Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Every Student Succeeds

Yesterday morning the Iowa Department of Education released the new online reporting website which describes how schools are performing as outlined by the new and updated Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). You may recall a prior version of this federal law, which was known as  'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB). The re-authorization of the law is titled the 'Every Student Succeeds Act' and replaces the punitive measures that were a mainstay of NCLB. Yesterday's release meets the [federal] school accountability requirements of the law. While schools are still designated as having met or not met the prescribed benchmarks, punitive measures are no longer used as a hammer for school districts. Instead, the law is designed to provide supports and assistance to school districts that have been designated as needing comprehensive or targeted assistance. 

As mentioned above, when designating a school or school district there are two different categories in which a school district can be identified for assistance: comprehensive or targeted. A school that is designated as needing comprehensive assistance means the school has not met the prescribed benchmarks. On the other hand, schools designated as receiving targeted assistance would indicate a school district where a subgroup is not meeting benchmark. 

There are a number of criteria used to make the determination, including participation in the statewide assessment, graduation rate, proficiency, and growth. This is not an exhaustive list, so you can read more about these indicators, the others used, and the formula applied in the calculation of the designation by reading the report. This new system marks a significant change in determining school designations. In the past, a heavy reliance was placed on proficiency; whereas under this new model more emphasis is placed on the growth that a student makes along with the other indicators described in the report. That could be the reason why some school districts with high proficiency find themselves on this new list. 

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that all schools in the Hudson Community School District have met the targets as outlined in the Iowa School Performance Profile. You can view our results by clicking right here. We are very proud of the academic performance of our students and of the hard work our teachers put in each and every day on behalf of the children of this community. 

At the same time we recognize that work remains. While this result is good, we are still working to better understand some of the internal variables, mechanisms, and nuances of the reporting criteria. Why is this? Because we want to be better than good! We are now making preparations for a new statewide assessment that is better aligned to the content taught in our classrooms. We anticipate this assessment will enable us to further fine tune and target our instructional practices in a manner that takes our achievement to the next level and further closes the achievement gap. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Lives They Touch

I spent the last two days in Des Moines at the Iowa Superintendents Finance Consortium. The keynote during the first day was a former graduate professor I had while studying at UNI who is now retired, and the second day I had brief interaction with another graduate professor I studied with on the back end of my coursework. This was right before starting the final push to finish my dissertation. Upon reflection, these two teachers offered up just the right encouragement and motivation that helped me finish what I started. In all honesty, some of the classes I had to take for my doctorate were not all that interesting! But in their own way, these two teachers knew how to reach a guy like me! So if you are out there reading, thanks Dr. Else and Dr. Forsyth!

In all likelihood these two teachers didn't know they had a positive impact on me as a student. Why would they? Like all teachers they come into contact with hundreds, if not thousands of students in the course of their career. To remember them all would be expecting a bit too much. As I have stated here before, teachers may not remember all their students, but students most certainly will remember their teachers. Over the course of my career, I have shared a variety of stories about those interactions I have had with my former students over the years. And in most cases have had fond memories of them as students. Certainly as educators we will, and do have students whose memory stands the test of time. Perhaps they took a keen interest in the content we teach, or were a particularly talented student. Maybe you remember them because you were close friends with their parents. Or as an administrator, they were a regular client in the chair across the room on those occasions where they needed a reminder about expectations. 

Truth be told, educators just simply can't remember the names or experiences of each student they have in class. Compound that with the passage of time and it becomes even more complicated. Age tends to do that to people! I was recently in a situation where I was faced with one of those awkward moments where I just couldn't remember the former student I was talking to. I didn't try to pretend or act like I remembered. I asked questions, and encouraged him to help me remember our time together as teacher and student. I was at an administrative meeting that had just wrapped up when this man walks up to me and says, Dr. Voss? (I'm always a bit cautious when this happens.)

Then he extends his arm for a handshake and says, "I thought that was you! My name is Daniel and you were my 7th grade music teacher." He knew that I didn't remember him, but he did a great job of filling in the blanks for me. As it turns out, he is now a high school principal. (Yes, I am that old.) Now in full disclosure, he wasn't coming up to share that he was inspired to go into education because of the stellar instruction he received in my classroom all those years ago. Frankly, 7th grade music was not my strong suit. He was merely making a connection that we shared years ago. As I have stated before, I love that kind of experience and it makes my day when I see a former student (remembered or not) all grown up and leading a successful life. Kind of validates why we all got into this profession.

Our time with students in fleeting and precious. The lesson here is that it doesn't matter if they were a model student or one who needed a little extra attention. That student who quietly sits in your room, does exactly what they are expected to do--and no more or no less, is just as important and needs the attention as much as the others in your orbit. They still deserve that kindness, smile, and pat on the back each day. I do hope the reason Daniel took the time to seek me out at that meeting is because he knew that I cared about him all those years ago. 

I'll re-emphasize that point made earlier: they will always remember you. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Watching Them Work

Yesterday I accepted an invitation to tag along with our literacy coach, Mrs. Kiewiet and literacy consultant from the AEA, Mrs. Blohm while they observed mini-lessons. During the classroom visits, our teachers were using a gradual release strategy during writer's workshop, which fits under the umbrella of our larger balanced literacy framework. Essentially it works like this: through direct instruction the teacher models what they want the students to do. Then, the students complete the task together. Finally, they work independently on the task.

I observed a lot of outstanding instruction, ranging from how do deliver a book talk in sixth grade to understanding the differences in the beginning, middle, and end of a story in first grade. 

Part of our overall strategy in this work is to create consistency across all grade levels so as students advance, they hear familiar language. The end result is of course improved student outcomes. Nonetheless, it was a great reminder for me as to how complex this work is for teachers! Not only that, it requires an incredible amount of energy! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Balanced Literacy

Ensuring relevancy for teachers in professional development is but one of the variables that determines whether or not our plan has the impetus to be implemented with fidelity in the classroom. Our professional learning program for teachers provides numerous avenues in which to deliver content to teachers in a way that we know will impact instruction in a positive manner. Where a personalized approach puts teachers in the drivers seat when it comes to charting a path forward, that is but one means in our delivery model. Indeed it is also important to create a paradigm of consistency, teamwork, and dare I say standardization in some of our approaches? You are correct, I stated on October 31st that 'Abandoning a system that relies on a standardized approach requires a paradigm shift'. I'll stand by that statement, but offer up the caveat that at the same time we all need to be rowing the boat in the same direction. That means having an understanding of what the district is trying to accomplish collectively and working together and smarter to achieve that goal. For us that goal is pretty simple: improve student outcomes when it comes to reading proficiency. Getting the results we aspire to achieve however is a totally different story!

A balanced literacy initiative is one of the primary ways we can do this. We know that dedicating a large portion of our instructional day to literacy instruction isn't enough. Its what is done with those instructional minutes that count the most. That is where our balanced literacy framework is helpful. This includes ensuring the five core elements of reading are part of our daily instructional practice: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. A comprehensive literacy program includes standards encompassing reading, writing, listening, speaking, and foundation skills (Gambell & Morrow, Best Practices in Literacy Instruction). The key here is the realization that we don't teach [one], reading for example; without making a connection to [another], writing for example. In fact, the literacy program should be balanced among those strands.

