School board events today and tomorrow

Tonight (Monday, May 18th) the school board meets with Illinois Assocation of School Boards (IASB) representative Dr. Patrick Rice, the Field Service Director for our area (“Illini region”). Even though the entire meeting is essentially dedicated to an OMA-blessed executive session, you can read the one-page brochure from IASB:

http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/files/9WH8CK73C454/$file/StartingRightbrochure.pdf

 

For anyone who has been reading for a little while, you know will I fully support the IASB’s efforts and I consider this a “good thing.” Based on that brochure, I can see that the “2.5 – 3 hour” meeting will summarize the  main areas of the IASB’s “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance.” I am altogether excited because five of the seven board members are new and they have stated a desire to change the way the school board operates, and given that the topic of tonight’s meeting is “Starting Right”, I am quite confident that this “board retreat” will further transform the board into a successful agent of the people.

My hope and request for the board tonight is that they ask a lot of questions as they wrap their heads around these concepts. “Question everything.” :)

 

Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 19th) the school board will be available for a “meet & greet” at the Mellon Building (703 South New Street, Champaign) from 7:00 – 8:30 pm. The event is sponsored by the PTA Council – the following is from an email blurb sent out last week:

Please join Champaign PTA Council for an informal “Meet & Greet” to introduce yourself to the new members of the Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education, K-12 principals in Unit 4, and the PTA presidents at each school. The public is invited and encouraged to attend. Refreshments will be provided.

Please RSVP on the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607091012869879/

e-mail me at csmcarthur@gmail.com or call/text 217-637-0968 by 6pm on Monday, May 18th.

 

This is a great opportunity for community members and organizations to network with key players in the educational system in one place!

 

We look forward to seeing you!

Cathy S. McArthur, President

Champaign PTA Council

 

Analyzing choice data

In my previous post, I mentioned that the school district provided some new choice data for me. Ironically, I had asked for aggregated data, but the district pleasantly surprised me with disaggregated data. For those not familiar with the jargon, basically I asked for the summary and they sent me the details. I like details.

One major caveat: all the data below, and the analysis thereof, are from snapshots at specific points in time. I am told, and I believe, that the assignment data is very fluid. I have tried to focus on data that is fed into the relevant software at the time of the “big run”, when parent choices are inputted en masse.

First off, I had to massage the data quite a bit. Even though the district provided a PDF spreadsheet, the document does not convert well to a real spreadsheet; one program I used removed all the “empty” boxes, another program put all the pages on separate worksheets. So in the end I wrote my own script to convert the PDF to a SQL script which inserts data into a database. And from there, we can do all sorts of magic – like dumping it back down to an Excel spreadsheet:

My typical question is along the lines of “how many people chose each school?”

total_choice_count_2015

u4Dashboard_sample_2015The term “overchosen” is a bit nebulous, and perhaps even outdated at this point. But I use it intentionally because the school district still uses it, even though the district has had a history of not telling which schools are actually overchosen. :) This past year I understand that the Family Information Center (FIC) provided a dashboard snapshot to help answer that question, but this was never provided online – you had to visit the FIC in person. You might wonder, why is this important? Sure during the registration process it is helpful to a degree, but afterwards? The purpose of this post is to address that question head-on, in two different aspects.

First, let us pretend this is the middle of March; you are a parent of a child who is entering Kindergarten in the Fall. Let us say that you are busy and have not had time to visit all the schools (all twelve schools!), but you have a pretty good idea of which ones you like, and there are two you least like (maybe the balanced calendar does not fit your work schedule). You visit the FIC and a choice specialist frowns upon your first choice because it is an “overchosen” school and your chances of getting it are less than 100%. This is where the fun starts. Are you the type of person that just really wants to know exactly what your chance is so you can weigh your options? If so, you will be frustrated because nobody will tell you. However, if you can let it go and not get hung up over it, you will be much happier, just pick a couple other schools that you want. The choice specialist will look at your list and tell you if all your top three or five choices are likely candidates. For instance, if you choose Barkstall, Bottenfield, Carrie Busey, Westview and Robeson as your top five and nothing else, there is a good chance you will not get any of them. Why? Again, are you the type of person that needs to know, or can you let it go and take the FIC counselor’s advice in choosing other schools?

Here’s the thing. The FIC staff are smart people; they understand the “system” and they know about the back-end software. However their communication styles/methods differ from person to person. I have talked to many parents who get extremely frustrated with the FIC staff, and I have also talked to many parents who are totally thrilled with the FIC staff. Some people click, some people don’t. Don’t let it ruin your day. :)

And here is the second aspect. There is a wealth of information that the school district does not initially make available. Why? I am not sure. At one Choice Committee meeting I raised this question, and it seems the consensus is that sometimes there is “too much” information – it becomes overwhelming and increases stress. Which is a very tricky balance. My goal is to decrease stress. How do we do that successfully for everyone? Ultimately, I think it comes down to being able to differentiate well; which is extremely appropriate because that is exactly what we want our teachers to do. This is no different. Think about this as a class in choosing a school for your precious child, and the FIC staff are the teachers.

