Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Evolution of the Renovation.

With just a week to go until school starts, I am thankful we are finishing the 'punch list' for the early childhood wing in the elementary school. Over the last couple of weeks, I have enjoyed giving tours and explaining how the project evolved over the course of defining the scope of work; to planning, design, and execution. A long time coming, this renovation was first envisioned in the strategic plan titled, 'Hudson 2020' adopted by the Board of Directors in 2013. Isn't it awesome that a vision laid out in 2013 continues to guide us today? Not only does this honor the work of previous boards, but it gives the current board the latitude and flexibility to meet the needs of our students and community in 2017. Recommendation #4 broadly asks the Board to prioritize renovation of the elementary without boxing them in to include any specific scope of work or project. 

We began this task with many work sessions that included brainstorming projects that needed to be addressed in our elementary school. Working in consultation with our School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC), we were able to narrow the scope of this work into different projects and priorities. Rising to the top of the list of priorities was the replacement of all the windows in the facility. With a single pane of glass, the seals were beginning to break down and they were not all that energy efficient. Teachers reported that in the winter wind would blow through unsealable gaps, making it cold. Obviously, some of this could be attributed to the window air conditioners we use to keep the rooms comfortable during those periods of hot humid weather.

At the same time, it was important to maintain the ability to air condition our classrooms. The board liked the idea of window air conditioners because they were relatively inexpensive and easy to replace. If one went bad, we could simply swap it out for another one. However, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to put in a new window that would let in natural light, seal up the gaps, and then install a window air conditioner. Ideas to install the units above the windows were quickly scrapped when we realized predicting the size of future air conditioners was an exercise in futility. That is when we landed on the idea of the mini-split unit, which is a ceiling mount unit controlled by a condenser on the roof of the building. While not as inexpensive as a window air unit, they more than made up for this additional cost through the energy efficiency that we will realize. Not to mention they are so quiet you can hardly hear them running!

We have also improved our energy efficiency in this wing by replacing all the lights. The light fixtures in the elementary school are currently fluorescent bulbs, which are not very efficient by today's standards. So it was determined it would be a wise investment to replace all these fixtures with LEDs. Not only are they more energy efficient, but they have very little maintenance associated with them. This new lighting is also designed in a way to complement the natural light that comes in through our windows. On a bright sunny day, the LED lights will automatically adjust to the amount of light that is needed in the classroom by using a photo cell mounted in the ceiling. Further, if there is no one in the room, the lights will automatically turn off. 

Perhaps the number one priority of the school board was to make our competition gym handicap accessible. Navigating the stairs on the North or South end of the valley has always been the primary way to get into the competition gym, and not all that practical for those who use walkers or wheelchairs. For years, the only way for our patrons in wheelchairs or walkers to enter the gym was to come through the emergency exits on the East end of the gym. Many strategies were discussed that included installing an elevator, putting in a lift, or installing a ramp. Ultimately, the Board decided the best course of action was to remove half the steps on the South side entrance and create a ramp, which turned out great! By the way, if you are visiting the district and need to access this ramp, we have three handicap parking spots right outside this entrance. 

As we continued to identify and refine the scope of this work, it became obvious the entire project could not be completed at one time over the course of the summer employing the financing strategy that has been the goal of this Board. For example, the estimated cost to replace the windows in the entire facility was estimated at over $550,000. That is the sum the Board had budgeted for one year in renovation expenses.  We discussed the option of completing each of the different phases of the renovation as a stand alone project, but that idea was abandoned at the advice of our architect, engineer, and local contractors. They recommended a renovation where we completed each section of the building at one time so we only have to contend with demolition in one area of the facility at a time. 

Now that this phase of the project is wrapping up, it is time to start considering phase two of the renovation. We have the benefit of hindsight and have clearly articulated the scope, it will be up to the board to decide which area of the building to tackle next and how best to finance the project!


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Consider Our Priorities

The last three weeks we have discussed priorities the Board of Directors have identified for the upcoming legislative session. To recap, we have covered a lot of ground, including the importance of removing the sunset on the one cent sales tax, the benefit of operational sharing and ensuring those incentives continue, and the unintended consequences of unfunded mandates. Today we save the best for last, and if you have been following me for awhile, you probably know what is coming next.

Timely and adequate supplemental state aid. Specifically speaking, we are interested in the amount of inflationary increase associated with per pupil funding for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1, 2018. During the 2016-2017 school year, the state 'cost per pupil' was $6,591. Supplemental state aid increased the state cost per pupil by 1.11%, so for the 2017-2018 school year, the state cost per pupil increased by $73 to $6,664. To put that in perspective, CPI for the month of August is 2.4% and for the last year has averaged 1.48%. 

I think it is also important to note that then Governor Branstad recommended an increase of about 2.45% in his Condition of the State address in January of 2017. At the time, we all lamented the fact that it was low, but now with the benefit of hindsight, we are thankful we saw an increase at all. As the year continued to unfold, the Revenue Estimating Conference downgraded revenue projections at each meeting. We are in a situation now where it seems very likely that a special session of the Legislature will be called in October to deal with an even greater shortfall. We will undoubtedly have an opportunity to debate the reasons for those shortfalls in future articles, but for the meantime, I'll focus on the need for adequate and timely supplemental state aid. My point is that, yes we get it and understand, but wonder if the larger issue is one of priority. 

Nevertheless, and thankfully this issue was settled relatively early in this past session. Although it is worth pointing out that we should have been discussing supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2018. You see, the law as previously written required the legislature to set supplemental state aid 18 months in advance of the new fiscal year. This was designed to give school districts ample time to make changes to personnel and programming decisions.  But when they set the new funding levels, they also changed the law that removed the 18 month lead time. Now we have a mere 6 months. 

Indeed the budget is going to be tight this next year and I recognize that. I further realize that there are many, many competing priorities that we have as a state. But perhaps as a state it would be wise to consider our priorities. Many of our politicians talk about their support of education as a priority and the fact that Iowa has traditionally found itself recognized as a leader in education. They talk about how important it is to retain (or regain depending on who you talk to) that coveted status.

But at 1.11% supplemental state aid, it makes it incredibly difficult to maintain our standing as a leader. At 1.11%, Hudson schools will see an increase in revenue of $45,955. With a general fund budget of $8.4 Million and an overall budget of $10.7 Million, that hardly seems adequate. Consider this: It's August and we have already invested $33,275 in a new science curriculum. School doesn't start for two more weeks. 


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Operational Incentives

Over the last several years Iowa school districts have endured very small increases in supplemental state aid year over year. We'll talk more about that next week, but the impact of a low growth rate has a pretty significant negative impact on schools over time. This issue is further challenging in school districts where enrollment is decreasing, and in fact, often times this has a compounding effect. The consequences of this are obvious and lead to school districts cutting positions, and unfortunately in some cases eliminating programs. But as a general rule of thumb, when considering budget cuts in schools, the idea is to keep the cuts as far away from students as possible. That means creating efficiencies wherever we can find them.

