Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Cost of the Cut

Friday marks the end of the legislative session--at least from the standpoint of when daily per diem for legislators will expire. In reality we are a long way from the final gavel of the 2015 General Assembly. The most important work of this session remains unresolved, and it appears the end is nowhere in sight. Unfortunately this is not all that new since we were in the same predicament just a few years ago. Indeed that year the same questions remained unanswered well into the summer, and I predict this year to be no different. I watched the 6 o'clock news the other night and saw the same traditions being played out that typically end the General Assembly: the Pages stacking the paper cases as high as they could in the Capitol building, until they ultimately topple over. 

I wonder if these unanswered questions will become a new tradition of the General Assembly of Iowa; extending the session late into the summer while Iowa schools eliminate programs, delay hiring decisions, and continue to operate with curriculum and equipment that has far outlived its usefulness. Perhaps those toppling paper cases represent a metaphor of something much more insidious?

Following that news story was another, again about Iowa schools and the consequences of leaving these questions unanswered. The Iowa State Education Association is providing a powerful visual that represents the impact of inaction by our legislators. Each day that passes, the organization visualizes the number of positions that have been cut or will be left unfilled in Iowa. At last count, this number was approaching 860. Hudson's numbers are included in this data set.

Obviously we are not cutting any positions--you would have heard about it by now if we were. But we are most certainly delaying hiring, and in some cases not filling positions that are being vacated. I suppose you could say that we are among the lucky. At least this year no one is losing their job. 

We have worked hard the last five years to turn around the financial metrics of our district. I am sure many of you remember the massive cuts we had to endure in order to get our fiscal house in order. I remember it distinctly, and remember how painful it was. Luckily we have turned the corner with our financial position and will continue working hard to ensure those type of drastic measures don't need to be taken again. However, the current status of the school funding dilemma will mean deficit spending for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015. Projections also suggest deficit spending for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1, 2016.

Because of our hard work and discipline we will be able to weather these 'austerity' measures--at least in the short term. But make no mistake--without adequate funding it will force us to dig deeply into our reserve funds. I hope the irony is lost on no one: the legislature doesn't want to use 'one time' money for ongoing expenses, while at the same time forcing school districts to do exactly that.

Again, I suppose you could count us among the lucky. After all no one is losing their job this year. So you might ask, what is the real cost of this cut for Hudson Schools? Well, it means that we begin to lose some momentum. That's a shame because we have been making real progress in our district! For example the implementation of a Connected Learning Initiative; being selected as one of the first school districts in Iowa to successfully implement a teacher leadership system; the adoption and alignment of two major curriculum initiatives in the elementary school; and a Pirate Term competency based unit of instruction that is designed to rigorously engage students in learning that is truly revolutionary.

We were on track to begin replacing outdated curriculum material in the high school. That won't be happening now. Our FCS teacher will be retiring at the end of the year. Instead of replacing that position, we will instead contract those classes out to another school district. The problem here is it lessens the likelihood students will even elect to take these courses. One of our elementary teachers is also retiring this year. We have decided to delay hiring a replacement for this position until we have a better feel for the size of our kindergarten class. Waiting until school starts to hire an elementary teacher adds a whole new layer of complexity to the equation, and there is a very real possibility the position won't even be replaced. The consequence of this would be larger class sizes. Certainly not something that we want to do, particularly in light of our efforts to improve early literacy.

Indeed, there is a cost to the cut! It might not be readily visible on the surface, but it sure is there. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Leaders Need to be in the 21st Century Too!

I was a bit surprised to learn from a recent investigative report that there are a number of Congress members who have never sent an email. The reporter of this story did a little digging and discovered that nine such members of Congress proudly make this claim. I thought, really? How does that even work? The use of email has become so ubiquitous in society I can't imagine a productive work day without it. Further, for a member of Congress to make this proclamation hardly seems praiseworthy. These members of Congress certainly have email addresses that are answered by staffers. Many of them also have Twitter accounts--although they too are probably run by staffers.

