Two invitations

IEP - Interest Flyer

From Sheri Williamson:

I would like to extend an invitation to Unit 4 parents to participate in my new public affairs radio show on WEFT.

To give you background:

Beginning in September I will be starting my own public affairs radio show on WEFT 90.1. I’m hoping to use the show to address different issues in the community including those specifically related to education and our schools.

The show will be called “In the Know” and focus on spreading awareness around a variety of topics. I will have weekly guests, feature trending subtopics and research, and inform the community on where to find local services. I will also highlight how community members can get engaged and support local agencies and organizations who provide services.

Additionally, I’m planning on having a monthly discussion on my show with local parents and teachers. Some of the first topics I’ll be discussing are new ways for parents to engage – even outside of the PTA. This includes the possible formation of parent peer mentor groups. Other early topics include the show 13 Reasons Why, bullying, IEPs, and teaching empathy. 

I’m planning to live stream from the studio on Facebook as well as take questions via Facebook and Twitter before and during live broadcasts.

If you would be interested in being a guest on the show please feel free to email me: swlmsn79@gmail.com. I would love for parents with experience and/or interest in lending their voices to these topics to be part of the discussions.

Best,
Sheri Williamson
(217) 721-6540

 

Mentoring

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It takes a village, part 2

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In Kijita (Wajita) there is a proverb which says ‘Omwana ni wa bhone,’ meaning regardless of a child’s biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community.

 
 
Previously, I mentioned I talked with Angela Smith and Orlando Thomas on the topic of discipline, a conversation which ranged into the topic of community partnerships and collaborations. Specifically, Ms. Smith and Mr. Thomas both suggested I talk to Ms. Karen Simms. It was great advice. 🙂
Ms. Simms presented at the Feb 13th BOE meeting – I encourage you to look through the documents posted on BoardDocs:
I recently had the privilege to speak with Karen Simms. I first gave a little background about why I had visited Ms. Smith and Mr. Thomas, namely Mr. Terry Townsend’s letter of complaint to the OCR. Ms. Simms indicated she was quite familiar with the Consent Decree and the Plaintiff class. She went on to say that one of goals of the Promise Zone initiative is to “build on the work of the consent decree”, specifically by changing policies and practices. This is important as district leadership and boards change over time.
When I mentioned that the information she presented on the Promise Zone looks like Imani Bazzell’s work with “Great Campus” and “At Promise of Success”, she said that Promise Zone “gives teeth to Imani’s ideas.”
I have a lot of respect for what Imani has done in regards to “Great Campus” and “At Promise of Success”. Here are two earlier blog posts on that topic:
I love it that certain entities have been working hard to create tailored environments for some of our most “at risk” children. I want to be careful about using a label like “at risk”; perhaps another way to say it is that Promise Zone creates a village for students that do not otherwise have a village. In Ms. Simms’ Feb 13th BOE presentation, on slide 5 she references the work of the Community Schools initiative (also shared at the Feb 13th BOE meeting) and that of Cradle to Career. At the bottom of the slide, she has a quote that is most apropos:

Community building must become the heart of any school improvement effort.
— Thomas Sergiovanni

A few years ago I suggested that perhaps we are asking the wrong question when we ask about money – we should be asking about how we can provide optimal learning environments. It seems to me that Promise Zone tackles this question for minority students that are currently not served well by the status quo.
In time, I truly hope this idea catches on and is able to scale up. I firmly believe we need more overlap and intersection between what we call “community” and “school”.
PS – for those that wish to watch the Feb 13th BOE meeting, it is up on Vimeo:

New Board members

For the April 4th Consolidated Election, there are three open slots on the school board; and for those three spots, three candidates filed the necessary paperwork prior to the deadline in December of 2016, and thus each are running uncontested. From the Champaign County Clerk’s website:

  • Gianina Baker – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term
  • Bruce Brown – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term
  • Heather Vazquez – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term

 

All three interviewed for the open position in January of 2016 (a board appointment, not an election). For those that are interested, here is some more information from the Jan 2016 interviews (including applications):

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/school-board-member-applications/

 

Gianina has already served for one year. Mr. Brown and Ms. Vazquez are replacing Lynn Stuckey and Jonathan Westfield. I believe all three will be sworn in at the April 10th Regular BOE meeting.