One common way to create efficiencies in Iowa public school districts is through operational sharing. This type of arrangement allows school districts to share the services of some employees with other school districts. Basically, one school district serves as the district of employment for a particular employee and 'sub contracts' out the employee to a neighboring school. In Hudson, we share two positions with other school districts: business manager and transportation director. With our business manager, we share the cost of employment 50/50 with Grundy Center. Hudson holds the contract so the business manager is employed by the Hudson Community School District. In the case of transportation director, we share the cost of employment 75/25 with North Tama. In this arrangement, North Tama is the agency of employment and holds that contract. (If you have ever wondered or noticed a Hudson bus in the North Tama garage, now you know the reason why.)

The benefit of this type of arrangement is probably pretty obvious. The cost of employment is split between the two school districts per the agreement. The downside is that the employee can't be in two places at once, and as a result organizational changes in operation are necessary. This might mean that other operational employees have to pick up some of the extra work, or work that is the primary responsibility of the shared employee has to wait until that employee is in the school district. Needless to say, operational sharing does mean that people aren't always readily available to handle issues and some tasks take a little longer to complete. (Admittedly advances in technology make this less burdensome, but there are tasks that need to be completed onsite.) We've been sharing our business manager for several years now, so pretty much have the organizational aspects of this ironed out nicely at this point. Sure, it is not without challenges from time to time, and everyone has to take on a few more responsibilities....

But the state has made it worth it. School districts are incentivized to create these efficiencies by sharing key operational positions. It works like this: you share a business manager, each school district receives the equivalent of five students for funding. If you share a transportation director, each school district receives the equivalent of five students for funding. To keep it from getting out of hand, districts are limited in both the number of operational positions that can be shared and the equivalent amount of funding they can receive. Nevertheless, this funding can go quite a long way to fill the gap created by inadequate funding. So, the equivalent of ten students we receive for operational sharing generates $67,766 in revenue for the school district. Pretty neat deal! But here is the problem: when the law was enacted it had a sunset of five years. That was three years ago. We, and numerous school districts around the state have come to rely on that revenue to keep programs running and afloat. For that reason, the board has set removing the sunset on operational sharing as a legislative priority during the second session of the 87th general assembly, set to commence in January. 


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Everyone Likes Puppies!

You may be surprised by the number of items that are mandated to be taught, addressed, or otherwise taken care of in your local public school. A primary reason for this is that the public school system is the only sector of society where we have a captive audience. Attendance is required by law, whereas there is not a requirement that folks go to the doctor. I suppose that is the reason schools have the responsibility of monitoring whether or not children have all their immunizations prior to enrolling. So, when the new requirement came out requiring that we monitor meningococcal vaccine administration, it is, in fact, an unfunded mandate. Truthfully, tasks like this have very little overhead, because after all we employ a school nurse and she already has the responsibility of verifying a number of vaccinations. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out this adds to the workload of our personnel. At last count, we had over 50 students that were not yet immunized. Because of that Nurse Brandhorst will need to come in next week and start tracking them down. Now, don't get us wrong, this is a good idea and probably should be done. But, that is how a lot of these unfunded mandates get started. They are all good ideas. After all, most people agree vaccinations are a good idea. It's kind of like puppies. We all like puppies, right?

Now then, let's consider again the cost of unfunded mandates. Some of these costs are hidden, much like the new vaccine monitoring requirement. I'll concede the point that the cost of monitoring may be minimal, but the sum of many of these 'minimal cost' mandates can add up to a pretty large number. But let's set aside the purely financial component of unfunded mandates and consider the impact they have on other aspects of the educational program.

Take for example the requirement that all students must be taught CPR before they graduate. Who can argue that is a bad idea? Everyone should know CPR and the basics of this life-saving procedure. So, several years ago the legislature mandated that all schools teacher CPR. Of course they didn't appropriate any funding to implement the training so it was left to schools to figure out how they were going to pay for it. But again I argue the monetary implications are but one way to look at the idea of unfunded mandates.

Again, because of the fact that schools hold a captive audience, all sorts of ideas and requirements are mandated upon them. The problem is that nothing is ever taken away. Once again I concede the administration of CPR has a pretty minimal cost associated with it. But set that aside. When are schools supposed to meet this requirement? It's not like we are sitting on a block of time that isn't used for something else, just waiting for us to plug in another curriculum or content. The trouble is, nothing is ever taken away! We just seem to continually add more and more content and curriculum to our school day without adding any additional time. And time certainly does cost money!

I suppose the good news is the last couple of years, the Legislature has been sensitive to ensuring they don't burden school districts with unfunded mandates. But, I argue that some of the decisions that have been made are not always in the best interest of the school. Yes, some mandates are necessary and should be funded. During the first session of the 87th general assembly, the legislature eliminated the funding for mentoring programs that are designed to support teachers that are new to the profession. Because of their sensitivity to unfunded mandates, the requirement to provide these programs was eliminated. (It actually is still required but how it works is a bit complicated.) Now I don't know about where you work, but providing support to employees that are brand new to the profession seems like a pretty important part of the induction process. In a state where teacher attrition is part of the formula the determines a school's 'report card grade', it seems like this decision may have been a little short sighted. School districts are going to continue to provide mentoring programs not because we necessarily have to or are mandated to, but rather because they are a good idea! Yet the money is no longer provided. (This would be a great opportunity for you to review my blog article from a few weeks back: Held Harmless? Sort of...)

Again, I give credit where it is due. Our legislature is listening when it comes to unfunded mandates, but the recent move to add computer science to the scope and sequence of course offerings isn't all that helpful. There was no money appropriated for schools to implement computer science programs so they weren't mandated. But let's say money was appropriated and we were mandated? Well, then I suppose we would probably have to find room in the schedule for the course--at the expense of something else. (There's that time constraint element again.)

For those reasons, the Hudson Board of Directors advocates against unfunded mandates. But you know, I like puppies too!


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Advocacy is a Year Round Job

At our regularly scheduled board meeting on July 17th, the Board of Directors completed the annual exercise of setting our legislative priorities for the upcoming session. One of those priorities includes the extension or repeal of the 2029 sunset of the statewide penny (SAVE) for school infrastructure. While 2029 seems like a long time away, when it comes to school infrastructure needs it isn't all that far into the distant future. Especially when it comes to strategic planning!

Currently three basic options exist for meeting the needs of school district infrastructure projects. We can either issue general obligation bonds, revenue bonds, or adopt a pay as you go philosophy. Since we paid off our general obligation bonds for the high school a few years back, we have adopted a pay as you go philosophy.

Issuing general obligation bonds requires a vote of the public and must be approved by 60%, or what is known as a super-majority. The super-majority creates a very high bar for passage and it is quite common for these type of funding options to take several attempts to gain voter approval. In many cases, projects tend to be scaled back in order to be passed. The reason these issues are so difficult to pass is that they usually come with a property tax increase. If you watch the news on the night of a special election, it is not uncommon to see general obligation questions fail, not because they didn't have the majority vote, but because they didn't reach that 60% majority. I have seen these referendums fail with a 59.99% approval--missing passage by only a couple of votes!

