Tuesday, November 29, 2016

School Committee Meetings: What's on the Agenda?

Listening to all of one and part of another school committee meeting tonight made me reflect on a number of items. I wonder how all staff could be privy to this valuable information without the add-on of watching a multi-hour school committee meeting each week.

Is it important to know all of this information? I think it is important for our teaching/learning community to be well aware of what is happening around the system. When we're informed, we can maximize that information to teach, learn, and collaborate well as a learning community to serve students and families well.

No one educator can focus on or be apart of all decisions in this regard. Yet, when educators are involved in the decisions that affect their work, I believe the work of all is elevated. Also when money is short or limited, enlisting the ideas and thoughts of the educators about priorities can also increase investment and good decision making.

Teacher-Driven, Engaging Study
First, I was so impressed with the curriculum share related to the Global Read Aloud. I was very proud of my colleagues who put so much time, effort, research, and creativity into this terrific project. It's great to see projects like these shared with the greater community. This is an example of wonderful teacher-driven creativity and effort with regard to timely, high-interest, integrated teaching and learning. The superintendent also mentioned the terrific rocket launch at another school. This is another home-grown teacher-driven project that's a big success.

Strategic Process for Curriculum Development and Change
Next as I listened to news of curriculum changes and purchases, it made me reflect about the curriculum choice process. I wondered about the best ways to choose new curriculum in this modern age, and I wondered how we work to make inclusive decisions that lead to brain-friendly, creative, engaging, student-centered, and timely curriculum choices. Too often, in the past, programs have been created and/or purchased that have not been used well or haven't kept up with the learning potential that exists today. Typically when educators are deeply involved in an inclusive meaningful and thoughtful strategic process, the materials are well chosen, used, developed, and personalized to meet the teaching/learning needs of all. It would be interesting to hear what educators think of this issue. What curriculum efforts have been most successful? Where did those efforts originate and how did those efforts develop? Were the efforts more top-down, grass roots, or a good mix of both? How do we measure the impact of curriculum? How do we identify curriculum strategies that work best? What is a good example of this? This would be a great topic for teacher discussion as there are so many options today when it comes to good teaching and learning. I have heard many various opinions and experiences expressed related to this topic.

Distributive Leadership Empowers Teacher/Student Voice and Choice
I would like to see greater distributive leadership or a "teams within teams" model emerge. With this kind of model, every teacher would serve on an authentic, curriculum committee. The committees would represent system-wide teams with teachers from multiple levels who make decisions related to those curriculum areas. The leaders would return to their grade-level or subject-area teams to discuss changes and enlist teacher voice. At the elementary level I could imagine curriculum teams in math, STEAM/science, writing, and reading. Meetings would be held regularly during the school day. I believe a model like this would engender greater teacher voice and choice that would result in rich teaching and greater student choice and voice.

App Approval Process
App approval and a new student information system were discussed. It was interesting to note the substantial research, administrative, and legal efforts that accompany this effort as the system works toward online safety. It appears to take a fair number of professional hours to complete this kind of work. I'm sure there will be countless changes in this regard over the years as technology and cognitive science continue to develop at a rapid pace.

Athletic Programs Review and Development
I listened carefully to the athletic report too. The athletic director discussed a large number of points related to a recent Northeastern study and follow-up efforts. As the mom of three boys who have profited greatly from the sports teams, coaches, and efforts in the town where I teach, I am grateful to the wonderful impact these efforts have had on my children. It sounds like sports are continuing to develop and change in positive ways too.

Mentors for Violence Prevention Programs
A wonderful review of a powerful high school program was reviewed. I'm so glad that my son has a chance to learn from this empowering and sensitive programming.

STEAM Supplies/Extended School Day/Summer Programs
I learned of new STEAM supplies that will be added to the schools, but I'm not sure if those are just for after school programming or for the classroom programs. I continue to be impressed by the system's extended day programming. I know this serves students and families well. I think it's great that they are offering jobs and internships to high school students too. It's a win-win for both the high school students and young students.

The school committee has a big responsibility to figure out the budget. There are so many questions to answer. How much money should a community spend on education? What are the priorities with regard to spending this money? Who prioritizes and how? As I've watched school committee meetings in the past year or so, I've realized how much time is spent at school committee meetings and elsewhere with regard to the budget. Lots of time and thought goes into this process.

Of course, as an educator, I believe that a high quality education system is a wonderful investment for a community. Well educated, invested children contribute well to communities and respect those communities too. The schools provide a positive centerpiece to communities--they are one organization that brings people together in positive endeavor.

There was a lot of discussion as to how to share information about budgets with the citizens. Communication of any information is always a source of discussion as it's important to think deeply about who you are communicating to and what you want them to hear, understand, know, and discuss. In the public domain, it's great to be as transparent and inclusive as possible as that saves time, money, and energy in the long run.

