Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Always Present

Congratulations are in order for Mr. Wurzer who was selected as the state middle school athletic director of the year at the Iowa high school athletic directors convention this past weekend! I can think of no one more deserving. As a person who works largely in the background, a lot of what he does for the students in our school district may go unnoticed. But I can assure you of this: without his commitment and dedication we most certainly wouldn't be as successful as we are. He has been the constant variable in our school, always present and working hard on behalf of the students and school. If you have ever had a chance to interact with Kevin, you know why he does this: he loves Hudson, and he loves seeing our kids succeed. And that is not all: he is not one to complain and rarely takes a night off (even when ordered to). He has made it his mission to do whatever he can to make sure the students in our school district have access to great coaches and facilities that complement their academic program. Indeed, watching our kids compete is fun, but seeing how Mr. Wurzer reacts when they crush a milestone is something else. 

Mr. Wurzer was named activities director at Hudson in 1999. And since 2003, Hudson has had three state championship teams, seven teams finish as state runner up, and thirty-four teams qualifying for a variety of state tournaments. When this record of accomplishment was announced during his introduction, you could hear the murmurs of amazement and audible gasps from the audience at this impressive statistic. He will be the first one to tell you that he had little to do with it, but in my observations of him over the years I'm just not buying it. 

Believe me: What he does day in and day out, doesn't just happen! As athletic director, Mr. Wurzer is responsible for hiring and supervising all the coaches and moderators for our school district extra and co-curricular programs. He has direct oversight for roughly 65 coaches and moderators for every activity program ranging from varsity football to the high school musical. He organizes the concession stand, makes sure we have officials, and sets up for the events. The vast majority of the time, he is the first to arrive and the last to leave. It's tough work being an activities director. The hours are long, and the program runs year around. In the summer when most teachers are on summer break, you can usually find Mr. Wurzer at the baseball/softball complex getting the field and concession stand ready for another game. In the plethora of events we host throughout the year he is the 'go to' person when there is an unruly fan or when the popcorn popper quits working. 

I have complete trust and respect for Mr. Wurzer. With his guidance we have been able to accomplish many great upgrades and renovations to our facilities. He is a strong advocate not only for extra/co-curricular programs, but an advocate for the student. Yes, our athletic teams continue to flourish and our activity programs are the envy of many schools our size, but Kevin understands this is but one part of the educational experience of our youth. It is difficult to think about Hudson schools and not immediately think of that guy who is always present, and known quite simply to all of us as 'Wurz'.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

All Systems Go: Preschool Moves forward

Over spring break, Mr. Schlatter, Mr. Wagner and I made a case before the School Budget Review Committee (SBRC) to be permitted to utilize a portion of our reserve funds for start up costs associated with the statewide voluntary preschool program (SWVPP). It was a very interesting process to be sure, and at one point all agreed that we were in a 'Catch 22'. The fact is, both the state department of education and legislature have lauded the value of preschool programming, particularly with regard to the benefits for emerging readers. However, the only way Hudson would have been be able to implement the program would be to use existing funds; which is a prohibited practice. Fortunately the SBRC approved our request so that we can move forward without committing an illegal act. Another bit of good 'spring break' news from last week was the House passing two flexibility bills unanimously, which will grant school districts greater flexibility in categorical funds. Specifically included in this legislation is permission to use funds for preschool programming. The bills now move to the Senate where we expect them to gain approval and ultimately move to the governor for his signature. 

That  means planning for implementation this fall is now moving quickly. On Monday morning, Mr. Schlatter and I met with our AEA consultant and participated in a conference call with the Iowa Department of Education. The purpose of that meeting was to clarify some items in our preschool plan and receive guidance for moving forward. In that phone call, the Department gave us informal approval to proceed with planning and implementation. There is a lot of work that needs to be done prior to the start of the new school year! Then on Monday night, the Board of Directors gave instructions to begin the search for a preschool teacher. That position has subsequently been posted and can be found here

Our journey to begin a statewide voluntary preschool has been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years now. Conversations within my administration over the last several years have always included the need and desire for a preschool program, but the mechanisms for implementation just didn't exist (because of that Catch-22). That simmer became a slow boil over the course of the last 12 months, particularly over the summer and early fall when the number of parent requests began to spike. New families moving into town just didn't understand why Hudson schools was one of the few districts in the state that didn't have the program--of 333 school districts in Iowa, 322 operate preschool programs. Further, Hudson was/is the only district in Blackhawk county without the statewide voluntary preschool program.

