Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fair Winds and Following Seas

As far as students are concerned our school year did get off to a good start. For an explanation of why and how that can be true in spite of all the friction, I might refer you to my September 2nd post. Nevertheless, we had to contend with quite a distraction the last several weeks. The school board meeting on September 16th provided much needed closure and I am confident that we will now move on as a school district. Instead of continuing to belabor the issue, I instead will let the content and context of the press releases speak for themselves. Both are available on our website. As a bookend, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge the deeply held opinions on both sides and reaffirm the idea that all voices are important, provided that they are respectful and accurate in their dissent or concurrence. Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank the faculty and staff for their professional conduct throughout, their ability to always stay above the line, and for their complete voluntary and unrequested show of support.

Now we get to hit the reset button. Each September, the school board has the opportunity to hold it's annual organizational meeting and start over. And every other year we hold a school board election. It is by mere happenstance that we now have this chance to refocus our work and clearly state once again that our Core Purpose is to 'Create Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students'. As you are all aware, Director Tanya Higgins decided early on that she would not seek re-election to the board, and Director David Ball successfully sought and was elected to her seat. Incumbent Karyn Finn is now beginning her second term. 

Following the election and in advance of the organizational meeting we hold the 'Final Meeting of the Retiring Board'. Part ceremonial and part statutory, we largely view this as a time to honor and recognize those who's service is coming to an end. 

President Griffith presents Emeritus Director Higgins
with a plaque honoring her service to the school board.
So as we begin this new term, I would like to first start out by thanking Director Higgins for her work on behalf of the Hudson Community School District these last four years. Tanya was a fantastic member of the board that always understood the vital role she played in governance of the school district. As a leader, she understood full well the firewall that exists between governance and administration and always respected that line. Not comfortable with the status quo, she challenged me as the superintendent and wasn't afraid to disagree. Further, anyone who is currently serving or has served in the past knows full well that the work of a school board member is usually a thankless job, and as all have been reminded the last couple of weeks it can be a stressful job! The amount of knowledge and information that a board member must digest on a regular basis to prepare for the board meeting often includes board packets that are in excess of 100 pages, and to assume the work of a board member only requires one business meeting a month is naive. 

There has been a lot to celebrate during Tanya's time on the board. We can point to many facility upgrades, new and research based curricular material, an improved financial position, and the implementation of our connected learning project. You can see Director Emeritus Higgins' leadership along with that of her colleagues in many of these successes that we can celebrate in our district. 

In the Navy, during a change of command, the retirement of a sailor, or commissioning of a ship, the phrase 'Fair Winds and Following Seas' is used to wish good luck and fortune on our next voyage in life. It seems fitting here to use that same quote here as we thank Tanya for her service and seat our new board.

I am excited for the future of the Hudson Community School District and look forward to working with this new board! We have a lot of exciting decisions to make in the coming months and years.

Board of Directors for the Hudson Community School
District. Pictured from left to right: President Jerry Griffith,
Vice President Karyn Finn, Directors Liz Folladori,
David Ball, and Traci Trunck.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Categorical Funding Revisited

Early in the summer, I wrote an article that discussed what are known as categorical funds in Iowa school budgets. If you recall, school budgets are comprised of multiple funds that make up the overall budget. Our budget for the school year that just began assumes a spending plan of $10,077,172. However, those funds need to be spent in a very specific way and cannot be cross pollinated between different funds. For example, we cannot pay for wages and benefits of employees using funds from the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL). 

The largest fund that makes up our school budget is referred to as the general fund. The general fund spending plan for the current fiscal year anticipates expenditures of $7,839,172. This includes salaries, benefits, transportation, instructional materials, some maintenance, and other related items. But nestled within the general fund is another subset of categorical funds that can only be used for even more specific purposes. The largest subset of categorical funds in the general fund is in the area of special education. As it's name implies, those funds can only be used for special education purposes and programming. In other words, these funds cannot be used to hire a teacher that works exclusively in third grade, or to hire a family and consumer science teacher in the high school. In case you are wondering, last year our special education program expenses were $1,503,910.08.

It doesn't just end at special education either. We have categorical funds in approximatley 8 different areas: At-Risk, Dropout Prevention (yes, this is different from At-Risk), Mentoring, Iowa Core Curriculum Implementation Funds, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership, Talented and Gifted, and Early Literacy. This is in addition to another subset of federal categorical funds that we refer to as the Title Programs (Title I, IIA, VI, and Part B) As I stated in my June 17th article, there is a problem with this and it becomes quite complicated.

