in order to ensure implementation with fidelity it must also accommodate a change in our school calendar.  The Board of Directors plan to hold a public hearing on the 2012-2013 academic calendar at the February 20th board meeting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Do We Have Early Dismissals?

During this time of year, we are spending quite a bit of time preparing for the next academic year.  One of our top priorities is preparing an academic calendar.  You may recall from last week's post the discussion on when to end the semester.  This week I want to talk with you a little bit about professional development and how that impacts days when we have early dismissals, or even entire days scheduled for professional development.

There is sometimes a perception that if a teacher isn't standing in front of a room of 20 or so students, they must not be working.  But the fact is there is much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye, or is visible to the general public.  Lessons must be designed, teaching strategies researched, curriculum aligned, and reams of paperwork must be filed to ensure that everything mentioned above is being implemented with fidelity.

We have high standards for educators in Iowa, requiring what you may have come to know as a "highly qualified instructor".  First and foremost, this means that the teacher needs to have been properly certified and credentialed in the State of Iowa.  The Bachelors Degree and Teacher License is critically important, but we also recognize that teachers don't know everything they need to know the day that they walk through the door of the schoolhouse.  In fact, if you ask even our most seasoned and veteran teachers, they will tell you that they are still learning new approaches to teaching that sharpen their craft.

Now think about your own career for a moment.  How much has it changed since you began your working life?  Perhaps a new tool has been developed that required additional training; or maybe a new software has been introduced into your routine.  Maybe a new procedure or standard operating procedure has been implemented to either increase productivity, or improve upon a product.  We live in an agricultural state, just think about how much that has changed!  (Case in point:  My dad is a farmer and early this fall I called home to say hello and talked to mom for awhile.  After about 15 minutes I inquired about dad and asked if I could talk to him.  Mom told me that 'No, he isn't home right now; he is in combine school.)  You folks that run these things know what I mean!  These are massive machines that are operated and navigated by satellite.  When I grew up, I think these thing picked two or three rows of corn at a time and were manhandled through brute force!

The education profession is no different in this regard.  We are constantly doing research into best practice, discovering teaching strategies that are highly effective and more likely to produce positive outcomes and results for your children.  The growing body of evidence on teaching and learning is overwhelmingly clear.  A student will do better in school if they are exposed to an effective teachers.  What's even more interesting is that an ineffective teacher can have the opposite effect. 

Effective teaching requires continuous learning and inquiry--that my friends is why we have early dismissals for professional development.  What we have found in Hudson is that the professional development opportunities that are currently in practice are not enough.  Stay tuned, next week I will share with you why this is and how we propose to fix it!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ending the Semester Before Winter Break

I was delighted to read the Letters to the Editor in last weeks edition of the Hudson Herald!  If you haven't had a chance to read this edition yet, I would encourage you to do so.  Several of our high school students wrote letters of support for an academic calendar that would have the first semester concluding at Winter Break.  Before getting into specific arguments for or against this option, I wanted to thank you all for writing appropriate letters with sound arguments and respectful dialogue.  You have exercised your Constitutional right to Free Speech in an honorable fashion.  Your Government and English teachers should be proud!

At the board meeting on Monday I presented four calendar options for consideration, none of which considered ending first semester before Winter break.  These calendars merely used a similar start/stop formula that was in place when I arrived.  My focus for the academic calendar has been [on] adding additional early dismissal days for our teachers to align the Iowa Core Curriculum with fidelity through the implementation of professional learning communities (more on that later).

During our discussion on Monday evening, the board expressed support for adding extra early dismissal days, and narrowed the options presented.  When I spoke about the letters these youngsters wrote to the paper, our discussion shifted to "Is this a feasible option and, can we do this?"  I promised to look at an option that considered a semester configuration like this, and would present that scenario at the next board meeting. 

So the letters that these students wrote had an impact!  However, it would be a misstatement to assume the calendar is going to change to this configuration.  At this point we have opened a dialogue, sparked a conversation, and taken something under consideration.  We have some pretty big hurdles to overcome.

The biggest challenge is inequity between the terms.  The school year is 180 days, and it is desirable to have semesters of equal length, otherwise first semester classes may not have the required amount of seat time, or worse yet not be able to cover all the curriculum for the course.  Consider this year for example.  The last day before Winter Break was day number 84.  If that were the end of the semester, second semester would be 96 days in length.  A 12 day difference in length of semesters is extreme.  This would almost certainly eliminate the use of zero days in our calendar, (the day before break when students have a more relaxed learning environment).  This year we have had a pretty uneventful winter, but there would need to be consideration given to what would happen if there were snow days during the first semester, or worse yet snow days during the semester exam period!

Here is the good news though: this has provided an opportunity to evaluate the academic calendar through a new lens.  Perhaps there is a way to craft a calendar that enables the first semester to end before Winter Break, and create some unique and innovative features in the way we deliver instruction.  I guess we will have to see!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Block vs. The Eight Period Day

Over a decade ago, the Hudson Community School District made significant changes to the instructional schedule in the high school.  During the intervening years, our school district (specifically the high school) has used what is referred to as a block schedule.  In a block schedule, students take eight classes over a two day period, and each class is around 86 minutes in length.  The theory behind this type of teaching is that it provides longer periods of instructional time for teachers to work with students.  For some classes like biology, physics, and some agriculture classes, it is a benefit [particularly on days] when a lab is scheduled.  A key disadvantage of this type of schedule is that classes don't meet every day, and any disruption to the calendar can cause unplanned and extended gaps in instruction.

The point of this evenings post isn't to debate the pros and cons of block scheduling or traditional scheduling, but merely to discuss possible changes that we are considering to the instructional schedule and why we believe this may be a better fit for our school district.  The facts are that you can make a very convincing case that "The Block", "The Eight Period", "The Seven Period", or "The Trimester" is the best researched and pedagogically correct way to operationally manage students' time in school.  The real litmus test is what makes sense and is the best fit for the school district.  