You all knew that, and you know the reasons why. But again, to re-emphasize our arguments for this program: the needs of our school district have changed in the intervening decade. For starters, we are currently in a position where we are sending a van load of preschool students to Evansdale every day. These young residents of Hudson must attend a preschool with a licensed teacher because of the IEP that administers their learning program. The fact that we have to send these students outside their home school district because we didn't have a program was not only a thorn in my side, but not a very efficient way to allocate resources.

Yet the reasons for implementing a statewide voluntary preschool program extend beyond those already mentioned. A big focus in elementary school is teaching kids to read. In fact, when analyzing instructional time, we find that instruction related to literacy is the largest continuous block of time in the schedule. Our state legislature has further reinforced the importance of reading with legislation in 2013 that requires all third graders to be proficient by 2017 (now on hold because of funding), or face retention.

So it would stand to reason that early intervention in the form of a preschool would provide the proper vehicle to help meet these needs. Here's why: A study of the Arkansas preschool program found that students who attended the preschool program were less likely to be retained in third grade as opposed to those who didn't attend preschool. And an Iowa study found similar results:
"The number of students proficient in early literacy skills upon kindergarten entry is increasing. In the fall of 2014, 53% of kindergarteners were proficient on the FAST assessment. In the fall of 2015, the percentage increased to 64%. This is indicative of quality literacy instruction in preschool being intentionally embedded into classroom curricula, routines and activities." (From Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program Fact Sheet produced by the Iowa Department of Education)
There are roughly 2,000 days from the time a child is born to the time they enter kindergarten.  In that period of time, the brain develops more rapidly than any other time, and as such during that time the brain is forming the neural pathways that enable it to learn and grow (See early childhood Iowa for more information and for sourcing of this information.)

The benefits to starting a statewide voluntary preschool program are numerous and we have highlighted a few of them here. We are grateful of the support and advocacy from our parents and community members who assisted in this endeavor. If you, or any of your neighbors or relatives are interested in enrolling your child for the Hudson preschool program please contact the elementary office at 988.3239 as soon as possible. Space is filling up fast!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Understanding Collective Bargaining

Perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation yet to emerge from this General Assembly is collective bargaining reform, known as House File 291. You may recall hearing or reading of the large crowds at legislative forums several weeks back, and the protests that occurred at the Capitol in advance of the floor debate in the House and Senate. This legislation dramatically scales back the number of items that unions can negotiate [for] under public sector bargaining in Iowa. To understand these changes, it first might be helpful to discuss how collective bargaining used to work. 

In Iowa many teachers are represented by an association, or what you may commonly refer to as a labor union. The Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) is the statewide branch of the National Education Association (NEA), and the Hudson Education Association (HEA) is the local branch that represents our teachers. A function of these local associations is to negotiate wages and benefits with management. In Hudson, this negotiation is done annually around this time of year. In my role as superintendent, I negotiate with the HEA on behalf of the Board of Directors, representing management. The Board of Directors and I collaborate to develop strategy, positions, and targets for salaries and benefits. Across the table from us are representatives from the HEA. They too work with the members of their organization to develop strategy, positions and targets for salary and benefits. When we sit down to negotiate there is rarely agreement, which is natural and expected.

Issues related to the collective bargaining agreement were categorized in one of three ways: mandatory, permissive, or illegal. Mandatory subjects of bargaining are those that we had to discuss if the other party to the negotiation wanted to discuss them. A few examples of mandatory items included wages, insurance, seniority, transfer procedures, evaluation procedures, and leave. Permissive subjects of bargaining are those which could be discussed only if both parties agreed. An example of a permissive subject of bargaining included what is known in education circles as 'prep' time. Finally, there are items of bargaining that are considered illegal, meaning they can't be discussed regardless of whether or not a party wants to discuss them. In our world, IPERS has always been considered an illegal subject of bargaining.

