Monday, October 27, 2014

Don't Miss Out on This Important Conversation

I am posting early this week to remind you about parent teacher conferences that will be occurring the next two days. Traditionally we have had really good participation, and I am hopeful that this trend will continue. To remind everyone, conferences will be held today and tomorrow from 3:30-7:30. 

It is our hope that with Hudson being well into the second quarter of the school year, you have already had the chance to visit with you child's teacher prior to conferences. Perhaps you have communicated with an email exchange, a phone call, or another meeting. We value the input that you are able to bring to bear and truly hope that you take advantage of conferences tonight or tomorrow night.

While we hope parent teacher conferences aren't the first interaction you have had with you child's teacher this year, the parent teacher conference is a twice in a school year opportunity to engage your child's teacher in a private dialogue about their learning. Few 'built in' chances exist that formalize this type of conversation. Often times you can provide valuable information about your child's learning habits or provide specific strategies that can prove useful to the child's teacher. 

In addition to this, teachers can often provide insight into the academic progress that your child is making in school. They might be able to provide you with additional tips and advice into the types of instructional strategies that are being employed in the classroom and suggest ways in which to help your child further their learning. 

Parent teacher conferences should be viewed as a partnership! Use this conference as a chance to ask questions about your student's progress. You can count on teachers asking questions about your child in an effort to get to know them better and to further their learning. We understand that conferences can be at times stressful for all parties involved, but I assure you this shouldn't be viewed as a 'gotcha' moment. If there are uncomfortable issues that arise during the course of your conversation, we certainly hope this isn't the first time that you hear about them. Our goal is the same as your goal--student success in school!

Here are a few tips of advice provided by Mr. Schlatter that should help you to have a successful and enjoyable conference experience:
  1. Be honest and open.
  2. Focus on the student's strengths, yet address areas of concern.
  3. Be as specific as you can in your comments.
  4. Ask for and listen for opinions and suggestions (from both the parents perspective and the teachers perspective).
  5. As the conference ends, summarize and review any specific actions that you have decided to take. If necessary, schedule a follow up meeting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The High School Mulligan

High school should be a time that permits students to explore and experience the multitude of opportunities a school system has to offer. We have long celebrated all that is 'the high school experience' as a truly unique aspect of the American education system. In part, we recognize the idea that not all education takes place within the four walls of the classroom and that there are many valuable lessons and life skills that can be learned through a diverse and rich inter-scholastic and extra/co-curricular program of offerings.

Once this very short time period is over, many will never again have the chance to participate in a team sport, sing in the choir, or be part of a student government organization. Decades have passed since I was a high school student, and while I have no desire to return to my adolescence, I sometimes wish that I might have taken advantage of one more opportunity. But, there are no do-overs in high school, and you can't un-ring the schoolhouse bell.

As we come to the end of the first quarter of instruction (I know, crazy right?) I am reminded of the plethora of activities that are available to our students. Not only that, I am impressed with the amount of participation that we have in these outstanding activities! (No doubt, in part due to the fantastic staff of coaches and moderators we have.) Last week was an amazing week filled with student activity and I was overjoyed to see so many students participating in multiple events! From the volleyball game Tuesday night, to the concert Thursday night, and the football game on Friday night, I kept seeing many of the same faces. But yet, I would like to see even more participation. In fact, I would love to see some of our students who might not be involved in any activities take a chance and try something new. It would be a shame if 20 years from now you looked back and stated, "I sure wish I would have joined the band when I was in high school."

For those of you that are involved in so many activities, keep it up! Your involvement in these activities will form memories that will last a lifetime. I am impressed with your stamina, dedication, and willingness to try new things! A senior recently told me that this was their last year to try some new things, and he is certainly taking advantage!

We also have youngsters right now who are deeply engaged in highly competitive scholastic activities such as the Lego League, Robotics, and FFA. These activities provide our students with access to the very highly competitive and much needed STEM fields where we know the jobs of the future will reside. I am thrilled that we have so many students finding a place in our school that will nurture these interests.