A "Building the Budget" presentation was given which demonstrates all the factors that are included in a small town's school system budget. It is a complex mathematical problem, one that the public has an opportunity to discuss and vote on. The budget guidelines suggest that there is no more than a 2.5% increase (about $950,000). That's not much given the changing landscape of education and the potential/possibility that exists in education today. What's included in a budget: salaries, athletics, transportation, retirements, wage adjustment (contract negotiations), enrollment (how many students), facilities operations/maintenance.

There were also a lot of priorities shared including the following:
  • World language coordinator for language immersion program. I'd rather see a program that serves all children, not just some, but again, I haven't done extensive research on this. This will also change the community school notion to a degree and add transportation costs which may or may not be an issue.We already have quite a few bilingual students in our system. As a parent, I would have been very interested in this program, however. So it is a high interest option. This seems to be a big priority for the leadership.
  • More Guidance: I think this is important.
  • Extracurricular Stipends: I'd like to see how this fits with the overall K-12 system expenditures and priorities in this area before commenting as I believe the stipend money should be well directed across K-12.
  • High School Interdisciplinary Teacher: This is outside of my area of knowledge/focus.
  • High School Tech Assistant Again, I'm unfamiliar with their staffing.
  • Elementary Tech Chromebooks: I wonder if we could ask parents to buy these and then just pay for the few students who could not afford them. Chromebooks are not that expensive and students could use these throughout Middle School.
  • Middle School Writing Lab: Not in my knowledge/focus area
  • Elementary Assistant Principal: I'd prefer to see curriculum directors play an assistant principal/curriculum role. I think that would bring the directors into the school and then the principal/curriculum director could share the role of school leadership and curriculum leadership. Greater use of distributive leadership models and hybrid roles would eliminate the need for more administrators. Further, a streamlined evaluation process would also reduce the need for more administrators.
  • Ordering Efforts: I believe this effort could begin earlier and with better use of professional/administrative time, this could be done. We could order earlier, order more online, and then have custodial staff and possibly others help with delivery. I've always felt that one purchasing individual for the system could potentially organize orders and save money. I worked in a place that did this, and it was very successful. 
  • Docusign: I wonder if there are cost-free ways to do this. I do this for free with Google's app dochub.
  • High school/Facilities Issues: I don't know a lot about this as it's not my area and there were a number of related priorities in this area. 
Language Immersion Program
Our school system is considering adding a language immersion program to next year's projected budget. The program, as described, would begin in kindergarten and then a grade would be added each year. I love the idea of language immersion, but have many questions. I wonder how students would be selected. Would it be first come first serve? Would native Spanish speakers get first dibs on the program? Where would the program be housed? How would the program be integrated with other grade-level programs? Is it fair to offer this enrichment program to some rather than others? Could this program be offered to all as a twice-weekly special including one language tech class and one language hands-on class which would provide educators with additional collaborative/planning time, and provide all students with language immersion opportunity. I know there's been a lot of discussion and meeting about this, and I have not read all the related research, so my thoughts are from what I know to date about this topic.

School committee members cautioned each other about how they talk about it. They mentioned that it will have an impact and that the FinCom guidelines have only a 2.5% increase for the total town budget. They noted that collective bargaining is an executive session issue. It was mentioned that principals noted that they can't make software purchases and that they have to make hard choices in this area. I had not heard this in my school, and found that interesting to hear. It was mentioned that it was difficult to say no to teachers, and I had not experienced this either, but I am only one in a system of many.

Budget Saving Considerations
  • Could families buy students their own computers? And then could the system support the families who were unable to purchase the computers?
  • Could we use more free software? For example Khan Academy has a lot to offer and is still free to use. 
  • Could we institute a more strategic approach to software purchases? Would a better process save money?
  • Could software purchases be combined with the general resource funds?
  • Are there ways to streamline efforts to create greater savings and more efficient, effective work? 
  • Are some software programs that we currently use not worth the price?
  • Transportation savings and innovative ideas were discussed. A Concord Public Schools electric bus grant was mentioned. 
Security Cameras
This was brought up. I do think that in this day and age, security cameras are a good idea for schools. It's a good safety decision. I actually thought we already had security cameras at our school, but perhaps I'm wrong. I think it's important for the public and staff to know where the cameras are. 

Transportation is a costly item, and there was much discussion about how to lower those prices. There must be a better way to transport children in a small town, but I haven't thought of it. Safety is a big concern here. 

Superintendent Search
This is an ongoing effort. Ads in process. Focus groups are in process. Not advertised yet. They will include 25-30 at most. They mentioned dates and groups, but I haven't seen it published anywhere at this time. It seems they will start in early January. They discussed the survey and felt it should be opened for about two weeks. It will open after the holiday break. A screening committee will be created too. It was noted that the PTO choose parent representatives through a broad manner; the WTA will select the teachers; Finance committee (and other board reps) would choose a member from their staff, and the school committee will select the community representatives via an application process. It was mentioned that they didn't want to "stack" the selection committee and that school committees promote these searches in different ways. They discussed if there should be a school committee member on the screening committee and highlighted that it is the school committee's responsibility to hire the superintendent. 

Note that these notes reflect the 11/28 and 11/14 SC meetings.