Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Good Compromise

Over the last year I have shared thoughts on the need for residential development in our community. For your reference, please read my comments on October 10, 2017: 'At the Table or on the Menu'. Or if you really want to dig into the archives, check out my piece on September 29, 2016: 'Supporting Residential Development in Hudson'. The fact is, I am not alone in my support for these developments. Likewise, I would go so far as to suggest there is near universal, broad-based support among Hudson residents. At a minimum, our citizenry understands the economic impact of growth and development. The benefits to our school district have been established, and the broadening of the tax base is well known.

However, support often deteriorates when the proposed development is set to occur in our own backyard. I understand the objection from our neighbors to the North just as much as I understood the concerns of our neighbors near Springfield Avenue. Yet surprisingly enough, in both instances these residents expressed clear support for development. At the same time, they implored our city leaders and developer to listen to their concerns and allow them an opportunity to provide input into the process in an effort to make improvements that would benefit everyone. I have found this to be a very fascinating observation over the course of the last 12-18 months. Upon further reflection, I don't believe anyone has stated they didn't want these developments. Quite the contrary: they want to make them better, for those who will be their immediate neighbors, and for the entire community. Perhaps that is an anomaly. Instead of 'not in my backyard', I believe what I have heard is, 'let's make sure we do it right'.

In the interim, proposals have been modified and public hearings have been held. Engineers have 'engineered', and we have discussed traffic patterns on Ranchero Road. We even had a brief discussion about how the school bus stop is going to impact residents. Truth be told, this latest iteration probably makes the school bus route a bit more complicated, but I am confident we will be able to figure this out, just as we would have figured out the last design.

That is what happened on Monday evening. The city council took action on an amended proposal that had been suggested with input of residents. Working with the developer, I believe we have reached a satisfactory resolution and enthusiastically offer my support and endorsement of this project.

Admittedly, the process has seemed to take a bit longer than I would prefer. Certainly this has been stressful for our neighbors and our city council. But I take solace in the fact these proceedings have always been respectful. While there has been sharp disagreement with how best to proceed, I have been incredibly impressed with the conduct of everyone involved. It was through this discourse the amended plat proposal was approved by the city council on November 27 with a 5-0 vote. Is it perfect? Not at all. Is it without further modification? Probably not. Does it demonstrate a willingness to work together? Undoubtedly.

I would like to applaud everyone who has taken the time to engage on this issue. First our Ranchero Road neighbors for your thoughtful dialogue and willingness to work together for the good of the community. A tip of the hat to our developer for your open-mindedness and ability to take the input from our residents and continually improve on your concept. And finally our city council, for your bold vision and willingness to listen to the community you were elected to represent and making the hard decisions that will position us as the destination of choice when families are searching for a place to call home.

Finally, let's remember these residential developments are occurring in Hudson because people want to live here. Now, my narrow focus on the reason [why] is because of our outstanding school system. I continue to believe that. But, I think another reason has become apparent over the course of this discussion: a true spirit of cooperation, teamwork, and just being downright good neighbors to one another. With all we have going for us, who wouldn't want to live in Hudson?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When the Student Becomes the Teacher

I can still remember my first teaching job and how exciting it was to begin my career! It was a real whirlwind as I transitioned from being in the classroom to standing in front of the classroom. Like all young adults there were a lot of things that I needed to figure out, highest on the list of priorities was finding a place to live. As luck would have it, a college buddy landed a teaching job in the same town so we were able to get an apartment together. This was great since I wouldn't have been able to afford rent on my own. 

Yes, the salary wasn't a lot but I was thrilled that someone was actually going to pay me to do something I loved to do! My first teaching contract: $18,100! We were paid twice a month, so my take home pay was around $572 (it's weird that I still remember that). Obviously this was not a lot by today's standards (well not a lot by yesterday's standards either), but at first it was enough to pay the rent and have a few bucks left to buy some groceries. About six months later the student loan payments began and it just wasn't enough. But I was living the dream, so I managed to make it work. 

Those early days may very well have set me on the path where I find myself today. While it became apparent making ends meet on a teacher's salary was going to be tough, there were other things that I just wasn't ready for, even in spite of the joy I was experiencing in the classroom. I was simply handed a set of keys and told, 'first room on the left'. From that point forward, I very rarely saw the principal. My induction program was one day long and mind numbing. After that I was on my own. Fortunately I developed good relationships with a couple of veteran teachers who were able to offer advice and counsel from time to time, but the content area we were teaching was so different that at times it just didn't apply. As the year progressed experiences began to shape my view as a teacher, and at times made me wonder if I had made the right decision. For sure, I loved teaching--but the 'stuff' that sometimes came along with it was something else! Disruptive  and uncooperative students. Unsupportive and at times hostile parents. Turf wars with other teachers. Then there was the pay; which is something we'll touch more on in a future post.