As stated above, it has been decades since I have been in high school. While I have no desire to return, I do sometimes think, "If I only knew then what I know now". There most certainly are activities, events, and clubs that I wish I had been involved in. Unfortunately there aren't any mulligans in high school. So students, please make the best of your experience. I highly doubt that someday you will say you, "Boy, I wish I never would have decided to be in the musical".

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hudson 2020: Where Are We Now?

During the 2012-2013 school year, the school board commissioned the School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) to conduct a visioning study. The purpose of this study was to create a strategic plan that would guide the work of the school district through the 2020 school year. This strategic plan was to include aspirations for academic programming, the preparation of students for a 21st Century learning environment, and a list of priorities regarding the improvement of facilities. Over the course of a year, the process included gathering input and data from multiple stakeholders that included parents, teachers, students, and community members. The final report was adopted by the Board of Education on July 22nd, 2013. In the final approval, the Board adopted the plan with an expectation that it retain flexibility in it's implementation. You can read a copy of the Hudson 2020 plan right here.

Six key themes and recommendations were included in the final report. Included below are those recommendations and the current status of our progress as a school district on those priorities.
  1. Before making any significant expenditure in capital outlay, it will be important to consider the outcome of the PPEL issue that will be on the ballot in September of 2013.
    Update: The PPEL issues was successfully renewed during the 2013 election cycle. The voters of the Hudson Community School District renewed the PPEL with a 79% voter approval.
  2. Support is evident for technology infusion and expansion in the district. While the district has made initial decisions to implement a 1-1 computer initiative in the winter of 2014, future expansion of the program should be considered in the lower grades. As a first step, the district may wish to consider 21st Century technology enhancements to classroom spaces that would include SMART board technology. It may also be appropriate to consider tablet technology for lower grade levels.
    Update: SMART board technology no longer seems to be appropriate and is considered by many to be outdated. Much of the functionality of SMART boards can now be replicated with other devices. Tablet technology was introduced to the elementary school during the 2014-2015 school year with bundled packages of IPADS. Each regular elementary school classroom was issued a bundle of six IPAD devices. When issuing these devices, it was important to ensure that there was a clearly articulated purpose for these devices. The identified purpose was to help with the implementation of new literacy and math curriculum.
  3. Concern about class size was a predominant theme throughout the study. The district may wish to explore ways in which they can provide additional faculty resources, particularly at the elementary school level.
    Update: The district continues to closely monitor class sizes, particularly in the lower elementary. A concerted effort is made to ensure class sizes remain small and manageable. What constitutes small class sizes continues to be subjective, and there is no agreement in the scholarly research as to what this number should be that is a scalable solution. While we continue to resist quota sizes, at kindergarten we have as a benchmark (at least for the 2014-2015 school year) 51 as a target number to add a third section of kindergarten. A decision was made late in the hiring season (summer of 2014) to hire an additional elementary teacher. This made way for smaller sections of kindergarten. While this has helped alleviate those class sizes in the interim, there is growing concern over the size of some of the upper elementary classes, particularly in grade 5.
  4. There are a number of building projects to be addressed in the district and strong support for 21st Century classrooms and an investment in updating the elementary school. The district may wish to prioritize work to the elementary school building.
    Update: The 2014-2015 school year will be a year where we will begin to see a focus on the elementary school. The Hudson 2020 plan did not articulate specifically what actions would be taken to update the elementary school; but rather allocated funds for this project. This year, identifying and prioritizing these projects will take center stage as the SIAC begins to work on identifying exactly what those priorities may look like.
  5. Constituents are in support of post-secondary enrollment options, particularly courses that can be taken as concurrent enrollment options and AP. It is recommended the district employ hiring practices that prioritize the hiring of faculty that is certified to teach these courses.
    Update: The 2013-2014 school year found us with the largest expenditure in concurrent and PSEO courses in the last five years. This indicates that more of our high school students were eligible to take these courses, which is a great thing. However, costing models proposed by local institutes of higher education is beginning to make some of these courses cost prohibitive. In an effort to maintain college level courses for our students, in the 2014-2015 school year, we will begin to rely more on AP courses. This will accomplish two goals for us: 1.) Reduce expenses while at the same time maintaining a robust offering of college level courses, and 2.) Deploy our human resources in a more efficient and cost effective manner. It is important also to note that at this time we are experiencing the lowest numbers of enrollment in the high school that we have seen in some time. This drop in enrollment is expected to continue for the next two years. This will cause challenges in the high school in terms of specialized course offerings.
  6. In keeping with the spirit of the plan, all recommendations should be implemented by the year 2020. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Checking In With Teacher Leadership