Take a moment to view the graphic depicted here. Notice that within the large center circle, which is the [all encompassing] topic of literacy instruction, it is divided into separate areas of emphasis. The largest (green) being reading instruction, where the instruction may look different depending on the needs of the students. The next largest subset of literacy instruction is writing (blue), and again the instruction may look different dependent on the needs of the class that day. The final slice of the framework is word study (red), which includes such topics as phonics and word structures. As you can see from this graphic, implementing a balanced literacy framework takes quite a commitment of instructional time for our teachers. Further, it requires an immense amount of teamwork and collaboration, because not one teacher can do all this alone. The collaboration is critically important for a number of reasons, but you may recall a discussion about ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum. In a nutshell, this is every student, every day, can expect to receive the same content. 

This segment of our professional development then, is designed to manage the implementation of this framework within our system. Indeed, this is a very complex change in instructional design for our educators that began over a year ago. In addition to designing instruction that identifies and meets both major and minor literacy standards the 'in district' professional development includes delivery via workshop model that includes coaching support from our literacy coach Mrs. Kiewiet, and support from Mrs. Blohm at the AEA. Further, these experts conduct literacy walk through observations where they are able to determine to what extent key instructional practices are being implemented with fidelity and what are teachers' most pressing needs and supports are.

What has been most impressive for me from my view in the balcony is seeing truly transformational instructional practice in our classrooms. For certain this can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of our teacher leaders who have steered this work, and to the teacher in the classrooms that have embraced these practices. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

An Exciting Week Comes to a Close

What an exciting week for our school district! From the beginning of the week until the end, we have shown the world that it is 'Great to be a Pirate'! Without a doubt, we have a lot to be proud here in Hudson and in our schools. Indeed, the entire week seemed to almost have a homecoming feel to it. I promise this is on that our students will not soon forget, and will reminiscence about for decades to come!

Monday began with our annual Veterans Day observance assembly in the high school. The government class under the direction of Mr. Simmer always does a great job planning this day. Following the assembly, we had a nice luncheon with Veterans at the Community Church. Again, outstanding job by our students for planning this very special meal to honor our Veterans! While a lot of attention is on what happens at the high school, we can't forget the middle school observance. Each year Mr. Haskovec invites Veterans in to his classroom to offer their perspectives on service and to answer questions from the students. 

Indeed, everyone did their part this week to showcase our school and community. Pictured above is the music department, under the direction of Mrs. Davis conducting a performance of patriotic service music with members of the band and choir during the Veterans Day assembly. Junior Sara Klunder is the narrator. 

Of course to top off what was already a fantastic week, our Hudson Pirates won the state title. That makes three state football championships in school history: with the last one being in 1994. It is worth noting; we began the season ranked #1 and retained that ranking all through the season, culminating in the state championship yesterday afternoon with a 30-7 victory. But of course you already knew that!

The photo included above is immediately following our state championship win over AHSTW, Avoca. It is great to be a Pirate! In the final analysis we have a lot to be proud of in our school and community. Next week is Thanksgiving. While we all have our list of things for which to be thankful, one of the items of which I am grateful is the support of this community. The number of fans we had at the game on Thursday was impressive and inspiring. The Veterans who took time out of their lives to join us on Monday was awesome and motivating. We are very appreciative and thankful for the support of our community. On behalf of the school district, have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hope to See You at the Game

In most Iowa schools when one of the athletic teams begin a deep run into the playoffs it is a pretty big deal, not only in the school itself, but the entire community. Inevitably, not everyone can play their games at 7:00 in the evening; so athletic associations are forced to schedule contests during the day. So the decision must be made as to whether or not to hold classes as normally scheduled, or to cancel classes so as many people as possible can participate. While these decisions can be subject to great scrutiny, my stance has been events and experiences like these are rare opportunities for a school community to celebrate, build positive momentum, and improve climate and culture. Indeed it is a rare occurrence: in my nine years at Hudson, we have had the privilege of participating in the state tournament three times where the school day has been impacted: girls basketball, and football the last two seasons. Relying on this precedence, the decision to cancel classes on November 9th was relatively straight forward.

So I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate pride for your school and community by joining us for this state tournament game on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. Research shows us that students who have a strong connection to their schools do better in classes. Those who have pride in their schools are less likely to cause a disruption or become behavior concerns. It doesn't matter if you are a member of the team or a spectator in the stands. Your involvement allows us to share in the excitement that comes with winning a close game; or the disappointment of falling just short. It builds character in our students and the camaraderie builds lifelong skills that transfer to the workplace. Some of my fondest memories from high school are going to the state tournament as a spectator.

But the loss of academic time, you state! I agree, the whole point of our existence as a school is the academic component of our program. Whether we are teaching our youngsters to read or do advanced trigonometry, ultimately we are preparing them for the next challenge they will face. But that challenge will be not be met with an understanding of statistical variability alone! All of the other components that go into the recipe: athletics, drama, music, student council are secondary and even tertiary characteristics of our school that are vitally important as well. They are part of the American public education experience, and are why we have one of the best educational systems in the world.

So, I hope to see you on Friday. And in case you are wondering, we haven't really cancelled classes. They are just postponed. This day will be mad up on May 28th, 2019!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ensuring Relevancy in Professional Development

Improving instruction in our classrooms is the key to ensuring better outcomes for our students. Just like any professional, continually learning new techniques and strategies not only makes us better at our craft, but provides an array of tools that can be used to meet new challenges in our work. We have long recognized the importance of professional development and have striven to ensure the experiences provided to our faculty are not only relevant to what is going on in the classroom, but do in fact provide our employees with the resources needed to successfully navigate the myriad of 'problems of practice' in classrooms. Since 2013 our district has deployed an academic calendar that incorporates an early dismissal every Wednesday afternoon. So how then, is that time used? 

First we have to recognize that challenges vary across grade level[s]. Strategies employed in classroom management at first grade will likely not be transferable to sixth grade. Second, each content area is obviously different not only in pedagogy, but in some cases as different as apples and oranges. This then, is why we have begun to take a more personalized approach to professional development. Why? Consider the relevancy of a balanced literacy framework within the confines of physical education. While there are ways in which a physical education teacher can incorporate components of literacy in class, it is undoubtedly a stretch, likened to fitting a round peg in a square hole. Or even more prevalent in small schools is a 'one size fits all' professional development program that encompasses the entire PK-12 system. Yet schools did (and many still do) continue to offer these types of in-service regimens. From a practical standpoint it is efficient. It also ensures accountability to the system. After all, when everyone is in the same room you can be sure they are not off doing something that is a waste of time (as if having a physical education teacher participate in a balanced literacy training isn't). And let's not even begin to contemplate the engagement of faculty in training that holds very little relevance to the work they are doing in classrooms.

A personalized approach permits teachers to work independently, as a grade level, or as content area specialists on a topic or 'problem of practice' that has been identified by the practitioner. Once a topic has been selected, a set of guardrails help steer the practitioner through the process while at the same time ensuring a level of accountability for that work, which of course includes a direct linkage to district established initiatives and priorities. This process includes researching the topic, implementing the strategies that have been studied, and reflecting on their work. Ultimately at the end of the cycle this learning is shared with a larger audience. With a primary focus on instructional strategies, three hours a month are dedicated to this process; which is equivalent to one and a half of our Wednesday early dismissals. 