View from the East end of the new ADA ramp right after
the concrete was poured.
For that reason, many school districts have elected instead to issue revenue bonds. Unlike general obligation bonds, revenue bonds can be issued following a board resolution and do not require a super-majority vote. The reason for this is that these bonds are being issued based on anticipated future sales tax revenue. In other words, there are no property tax implications. Revenue bonds are attractive to property owners and school districts because of the fact there is no property tax implications or super-majority threshold. However, in order to generate the bonding capacity to meet the need of a large scale building project, school districts have to bond against their sales tax for about 20 years. The trouble is the current sales tax law sunsets in 2029, which is a short 12 years away. This has the impact of significantly limiting bonding capacity for schools.

As I mentioned above, at this time Hudson has adopted a pay as you go philosophy. Quite simply that means the board has elected to complete projects as funds become available. But, our needs are just as significant as those of school districts who are building new buildings! This is clearly illustrated by the very significant renovations that are occurring in our elementary school this summer. Our early childhood wing classrooms are all being updated with new windows, air conditioning, lighting, and ceilings. On top of that, we are installing a new ADA accessible ramp and restroom on the South end of the competition gym. This pay as you go project is budgeted at right around $579,000. Next year the board plans to move on to phase two of what will end up being a three or four phase project over the next several years. When finished, we will essentially have remodeled and renovated our entire elementary attendance center.

When we finish our elementary project it will be time to move on to the high school building. You know, people still refer to that building as the 'new high school'? Were you aware the new high school is 20 years old this year? Like our homes need maintenance and updating, so to do our schools! We have already started to replace sections of the roof on the building, and certainly our mechanical systems will start to reach the end of their life in the next several years. That is why it is so important that we have a dependable source of revenue for our school budgets with which to address infrastructure needs.

In this photo I am reminding legislators that
our new high school is 20 years old.
Last week, school board president Karyn Finn and I had the opportunity to host two legislators in our district and advocate for an extension, or better yet a repeal of the sunset on the SAVE. I enjoyed discussing the importance of this resource with our legislators and was able to demonstrate to them how we were wisely investing our taxpayer resources. The legislative session runs from roughly January to May. The pace is very quick during the lawmaking process and our legislators are often times lobbied from multiple sources representing varied positions. This makes it incredibly difficult for them to fully understand and appreciate the complexities of the decisions they are being asked to make. That is why I think this is a great reminder to all my colleagues and school board members around the state that advocacy is a year round task. If we wait until legislators are in session, it might be too late. And when it comes to this issue, what better time than the summer when we all have building projects underway to show our legislators the impact SAVE has on our schools and community?

In the future, I am uncertain as to whether the board will continue with a pay as you go philosophy. We certainly don't want to handcuff future boards or administrations from making decisions that make the most fiscal sense at that time. The one thing I do know for certain is that our facility needs will never go away. We will finish one project and then move on to another. While I am relatively confident this board has no appetite for a general obligation bond, it is somewhat interesting that the number of school districts bringing bond referendums to voters is on the rise. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the number of bond issues was 24 this last year, up from 14 in 2008-2009. The article goes on to surmise this is due to the uncertainty of the SAVE. I don't think we will ever eliminate the need for school districts to bring general obligation referendums to voters. Each school district in Iowa is unique and has its own philosophy and needs for the citizens and students it serves. But as a practical matter, one way to reduce the number of general obligation bond issues is to restore certainty that SAVE will be there in the future. It certainly will have a positive impact on property taxes.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Additional Flexibility is a Legislative Victory

On June 30, 2016 the district carried $265,529.97 in six different reserve fund categories. We are still in the process of closing out our books on fiscal year 2017, but I anticipate those reserve funds will grow as they have the last several years. Luckily this should be the last year we will have to deal with such large reserve funds, since HF 564 and 565 have been signed into law. A categorical fund is a dedicated fund that can only be used for a very specific purpose. In most cases, the rules for expending these funds are very narrowly defined. Revenue flows into these funds through our foundation formula and is typically pupil based. The point the legislature was trying to make in setting up and appropriating these funds was that they wanted to ensure that they were being expended on the intended purpose. I think we can all agree this is a noble and justifiable goal.

The question of course became, once the need is met, what happens to the remainder of the funds? Well, in Hudson and most other school districts it becomes part of a reserve fund balance like those mentioned above. Since it can only be used for a specified purpose, it has to sit until such a time the district can figure out how to use it for that specified purpose. Often times this can, and has been to the detriment of other needs in the district. It is entirely conceivable that some investments are delayed or scrapped in school districts because there isn't any money available--at the same time the district is sitting on a $265,529.97 reserve fund balance.

Furthermore, in my opinion it would be a complete waste of tax dollars if we were to spend down these reserves on the specified purposes outlined in the Code if they weren't really needed. That is why for the past several years, our school board has advocated for greater flexibility when it comes to utilizing these categorical funds. You may recall over this last school year we had to work incredibly hard to secure permission to use existing funding to start our preschool program. We had to jump through some pretty significant hoops and get permission to invest resources that we already had--all because of the constraints within our categorical funds.

Our request and advocacy really focused on two areas when it came to flexibility. One: we wanted to expand the menu of items that could be fit into each categorical fund. As one example, when it comes to At-Risk and Dropout prevention programs, I argued that guidance counselors should be an allowable expenditure for these funds. Interestingly enough, some school districts were allowed to do this while others may have perhaps only been able to fund fractional FTE through this fund. It didn't make sense and appeared to be inconsistent around the state. Two: we believed that if a school district had satisfied and could demonstrate that a need had been met, any remaining funds should be able to be captured and redirected to other needs in the school district.

Representative Walt Rogers, who chairs the House Education Committee provided valuable leadership during this past session, shepherding these bills through the legislative process. Because of his work, and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle,  these bills gained traction and were signed into law with the passage of HF 564 and HF 565. Interestingly enough, both bills passes on a 98-0 vote in the House and a 49-0 vote in the Senate. Since we had been advocating for several years on this issue, I wonder why they finally passed with such ease this year? Truthfully it shouldn't have been all that surprising. In the past, every legislator I talked to thought these were reasonable ideas and supported them. The final vote clearly shows these laws had broad bi-partisan support. Heck, how many  times do we EVER get a law changed [basically] unanimously? Hopefully all our legislators can hang their hats on that and agree to work in a bi-partisan manner come January. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Held Harmless? Sort of...

Well, the legislative session has concluded and we will spend the next several months analyzing the variety of policy changes to determine the impact on programming. Whether or not this session was successful depends largely on your point of view and political affiliation, but as I stated a few weeks ago all can probably agree the major theme that emerged from the session was 'tight budget'. 

For those of you that have followed me a while know that one of my major complaints, when it has come to the legislature, has been an inability to determine state supplemental aid (SSA) in a timely manner. Prior to this year, state law required school aid to be set 18 months in advance so school districts would have ample time to make program and staffing adjustments. That law changed this session, now requiring state aid to be set within 30 days of the governor releasing his budget recommendations for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. This was followed up with the legislature setting supplemental state aid at 1.11%, which was about half of what the governor recommended. Well, if you know me (and most of you do), you understand what I think about that!