Today we had the privilege of hosting several visitors from the Governor's Office, Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Area Education Agency. The purpose was to share with these guests our early perceptions, successes, and challenges of teacher leadership in the Hudson Community School District. Having that many 'heavy hitters' in the district was a bit stressful, but the conversation we participated in was excellent and we were happy to be included. We hope that other school districts can learn much from us as they work to implement teacher leadership systems in the next couple of years. We are also hopeful the policymakers that took time to visit Hudson today are able to take what they learned from us and leverage it to craft sound policy that improves K-12 public school system in Iowa. 

To be honest there was a moment of unease when I took that phone call. Imagine the scene: I am sitting in my office and Anne buzzes me to share that someone from the Governor's office is on the phone and wants to talk. I took that call from Linda Fandel back on August 18th, and we had only been in school for two days at that point. The purpose of that call was to set up the meeting that happened this morning. The visit today was designed for policymakers to learn from those of us who are implementing teacher leadership systems during this first year. Our state is investing a lot of capital into this system, over $150 Million annually when fully implemented. We must ensure that it is working as planned, and where it is not provide additional supports and guidance. 

During that first phone call, I was clear that we were very early into this implementation and still learning. Even though we are now roughly two months into teacher leadership it is still early! But there are many things that we have learned.

One of the key takeaways is that it has become abundantly clear teacher leadership is needed now more than ever in our educational institutions! Schools have become incredibly complex systems that must continually adapt to a diverse array of variables. Such mandates as implementing the Iowa Core Academic Standards, providing instructional leadership, quality professional development, meeting the needs of our special population of learners, and understanding the variances in formative assessment data are just a few of the tasks those in leadership positions must grapple with on a daily basis. Because of these complexities it is critically important that we flatten our leadership structure as much as possible and drive decisions to where we are most likely to see the greatest impact: at the intersection of the teacher and student. By distributing leadership throughout the organization it reduces the chance of error by ensuring that multiple individuals are involved in the decision making process.

To be quite frank I think we are getting it right at Hudson, and it all starts with those teacher leaders. Last week I spent some time visiting with our leaders and watching them in action. The knowledge and passion they bring to their work is inspiring. It also reminded me how complex this vocation and system truly is. While visiting with one of our instructional coaches, it really drove this point home. They patiently answered my questions about instruction, scaffolding strategies, and analyzing student assessment data. They shared their philosophy on the attributes of a successful reading program and the pros and cons of utilizing non-fiction and fiction reading selections to improve comprehension. This is exactly the type of skill set necessary to serve as a teacher leader in our system, and is exactly the type of person that we need to make decisions about reading instruction in our school district!

Certainly you would much rather be in a system where practitioners with special expertise in specific content areas are in the drivers seat when it comes to the type of strategy, resources, and professional development that are going to be utilized in practice, as opposed to a system where these decisions are driven from the top down. Before teacher leadership systems were in place, many of these decisions were left to the discretion of the administration. While in the past teachers were certainly included in this decision making, they were not engaged at the level that they are now. When it comes to matters of instruction, the teachers in the field are best equipped to make many of these decisions, not me! As a practitioner in the classroom, I was the music guy. This means that I am not the right person to inform teachers which reading strategy is going to be most effective if we want to improve phonemic awareness. The good news is that we have an expert on staff who is well equipped to answer those questions!

The biggest challenge that we face right now is the speed at which we can implement and bring our system fully online. It will not be until our system is scaled up and all of our teacher leaders are trained that we will truly see the power of a flattened leadership structure that empowers our leaders to drive instructional change. We all can see the vision of where we want to go! Our challenge will be not to rush the process, but instead being thoughtful and deliberate as we continue to implement teacher leadership in Hudson in a way that strengthens instruction through embedded professional development!