Let's say we would like to hire a teacher in kindergarten because the class size is too large. Well, upon examination of fund balances, we may notice that all the Iowa Core Curriculum Implementation money from the prior fiscal year has not been spent. Take it a step further and assume that you have a plan for implementation and have fully funded your plan, leaving this reserve balance. Many would think that it makes sense to use this reserve fund to help cover the cost of hiring the new teacher. I agree! Unfortunately, there is no flexibility in the use of these categorical funds. No matter what, they need to stay with that category. As another example, you can't take excess funds from one category and apply them for employee raises in another category.

So then, how do we get to the total of $10,077,172? Well, aside from the general fund, we have an activity fund budget this year of $466,000. This fund is used to pay for all the athletic equipment and student activities. It cannot be used to pay for the salaries of coaches and activity advisors. Those still must be paid out of the general fund.

We anticipate expenditures in our management fund to be around $257,000. Some may believe this fund implies expenditures related to the management of the organization. That is a good guess, but not true. The primary expenditure that comes out of this fund is the cost of our property and casualty insurance for the school district. We also use this fund to pay deductibles against insurance claims. The only other expense in the management fund is early retirement benefits.

Two separate funds comprise the capital projects component of our budget and can be used for a broad array of capital improvement projects. These are the funds that are used to purchase computers for our students, fund the restroom renovations, the stadium lights, or the hotel property. First is the Sales Tax, where our spending plan calls for $790,000 of improvements this school year. The PPEL fund is the other arm of capital projects and with an anticipated budget of $387,000 we use this to replace vehicles in our fleet. The fact is that at our next board meeting, we hope to approve the purchase of a new school bus that we believe will cost somewhere around $90,000.

The final fund that makes up the school budget is known as the nutrition fund. This is the fund that is used to operate the hot lunch program where we have budgeted $338,000 this year.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Authentic Intellectual Work

Iowa law requires that teachers participate in at least 36 hours of peer collaboration annually. This is the primary reason that several years ago in Hudson we began utilizing an early dismissal each Wednesday. So, when  school dismisses at 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon, teachers go to work on improving practice in their classrooms. The first hour of this early dismissal is set aside for collaboration while the second hour is designed for building level professional development. 

AIW practice scoring during Wednesday
professional development
The preferred model of collaboration in the elementary continues to be the PLC, which has served us well for the last four plus years and will continue to be a staple in this building. The trouble is that the same model is not as easily replicated in secondary grades because the majority of those teachers do not share the same content. What makes PLC so powerful is the collaboration that occurs among teachers who share content. For example, all the third grade teachers are responsible for teaching reading. This means they can discuss strategies specific to the instruction of this content and share the results of their instruction with their colleagues. At the secondary level, there is only one physics teachers. It is kind of difficult to collaborate by yourself. There is no other physics teacher to share ideas with.

So a new approach to this collaboration is being undertaken in the secondary school, one that is unique, fits extremely well within the framework of PLC, and certainly will improve practice in the classrooms. The process is referred to as authentic intellectual work (AIW).

Final practice scoring session of AIW. 
With this model of collaboration, each week an assigned teacher brings a lesson or unit for discussion to their collaborative team. That lesson is then presented for review to the team, who follow a predetermined protocol of analysis. The idea behind this type of collaboration is to take that lesson and improve upon it. Teachers may be asked to specify which Iowa Core learning standards are being presented and then to explain how they are measuring student success. They may be asked to share what value the lesson has beyond high school. Again, the whole point of this collaboration is to take a lesson, have peers review it, and then to make it better. 