To illustrate the importance of 21st Century communication, the reporter on this story decided to see if she could go a mere 24 hours without sending or receiving email. She found it incredibly difficult and the antithesis of efficient. Instead of emailing sources for information, she first had to locate a phone number, only to call and not have anyone pick up on the other end of the line! The reporter was then greeted with a message that said something like, "Thanks for calling. Please send me an email and I will respond as quickly as I can."

I have shared in this blog numerous times the importance of 21st Century communication tools. We have discussed how the business of school relies so heavily on the Internet that it makes it practically impossible (if not incredibly inefficient) to do business without this connection. To not use them does a disservice to constituents and fails to accept the fact that the steady beat of time marches on. 

Along with our members of Congress, there is another group of folks who need to stay up to date with emerging technologies or they too will find themselves slowly fading into obsolescence. I speak about those who live in our schools, leading them and working daily in classrooms with young people. Luckily, I am not aware of anyone that doesn't at least understand the basics of sending and receiving email.

But the use of email is a mere fraction of the tools available that enable schools to create a more transparent and robust system of communication. In our efforts to share our message, we must be willing to engage our constituents with the tools they are currently turning to when looking for information. We must not be afraid to use social media--we should instead leverage these tools to broadcast our message and share our story!

All too often I hear examples where this is not happening in schools. Perhaps there is a fear of the unknown. A feeling that we are too busy. Or that this is a tremendous waste of time that could better be spent on something else. Maybe we feel this is just something that is for the amusement of our kids. But shouldn't we be engaging our kids where they are?

Our failure to use these tools robs us of an opportunity to engage our communities. It forces us to be so naive as to believe the only place where people get information is through the tool of our choosing. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Does Class Rank Still Matter?

A month or so ago I received a letter from the Board of Regents discussing the fact that some schools in Iowa are no longer using class rank. Included in the letter was the list, some 36 high schools in length. The letter from the Regents was neither for or against school districts using this metric, but was merely sharing information about how they would move forward with admissions in light of some school districts making this change.

In 2006, the Regents created the Regents Admission Index (RAI) that uses a formula with a number of variables (including class rank) to grant automatic admissions into any of the three Regent Universities in Iowa. The use of the formula is designed to streamline the admissions process and allow universities to grant admission without the need to scrutinize each college application individually. High school students: you can view the formula and check your RAI score at this website. If you need any help, I am sure Mrs. Baltz would be more than happy to assist! The variables used are class rank, ACT Composite, cumulative GPA, and the number of high school courses completed in the core content areas. The formula worked well, that is of course until high schools began to drop class rank. That was the purpose of the letter, to share that the Board of Regents has come up with and alternative RAI formula that does not include the class rank.

Again, the letter was not to argue one way or another the value of class rank, but rather to share that an option was available for high schools to calculate the RAI without the class rank variable. It does beg the question though, doesn't it? Does the use of class rank matter that much? Does it hurt or help? The fact is, the jury is still out on the answer to that question, but it did make for an interesting topic of conversation at a recent superintendent meeting that I attended.

Those in favor of retaining class rank argue the value of the metric when applying for college scholarships. While there may be a legitimate point in the alternative RAI formula, what if the student is uninterested in attending a Regent University? What if instead, they are interested in attending a university out of state? Then there is the argument that some scholarships have cut score requirements that make them available only to the top 10% of the class. Obviously without class rank this could not be measured. As a practical matter, class rank also serves as a reward. Those students who are in the poll position are in many cases the class Valedictorian. It is not uncommon for those with that title to have other monetary rewards awaiting them in the form of generous scholarships.

On the other hand, those in favor of eliminating class rank suggest competition for the coveted top slot may be forcing students to make decisions they may not otherwise make. For example, a student may elect not to take a high rigor class in favor of a class in which they are more likely to earn high marks. Even if that particular high rigor class may better prepare the youngster for post-secondary education. Of course there are also examples of those students who do elect to take those high level courses, and perhaps earn high marks--but not perfection. Are they then penalized because a classmate made a different decision and if so, should they be? Let's take it a step even further. What happens when students take those high level courses, earn high marks but still fall outside the top ten percent? Did you know the median GPA for the class of 2015 is 3.51%?  A 3.5% GPA is pretty impressive, but this particular student is right in the middle of the class. And about that top 10%? In the class of 2015, a GPA of 3.90% is not in the top 10%! You may think this is an anomaly, but it's not. Year after year class after class post these kind of numbers. These kids are wicked smart!