Abandoning a system that relies on a standardized approach requires a paradigm shift. Most notably, it puts our practitioners in the drivers seat to determine what professional learning is going to look like. Instead of relying on the principal to determine what strategies should be implemented (for example), the teacher is in control. Using data they collect through formative assessment, observation, and instruction; teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions and design their own career development in ways that are powerful, engaging, and have real impact in the classroom. We are now in our second year of this delivery model and have expanded it to encompass faculty across the district. So far the response has been positive. Further, the linchpin to our success can be attributed to our teacher leadership system. These teacher leaders, coaches and model teachers alike are able to serve as an additional resource and coach for practitioners in their journey. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Freedom of Driving

In many cases I am the final hurdle before a student experiences that first taste of freedom: independent driving. When we issue school permits to students in that twilight between finishing driver education and turning 16 years old, it is a rite of passage. Not only is this a milestone to adulthood for our students, but it enables parents to give their young driver a bit of responsibility on a known route to and from school before turning them loose on the roads at age 16. At the same time, it usually provides a much needed relief valve for parents that may not know if they are coming and going half the time! There is nothing quite as liberating for parents when a child can drive themselves to and from practice at 6:00 a.m.! 

Then, once they turn 16 and get their license, those pesky errands to and from the grocery store will be a thing in the past, since you newly emancipated driver will clamor for the opportunity to run to the store for you (and in all likelihood make several stops both to and from their final destination). All of these are great experiences for our students and children. It helps us out as parents, and it gives the young driver additional time behind the wheel. And if they stop at a friends house on the way home from the grocery store, what is the harm (unless the errand was to pick up a gallon of ice cream)? 

At the same time, we need to be sure to remind our students that with their new found freedom does come a great deal of responsibility. Next week is National Teen Driver Safety Week, and with it an opportunity to remind our students about the importance of being safe behind the wheel. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens between the ages of 15-18 in the United States. The Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau outlines these items that can result in accidents among teen drivers:
Alcohol and Drugs: In 2016, nearly one out of five teen passenger vehicle drivers involved in a fatal crash had been drinking.  Also in 2016, 6.5% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 were current users of marijuana.  Like many other drugs, marijuana effects a driver’s ability to react to their surroundings.  Driving is a complex task, and marijuana slows reaction times, affecting the driver’s ability to drive safely.  Remind your teen that driving under the influence of any impairing substance could have deadly consequences.  
Seat Belts: Wearing a seat belt is one of the simplest ways for teens to stay safe in a vehicle. A total of 569 passengers died in passenger vehicles driven by teen drivers and more than half (54%) of those passengers who died were NOT buckled up at the time of the fatal crash. Even more troubling, in 85% of cases when the teen driver was unbuckled, the passengers were also unbuckled.
Distracted Driving: Distractions while driving are more than just risky—they can be deadly. In 2016, among teen drivers involved in fatal crashes, 10 percent were reported as distracted at the time of the crash.  However, according to results of a AAA Foundation study, there is a significant evidence that distracted driving is a much more serious problem than previously known, especially with young drivers ages 16 to 19.  
Speeding: In 2016, almost one-third (31%) of all teen passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes were speeding at the time of the crash.
Passengers: Research shows the risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of passengers in a car. The likelihood of teen drivers engaging in risky behavior triples when traveling with multiple passengers.
Drowsy Driving: Teens are busier than ever: studying, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and spending time with friends are among the long list of things they do to fill their time. However, with all of these activities, teens tend to compromise something very important—sleep. This is a dangerous habit that can lead to drowsy driving or falling asleep at the wheel.
Statistics provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 
Please take a few minutes to review these important statistics with your young driver. Independent driving is indeed a liberating feeling for our youngsters. But, they need to be reminded that driving on our roads comes with a great responsibility. Be safe out there!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Framing the Right Numbers

In spite of the continual rain, the school year has gotten off to a pretty good start. Granted, we have dealt with some significant challenges that forced our fourth and fifth grade students to be displaced for a week. Oh, and at the writing of this blog we still have water coming in the agriculture room (did I mention the continual rain?). Luckily the carbon monoxide issue we had to contend with last week was a relatively quick fix and only caused a minor inconvenience. But nonetheless, spirits are high and most folks seem to be full of #piratepride! 

A lot of that can be attributed to the success we are seeing from our fall athletic programs. In many ways, this kind of feels like a repeat of last fall (except for the rain of course). The football team remains undefeated and ranked number one in the state, and both the volleyball and cross country teams are ranked and are having very memorable seasons. If you have been keeping up with these successes, you probably have seen some very impressive statistics being posted in the newspaper. Many of  these numbers are quite startling!

While we are tremendously proud of these accomplishments, it is important that we don't forget about the most important numbers, statistics, and successes of all. Those numbers being the ones that measure the success of our students. I have just recently updated our student achievement data numbers and would encourage you to go check them out on the 'About Us' page of our school website. If you scroll down about halfway through the page, you'll see the Hudson Community School District Report Card for the 2017-2018 Academic year. 

For the most part, I'll leave it to you to examine these data points in more detail, but I'll just point out a few highlights. Take a look at page 3 of the Iowa Core Report. This graph depicts the average score by grade level from grades 3-11 in reading. The green bar is district growth, blue for our AEA, and orange depicts state. At almost every grade level, our district is outperforming peers at both the AEA and statewide level. If that isn't impressive, take a look at page 6 of the same report. In this graph, you can see how our proficiency rates compare to our peers. I would invite you to pay particular attention to how high the proficiency is for grades 9, 10, 11. The science scores that were posted are just as outstanding. If you take a look at page 8 of the same report, you can see how much higher our proficiency scores are compared to our peers. 

At the end of the day though, perhaps the most important metric is how much growth students have made from one year to the next. You see, a student can be proficient while at the same time showing very little growth from their original starting point. This same report offers the growth of each grades cohort. Once again, these numbers something to be proud of!

The 'About Us' page of our website has a lot of information about our school district including the students achievement data described above and much more! I would encourage you to take a look at these numbers. At the end of the day, how our students perform in the classroom is the most important metric of them all! 

Now if it will only stop raining!


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Karyn Finn Offers Reflection of Service; Departs for Move to Missouri

It’s time for me to leave Hudson and move to Missouri to join my husband, but it’s really not about me. The School Board is a team and as we all know there is no “I” in team. As I reflect on my term of service from being elected in the Fall of 2011 until today, I am just amazed at the positive changes in the community that I have come to call my home for the past 19 years. Not all of the changes were easy and some were downright difficult but with collaboration and thoughtful discussion we found common ground.   

Great schools don’t just happen, they are the product of an engaged community that shares responsibility for a positive culture along with financial (property tax) support. Although our financial outlook is stable now, it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, that is just what brought me to the school board meetings of 2010 -2011.  Hudson Schools were facing a financial crisis that had decimated our rainy day funds and neither property taxes or state funding were going to fix it.  I ran for school board because I knew that the local school was not only important to our community’s sustainability but also to the youth and families that rely on a solid education for their future.  We as a community owe it to our kids and their future to get engaged and stay engaged so that we are aware of the utilization of our taxes and can support our teachers and staff to provide positive educational outcomes for all of our youth.