Decades late, I hope we are making the transition from student to teacher easier for this generation. For starters, our mentoring and induction program is much more robust than it ever has been before. We owe that to teacher leadership and compensation plans that have become a staple in schools all around Iowa. This has enabled us to partner our new educators with veterans who have been successful in their classrooms. This two year commitment from established teachers give rookie teachers a lifeline for all manner of encounters they may experience their first two years. We have also found these relationships forms strong bonds of collegiality between the educators. Where a veteran can help a new teacher 'learn the ropes', a new teacher can help a veteran with an emerging technology or a new teaching strategy. Over this two year period, our mentors work closely with new teachers as they navigate the beginning of their career. They are the shoulder to cry on when something goes wrong, because inevitably it will. They are there help unpack the Iowa Teaching Standards and define what makes a good artifact that demonstrates effective use and development of assessment. And they are there at the end of that two year journey when that new teacher becomes a veteran, converting their probationary license to a standard license.

Of the 10 new teachers at Hudson this year,
5 are brand new to the profession.
We have also become much more deliberate about immersing our new teachers in a professional work environment. It is sometimes easy to forget these new teachers were dependent on their own parents just a few short months prior to joining our faculty. Issues of retirement, health insurance, filling out a W-4; in most cases these are things they have very little experience with. Indeed, becoming a professional educator has a much different set of responsibilities than washing dishes in the college cafeteria or working at the desk in the university library. So, instead of handing off a set of keys and pointing them down the hall, we now have embedded a five day program at the start of their career, right before the veteran faculty return to prepare them for these new experiences. Our time together is spent learning about all of these aspects of work that have become automatic for us, and what it means to be a teacher in the Hudson Community School District. They learn about our assessment systems, our student management program, our policy and philosophy on homework, how we like to communicate; and yes, even how we go about cancelling school on a snow day.

Now that we are midway through the month of November, I am taking time to visit with each of our new teachers to see if the newness is starting to wear off. So far, I like what I am seeing and hearing. They are beginning to settle into their roles and have had great experiences with mentors, students and parents. A common theme throughout our conversation is an appreciation of all the support they are receiving from the staff.

What wasn't surprising, but nevertheless important were comments about the heavy workload. While there was an acknowledgement that evenings would be spend correcting papers, planning lessons, and analyzing data; the amount of time spent on these tasks is surprising to the new teacher. Others shared how surprising it is that technology plays such an important role in the day to day operation of school, from communicating with teachers and parents, to delivering instruction and administering grades. These teachers also have shared that some of the best things that have happened to them this year are those moments when they see the hard work beginning to pay off, and the relationships they are developing with students and colleague.

As discussed last week, if there is a looming teacher shortage it is important that we do what we can to attract and retain our talent. Now that we have them here, making sure they have the support and resources they need is but one part of ensuring we are able to keep them here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Looming Teacher Shortage?

Teachers participate in professional development led by
Hudson instructional coach.
Last week while at a superintendent meeting we began to discuss teacher recruitment and the growing concern with finding quality applicants for some positions. Shortages in a variety of content areas have long been a challenge in Iowa schools. In fact, the Iowa Department of Education publishes a list of teacher shortages annually. And here at Hudson, we haven't been immune to the effects of teacher shortages in some disciplines. Our business education position was vacant for years prior to us finally being able to hire an outstanding teacher to fill this role. Then, of course, our challenge in finding an FCS (Family and Consumer Science) teacher has been well chronicled. We got incredibly lucky first semester this year when we were able to lure Mrs. Stanek out of retirement to help us out for the fall term. Then fate smiled on us, as Mr. Dieken, working in conjunction with our partners at North Tama were able to hire a December graduate who actually has all the requisite endorsements to permanently fill this position beginning in January. Hopefully this will, in fact, be a permanent placement and we will be able to hold onto this teacher come spring hiring season. 

The aforementioned positions come as no surprise to us, nor to any school district in Iowa. They have long been on the Department of Education's shortage area list. Further, this is exacerbated here because of the size of our high school. Full-time positions in these content areas aren't possible because the number of students we have enrolled doesn't warrant a full class load. Although with a projected increase in enrollment, this could soon change in Hudson. But, we are focused on the here and now. Luckily we have been able to collaborate with surrounding districts and create full-time positions out of part-time positions by sharing a teacher. However, if the pool of potential candidates is very small to begin with, it becomes quite challenging to attract someone to a position where they will have to travel between two districts. After all, why would you if you didn't have to? As school leaders, this can be frustrating. Nonetheless, it has been our 'modus operandi' for several years.

But there are signs that it could get much more challenging. When the teacher leadership and compensation system launched four years ago, teachers across all disciples and content areas began to assume positions as instructional coaches, curriculum leaders, professional development coordinators; the list goes on! The benefits of teacher leadership are countless, but at the same time, this created numerous teaching positions that needed to be filled in classrooms all around the state. The first ripple in the pond was a shortage in substitute teachers. I began to hear from colleagues they were having problems finding substitutes. Why? Well, those who had previously been substitute teachers began to fill the void of classroom teachers. 