 

Congrats to all three!

 

Feb 13th BOE meeting: more on community involvement

The agenda posted for the Feb 13th BOE meeting has a couple community engagement pieces you might want to learn more about: “My Family’s Promise Plan Pilot” and a draft of a new policy to support Community Schools “Policy 831 – Community Schools“.

 

I had an excellent chat with Orlando Thomas and Angela Smith last week. I had asked a few questions about discipline, and came away from the meeting being very much encouraged about the work going on in Unit 4. One of my take-aways is that the school district yearns for more collaboration with the community. And it seems that the two agenda items listed above is very much in line with the need for more partnerships.

 

Another take-away was that our public schools could really use more mentors (eg the one-to-one mentoring program and also TALKS mentoring). So much so that when I asked Orlando how the community can help right now, that was his number one request. In fact, Orlando has been asking for more mentors for many years now. As a one-to-one mentor myself, I would be happy to talk to anyone else if you are interested.

Questions about finances

I don’t know about you, but every time the topic of money (levies, tax abatement, fund transfers or anything else to do with finances) comes up in board meetings, I feel like a secret language is being used which I do not fully understand (is it Elvish? Klingon?). I mean, I can look up the terms and understand the words that are used, and by doing so, I can slowly chip away at the information that is presented. But by no means would I say that I have a clear picture. Having asked several questions and finding myself still perplexed, a friend suggested I just put the questions in a blog post and see if anyone else can provide some clarity. Or at least commiserate. *grin*

 

This first question I have asked many times over the past few years; can a Unit 4 5th grader present the finance information to the community? Whether it be in the context of a public hearing of a new budget or abatement, I want to know if a 5th grader can not only understand the information, but then also communicate it back out to the community in a language and style that is easy to digest. A few years ago I chatted with Matt Foster and developed a sample Sankey chart of the FY14 budget – for me, visualization helps a lot. This is just one step towards better understanding. I have also asked that jargon like “levy” and “abatement” not be used to explain “levy” and “abatement”.

 

On the topic of levies, I have queried board members about how the district settles on a tax levy amount (the “ask”). From what I gather, the district attempts to make an informed, educated guess about how much money is coming in via the tax rolls, and sets a levy amount that they know to be slightly over the amount they think they can take in an effort to “capture” any new taxes. The reason they submit a guess is that the Champaign County Clerk ultimately decides what the tax levy will be (based on the EVA, or “economic value added”), and due to an unfortunate timing of events, entities that levy taxes, by law, must submit their levy amounts even though the amount of money collected by taxes is not known until several months later. So in essence, levying entities in a “home-rule government” (Unit 4, MTD, Forest Preserve, etc – Parkland is not constrained by “tax caps” or PTEL, as a counter example) either declare some artificial maximum tax rate that will later be tuned down by the County Clerk, or if they set an amount that is less than the maximum, they “lose” the difference when taxes are actually collected. It’s all pretty stupid – I don’t know who wrote the laws that muck things up like that. But this brings me to my second question: why not just always levy for one billion percent? (Yes, 1,000,000,000%) Or choose some other completely arbitrary number that will always be “maximum”. Because in the end, no matter what number the district settles on, they always want it to be some (at the time) unknown “maximum”. It seems to me that this would at least make things a bit less confusing – you just basically skip all the nonsense and tell the County Clerk to assign the highest number possible. Until the laws change. (I settled on 1B% because it is absolutely ludicrous – it reflects the silly dance we do every year)

 

And finally my last question for today. What role do the various funds (ie, Fund 60, Fund 61) have, and when money is moved from one fund to another, exactly what is the intended purpose? I believe there is a document on the Unit 4 website that describes some of the funds, but at this time I cannot find it. More importantly, when there is a public hearing, currently all the documentation is presented in “State Form”, a format that is sent directly to the State for legal purposes. It is exceptionally hard to make sense of, and I have no idea why monies are moved from one fund to another.

 

I had the privilege of speaking with Gene Logas several times when he was the CFO at Unit 4; after one of those chats, Mr. Logas published several informative and helpful documents that are still listed on the “Finance department” section of the Unit 4 website, in particular, “Where Does All the Money Go?” and “Property Tax Lesson“. I applaud the district for going through the trouble of putting check registers, yearly budgets and many other pieces of information on their website. This is an excellent step towards transparency! The next step is helping taxpayers understand the information.