About a year ago, the school board asked that our Administration begin evaluating different scheduling options.  This was driven by inefficiencies in our operations, and a goal of creating additional learning opportunities for students.  We have outstanding faculty members that can, and should be teaching courses for us!  The problem is that because of the block, it makes it very difficult to share staff between middle school and high school.  Once you add in the elementary school and those shared staff, it becomes even more muddled.  So the charge from the board was to streamline the schedule, look for efficiencies, and deploy human resources in a strategic and thoughtful manner.

Another challenge that we have with our block schedule is the placement of college courses in relationship to other high level and advanced courses.  Too often we are forcing our students to make a decision on a course that they want to take, but another equally important course is being offered at the exact same time.  Because we are a smaller school, it is not uncommon to have only one section of these courses.  So, that is another consideration we wanted to address in this study.

At the beginning of the school year, I delegated to Mr. Dieken the task of heading up a Task Force to evaluate our schedule with these priorities in mind, and prepare to a recommendation for me to take to the school board for approval.  Since September, this Task Force made up of district educators has been meeting to debate different scheduling options.  They have narrowed their work down to an eight period day, which is currently being vetted by the Administration.  At this point, it has been determined that a schedule like this is both viable for our school district, and provides many positive features.
However, I should point out that this work was done once before, several years ago.  The Administration got to the final stage of vetting the schedule when unmovable forces within that schedule became impossible to overcome. 

Finally, it should be pointed out that for over a decade, the block schedule has served our district well.  We are evaluating our options only in an effort to meet challenges that have become more prevalent as our district enrollment has decreased.  The arguments made in this post should not be seen as an indictment of the block, but merely to create an understanding of the rationale this effort is being undertaken.  If you have specific questions about the work surrounding this initiative, please feel free to contact Mr. Dieken or myself.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

District Locks Set to Be Changed

Happy New Year!  For my first post of the new school year, I had planned on something inspirational and uplifting, but decided that practicality is probably a better course!  You have probably heard that we are in the process of changing the locks on district facilities and may be wondering why the change, and what it may mean for district patrons.

It is a good idea to change locks every once in awhile in an effort to protect the vital capital assets of the school district.  I am not sure when the locks were last changed, but it has been many years.  In the intervening years keys have most certainly been lost, duplicated, or not returned.  It may not be out of the realm of possibility that unauthorized personnel have keys to our district facilities.  The point here is that we really don't have an accurate accounting of who has keys and what they may open.  This is certainly a cause for alarm and concern. 

The need to make a change has recently become even more necessary with an uptick in the last six months of unlocked and unsecured facilities.  I am no longer surprised by late night phone calls from the County Sheriff reporting an open door in one of our buildings.

So we are in the process of changing all locks and re-issuing keys.  The point of this of course is to secure our most vital capital assets.  A by-product, and honestly intended consequence of this action is to restrict access to all buildings and make it less convenient for people to gain access.  We will keep a strict accounting of keys in the Central Office, and keys will only be issued to authorized personnel.  Before you come in to get a key, you should first determine whether or not you are an authorized personnel.  Please understand that if you have a key now, that does not necessarily mean that you are authorized to have a key.  Authorized personnel include the hot lunch director, coaches, building secretaries, teachers and administrators.

Personnel will only be issued keys for the length of their employment with the district and be expected to surrender their keys at the conclusion of their employment.  In the case of coaches, they will need to surrender keys at the conclusion of the season (head coaches of varsity level sports will not be required to surrender keys at the conclusion of the season if they are returning the following year).

Currently, we have many groups that have had permanent keys issued to them.  I apologize for the inconvenience this will certainly cause, but that is no longer going to be the case.  This does not mean that you won't be able to get a key, but it does mean that you will only be granted a key for the duration of your event. 

Regulations for Key Holders

    1. Responsibility for the security of district facilities rests with all stakeholders issued a key to facilities.
    2. Access to district facilities is considered a privilege, not a right.
    3. Keys will be issued only to authorized personnel.
    4. Authorized personnel include the following categories: hot lunch director, coaches, building secretaries, elementary teacher, middle school teacher, high school teacher, administrator.  Other personnel may be authorized at the discretion of the superintendent.
    5. Personnel will be issued keys only for the length of their employment with the district.  Coaches will be issued keys while their respective sport is in session and be expected to return keys at the conclusion of the season.
    6. All keys will be stamped.  A record of those issued a key with corresponding stamp will be kept in the Central Office.
    7. Those needing keys on a temporary basis will be permitted to check out the appropriate key from the Central Office during normal office hours the day prior to the event.  The key will need to be returned during regular business hours the day following the event.
    8. Authorized key holders are not permitted to loan their keys out to anyone under any circumstances.  Unauthorized individuals found in possession of district keys will result in the authorized holder losing access.
    9. Doors may not be propped open.  Students entering the building must enter through a designated student entrance.  Coaches and moderators may dog doors open with proper hardware.  The responsibility for ensuring the building is secure at the conclusion of the activity rests with the coach or moderator.  Failure to secure the building following an event may result in the loss of privilege.
    10. Loss of keys or failure to return keys may result in the responsible party bearing the cost to change district locks.
Key Schematic
  1. Kitchen; Back door by the dumpster
  2. Coach; Old weight room, elementary music entrance, locker room, high school dumpster
  3. Elementary Teacher; Elementary music entrance, maintenance entrance, S.E. elementary entrance, S.W. elementary entrance
  4. Middle School Teacher; North door entrance, maintenance entrance
  5. High School Teacher; North entrance, N.W. entrance, dumpster, south entrance