As contract negotiations would commence, each side presents a proposal and the other side responds with a counter proposal. The goal is to reach a voluntary agreement. In cases where voluntary settlement can't be reached on a mandatory subject of bargaining, it is remedied through binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is essentially a legal proceeding where an arbitrator considers the final offers of both parties and then selects whichever one is most 'reasonable'. The 'stick' in negotiations was arbitration because the arbitrator's ruling picks one side over the other. Because of this, most contracts in Iowa had been settled voluntarily to avoid the gamble of arbitration. Further, the rules of arbitration, including what could be entered into evidence and the variables that must be considered made arbitration very unappealing.

The change that was enacted with House File 291 makes base wages the only mandatory subject of bargaining. Many of the other subjects that were previously mandatory are now classified as either illegal or permissive. Further, the rules of arbitration have changed. Now the arbitrator is bound to select one of two positions for the final settlement: either 3% or the current CPI rate, whichever is lower at the time.

There is no doubt these changes dramatically alter the process and procedures of collective bargaining. Indeed this legislation gives local school board another tool with which to control costs. With very low supplemental state aid (1.11%), controlling costs is extraordinarily difficult. Further, the announcement from the REC yesterday (for the third time in a row) reduced the economic outlook for FY2017, throwing a wet blanket on the remainder of this fiscal year, and setting up the next fiscal year with a $191 million decrease in projected revenue.

We are now preparing to negotiate the contract with our local HEA under this new set of rules. In spite of these changes, we have a difficult needle to thread. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should. It would be wise for all school districts to proceed cautiously. Good schools are so because of the teachers that work in them. Hudson is a great school district because we have great teachers, and we have the results that prove it. The data points that illustrate this are vast, but look no further than the Iowa School Report Card as one example.

It should come as no surprise that our single greatest asset is our teachers. Without good teachers, we will not have good schools. Unsurprisingly, this commodity will be driven by the market. Great teachers will work in schools and in districts where they are fairly compensated, treated with respect, and have a sense of belonging where their voices are heard. I'll say this again: a difficult needle to thread in this new era of collective bargaining where management is charged with the fiduciary responsibility of balancing a budget within the context of little supplemental state aid.

As we begin this new process I am certain there will be disagreements. But nevertheless, our commitment to the teaching staff is to continue providing a competitive compensation structure where the Hudson Community School District is the employer of choice for educators in the Cedar Valley. We will continue to be a great school.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Memorable Winter

I can hardly believe that we are only a few short days from spring break! This winter has flown by, and before we know it the school year will begin winding down. As we approach the middle of March, I am optimistic the cold dark days of winter are in our rear view mirror and we hopefully won't have to endure any more snow days or late starts (knock on wood). Luckily we have had a large number of students activities and events to help pass along those long winter nights. As spring slowly emerges, lets take a moment to celebrate the successes of our students these past couple of months.

Girls receiving final instructions
right before their final game of
the season.
For starters, I think we need to give a shout out to the girls basketball team. The one thing that I will remember about this team is their attitude. They came out and competed hard each and every night. The perseverance of these ladies is a testament to the Keys of Excellence with which we want our young people to ascribe. For example: Live in Integrity, Keep Your Balance, Stay Flexible, Live in the Now: This is It!, Take Ownership, Acknowledge Failure Leads to Success, and finally Affirm Your Commitment. While this season may not have transpired in the way it was envisioned, it is worth noting they made a deep run in district play, knocking off the top rated team in their bracket and following it with another win a few days later. Think about it! Who would have envisioned our team would have ended the season in this fashion! I kept hearing our fans saying, 'strength of schedule'. Indeed strength of schedule! The future is bright for this team, especially knowing they will return all their starters next season.

Of course we can't talk about our athletic program without mentioning the success of our wrestling program! Certainly I think what is probably most memorable about this wrestling season is the individual performances of both Wes Geisler and Taylan Entriken at the state tournament. Both of which made the podium: Wes with an 8th place finish and Taylan with a state championship! But what about the team success? As a team, they were able to break the school record for the most combined wins in a single season with 367. The previous record of 353 wins had stood since the 2002-2003 season!