But alas, I won't complain because at the same time schools saw a 1.11% increase in state aid, many other areas of state government weren't that lucky. The math just isn't favorable: following a cut in excess of $100 Million at the onset of this legislative session, the Revenue Estimating Committee (REC) adjusted revenue projections downward by $191 Million for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. The truth is, had the legislature delayed setting SSA until the March REC provided its estimate, we would not have even received the 1.11%, so we should (and do) consider ourselves lucky. 

At the same time this happened, the revenue projections for the current fiscal year were adjusted downward once again. This time though, instead of another budget cut, the legislature opted to dip into the reserve fund to fill this gap, which I agree was the wiser course of action. However, a commitment was made to replenish this fund immediately with the new fiscal year, making an already tight budget even tighter. The fact is, I am grateful to see the increase in funding (as small as it is) and we will work hard to maintain the fiscal discipline that we have come to expect in our school district. Moving forward I will continue to advocate for adequate funding in our school district, but the point worth making is this: I get it. 

However, to suggest that school districts were held completely harmless when it comes to the budget cuts isn't entirely accurate. For starters, appropriations dedicated to mentoring and induction programs were eliminated from the budget. Now, at the same time the legislature decided to eliminate this funding, they changed the law that required mentoring and induction. Since the legislature has been sensitive to 'unfunded mandates', a mandated mentoring and induction program for new teachers is no longer required. I don't know about you, but eliminating this type of program for new teachers just doesn't seem like a good idea. Of course we will still offer this program, but the money will have to come from another source. The appropriation that was used to support the implementation of the Iowa Core Academic Standards was also eliminated, and while a smaller amount it is, nonetheless, a cut. Truthfully, these are all relatively small dollar amounts, but when you add up a lot of smaller numbers, it tends to turn into a bigger number! Another collateral loss in funding was the elimination of $2 million from the AEAs that was specifically appropriated in order to help school districts implement teacher leadership and compensation systems. 

So the big takeaway here is that although the funding isn't where we would have preferred it to be, it could have been a lot worse--so that should be considered a bright spot. And, there were some other policy areas where I believe we made some very positive gains, especially when it comes to flexibility! We'll talk more about those next week! 


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Benefit of a Regent University in Your Backyard

From a geographical standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Hudson. Located just minutes from Waterloo and Cedar Falls, our location in the Cedar Valley is ideal. Those looking for small town living with multiple opportunities to shop, eat, or catch a show, Hudson is about as good as it gets. When asked to describe our school district, I am uncertain whether we are considered rural or suburban. I suppose either definition would work, but I am not too concerned about the semantics. But one thing is certain: a lot of people want to live here and send their kids to our schools. Because of this, Hudson is poised to grow. We have residential development currently underway that includes both single family residential and multi-family units; both of which are under construction. Our city is working with a developer right now to add another sub-division for our community. All of this is good news for our city and our school.

As suggested above our closeness to a large urban population center has a lot to do with our appeal. The benefits of this geographic location are enormous for our school district and pay huge dividends. Think of this: there are few schools in Iowa that have a regent university in their backyard. And the opportunities to leverage these resources can't be overstated. Our relationship with the University of Northern Iowa provides us with resources that aren't easily replicated in other parts of the state. While the other two regent universities in Iowa have great reputations and outstanding programs, the University of Northern Iowa is the premiere program for teacher and administrator preparation in Iowa.

Because of our close proximity to UNI, we are regularly invited to participate in research projects with the University whereas our teachers and students are able to study and implement the latest and most promising teaching techniques and strategies into our classrooms. Further, each summer, we have the very unique opportunity to host the University of Northern Iowa's Reading clinic where pre-service teachers work with our struggling readers. We are honored to host these professors and college students on our campus where they are taught reading strategies that are proven effective. Then through their practicum experience, are able to implement these strategies with our own Hudson students. We are entering our fourth year in this mutually beneficial partnership where the true beneficiaries are not only the UNI pre-service teachers, but our own emerging readers.

In addition to this, we are pleased to host a large number of student teachers every year. This spring, we have had the fortune of hosting seven student teachers at the high school. Certainly a great opportunity for these student teachers, but an equally important benefit for our own practitioners who have the ability to supervise and share insights with those who may someday be their colleagues. Further, our own teachers are oftentimes able to learn alongside these teachers new and innovative techniques. Plus the ancillary benefit to this is the fact that it provides us with a direct talent pipeline! It may surprise you to know this, but there are numerous school districts in Iowa that never have student teachers because they are so far away from any college or university that has a teacher preparation program. Believe me, it is tough to recruit teachers in extreme rural areas of the state.

As I shared with you a few weeks back, right now we are trying to figure out how this puzzle will fit together for the 2017-2018 school year. Our relationship with the University of Northern Iowa certainly helps to take the rough edges off some of those pieces!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

This Thing Called Pirate Term

Over the course of the last several years, our Pirate Term has become something that students in grades 7-11 look forward to annually. Indeed, it is a capstone experience to our school year that many school districts are trying to emulate. Modeled after what colleges and universities describe as 'May Term' or J-Term', at its inception we envisioned a learning experience where teachers could work with a group of students for an extended period of time on an in-depth learning experience. Originally scheduled to occur between first and second semester, that plan was scrapped when the teaching staff advocated moving it to the end of the year. Primarily, they argued for more planning time and suggested that if it were moved to the end of the year, it could provide for even greater flexibility with students due to the fact the weather was more favorable. Unforeseen to us were other tertiary benefits of moving Pirate Term to the end of the year. For example, the level of student engagement remained quite high. An extraordinary feat considering that the last thing typically on a youngsters mind in late May is attending school!

Hudson Students Learning to SCUBA dive
We proceeded to give our secondary teachers the task of creating a five day unit of study that was tied to; and connected to the Iowa Core Academic Standards. When planning the unit, they had to keep in mind they would have a group of students all day long for the entire five-day period where they would do a deep dive into one topic or content area, were required to create and demonstrate learning objectives that were tied to the Core, and they had to assess students on those objectives. Financially, our goal was to operate this endeavor on a shoestring. Each teacher was given a $100 budget with which to execute the project. This was partly out of necessity because at the time we started Pirate Term the district wasn't in the best financial condition, but also because we wanted our teachers to work with our local community partners and businesses. The fact that we are located a stone's throw from a regent university, and a hop skip and a jump from our community college needed to be leveraged. Lucky for us, both institutions saw the reciprocal benefits of this endeavor and eagerly agreed to a partnership. In the intervening years, those partnerships have expanded to include many businesses and social service agencies in the Cedar Valley. 

This May we just completed our fifth year of Pirate Term! I can hardly believe it has been that many years since this concept has become a reality! Indeed, something wonderful has happened as these units of study have grown and matured. Strong alliances have been formed with our community partners. Teachers have added new concepts to their curriculum and strengthened alignment and assessment. Some of the early units have since been reformatted or replaced with new ideas. 

Over the course of the week, I make an effort to get out and see the learning that is taking place. Along with Mr. Dieken, we find ourselves all over the Cedar Valley. On one day we might be at the pool at UNI watching our kids learn to SCUBA dive. Another day we might be at the Cedar Valley Sportsplex where our students are getting a lesson on careers in the fitness industry. But the highlight of the week happens on Day Six, which happens to coincide with the final day of the school year. On this day we have the Pirate Term Showcase, where each group of students and teachers give a brief presentation on their week and what they have learned. 