We start each meeting with “We create effective learning environments that result in success for all students”.  These are very powerful words as a school board we act together to create effective policies and practices that allow the staff to fulfill their mission to educate all of our children.  I have been proud to be part of the many positive changes that have taken years of planning like paving the High School parking, paving the Middle school parking, providing handicap access to the competition gym are some of the major visual changes. In addition in the past seven years we added Pirate term, PLC & TLC along with weekly Wednesday early outs for professional development. I have had the great honor and privilege to hand out diplomas to my own children, swelling with pride at their accomplishments due in major part to the commitment and dedication of our wonderful teachers.  

Message for Community:
Get engaged, find out what’s going on in your school and community.  Stay engaged by attending meetings and events, read the board minutes in the Hudson Herald, run for School Board, but most importantly - Share your voice. You are as important a part of the school as the children, teachers and staff. Bring your ideas, collaborate, look forward to what will be expected from graduates in future jobs. Volunteer your time, before school, during or after school, at events and activities. Remember Great Schools don’t just happen!! They need a community of engaged citizens collaborating together. I am proud to have been part of the #piratepride family.

Thank you Hudson for your support and wonderful memories.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

It's Not as Easy as it Looks

Junior high teachers collaborating on a personalized
professional development project during a recent
student early dismissal.
Yesterday I had an opportunity to sit in on a grade level meeting in second grade. These weekly meetings between the building principal, teacher leaders, and teachers serve multiple purposes. Most importantly they open a dialogue among instructional experts to discuss what is going on in the classroom and how best to meet the needs of learners. It was during this meeting I was once again reminded how incredibly complex, difficult, and challenging the work is of our educators. While observing this meeting teachers were discussing their upcoming unit plans and how they aligned to the Iowa Core. They provided a detailed timeline of instruction, including the identification of specific instructional strategies that were going to be used during this instruction. Strategies by the way, that had recently been presented in professional development.

When pressed by the principal about what 'proof' there would be to demonstrate successful mastery of the content, the teachers shared the formative assessments that would be used to measure student growth. For those not demonstrating adequate growth, their plan and timeline provides remediation-for groups of students exceeding expectations and those needing additional instruction. Then, these teachers were able to tie the instruction they are delivering back to the specific content standard that is being addressed; be it instruction designed to introduce a concept, develop a concept, or attain grade level mastery.

Now I am used to seeing this kind of stuff everyday from our teachers here at Hudson. But I have to tell you: this was impressive. It was another awesome reminder of the complex work that is going on in our schools, and the high level of skill and training it takes for our teachers to do it successfully. I know what many of you are thinking: this is the second grade team and they are rock stars anyway. I'll concede that point, but the fact is this isn't an anomaly. Keeping in mind that I wasn't invited to this meeting and just 'popped in' randomly, I asked Mr. Schlatter; are all the grade level meetings like this? His answer: Yes. 

The picture you may have in your mind of what teaching looks like, or even what is sometimes portrayed on television is woefully simplistic. The truth is, teachers are very highly skilled professionals that put in a ton of work that is largely unseen. What we see in our classrooms when our instructors deliver polished instruction on a daily basis is but a fraction of what it looks like to be a teacher. We are lucky in Hudson to have very good ones.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Building Momentum

Admittedly we are still in the prologue of the 2018-2019 school year. With just over seven days complete, I think we have finished just the right number of days to establish a routine. Bus routes are beginning to run on time and we are starting to get the hang of the lunch line. Boy, I'll tell you what! There is nothing quite like watching kindergartners go to lunch on the first day of school! Give them a salad bar with numerous options and then stand back and watch the show!

The nostalgia of the start of the school year recently had me recalling an experience from my youth. It was science class; we were two or three days into the year and had just turned in our homework assignment. Astonishingly enough, all of us turned in our assignment. And then the teacher said, "It's the first week of school. Everyone turns in homework during the first week. I'm sure this will be the last time." 

Yikes?! Well, as it turns out he was right. I have few fading memories of that teacher and class, but certainly I was late turning in classwork on more than one occasion. Now, what he said was not necessarily out of bounds or even inappropriate. After all, he would probably argue that he was right. But what I would say is that comment was cynical and a bit sad. Instead of celebrating the goodness of the moment, it was ruined by the foreboding of what was to come. By lifting us up and making a big deal out of the fact everyone met the goal, it very well could have built momentum. Would it have worked? Well, we'll never know because once the toothpaste is out of the tube you'll never be able to put it back. But here is what I do know: it certainly wouldn't have hurt (and I wouldn't be talking about it right now).

First week or not I have seen some things! During a recent visit to the high school, I observed quiet halls. Students are not roaming around, stalling to get to class. They are in class. Learning. When I walked into the classroom(s), students are engaged in learning. Why? Because our teachers have designed lessons that are interesting and compelling. One of the things I do worry about a bit during the first week is new teachers in the high school. You see, students of that age traditionally like to push the boundaries to find out exactly where the lines are. As it turns out, I had no reason at all to be concerned. Instead I saw teachers that are setting high expectations for their students. I have no doubt our students will exceed those expectations.

In the junior high, I visited a social studies class where the students were preparing to apply the democratic principles they were studying to an upcoming project where they would be required to create a lego animation. By filming, editing, and using green screen technology. While that was going on, across the hallway in science class students were learning the differences between quantitative and qualitative data sets. And developing hypotheses about the trajectory and speed of a balloon rocket. First week or not, talk about jumping in with both feet!

First week or not: We have great things happening in our school district! We are off to an awesome start to the school year. The momentum we have behind us right now is an accelerant that will propel our students and staff forward to achieve amazing things this year. I have no doubt that it will only get better from here!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

And We're Off!

I am always amazed at the flurry of activity that happens in schools the last week to ten days before the start of classes. Admittedly, I sometimes have a brief moment of panic wondering if we are in fact going to meet our deadline. Of course each year we do because of the hard work and commitment of our staff to seeing the job through to the end. Our maintenance and custodial staff deserves a tip of the hat for what they were able to accomplish this summer, and in particular during the final push to the start. The weekend before school started staff were in the buildings waxing floors in the elementary school and working on a ceiling in the high school. Then on Wednesday evening (the eve of the first day), our crew stayed late to finish up some ceiling work in the junior high. Most notably they did all this short staffed, so if you see them around town please take a moment to thank them for their efforts. 

Because of this extra effort and the incredible work of our faculty to get their rooms and lesson plans prepared we have had an outstanding start to the school year. Our teachers were so helpful and flexible as we started it has been truly phenomenal! Today it is only the fifth day of school, and already we are beginning to establish a routine. Indeed it seems like eons ago we were all gathered for the opening kick-off in the high school auditorium. During my visits to classrooms I am observing students who are engaged with their teachers in creative and very well designed lessons. 