An interesting conundrum indeed! I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this! High school students, please respond to my blog! Parents, I would be interested in hearing from you as well!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

School Calendar Nearing Resolution

I want to thank everyone for their patience as we awaited final news regarding the start of the 2015-2016 school year! In most years, the academic calendar would have long been resolved by now. While the number of phone calls we have fielded in the last two weeks has begun to increase, you all have been gracious in your understanding of our dilemma.

To briefly recap: On December 9th, we received news from the Iowa Department of Education that automatic early start waivers would no longer be granted. In January a new waiver process was unveiled that set the bar for receiving a waiver beyond the reach of the Hudson Community School District. We chose at that point to decline applying for a waiver and instead await a legislative solution. In the intervening months, two separate bills addressing the school start date were proposed in the legislature, one setting the start date at August 23rd (which means August 24th because we are not starting school on a Sunday); the other completely repealing the law. The bill that called for complete repeal would likely have been vetoed and it became apparent that the legislature did not have the votes necessary to override a veto. 

Some thought that we should just follow the current law which states that school can start no sooner than a day in the week in which September 1st falls. To quantify that for everyone, that would have put our start date at August 31st. We were prepared to do just that, but we also believe an earlier start that aligns with local colleges is a better option for us--especially for our high school students that participate in concurrent enrollment classes. While the August 24th date is better for the start of first semester, it could cause some challenges for the start of the second semester. It is important to remember that high schools semesters are longer than college semesters. 

Late last week, both chambers of the legislature voted to set the school start date for August 23rd. After some political maneuvering and a brief delay, the bill was sent to the Governor for his signature. Because of this, we are now finally prepared to take action on the school calendar. The Board of Directors will hold a public hearing on the school calendar at our regular April board meeting, which will be held on April 20th at 6:00 p.m. in the board room. If you click the calendar icon to the left you will see an enlarged view of this calendar. 

Now then, if you think back a few months ago, you may recall we conducted a brief survey to get your input into the development of our school calendar. Essentially you were asked your thoughts and opinions as to whether or not we should retain spring break, and if we should start school on a Thursday, as has been past practice; or move the start of the school year to a Monday. The context that was provided for this question assumed that the two options being presented for discussion were either August 31st or September 3rd. Both groups surveyed concluded overwhelmingly that school should start on Monday. Since those dates ultimately do not correlate to our first day of school (which is August 24th), those data are not included for further discussion.

The spring break question however, was quite interesting. The faculty and staff favored retaining spring break at a margin of almost 75% to 25%. The community favored retaining spring break as well, but at a much closer margin. Those data are included here and reflect that 53.5% favor spring break while 46.5% are in favor of eliminating it. I should point out that faculty and staff had a sample size of 32, while the community and parents numbered 127. In survey research samples sizes of 26%-40% are generally considered statistically significant. Obviously the larger the sample the more reliable the results. 

Within this calendar are a few items the Board will take into further consideration. For example, you will notice the day before Thanksgiving is scheduled as a full vacation day. We may consider altering the schedule for that day. 

Winter break in this calendar is scheduled for December 23-January 1 with students returning on Monday, January 4th. Unfortunately the first semester is not scheduled to end until Friday, January 8th. This is contrary to previous calendars where we have been able to finish first semester in conjunction with the winter break. 

Finally, graduation for the class of 2016 is scheduled for May 22nd, which is the comparable week from this year. We are fortunate that graduation didn't have to move to Memorial Day weekend, which would have been the case had we started on August 31st! With this calendar, the last day of school is scheduled for May 25th, barring no snow days.