This type of collaboration requires our educators to take a risk. They have to be willing to share a work product and invite their colleagues to closely scrutinize it in an effort that will ultimately improve student outcomes. Faculty participating in the teacher leadership system began piloting this process late last spring with a goal of full implementation this school year. At the beginning of this year, our faculty participated in an intense two day training process to learn the philosophy behind AIW. During this time, they had the chance to practice scoring sample lessons and enjoying rich conversations about what powerful and engaging instruction should look like. For the first two weeks of school, Mr. Dieken challenged them with unique practice samples and had them share out what they had learned. The conversations this faculty have been engaged in are outstanding! I am excited for them as they begin the next phase of their learning as teachers begin to bring their own work and lessons that will be part of practice.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Starting Strong With Teacher Leaders

School started much earlier than August 24th for our employees. While August 1st is a date that is circled on the calendar for the building principals, we also begin to see many other faculty and staff around the first part of the month. Most teachers are excited for the beginning of year and are eager to get a jump start on setting up their classroom. Others might be moving into new assignments, so they want to get in early and start planning for curriculum they haven't taught before. I have to tell you, I was impressed and amazed at the number of teachers that were in the district well in advance of being required! Some of our veterans were here providing leadership and collaborating with new colleagues, while others were building relationships with newly assigned instructional colleagues. Yet, for another group of educators (our teacher leaders) they had different purpose for arriving early: plan for the return of the rest of the faculty.

The beginning of the school year always begins with an overload of teacher meetings and in service 'opportunities' for our faculty. Some of this includes annual training on bullying and harassment to bloodborne pathogens. I say 'opportunities' tongue and cheek because in the past I think it is safe to say that our opening in services for our teachers were viewed as anything but opportunities. When I was a teacher (let's not talk about how long ago that was, shall we?), professional development was viewed as something that was done to us rather than for us. That is really beginning to change with teacher leadership.

After a year under our belt with a teacher leadership system we are really beginning to hit our stride with how we deploy and use these very valuable teacher leaders! One of their primary roles is ensuring that our professional development plan is relevant and able to provide that strong linkage to practice that we know will become embedded in instruction. My take is that our teacher leaders are truly crushing it!

Teacher leaders meet for collaboration with building
principals early in the school year.
To start the school year, our instructional math coach, Mrs. Owen-Kuhn, selected and organized two fantastic professional development opportunities for our faculty. For starters, all of our K-3 faculty is engaged in developing and implementing numeracy strategies that will be useful for the continued support of our  math program, which we are now in the 3rd year of implementation. Then, because grade levels have different needs, grades 4-6 will be focusing on instructional strategies useful in teaching fractions. This professional development theme will be prevalent throughout the school year and alter back and forth between math and literacy.

This year Mrs. Kiewiet begins as our new instructional coach in literacy. Working in collaboration with Mrs. Engels who served in that role last year, they identified a need to provide teachers with tools that will enable them to better utilize their new literacy resources. Moving into year two of the Wonders program, our teachers are engaged in a study of Super Core, which is designed to provide strategies and ideas for getting the maximum benefit out of our curriculum. Each Wednesday during early out, the teachers will alternate between math one week and literacy the next.

Mr. Lewis continues to knock it out of the park in his role as instructional coach for technology. As we have moved to the Google platform this year, there is quite a learning curve as it comes to sharing documents and collaborating with this type of platform. That is not to mention his continued work with our LMS. When teachers have trouble with Canvas, they can count on Mr. Lewis to help them out and give them the pointers they need!

So about that start to the school year?

The weather to start the school year was about as perfect as you could ask for--I guess up until Friday when we almost floated away because of the relentless pounding rain. Going into the second week of school we are expecting (and experiencing) a late August and early September heat wave. But then, lets talk about that start of the school year, shall we? Starting school on a Monday is uncommon, and most teachers will testify to the fact that if they had their wish, we most certainly would not have done it in this way. Truthfully, I can't remember a time in my career when we actually started school on a Monday with students and had a full week of school. However, extenuating circumstances with the new law dictating that school couldn't start prior to August 23rd really set into motion the school calendar we are living with. Certainly there are a few outliers that are starting school this week, but for the most part schools in Iowa have a week under their belts at this time.

While reading with a purpose, Mrs Douglas conferences
with  a student during a  lesson early last week.
By the end of that first week of instruction, there were many very tired people! As you might expect, the youngest of our students may have been the most worn out. Consider the fact that kindergartners, never having experienced school before are suddenly thrust into a week long schedule that was regimented in a manner they have never before experienced! We might also consider the rest of our student body--after all they have been on a much different schedule during summer. Certainly they have had later bedtimes and a schedule where they haven't been required to get up quite as early in the morning! This sudden change in schedule can leave even the most seasoned of educators exhausted after readjusting to a school schedule.

Nevertheless, the start to the school year we just experienced was one of the strongest that I can remember. I think that might be because of all the hard work that started in the weeks before students even entered the school buildings.