If your child hasn't had an opportunity to try our new hot lunch program yet, I would highly encourage it. So far the feedback has been very positive and the students are enjoying a quality lunch that is prepared fresh daily. If you have been following me on Twitter then you are aware our participation rate for hot lunch is up. Last year on the first day of school we served 281 meals. The first day this year we served 438. We do expect that number to continue climbing as the word gets out on how great our lunch program is! While we can attribute high quality and delicious meals to the increased participation rate, we also have to take special note that our enrollment has increased. 

Our first day enrollment is up 26 over last year, and is the highest first day count we have had since I started tracking it in 2012. Now while not an apples to apples comparison, our first day enrollment number of 748 is the largest number of students served in the district since 2008 when we posted a BEDS number of 749. Keep in mind the first day enrollment number is unofficial and will continue to fluctuate over the coming weeks. We officially count students on October 1st, so stay tuned!

Increasing enrollment is a great thing for our school district! But it does come with its own unique set of challenges. As our enrollment rises, we will need to adjust staffing accordingly. The next couple of weeks will be important as classes begin to stabilize and we determine if additional staff may be necessary. Indeed, it is beginning to look as if we may need to add some additional courses at the high school. 

Transportation is another area that we are closely monitoring. For our afternoon routes we have added a half route to Country Terrace after discovering route 19 had 42 students riding to Butterfield and 34 to Country Terrace. While in theory the bus for route 19 has a rated capacity of 77 students, that assumes those students are five years old and fit three to a seat! Luckily we were able to find a driver for this route, and at some point we may be looking to add the morning leg of that route as well. 

It has been a fantastic start to the school year! It is great having everyone back and seeing our hallways filled with students once more! 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Marigolds or Walnut Trees: Message to the Faculty and Staff to Start the 2018-2019 School Year

Portions of this blog have been used with permission from the Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez. Please download a copy of the original post: Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers right here.

We all have the ability to change the outlook and attitude of those around us. This ‘superpower’ can’t be understated. I have learned in my career the approach I use can significantly impact the outcome of any interaction I have with you—and you with your students. A smile or playful and positive attitude can soften even the hardest of hearts. And at the same time, each morning when we climb out of bed we get to decide whether or not it is going to be a good day—or bad day. That decision when we walk out the door and head toward this school will impact everyone we come into contact with.

No matter what job you do in this district, it is mission critical and we couldn’t do it without you! Across all classifications of employment in our school, we have felt what it’s like when we are short staffed: in the ranks of our teaching staff, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, or custodians. Granted there are plenty of people around to lend a hand, but the fact is we need you and your expertise. You matter! The people around you matter. Not only do these people matter, they are the people who will help push you forward to greatness this school year.

I encourage you to be that light, that inspiration, and that steady hand that will guide [first year teachers] during this year of ‘firsts’. Take a moment to think about your first year in this profession; consider your original discernment to this noble work when you help push one another forward.

Each of us chose this work because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. Many of us had an experience in our own formative years that led us to our place in this auditorium today. For me, it was my high school music teachers. Without them seeing a talent in me, or hearing the proverbial ‘he has so much potential’; I wouldn’t be here. No joke. I was destined for something far different than what I am blessed to be doing right now. I am sure you all have a story or experience that led you down this path. Remember the spark that lit the fire and started your career. Then, think of the child [in your classroom this year] that was you. While they may not all be destined to careers as educators, they most certainly are counting on you to help them in their quest of self-discovery. What will they be, and how will you help unleash that potential? I encourage you to consider this when you climb out of bed in the morning and are preparing for another great day at Hudson Schools. Contemplate all the good you are going to do and the positive impact you will have on each student that comes into your classroom. Meets you in the hallway. Gets on your bus in the morning. Drops off lunch money in your office.

Positive impact and positive attitude. Last week we attended the SAI conference in Des Moines. One of our keynote presentations was by Michelle Geilan who studies happiness, those who have a positive outlook, and the impact they have on those around them. We can in fact change our behavior, and we can change the behavior of those we come into contact with by the words we choose and the smile on our face. Think about this: research shows that a positive outlook leads to 31% more productivity, 25% better performance ratings, and 23% less stress.

According to Geilan, the three greatest predictors of success are: work optimism (believing good things will happen); positive engagement (believing that you can succeed); and support provision (the more you invest in the success of others, the more likely you are to succeed). What perfect positions we are in as educators to invest in the success of others!

So I ask you AND ME not to give in to the narrative of negativity and instead be the shining light for your students, and for the person that lives across the hallway from you. Because remember: You matter and will make a difference! I challenge us all to be the people who push one another forward! 

So then. Last spring I had the good fortune of being exposed to the work of Jennifer Gonzalez. Jennifer is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and the Editor in Chief of the Cult of Pedagogy. 

She is also the author of ‘Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers’. For those of you who are gardeners, you know why marigolds are generally planted. They are a companion plant that keeps pests away and allows other plants and vegetables to flourish. But as Gonzalez describes in her essay, there are marigolds in our schools as well. Here is what she says about them:
“Marigolds exist in our schools—encouraging supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive.” (Jennifer Gonzalez, Find Your Marigold)
Albeit sage advice for the newest to our profession, perhaps there is a lesson in here for each of us? Consider those with whom you work on a daily basis. Your teammates, confidants, administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals, school secretary, hot lunch staff, or bus drivers: do they lift you up, encourage you, and help you to grow? Do they push you forward? If they don’t; if we don’t—then now is the time to do so. The work we do—the work you do is extremely difficult. If we don’t seek out, or be marigolds for one another we are doomed to complacency. Or worse yet, if left unchecked we can become walnut trees. Here is what Jennifer says about walnut trees:
“Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees because they give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers—happy, social, well organized. But here are some signs you should keep your distance: Their take on kids is negative. Their take on administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed. Walnut trees are poison.” (Jennifer Gonzalez, Find Your Marigold)
Again, we look to the newest of our faculty and staff. They are excited and full of energy to begin working with our young people. The whole world is out in front of them!  What they—what you need most in this sea of unfamiliarity and stress is someone to smile at you and welcome you to the school. To remind you what a great career you had chosen and how amazing the kids are in our school. Someone to give you a pep talk before open house and to let you know your room looks great. That critical friend and colleague who, at the sunset of that first day can give you a pat on the back and proclaim, ‘You did it’!

To successfully do this important work that is in front of us, we must resist the lure of the walnut tree. I know that sometimes this is difficult. It is difficult for me! I have been a walnut tree! For many of us, we have seen some things. We have lived through challenges. Yet I submit that what we all need most in this abundance of challenge and uncertainty is someone to smile at you and let you know that everything is going to be okay. You need a marigold; to pick you up, dust you off, and remind you of all the good work you have done, all the good work you have yet to do, and someone to help push you forward.

Again, I’ll ask you to look around this auditorium. There are marigolds among us. But watch out for the walnut trees because they are out there as well. The fact is there may be a little bit of marigold and walnut in many of us. It may be tricky at times, but we need to do our best to grow marigolds in our school and weed out the walnuts. My promise and commitment is to work hard to be your marigold this year.

These next three days are among the most important in our school year. Professional learning and setting up your classroom aside, the interactions you have with colleagues on the eve of the return of students will set a tone that will determine the fate of the year.