I am not sure if it was the fact that we are really starting to hit our stride with this experience, but there were some quite remarkable projects, learning, and fantastic experiences for our students this year. I could likely go on for several more paragraphs, highlighting countless examples of our students and teachers doing extraordinary things, but I will limit my commentary to just a couple.

Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice
The first is our Pirate Term that was titled 'Military Exploration'. Designed as a unit to explore military strategy and learn about the armed forces, these students have an opportunity to eat military rations (MREs), participate in an overnight visit to Camp Dodge in Des Moines, and go through a portable obstacle course and climbing wall. Most of the students describe the experience as action packed and exciting. However, the most poignant event of this Pirate Term had to be on the Friday before Memorial Day. On this particular day, I found the students at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Waterloo placing flags at the grave sites of our Veterans. This service learning experience tied in very nicely to the theme of the military exploration unit that was being studied. It also served as a great reminder that serving in our armed forces sometimes requires our service members to pay the ultimate sacrifice. These students took great care in clearing the markers of Veterans that had become overgrown. One student remarked to me that they wanted to make sure these Veteran's were remembered. On a personal note, as we were leaving the cemetery I noticed a marker of a Veteran that was born in 1947 and died in 1967. It was clear to me this young person had made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Vietnam. And was not a whole lot older than our students who were there that day.

Sorting food at the Northeast Iowa Food bank
The second point I would like to make has to do with the natural evolution of these Pirate Term experiences. As the years have gone by, it seems that a service component has organically become embedded in the fabric of the week. That has everything to do with the work and commitment of our teaching staff. For starters, we must make no mistake: planning and executing a Pirate Term is a lot of work! Our teaching staff has to make plans and contingencies that ensure students not only have a great learning experience but are kept busy! This isn't something they can pull off in just a few short weeks! In many cases, the planning for Pirate Term consumes months of planning and coordinating. Case in point was our seventh and eighth-grade teachers. They really wanted to focus their efforts and entire week for that matter on service learning. These students spent each day of their Pirate Term working at and learning about the many social service agencies around the Cedar Valley. Agencies like the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, and Salvation Army are but a few of the agencies where our students spent their time.

As I traveled around to visit our students in the community during the last week of school I couldn't help but feel a great sense of pride. Pride in the planning and coordination our teachers embarked on to ensure a smooth and highly educational Pirate Term. Pride in the conduct, empathy, and genuine care our students showed in service to others. Pride in the Hudson Community School District. It's great to be a Pirate! 



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

School Board Message to the Class of 2017--President Karyn Finn

Good Afternoon to our Hudson Community Family.

Welcome parents, guardians, grandparents, faculty, staff & guests.

I would like to express sincere gratitude for all those involved who have worked hard through the years to make this day special for our graduates.

Seniors Annie Klenk and Sam Strayer process into the gym
for the graduation ceremony on May 21.
(Photo by Retrospect)
I am proud and honored to be here today as President of your Hudson School Board to share a message of encouragement in the celebration of our students as they move forward into their next journey.          
                                 
It truly does take a community with unwavering commitment in their dedication to the success of our small town school.  A community of  businesses, the Parent Teacher Organization, the Hudson Education Fund, city leaders, churches, individual parents and coaches who give of their time, talents and financial resources to provide a solid foundation in preparing our youth for the future. 

The guiding vision at every Board meeting is that “we create effective learning environments that result in the success for ALL students”.  Because of this ongoing commitment to our school district, Hudson has the highest graduation rate in the Cedar Valley!  This IS a very important investment made by our collective community toward YOUR future.  THANK YOU Hudson Community!

You may have heard the saying that “The world is bigger than your won backyard”.  Well it is very true and those of you who have participated in the many co-curricular and extra curricular activities offered at Hudson have experienced this first hand.  Many of you have had experiences in local and State level events like National History Day, Music events, Athletics, Journalism and more.  In addition, some of you have had experiences at National competitions like our FFA participants who represent Iowa and the importance of agriculture in our community.  There have even been Global connections like that which Mr. Paulson’s Biology class had this year with the Tanzanian members of the Maasai tribe.

Because of these many diverse opportunities you ARE PREPARED for your next great adventure in
President Finn congratulates a student on receiving
her diploma.
(Photo by Retrospect)
life whether that is 2 or 4 year college, Technical School, the Military or directly into the workforce, the world awaits your talents, skills, caring and compassion.

You ARE PREPARED to continue Personal Development to understand the diverse world we live in and the complexities of a global society in local communities.

You ARE PREPARED with a strong foundation to continue to build on your academic and social knowledge as a Critical Thinker. 

You ARE PREPARED to Work Hard with that great Iowa work ethic that is sought out for by employers and should not be underestimated.

You ARE PREPARED to inspire others by continued community engagement as a Contributing Citizen.  Connections matter where ever you go.

Today you are High School Graduates PREPARED with an excellent foundation to grow where you are planted.  I challenge you to continue grow to the next level by making new connections in the communities that you encounter along the way. Engage in our ever growing global society. 
Congratulations Class of 2017

YOU are the precious Treasure and Pride of HUDSON–GO PIRATES!! 


Superintendent's Message to the Class of 2017

Good afternoon! I would like to welcome all of our parents, grandparents, and other distinguished guests to Hudson. Today we celebrate an important milestone in the lives of these students sitting in front of me who make up the Hudson High School Class of 2017. Our time with these young people draws to a close today; and the finality of today’s ceremony brings with it a range of emotions.

Seniors listen with anticipation at receiving diplomas.
(Photo by Retrospect)
We have watched you very closely over the course of your journey as students at Hudson. In fact, you may be among the most observed of our classes. Because of this, those assembled here today know you all quite well. Each step of your educational journey in this school has been carefully planned and orchestrated. When you were in 6th grade we began preparing for your arrival in the high school. We pondered such questions as what classes were we going to offer and who would teach them? How many sections of English and Math would we need? Everything was considered in an effort to answer the simple question: how could we make sure this class received our very best efforts? Our continual attention to this task obligated us to adjust our strategy in an effort to make sure you each got the very best education. So it is within that context, that today, it is my honor of delivering to you, your final lesson as a student at Hudson High School.

Yes, this Class of 2017 is not one of our larger classes. But certainly the size of your class doesn't in any way diminish the magnitude of your accomplishments! For starters, we reiterate the obvious. Although small in numbers, the impact you have made on our school has been mighty. The benchmarks you have set and the accomplishments you have achieved have created memories and aspirations that your contemporaries will reach for in years to come. Now as you go out into the world and those experiences fade into cherished memories, my hope is that what you are most remembered for during your time as a student here is your strength of character. Because at the end of the day, we may not remember if you won the game, but we will remember how you made us feel, and that might be the most important lesson you learn as you leave here today.