Then in Western Iowa, superintendents began to report a shortage in elementary teachers. When hearing this, I was very surprised. I often have commented that in Hudson, we merely have to think that an elementary teaching position may be opening soon; and then find ourselves with numerous applicants. Now, I do believe that geography has a lot to do with our ability to find teaching candidates, but I am savvy enough to know that what happens in Western Iowa will ultimately impact our part of the state. In that same superintendent meeting last week, a colleague from not very far away from here turned to our table and stated, "We had an elementary teaching position open and only had three applicants. Two of them were 'unhireable'."

Much of this is because students entering teacher preparation programs are down. Consider this: in the mid-'90s the University of Northen Iowa was preparing roughly 600 teachers annually. Over the last 8-10 years, that number has dropped to 450. Of all the traditional teacher prep programs in Iowa, public universities have dropped by 4% in recent years while private institutions have seen a decrease of 2%. It should also be noted that this isn't just an Iowa problem. If the current trends continue, by 2025 we could see a nationwide shortage of teachers approaching 100,000.

Mobility is an issue as well in Iowa. Once we get them here, we need to keep them here! Around 6.7% of teachers change schools each year and 18.9% change schools in a five-year span. So for us, it is not only about attracting talent, but it is about retaining those teachers once we have them in our classrooms. Next week we'll talk about steps we are taking to mitigate this potential shortage and make certain we continue to employ very high-quality educators.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Planning Our Future

Based on known variables and algorithms, we are able to project and defend what we believe enrollment will look like five years from now. However, the unknown variables really are the head-scratcher here, aren't they? The biggest of which is the impact residential development will have on future class sizes. While I have no crystal ball or formula with which to base my analysis, all we can really do is speculate. So, what may that look like?

Where I live, there are approximately 26 lots under development. Then there is the apartment complex on Springfield Avenue which is projected to have around 48 units. If we add Twin Oaks into the mix, that would be another 67 households. How many school-age children? As a start, is it appropriate to assume one school-age child per home? Considering some families may have as many as 3 or 4 while others may have 0, 1 per household seems like a good place to start. So for easy math, let's assume an additional 141 students.

Now, what becomes really challenging is trying to figure out when these phantom students may materialize and at what grade levels. According to known variables, enrollment in the next five years should peak at 747 in the 2020-2021 academic year. Again, that is before assuming the residential growth that is currently underway. If we add our mystery 141, that could put enrollment as high as 888. Remember though, this is all speculative and becomes even further complicated when trying to determine what grade levels will be impacted and by how much. But for the sake of argument, we'll consider an equal distribution of pupils which would put our average class size around 68 students. At this size, our elementary school would need to be equipped to handle three sections of each grade level with approximately 23 students each. Or four sections at 17.

Good news. Right now, we are operating a 3 section elementary with the exception of one grade level that has 2 sections. Suffice to say, I believe if we had an enrollment increase in excess of 100 students we would be able to absorb this without too much trouble. However, there are some statisticians that suggest new residential development should assume 1.5 children per household, which could very easily put us in the 4 section category. Using the same math from above, this would give us an average class size of 74 students.

I'll bet you are wondering if our current facility can accommodate a 4 section elementary. I contend that it can, but we will have to get creative with how we utilize our space. Right now, we are very generous with the allocation of instructional space. If enrollment goes where we think it could go in the future, we will need to rethink how our spaces are used.

The good news is that we are thinking about it. Right now, you are aware that we are renovating the elementary school and just recently completed phase one of that project. Planning for phase 2 is underway. The scope of that project includes the North wing of the elementary, which is where the 4th and 5th grade is currently housed. If you are unfamiliar with this section of the building, it is the wing directly to the left in the photo above. The scope of this work includes new lighting, ceilings, windows, and air conditioning. We had plans to tackle the second floor of the facility with part of this phase as well, but some mechanical issues were uncovered that forced us to reevaluate our plans. The current scope of this project is slated for board approval in November with a tentative bid letting scheduled for December.

It is entirely likely and conceivable that we will commission our architect to begin a study this winter and consider what it would look like, and what it would cost to convert our building from a three section to a four section elementary. At the same time, we will need to be engaged with our legislators who will be meeting in Des Moines and ask them to consider the elimination of the sunset on the SAVE fund. I'll remind you, this was one of the priorities the Board of Directors outlined in their legislative platform this past summer. It may seem like a long time off yet, but with a 2029 sunset on this fund, it significantly impacts our ability to move some of these projects forward.

While I haven't spent much time talking about the high school, that is not to mean there aren't needs in that facility. If you have any experience with that building, you are aware that we have begun the process of replacing the roofs, and are beginning to plan for updating the mechanical systems. But in terms of space? Assuming we did have an increase in enrollment and average class sizes approaching the mid-70s, it is helpful to take a look at our enrollment history. In the 2006-2007 school year, the average class size in the high school was 73.5.

Well, I'm not sure our gazing into a crystal ball has yielded many answers. All I know for sure is that it's a good time to be a Pirate and that whatever happens with enrollment, we'll be ready.