Have a great start to the school year and thank you for being here. Please come up to the front of the stage and find your marigold.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Public Schools Exist for All Children

The Hudson School Board believes that expanded educational opportunities should be made available in order to meet the learning needs of all our students. Indeed, our core purpose states as much: We create effective learning environments that result in success for ALL students. However, this idea of expanded educational opportunities come with one very important caveat: any legislation that seeks to expand school choice programs needs to remain under the authority of the local school board. Your local school board, and all public school boards around the state represent the taxpayer when it comes to the education of youth in Iowa. This governance structure ensures your public school provides a free and appropriate education to all students, regardless of socio-economic status, disability, or any other protected class of citizenry. For these primary reasons, we resist any attempts to expand choice programs through the introduction of voucher programs.  

School voucher programs that were proposed during the last legislative session were the antithesis of the ideals enshrined in our public school system. Not only do these programs take the 'public' out of public school accountability; they also create a caste system of education, allowing schools who would be the recipient of such a voucher the choice to deny enrollment to a student that may subscribe to a different value system, religion, or even more sinister: they may choose to deny students with disabilities under the pretense they can't meet the needs of a particular group of students.

First consider this idea of accountability. Every school district in Iowa is required by law to have an annual audit of their financial records. This gives transparency to the general public in order to ensure the public dollar is wisely invested. Furthermore, we publish an accounting of the checks we write each month. The public is able to see with their own eyes to whom bills are being paid. And I know my readers out there look at the bills! From time to time I'll get a phone call or see someone at a game that will wonder why we spent $1,012.50 with A-Line Striping and Sweeping (by the way that was annual parking lot maintenance that included painting new lines in the high school parking lot). The meetings of our public school are in fact public meetings. That means anyone who wants to attend a school board meeting can do so. If the school board wants to go into closed session there is a very narrow range of topics that permit the board to do so, and that can only happen by giving advance notice and the reason the board is taking such action. Those schools who would benefit from vouchers have no such requirements because they are not subject to the Open Meetings Law. Perhaps to some this is a minor nuisance. But consider a world where decisions made with the public dollar are done so behind closed doors without public accountability. What if you didn't know, or if we wouldn't tell you why we spent $26 with the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation? (employee background check)

Now envision a scenario where your child is denied enrollment at a school because they have a learning disability or exhibit behaviors that don't fit within the mold of the average child. What if you subscribe to a different religion than the one aligned with the school that accepts the voucher? In the examples described here, the school choice legislation previously proposed would give those institutions the authority to do exactly that, and exclude even more students than those examples given here. In fact, page 6 of HSB 651, which was a real bill from last year that actually passed out of a subcommittee stated the following beginning on line 9:
This section shall not be construed to authorize the state or any political subdivision of the state to exercise any authority over any nonpublic school or construed to require a nonpublic school to modify its academic standards for admission or educational program in order to receive payment from a parent or guardian using the funds from a pupil's account in the educational savings fund. 
And here is the real kicker, beginning on line 18 of the same section:
Rules adopted by the department to implement this section that impose an undue burden on the nonpublic school are invalid.
Public schools exist to educate all students regardless of where they come from, whatever learning challenges they may or may not have, whoever their parents are, and no matter what they believe. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

All Day Preschool?

When I began my career as an educator, kindergarten that was all day long, five days a week was a bit of an anomaly. In fact, my first teaching position was in a school where kindergarten students attended on alternating days, with the exception of Friday when they all came together (in one room mind you). If you are ever interested, sometime ask me about my experience teaching music to thirty-five five year old[s] on Friday afternoons! Nonetheless, what was once a rarity is now commonplace across the state. But here is another interesting fact: were you aware that students are not even required to attend kindergarten? By law, kindergarten remains the one 'grade level' that is exempt according to Iowa's compulsory attendance law. But in spite of that, almost all students who are five years old by September 15th attend kindergarten in Iowa.

The statewide voluntary preschool program that began in the fall of 2007 was set up as a competitive grant program. With a limited number of dollars available, school districts wishing to start preschool programs had to compete for the funds, and as such preschool in Iowa began in what I like to refer to as a 'slow roll'. But in the intervening decade, preschool is now about as common as every other day kindergarten was when I began my career. During those early years, just over 5,000 children were served statewide. Now, the statewide voluntary preschool program has grown exponentially and is expected to serve more than 25,000 students in 2018-2019. Beginning this school year, of the 330 school districts in Iowa, there are only seven remaining who do not have a statewide voluntary preschool program.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the statewide voluntary preschool program has been a huge success. Coupled with what scholarly research tells us about the impact of early intervention, schools can leverage these benefits in a way that pays dividends later in the child's academic development. Because of the fact a child's brain is 90% developed by the age of five (Iowa Department of Education Fact Sheet), it makes clear that early intervention makes tremendous difference. Prior to preschool programming, struggling students were typically identified in need of special education services and planned educational interventions toward the end of kindergarten. This was done only after following a rigorous process of problem solving, intervention, and finally implementation. On the other hand, what happens if we are able to identify and intervene before the student enters kindergarten? The intervention could then act as a preventative measure, minimizing or mitigating services needed. The fact is that at Hudson, students who are identified early in their academic careers are more likely to be 'aged out' of special education programming. Quite simply stated, that means a student who is in a special education program during their primary years may very well not be in a special education program by the time they get to junior high.

But the benefits of preschool programming aren't limited to just those students who may be eligible for special education. According to a 2017 study by the Brooking Institute and the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, (Phillips, D. A., Lipsey, M. W., Dodge, K. A., Haskins, R., Bassok, D., Burchinal, M. R., Duncan, G. J., Dynarski, M., Magnuson, K. A., & Weiland, C.) for every dollar invested in early learning programs, there is a return on investment between $7-$10.

So the decisions the Iowa Legislature have made since 2007 are wise investments. Further, the decisions made by this body that streamlined the process for schools to begin programs were very well done. Yet work remains. Currently, the law requires schools implementing the program to provide ten hours of developmentally appropriate instruction. That works out to a half day program, four days a week. Our school board would advocate all day everyday preschool. Of course this would require a greater infusion of capital since currently preschool students are weighted at .5. We believe a full day program would require a weighting of 1.0. A heavy lift indeed! Yet if we remember the research: for every dollar spent....

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Adequate and Timely School Funding Remains High on the List of Priorities

If extending the one cent sales tax beyond 2029 is the highest priority for the school board, then ensuring timely and adequate supplemental state aid is a close second. Supplemental state aid is the percentage by which the state cost per pupil increases from one year to the next. For the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2018 the state cost per pupil rose by 1% or $67. Base funding for school districts is calculated by multiplying the number of students by the cost per pupil. Considering Hudson Schools is currently experiencing enrollment growth, a 1% increase in basic funding makes it very challenging to adequately staff our facilities. Even after giving our largest employee group a meager raise, our expenses for this new fiscal year are expected to rise in excess of 3.5%. This, primarily due to the fact that in a period of growth we need to add staff in order to keep class sizes comfortable. 