I recently read a New York Times column by Rebecca Sabky who is an admissions counselor for Dartmouth College. In this column, she describes how in her visits to high schools she is inundated with students who are seeking admission into this prestigious institution and how students fight for her attention while trying to get her to take their resume. She describes how students will sometimes follow her to her car in an effort to just get a little more exposure. Indeed, competition into this Ivy League school is fierce and admission is coveted. Each year, Rebecca reads some 2,000 applications from all around the world seeking to gain admission to the prominent institution. Many of them are indistinguishable from one another. They all contain the same gratuitous letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, and principals. All at the top of their class. All model students with unblemished records of discipline. All involved in sports, music, drama, and art. All.....the same.

Except, there was one very distinguishable letter of recommendation for a particular student. This letter was authored by one of the school custodians. In this recommendation, the custodian described a student who went out of his way to thank the janitors for their work. Who went out of his way to make sure that lights were turned off, and who 'tidied up' after classmates when no one was watching. This letter described the student as the only person who knew the name of every janitor in the school. The student was ultimately admitted to the school by a unanimous vote of the admissions committee. Indeed the lessons here are many. The power of the pen? The voice of the unheard? The strength of character? The ability to make yourself stand out from a crowd?

Celebrating a milestone.
(Photo by Retrospect)
There is no doubt that there are some wickedly smart people sitting in front of me right now. I am even quite sure some of you have tremendous technical skills that will land you a great paying job or internship just a few weeks from now. But here is the deal: although you may be the smartest, most intellectual, or skilled person in your chosen field, if you aren't kind, compassionate, and pleasant to be around, this success will be short lived. We have taught you the skills needed to enter the workforce or be a successful college student. But the rest of it? It comes from the heart. 

The fact is that today one chapter of your lives closes and another opens. From this day forward you will be asked to stand on your own two feet and take responsibility for your actions. 

Now, as your superintendent, I am typically not as involved in your daily affairs as others. In most cases, our paths don't cross as frequently as they do with your teachers or principal. In the traditional paradigm, if our paths were to cross it was not for something very pleasant. But lucky for me, that standard does not exist within these halls. Because I do know you, and I know that, while incredibly bright, you also have heart. I know what you are capable of, and we will be quite proud in a few moments to call you alumni of Hudson Schools. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be generous.

Congratulations.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Personalizing Our Professional Development

Our teacher leadership system has become quite successful. Based on a system designed to strengthen instruction through embedded professional development, we are seeing results. Relentless in our effort to ensure professional development is connected to district initiatives that improve student outcomes in the areas of math, reading, and technology; the vast majority of our faculty have been exposed to and implemented research based instructional strategies into practice that we know work. The formula used for our model of delivery is quite simple and elegant. Without much elaboration, once a problem of practice has been identified and researched, professional development is delivered using a common workshop model on Wednesday afternoons during early dismissal. Those delivering professional development content may include consultants from the AEA, or our own instructional coaches and model teachers. Following the delivery of content, our teacher leadership team works with teachers on the implementation phase of the professional development to embed it into practice. 

So when Mr. Schlatter came to me several months ago and said the teacher leadership team wanted to explore personalized professional development I was opposed. The concerns I had were many, but perhaps highest on the list was accountability and connection to district initiatives. In my mind, as soon as we completely turned the reigns over to individual teachers to figure out what they wanted their professional development to look like anarchy would reign! That's right, anarchy I say! But, he convinced me to keep an open mind, which I begrudgingly did. They could do their exploration, and I would *cough* keep an open mind. Anarchy!

As the months went by I received regular updates from Mr. Schlatter about their study. While still not convinced, I gave him a list of non-negotiables. Among them were those mentioned above: we had to ensure accountability and a connection to district initiatives. He promised those guardrails would be part of the proposed model and shared that at some point the team would want to present their plan to me. Now, I wouldn't say that I was softening on my stance, but I could see they were very serious about this and, frankly as happy as I was with how professional development was going, wasn't naive enough to believe all was Utopia in the land of professional learning in our school district. So, where are those problems?

If you read the opening paragraph again hopefully you will catch one of the most glaring; because I was very deliberate in my narrative: "The vast majority of our faculty....". You see it, right? Indeed, not all our teachers are exposed to the same professional development. For example, if you aren't a math teacher, the professional development we provided on number talks was likely irrelevant to your daily practice. In fact, there are swaths of faculty on a regular basis that not impacted by our professional development. Think about our specialists! Then there are the aspects of professional development that just are 'the way it is'. Oftentimes, and even justifiably so it is difficult to maintain a high attention and energy level during professional development. Why? Because teachers are pre-occupied with numerous other tasks that need to be completed. Lesson plans. Grades. Providing feedback to students. The list goes on. Indeed, I can remember as a teacher thinking that my time would be best spent one of the other numerous things that needed to be accomplished before I went home that night. 

Nonetheless, I resisted a change. The model we used worked as well as any, and in my humble opinion better than most. It provided the framework to avoid.....anarchy.

My perception changed about two weeks ago when the teacher leadership team pitched me their idea. Months in the planning, I could tell they were a bit nervous about how this would unfold. They had a tough task ahead of them and knew that I would ask difficult questions. They spoke eloquently about the positive attributes of the current professional development system, while arguing that we could, and should, do even better. They politely pointed out the flaws in our system and reminded me that teacher leadership was designed not only to strengthen instruction through embedded professional development, but to empower our teachers to be better and to strive for improvement. They contended that while a top down approach to professional development might garner compliance, a bottom up approach would meet the needs of all our teachers and truly take us to the next level. 

The plan they put together that ultimately gained my approval not only put the fail-safes in place that I had insisted on, it takes the concept of our teacher leadership system to a much higher state of professional enlightenment. Further, it takes an existing model that had been exclusively used for personalized professional development in technology and adapts it across disciplines. This allows us here at Hudson to maintain our spirit of innovation and be on the cutting edge of practice! In addition, it assigns each teacher or group of teachers a coach that will guide them through the professional development of their choosing, ensuring they align to district priorities and the Iowa Professional Development Model. Finally, and perhaps the best part is the concluding activity: They will share what they have learned with their colleagues, creating a library of wealth and knowledge for all our practitioners. 

The work these teacher leaders have done was impressive and exactly the kind of bold leadership that we embrace in our school district. They have put together an impressive plan. I can't wait to see how this unfolds next year. I am sold!


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What They Become

Hudson's Gold Star Teacher of the Year Nancy Uden
celebrates her selection with students.
A job, career, or vocation? While these words all describe the tasks with which we fill our days and the connotation similar, I would opine the vernacular used to be of great significance. Consider the word 'job': A post of employment. Anything a person is expected or obliged to do. Notice this definition from www.dictionary.com doesn't mention anything about self-fulfillment or sense of purpose. Certainly I am not naive enough to think that there aren't days when each of us, in any of our chosen fields are merely doing our job--with the promise of the weekend just around the corner! But if we think about about the word 'career', does the definition of that term change how you feel about your work a little bit? A career is defined as 'an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one's lifework'. I certainly think that each of us have careers, right? But how about if we shift the context of how we describe work one more time and instead use the word 'vocation'? Again, same 'type of activity' but the meaning changes just a bit. Often times when considering the term vocation it comes with a theological undertone yet I would suggest that is not a pre-requisite. Nevertheless, vocations are by in large professional occupations requiring specialized training, but now the particular field of work is viewed as a calling, usually in service to others.