Finding the good: awesome teachers and excellent opportunities

Today I was watching the most recent Board Meeting (Jan 23), and I was reminded that I wanted to write a post (several posts, actually). Aside from the important-but-dry communications about legal issues, bonds, finances, “construction management at risk” (it sounds worse than it is, lol), etc etc, I have been very impressed by the Staff Spotlights, not to mention the occasional report about some really cool things at various schools, like what was hinted by the Kenwood presentation.

 

At this last board meeting, there was a double dose of Staff Spotlights, honoring three outstanding individuals – from the Jan 23rd 8A agenda item:

Ms. [Lindsay] Green sees her students as people. She wants them to be successful both academically and personally. She was recently touched by the tragedy of a student suicide. She has since looked at her curriculum and how she can wrap around students as people and as students. She uses literature to help students be successful and active members of our society. She creates a space where students are heard, valued, and helped. Her students know and recognize her as a person who can be easily identified for support and advocacy. She is a teacher that I frequently use as a model to emulate. She is a teacher that all of us hope to be. She is a life changer. She is a safe space. She is an excellent teacher.

Every day, regardless of any outside factors or variables, both Tami [Fisher] and Iyana [Jones] show up to work with an attitude that puts what is best for our students first. They are experienced, confident, and understand how to work with students at baseline as well as those in crisis. The most amazing thing about these two is the work they put in outside of school hours to benefit our students. Be it service projects, going to see student sporting events, helping gather donations for students whose families are in need, or just always keeping their eyes open for rewards/prizes/snacks that students have stated they like, their devotion to our students never seems to diminish.

 

We are blessed to have people like this serving in our schools. Likewise, a shout out to Nicole Lafond for having a weekly teacher highlight in the News-Gazette; I would encourage you to check those out as well. Nicole seems to range all over looking for stand-out teachers.

 

In addition to the Staff Spotlight this past Monday, the Board was also treated to a presentation, via four students, about the computational work going on at Kenwood. These kids are being exposed to some really fantastic opportunities at such a young age, not to mention the enviable partnership with the University MTSE via CTRL-Shift. On top of that, while it is not in the limelight, for several years students have been able to attend the renowned Students Involved with Technology (SIT) conference; just as one other example of how doors are being opened. There is obviously a synergy happening, especially when you have folks like Wendy Maa, Kära Tanaka and Trevor Nadrozny, all of whom were supporting the students at the board meeting (there are of course many others, Kenwood has quite an impressive cast).

 

At one point during the meeting, Board President Chris Kloeppel praised the Choice program – and I believe he was very much right in that Unit 4 has a lot of exciting schools to choose from.

 

I don’t know about you, but these things warm my heart. Yes, there are still many challenges to address. But I believe we can and we will address them. If Unit 4 is full of such amazing people, how can we not? 🙂

A Call to Action – safe schools post Nov 8, 2016

Due to the increased acts of harassment, bullying and downright meanness across the nation as of November 8th, a grassroots group has begun organizing to urge for a welcoming and safe environment in our local schools. Another reader has also mentioned a statement from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC):

http://nepc.colorado.edu/newsletter/2016/11/nepc-statement

 

The local grassroots group has put together a petition (google form – UPDATED), and are asking that people sign it. They will be presenting this to the school board tonight at the Mellon Center.

 

Several Champaign Unit 4 parents have been organizing around an issue that we plan to present at tomorrow’s board meeting and we are looking for additional Champaign parents and community members who can help.

 

Tomorrow we will send a letter to the board and Superintendent Wiegand that outlines our concerns regarding the recent increase in hate speech and harassment of vulnerable groups in schools across the nation. The letter also proposes plans to prevent and address these issues in our district.

 

Would you be willing to sign such a letter and/or help connect us to other parents and community members who would be willing to sign it? In addition, we hope to pack the house tomorrow night with concerned citizens and parents and would love to have any support we can get that way.

 

Thank you so much!

 

Sharlene Denos
sharlene.denos@gmail.com

p.s. The school board meeting is tomorrow, November 14th at 5:30pm at the Mellon Administration Building, 703 South New Street in Champaign.