Setting the growth in the per pupil rate used to be among the easiest, least controversial, and first orders of business when the legislature would convene each January. That has changed dramatically over the course of the last [approximate] decade. State law actually dictates that this growth rate must be set within 30 days of the governor releasing budget targets during the Condition of the State address. Interestingly enough, prior to just a few short years ago, that 30 day target applied to the fiscal year set to begin 18 months in advance. This way school districts would have time for planning if budget adjustments needed to be made. For example, a school district would have 18 months advance warning to contemplate a budget cut if the growth rate was too low. In a scenario such as this, the school would have ample time to mitigate the budget reduction, perhaps through a retirement incentive designed to spur natural attrition.

But instead of following the law as originally intended, the legislature just decided to change it. Now instead of 18 months of lead time, schools are left to make major budget decisions with less than 6 months notice. And that is only if they meet the new deadline, which is to set the rate of growth within 30 days of the governor's budget targets being released during the annual Condition of the State address.

Now, you can imagine with split party control over state government it would be difficult to come together with an agreement in 30 days. Yet interestingly enough, the legislature has proven it can't even meet the deadline when only one party is in power. The last time the legislature met that deadline was in 2011 (split control). Further, the last time it could be classified as adequate was 2015 when it grew by 4%. Now, we have been lucky in Hudson because our reserves are healthy enough right now that we can add staff without too much difficulty. (This is due largely to strict budgeting discipline and philosophy on the part of the board.) Nevertheless, at some point low per pupil budget growth will catch up to us. The only way to combat this is to go through a budget reduction, which inevitably would mean larger class sizes.  

Arguably K-12 schools are in better shape than other sectors of [government] that rely on the state general fund for resources. Indeed, K-12 was one of the only areas that didn't see a cut during the last legislative session. However, a strong argument might be made that the number and quantity of tax credits in the budget have exacerbated the problem to a point where revenue is simply being choked off. Yet I digress. That is a topic for another day.

The solution would seem to rather simple, and in many ways would force bipartisan cooperation that not only sets the growth rate adequately, but in a manner that makes it untenable to ignore the 30 day deadline. Consider a mechanism that automatically sets the growth rate if the deadline isn't met. It would seem this is an idea with merit. Further, I would suggest the automatic rate be set at a level that simply can't be ignored. It would certainly ensure and honest and open dialogue about the cost per pupil rate that holds people accountable, while at the same time ensures we don't just put the growth rate on autopilot. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Extending SAVE is High Priority for Hudson Board

While the first session of the 88th General Assembly isn't scheduled to begin until January of 2019, the school board has been busy discussing legislative issues that are important to our school district. These topics will form and focus our conversation with candidates and elected officials now and when the legislature convenes in January. Our priorities will help articulate the basis of our advocacy efforts with legislators, and have been presented to the Iowa Association of School boards for consideration on the official platform of legislative issues for that organization. January may seem like a time in the distant future, but now is the time to engage with and understand these issues. After all, we have an election coming up in November! Every seat in the Iowa House of Representatives is up for election, along with half the Senate and the Governor's seat. We need your help in not only understanding these issues, but helping in our advocacy efforts. There are only five members of the school board. But there are hundreds of parents in our school district. Imagine the power of our collective voice! Now then, it wouldn't be proper to endorse any specific candidate, but it would be entirely appropriate for you to consider these issues and ask the candidates where they stand before casting your ballot. Over the course of the next several weeks, I'll be sharing the priorities identified by the board and explaining the importance of them to our school district. 

New windows in the 4th/5th grade wing are part of the scope
of work included in Phase II of the elementary renovation project.
I imagine it won't come as any great surprise to anyone that the number one legislative priority for our school board is the extension of the statewide sales tax for school infrastructure, or SAVE. We have discussed this topic in depth and many times before in this blog so I don't feel it necessary to pile on or give any more examples of the projects we have been able to complete as a result of this fund. Or the jobs it has created right here in our own community. You need only to drive by our school to see the improvements. We are on the downhill side of Phase II of the elementary renovation project, and in the final analysis the cost of this renovation will be somewhere close to $400,000. That follows Phase I which was completed last summer, with a final cost close to $600,000. Easy math right? In the last year we have spent close to $1,000,000 in renovations to the elementary school, and we are just getting started. If all goes according to plan, Phase III work will start as early as the frost is out of the ground next spring and will complete the elementary attendance center. The budget for this project is still under development, but we believe it will be in the range of $4-5 Million. It is our intention to complete all this work using our sales tax revenue. 

For the budget year that began on July 1, 2018 we anticipate sales tax revenue for the district to be $649,240. Assuming a very conservative growth model over the remaining life of the sales tax this would result in millions of dollars in revenue for our school district. That's great, because we are going to need it. The bad news is that based on current law, after 2029 that revenue stream will dry up. I am pretty sure that after 2029 we won't have everything fixed or replaced. And assuming by some force of nature we did, even the most talented of maintenance crews can't prevent systems from just plain wearing out. Just like any homeowner, things need to be fixed, repaired, and in some instances replaced. It is a never ending cycle. 

Some argue that 2029 is still quite a bit into the future and that it's premature to begin discussions about extending a revenue source that is still 11 years away from expiring. But many school districts (Hudson being one of them) count on future revenue projections when prioritizing needs and developing projects. Take for example our Phase III project discussed above. We don't have $4 or $5 Million on hand to finance the remaining renovations that are necessary. But since we know what our revenue projections look like, we can bond against that future revenue without impacting property taxes. Considering twenty years is the maximum number of years in which a school district can issue debt, the fact the current law expires in just eleven years significantly handicaps school districts. Absent sales tax revenue, schools would have to continue to defer projects or ask the voters to issue general obligation debt, which does impact your property taxes.

Look, there isn't any guarantee that we won't be discussing general obligation debt at some point in the future. You all have seen our master facility plan. In order to execute on some of the long term proposals in that vision we are going to need to have a serious conversation about financing. Nevertheless, there must be no mistake that what we have been able to accomplish in the last decade would not have been possible without the revenue generated by the sales tax. I can even list them again for you if it will help. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Future of Washington Street

A few weeks back, we had a conversation in this blog about the work we have been doing in the district with regard to master planning. There was certainly a lot of information included in that post, and I am very thankful that many of you took the time to read and consider the future plans and ideas that are being discussed in our school district. It does seem that one idea included in that plan raised quite a few eyebrows and generated some commentary in our community. This is okay, because dialogue is exactly what we need when discussing some of the bigger issues that impact the greater community. The idea that has created the most buzz of course is a proposal to close Washington Street between Wood Street and School Street.

Before we unpack the rationale behind this idea, it is important to consider a couple of points. As a start, this isn't a new scheme or plan that was dreamed up by the superintendent or the school board. None of us have been around that long! The truth of the matter is, this isn't the first time this has been discussed. When it came up during our first brainstorming meeting by a community member, I was curious and interested in learning more. I know many of you haven't been around long enough to know the backstory here either, but in the 90s when discussion was occurring about the construction of the high school; closing Washington Street was a consideration. While the closure of the street didn't occur then, that didn't mean the idea was gone forever. Certainly we can all concede there would be challenges with such a bold move; particularly with regard to the traffic patterns in town to which we are all accustomed. But insurmountable? I'm not quite so certain about that. 