Agriculture teacher Dennis Deppe working with the next
generation of farmers.
I have spent a lot of time in the last week reflecting on the differences in this terminology and indeed have come to believe that whether or not you have a job, career, or vocation is in the eye of the beholder. That's right. You get to decide. What do you think about this thing called work? Yes, we all have jobs. We come to work daily and are obligated and bound by certain tasks and actions. We most certainly have careers, if for nothing else the specialized training that it took for each of us to get here. But how about education as a vocation? While not ordained in the ecclesiastical sense, an educator certainly is called into service for others. Service to the students, families, and communities that you serve.

Our teachers toil and labor day after day, week after week, and month after month in service to their pupils. Always preparing them for the future, and in many cases not seeing or realizing the impact of their labor. Then as the years go by sometimes, conceivably wondering, what has become of them? And every once in awhile learning the surprising, or perhaps not so surprising answer to that question.

A happenstance meeting at the grocery store twenty years from now, or the random email from that child who drove you crazy because they couldn't sit still or keep their hands to themselves. They are getting married now and would love to see you at their wedding. The child who is in your classroom right now that looks just like their father, who when a student in your classroom couldn't stop talking about excavators. He now owns a construction company. What about that little girl who was in your kindergarten classroom? She now teaches across the hall from you.

Hopefully you all have had those experiences. If you haven't yet I believe that one day you will. The biggest thrill I have as an educator and former teacher is hearing from my students from so long ago and finding out what they have become. Recently I heard from a former student who, after finishing a successful career as a C-130 navigator in the Air Force is now in major seminary studying to become a Catholic priest. Frankly, with Nick I am not all that surprised he has been called to serve in this way, and my wife Ann and I are looking forward to his ordination. I have shared many stories of former students like Nick with you because of the pride I have in the milestones they reach in their lives. Indeed, I believe in some small way that I may have nurtured them along, recognized a passion, or sparked an interest.

It is not cliche or an overstatement that the future of our American way of life is dependent on the teachers that serve in our public schools. We have doctors, lawyers, construction workers, farmers, teachers, secretaries, politicians, and electricians because of teachers. Could it be the preservation and enlightenment of the Union is counting on the strength of our public school teachers? I think yes. Certainly the payoff isn't now. But it will be a generation or two from now when we learn 'What They Become' in the jobs, careers, and vocations of their choosing. Those students who are now being served by our teachers.

Thank you, teachers, for all your hard work, dedication, and effort this year. I promise, you have made a difference.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

I'd Like to Solve the Puzzle Please!

Anyone out there a Wheel of Fortune fan? I'm not, but it seemed like a great title for this article! Last week I mentioned that we are in hiring season, and I think the metaphor of solving a puzzle is a great way to think about how our principals go about assembling a staff and creating a master instructional schedule. When it comes to hiring staff, some teaching positions yield a huge number of applicants while others, unfortunately, require us to go on the offense and court teachers in other school districts that may not be otherwise looking for a job. Undoubtedly, in those hard to fill positions the challenge is exacerbated by the fact that in Hudson, like the majority of schools our size, there aren't enough students enrolled in some courses and content area to warrant a full-time teaching position.

So why not simply make the position full time and fill the teacher's schedule with other courses? Well, that is usually easier said than done. Just because someone has a teaching license doesn't mean we can have them teach anything we want. Teachers are credentialed in a certain subject matter and often times don't have the right license or credential to teach other courses that may be needed in the schedule. Just because someone has a license to teacher World History doesn't necessarily mean they are licensed to teach American History. To find out what courses your child's teacher is licensed to teach, you can search for a teacher's license on the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners licensing site. For your convenience, you can check out this link here.

Nevertheless, an already difficult to hire position is made all the more so because it isn't full time. Of course, teachers are going to be more attracted to a full-time position that includes benefits as opposed to one that doesn't. To combat this, if we can create a full-time position by sharing that teacher with another school district it helps quite a bit. But the challenge then becomes: When is the teacher going to be in district 'A' and in district 'B'? Once that has been ironed out, it locks down the remainder of the master schedule for the school district, which can create other challenges.

We have a couple of teachers in Hudson this year that are shared with other school districts. It works pretty well for us, but it does create scheduling challenges. In the high school, we have to be careful that some of the more popular or advanced classes that may only have one section aren't scheduled at the same time as another popular or advanced class. Think for example the problem it would cause if we scheduled band and chorus for the same hour? How about AP Chemistry and AP Physics during the same hour? It is usually impossible to create a schedule where conflicts like this don't exist, but we do our very best to mitigate scheduling conflicts. Having students make choices about which courses they want to take is healthy, but we try our best to make sure they have the maximum opportunity to achieve their academic goals.

It may also surprise you to know that there is quite a bit of internal lobbying that happens when it comes to creating the master schedule! Teachers are fully aware of what are considered 'premium' instructional time slots and want to ensure they are able to teach during those times. Think about it for a second: would you rather have your class first thing in the morning or right after lunch, or at the end of the day. There is definitely a difference! Understandably, someone has to fill these slots.

Staffing and scheduling are a puzzle that requires abstract thinking and the ability to consider a holistic approach to our schedule and staff. As I mentioned last week, this is but another Cycle of the School Year and a puzzle that will take several months to solve!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cycle of the School Year

The rhythm of the school year ebbs and flows with the seasons and months of the calendar. Whenever feelings of anxiousness begin to set in, it almost always helps to remind people that we experience this exact same 'evolution' every year at this time (no matter what time of the year it is). For example, the beginning of the school year finds us busily enrolling students, updating our directory of information, and completing a number of mandatory reports for the Iowa Department of Education. Indeed the volume and pace of the work may at times seem a bit overwhelming. However, the cycle of schooling gives us the opportunity to pace ourselves and anticipate what will happen next. While there really is no idle time when it comes to the educational calendar, the peaks and valleys within that cycle really make the work quite anticipatory and yes, rewarding!

Where the beginning of the school year finds us establishing routines with our students and faculty, collecting baseline data for educational objectives, and learning new names; the end of the school year is another very busy time of year for us. We are closing in on the end of April, and like it or not the end of the school year isn't too far off! During this time of the year, we begin to see the pace in activity pick up quite a bit. Our teachers are working extra hard to make sure they get in all the lessons they have planned so when students are promoted to the next grade level in the fall, they are ready for a new set of learning objectives. Calendars are packed with a plethora of activities from final music concerts of the year to award presentations honoring our students for their accomplishments. 

But yet, on the surface as we are closing out one school year, we are simultaneously 'ramping up' for 2017-2018. Much of this work occurs in the background, but the pace and race is on! That's because it's hiring season at Hudson Schools. As is the case every year, we have employees who retire and others that move on to other schools or other careers. At this time, we have three certified teaching positions posted that include a 6th grade teaching position, a Family and Consumer Science teaching position, and a special education instructional strategist I. If you are interested in these positions or know of anyone who might be interested in a teaching position at Hudson schools, please check out the Employment Page of our website.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Third Grade Reading Proficiency

It is going to take several weeks and perhaps even months to really understand the impact of this legislative session. As we speak, the General Assembly is in the final stages of debate and it appears they will gavel out in the next couple of days. There is no mistake that some very substantial changes have been enacted into law this session. The long term impact of some of these policies may not be felt for several years. This session was also fraught with budget cuts, two of which occurring this fiscal year following updated revenue estimates, and another that adjusted the anticipated revenue downward for the next fiscal year. Indeed, budget shortfalls and slow revenue growth have been a recurring theme this session. The policies and laws put forth have certainly echoed this theme and trend. We'll spend some time in the following weeks examining a variety of policy which impact schools, but I do want to talk a little bit about a good news/bad news decision that was made this week.