Our success wasn't confined to our athletic teams either! The show choir had a very successful season, winning first place at the Marion Masquerade in their division and qualifying for the finals that night. The show choir also found success by placing in many of their other competitions as well. The FFA competed at the sub-district competition and qualified all entries to the district competition that will be held in Monticello on Saturday. And finally, our jazz band won the NEIBA district competition, qualifying for the stat jazz finals in April. Congratulations to all our students, coaches, and moderators on their success this winter! We are looking forward to much more success this spring! 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Why We Advocate

If possible, I like to get out into our schools and see what is going on in classrooms. Unfortunately it is not as often as I like, and lately there have been many other projects and tasks that have prevented me from interacting with our students and teachers with the frequency that I would prefer. But when I have the chance to visit classrooms, what I often see is quite extraordinary! I try my best to document these encounters and share the 'Miracles that Happen Every Day', but to capture this magic in the context of 140 characters and a photo is quite challenging. Yet, through my informal observation of instruction, those opportunities to see learning come to life in they eyes of our students is what makes everything else about this work so rewarding. Furthermore, the dedication, planning, and attention to detail our teachers must exhibit in order to execute some of these lessons is of a complexity that is very hard to understand or grasp.

Yes, I am fortunate to be able to witness some pretty remarkable learning experiences and projects that have been planned by an outstanding teaching staff. For example, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the 4th grade 'wax museum' where our students had the task of exploring and researching a famous figure from history, either living or dead and then creating a slide show presentation of their work using their iPad's. As a capstone to that activity, each student created a likeness of their subject and presented it in the form of a wax museum, where visitors to the exhibit could see these 'wax sculptures' come to life and share the story of who they were. This project gave our students the chance to expand their learning well beyond a history lesson on a famous person! They were able to engage audience members in eye contact, fluent speaking, and expressive thought. As I was leaving the presentation that afternoon, I had the chance to have a brief conversation with one of the teachers who had planned the activity with her teaching team. I thought this was an excellent project and after sharing my observation with her, she explained to me how they were planning to improve the experience the next time. I thought it was great, and of course it was. She wanted to make it even better!

Then there is the deep thinking and hands on learning that is happening in the agriculture department. Our students are experimenting with both a hydroponics and aquaponics lab, and enjoying quite a bit of success growing lettuce and other garden vegetables. A great example of scientific inquiry, students who are working in the greenhouse have to constantly monitoring a number of variables in order to ensure their crop is getting just the right mix of water, fertilizer, and sunlight in order to provide sustainability. One of the best parts about this observation and conversation with the teacher was that this success didn't just occur by mere happenstance. There were many trials and errors the students had to overcome before finding just the right balance. What a wonderful example of a Key to Success: Acknowledging that failure does indeed lead to success.

The hands on activity of this lab and others like it around our school provide our students with a rich and varied educational experience that is designed not only to engage our students, but to challenge their thinking. These are only but a few examples of the outstanding experiences our students are exposed to on a daily basis. There is the deep learning and problem solving occurring in the Inquiry Space. Or the work that is just gaining steam with the National History Day project. How about the implementation of our connected learning initiative that has now expanded to include grades 3-12? What is also interesting and should be lost on no one, particularly with regard to the two projects described above is where we interacted with the learning. What I witnessed and shared with you was the finished product. Unfortunately neither you or I were present when a light bulb came on for a particular student or class. What we saw was impressive for sure, but what was most impressive is what happened in that moment of time when a student found success, where a barrier was overcome!

My point today is that since the real work of the General Assembly began in January, the bulk of my discussion here has focused on varying policy proposals and how they might impact our school district. There is no doubt this session has provided me with plenty of material to write about, and there is more to come. At a minimum, I seek to provided our community with perspective on how these policy proposals will impact our school district. Indeed part of my job requires advocacy on behalf of our students, but every once in a while if we (I) don't pause and take a breath we tend to forget what all this advocacy is about! Our kids, right? So while the flurry of activity continues in Des Moines, today I wanted to shine a light on all the neat learning experiences that have been and will continue to happen inside our school. Hopefully this pause has given us an opportunity to remember what all that advocacy is about.