Thinking about this a bit deeper and from a practicality standpoint, closing Washington Street (between Wood and School) makes sense for the school district. One of the highest priorities of the community stakeholder group was to improve student safety in the district. A lot has changed since the mid-1990s, particularly with regard to the challenges schools face with regard to student safety. Hardly a week goes by these days where an incident of school violence doesn't lead the evening news. Indeed, this is why a centerpiece of Phase III of the elementary renovation project will include a new office with a controlled entrance for our visitors. But we can discuss that more later.

With the amount of student pedestrian traffic traveling between our attendance centers for classes, closing off the street would do a lot to improve the safety of our student body. Coupled with a plan to 'flip' the elementary attendance center and move the youngest of our students to the north end of campus, this would also have a secondary benefit of significantly reducing travel and lost instructional time.

Of course our long term goal would be to build a new junior high building in that space, connecting the elementary and high school. In addition to the instructional space this would provide, it would also give our students an enclosed safe corridor between the two attendance centers. But that is in the future and certainly would require a lot more community engagement and discussion. As a start to this conversation, the enrollment has to do what our models suggest it will do in the next several years. Indeed, when the houses start coming we know for certain children will come with them. We are confident they will. Our community and our school district are very appealing and families want to move here to raise their families.

In the interim, our plan would be to close and excavate the street, creating green space between the attendance centers and leaving the bike trail in its current location. It would seem to make sense to begin these strategic moves now, so when, and if the time comes to have a greater conversation about major construction we have considered with some foresight what makes the most sense.

I won't pretend to have all the answers to the questions about how we can deal with and mitigate the details of a move like this. I won't even assume I know all the underlying issues. But, at the end of the day there will be plenty of opportunities for our community to provide input. Ultimately this decision will rest not with the Hudson school board, but with the city council. At this point, I am grateful they are willing to have a conversation. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Update on the Summer

I hope everyone has been enjoying their summer and finding time to relax, heat up the grill, and spend quality time with family and friends. Our projects in the district are moving along nicely, and in some cases we are a bit ahead of schedule. The only sour note is that the air conditioning is still out in the middle school (which includes the central office). We are very optimistic this will soon be remedied! Next week it is supposed to be in the 90s again, so the sooner the better! Now, I don't know about you, but it is kind of hard to believe we are past the 4th of July! To me, once we pass that date on the calendar it begins the mad rush to the start of the school year. 

The renovations in the elementary school include the replacement of windows in the 4th and 5th grade wing, along with the lighting and ceiling grid. These classrooms will also be outfitted with the mini-split air conditioning units like were installed last year in the early childhood wing. The two computer labs in the library are also having doors installed that open into the hallway because we believe at some point in the near future those spaces will be needed for classrooms. We have also approved work to replace the north entrance to the middle school. You may recall all the trouble we have had with that entrance over the last year. It really began to deteriorate by the end of the school year. 

We are ahead of schedule with regard to hiring teaching positions as well. At this time, all our faculty positions are filled. This is great news, and somewhat rare for us. Usually we are waiting until a bit later to make a decision as to whether or not to open an additional section of kindergarten. Enrollment projections came in early and large enough to warrant that third section early so it was nice to be able to make those decisions early on. Likewise, we are not trying to fill a teaching position in a hard to fill area, which has also been commonplace for us the last couple of years. 

In the coming weeks we will really start to ramp up our operations in anticipation for the start of the school year. Supply orders are beginning to be placed, curriculum is on the way, and very soon the registration material will be mailed out. Our custodians are very hard at work getting the buildings ready for the return of students, and before we know it they will be putting the final coat of wax on the floors in the hallways. 

Now, if we could just get that air running! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Master Facility Planning Identifies and Prioritizes Needs

In 2012, the Board of Directors adopted a comprehensive and multi-faceted strategic plan titled Hudson 2020. We are now on the eve of a date and time that seemed so far into the future! For certain a lot has changed in those intervening years. Our financial position is markedly improved, enrollment is on the rise with new housing developments driving growth, and most importantly, many of the recommendations from Hudson 2020 have been implemented. With these changes, new challenges have emerged that require our attention. Over the last several months, a group of community members, parents, teachers, administrators, and board members have been meeting with architects and engineers to consider what our next steps forward might be as we consider and contemplate these new and exciting challenges that are now emerging. At the upcoming June board meeting, the Board of Directors is expected to approve this plan as a 'flexible framework for handling varying levels of future community growth' (p. 2). It is very important to note this master plan is not meant as a definitive project or series of projects to be completed in the near term, but rather to inform a long term vision for the school district. 

At a community stakeholder group meeting held at the end of February, the committee developed and determined a list of priorities. While those priorities are listed on page 30 of the report, the top three included completing deferred maintenance and a refreshed image of district facilities, locker room improvements, and improved security. At the same time, we asked the master plan be developed with an expectation that enrollment will grow to a point where a four section elementary school will, at some point be in our future.

Phase 3 work could include some of what is
described in the schematic above.
In the short term, much of our work will be a continuation of what we started last summer which is the renovation of the elementary attendance center. This summer we are completing what has been commonly referred to as 'Phase 2' and includes the HVAC, windows, lighting and ceiling work. But in addition to this deferred maintenance, we are seriously looking at how improved security, a refreshed image of district facilities and locker room improvements will fit into our next project, which we have termed 'Phase 3'. This project would include a new elementary office with a controlled entrance located on the north end of what is now the 4-5 grade wing of the elementary building, an expansion and remodeling of the middle school commons, renovations of the media center, remodeling of the locker rooms directly across from the competition gym, and replacing all the entrances at each attendance center with key fob access for improved security.

A long term plan may include the construction of a junior high
building that connects the elementary and
high school buildings together.
But to complete this next phase of work and consider future projects will require a change to our financing strategy. In the past, the board has operated under a philosophy of 'pay as you go', meaning that design, size, and execution of a project was completely dependent on having cash on hand in order to complete the project. That strategy has served us well, but we have reached a point where it no longer makes financial or practical sense to continue in this manner. As a simple example, the project we are currently contemplating (Phase 3) is between $4-$5 Million. It would take between 8-10 years to accumulate the cash needed to execute on this project. Furthermore, this doesn't consider the rising cost of construction, which historically increases between 4-5% annually.

Instead, a financing structure that utilizes revenue bonds seems to make a lot mores sense, particularly since it has a historic interest rate of 2-3% for schools. In this case, it would seem to make much more economic sense to utilize a revenue bond instead of the pay as you go strategy. That is what the board is currently contemplating and will take up at their June 18th board meeting. It is also very important to remember, a revenue bond is not a property tax increase. A revenue bond for the school district is simply a financing mechanism where we leverage our future sales tax revenue. This is commonly referred to as a TARB (Tax Anticipated Revenue Bond). Aside from the fact there are no property tax implications, the other upside is this enables our district to  meet an immediate need while at the same time preparing for growth. We'll talk more about our plans for future growth and what that means for our district in a future post. For a preview, I would encourage you to take a look at our master plan.

In the interim, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or even other ideas: please reach out to your board members or myself. While the ideas discussed in this master plan are conceptual and would require a lot of community engagement and input, at a minimum they provide us with a framework from which to begin a conversation. This is a very exciting time to be a Pirate.