The good news first I guess. The requirement that students who are not proficient readers by the time they complete third grade has been abandoned. This, after the legislature delayed the implementation by a year due to a lack of funding. You'll recall this was part of the landmark education reform legislation passed in 2013 known as House File 215 that also brought us the teacher leadership and compensation system. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of scholarly research suggests that retention in most cases is not an effective way to stem the tide of non-proficient readers Iowa chose to forge ahead, citing the flawed results of other states that had implemented similar measures. The fact this has been shelved is a good move, whatever the reason.

But the other side of that coin (this is the bad news folks) was the abandonment of a plan that would require non-proficient readers to attend a high impact, research driven summer school program. At an estimated price tag of $9 Million for statewide implementation, there just wasn't the funding to see this through. Now to the legislature's credit, they also cited the results of Iowa's pilot study from last summer where selected school districts implemented a summer reading program. The results of this study showed the program did not statistically alter proficiency trends. Yet at the same time we learned much from this study, uncovering problems that most certainly could have been solved.

So what does work? Well, we know that strong instruction using research based strategies has an impact. In other words, effective teaching. In Hudson, I believe that we can check that box due in large part to the effectiveness of our teacher leadership system and the work of our instructional coaches. The fact is, we have an instructional coach whose entire job is to focus her work on literacy. The identification and monitoring of student progress also has an impact. This enables us to target instruction to students based on what type of difficulty has been uncovered. Our FAST system has been able to fit this bill, and our results suggest marked improvement.

The funding for an intensive summer reading program may have fallen by the wayside as well, but here at Hudson we have an answer for that as well. For the last several years we have had the fortunate opportunity to partner with the University of Northern Iowa's Reading center. This partnership has enabled UNI to bring their clinic to Hudson over the summer and work with our students. This intensive instruction is provided by pre-service teachers under the supervision of university professors who are seeking a reading endorsement.

Finally we know that early intervention makes a difference. That is one of the reasons why Hudson has worked so hard this year preparing to launch our statewide voluntary preschool program in time for the 2017-2018 school year!


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Visit With Richard

One of the more enjoyable parts of my job is visiting with our alumni. Most of the time my interactions are with those who have graduated recently. If in college, they have come to expect me to ask about their grades! I am very interested in knowing how well we did preparing them for post-secondary education.  In addition to that group of young alumni, I've been here long enough now that students who graduated early in my tenure are beginning to settle into careers and starting to get married! Those are also really fun conversations to have! It is very exciting to see our alumni thriving, enjoying life, and contributing to society. Soon, some of these alumni will begin to have families and we'll be (hopefully) seeing those children in our schools!

But not all my interactions with alumni are from recent graduates. From time to time, I'll have a conversation with someone who wants to share a story about a beloved teacher from a long time ago. Or, I'll hear stories of the move from the old building to the 'new high school'. That new high school by the way is 20 years old, so those alumni are probably in their mid to late 30's at this point. Many of which have children in our schools right now. Then there are the alum who are retired and now enjoy watching their grandchildren in our concerts, musicals, and athletic events. I am lucky to visit with these folks on a somewhat regular basis as well. Be it at the Neighborhood Grill for an early morning breakfast, or at one of our events here at school. I thoroughly enjoy hearing the stories they have to share of their time as a student at Hudson, and the impact our school had on them so long ago. 

Yet my interactions with alumni have stretched even further back than many of you might imagine. A couple of weeks ago, I received a random email from Richard Mohler who lives in the greater Dallas, Texas metropolitan area. In his message, he stated that at 101 years of age, he is likely our oldest known living alum. Well, I checked the records and sure enough, Dick Mohler graduated from Hudson High School in 1933! I'm not sure if it was divine intervention or fate, but as luck would have it my wife Ann and I were planning a trip to Dallas the very next week! It's not everyday that you get to meet in person the oldest known alumnus of your school district! So, we made plans to meet Dick at his home in Dallas during our vacation. 

It was a delightful visit! I don't know about you, but if I am in half as good of shape as Mr. Mohler in my senior years, I'll be a pretty happy camper! He credits his good health to eating right, enjoying life, and a very strong faith. We really enjoyed hearing what life was like growing up in Hudson in the 1930s and about his daily work doing chores on the farm, not too far from the school. He told us about how he would literally run to and from school everyday to keep in shape. Dick was very active in school as an athlete, participating in both basketball and track. Academically, he graduated at the top of his class as valedictorian. He shared that he beat his girlfriend for the top spot by one point--but he also wanted me to know that she wasn't really his girlfriend, just a friend that happened to be a girl! 

Dick went on to have a successful career as a seventh and eighth grade teacher in Dayton, Ohio where he and his family settled. When I inquired about how he arrived in Dayton, he shared that at that time in Iowa, his wife could not be a teacher if she was married! So they moved to where they could both enjoy a teaching career. We promised to stay in touch, and after about an hour or so headed on our way. Dick is planning a trip to Cedar Falls in July, and I am hopeful that we will be able to connect. I told him that I would really enjoy giving him a tour of our school buildings and facilities, although the buildings that were here when he was a student have long since been replaced. 

In any event, this whole experience really got me thinking about the history and tradition of our school district. I don't know if you have ever really paid attention to the sign in front of the elementary school, but the emblem on the top states the district was established in 1855. Now, I've walked by that sign hundreds of times and from time to time have taken note of that establishment imprimatur. And I found myself wondering a little bit about the history of the school district, and frankly whether or not that was even true. As it turns out, it is true--or so close to that year that it really is quite insignificant. 

You see, when I started looking through the archives for records on Mr. Mohler, I was pretty deep in the vault. I decided that while I was in there to have an even deeper look around. Now, I am not sure you are aware of this, but school districts keep records forever. So, in the very back of the vault in a dusty file cabinet rarely opened I found minutes from a school board meeting dated March 7, 1864. The pages were old and brittle. The handwritten notes were so faded that it is becoming difficult to read them. But a prime topic of discussion at the meeting that evening included the proposal to 'levy a tax on the taxable property of the District Township sufficient to raise the sum of (illegible) in addition to what has already been raised for the erection of a schoolhouse in this Sub-District.'

Truth be told, I probably could have gone even deeper and further back into our history, but as it was I felt like I probably shouldn't be handling these documents without a pair of white cotton gloves. Nevertheless, meeting Richard and having that opportunity to examine our history was an awesome experience. It reminded me the importance of the American public school system and the impact that it has on generation upon generation of citizens. And, it caused me to pause and reflect on the rich heritage and tradition of public schooling that is part of the fabric of our community. Indeed, that tradition runs deep in Hudson.