For instance, here is a chart showing the trends of the first school choice (choice 1) made my parents who ended up with the infamous and dreaded label “unassigned”:

unassigned_summary_2015

You will notice that Barkstall dominates the top. In other words, of the people who ended up being unassigned, a majority of them chose Barkstall as their number one school. Further analysis of the disaggregated data shows that almost all of those parents did not choose any “underchosen” school as a “backup choice”. However, there is something else I wish to tease out from this graph. I will make it clear with trend lines:

unassigned_trends_2015

In words: for those that end up unassigned, more and more are choosing Carrie Busey as a first choice, and fewer are choosing Barkstall, Bottenfield and South Side.

Another group of factoids from the data. 19 total families chose Barkstall as 1st choice and had no priority (sibling, proximity, low-ses), and only 1 got into Barkstall (18 did not). So that is a 1/19 chance. For Carrie Busey, it was 0/12. 8 of those that chose Barkstall ended up being unassigned – right there is more than a third of the total “unassignees”. The lesson here is that if you do not have priority to a “overchosen” school, your chances of getting in are really really low. And the way the FIC will put that to you is that you are throwing away your first choice. :) Which significantly increases your chances of ending up with no school assignment.

As one parent recently told me, it would certainly be fascinating to find out “why” parents choose the schools they do. Unfortunately, the data we currently have is really bad at answering the “why” question; it is really good at answering the “what” and the “how” questions.

The district is (rightfully) rather proud that the number of families getting their first choice is relatively high. That translates into happy customers. How can we make even more customers happy? What is the next hurdle? For one, I think it comes down to understanding why parents make the choices that they do. I had a great email exchange with a parent from the 2015 School Assignment process that took the time to explain to me why she made her choices, and it totally makes sense. For this parent, being unassigned is stressful; even the ensuing aftermath of dealing with waitlists and being assigned to a second choice school that was (at the time) overcapacity was stressful. I believe the FIC could have done a better job to make this one parent less stressed; maybe by patiently explaining the trends shown above, and encouraging more choices. Or taking the time to listen a little more closely. In general, can we meet each and every single parent where they are at and try to learn what their needs are?

At the end of the day, I am really proud of our Unit 4 schools. I try to tell parents that no matter what school they end up at, most likely their child will love it and have a great experience.

Aggregate data for “Schools of Choice” choices

I submitted a FOIA request for the aggreate choice data for this year (2015) and last year (2014). The district FOIA officer (Mr. Tom Lockman) responded with the following two files:

Unfortunately, neither document is labeled with the year for which it represents, but once I analyze the data a little better, I think I will be able to tell just by the total number of choices (according to Stephanie, we had 697 in 2015 and 681 in 2014). My intent is to reformat the data for a database, then add new pretty charts to my Choice chart page.

Thanks to Mr. Lockman and the folks at Unit 4 for generating these PDFs. I especially appreciate that the data is actually a formatted PDF, as opposed to an image file. :)

I just happened to glance at one file and noticed some odd quirks. For instance, of the several families that made one and only choice for Westview, one family was assigned to their alledged 2nd choice, Carrie Busey, even though no 2nd choice is listed.

re-post: “Ted Talk: Shut up and Listen”

Todd Lash retweeted about Ernesto Sirolli’s TED Talk, which tickled a memory. Going through my email, I found that Chuck Jackson had posted about this 1.5 years ago:

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/ted-talk-shut-up-and-listen/

 

I thank Todd for reminding me about this. I ask more people to listen to this TED Talk and see if it is relevant for Champaign, and more specifically, the school district. When I hear this talk, the filter in my brain hears that we need to build relationships, we need to get to know other people, we need to learn what is important to other people.

 

Please discuss.

A totally new school board

Tonight’s short meeting resulted in four new board officers, and personally, I am glad that the President and VP votes were unanimous:

  • Chris Kloeppel (President)
  • Amy Armstrong (Vice President)
  • Kathy Shannon (Secretary)
  • Jonathan Westfield (Parliamentarian)

There were a number of tweets, and Nicole followed up with an NG article. It is exciting to witness and hear about the synergy that has already been building between various board members (new and old), not to mention some of the things they want to tackle. For instance, how to take advantage of social media? How to engage the community and make board meetings more “friendly”? How to work together as a board but still have individual passions? And with Mr. Kloeppel being the youngest board president in a very very long time (ever?), their path as a team will be both challenging and exciting.

My number one priority for the board is that they continue to more fully embrace the model espoused by the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), called “The Foundational Principles of Governance.” The IASB model does several things that I like, taking a lot of cues from John Carver’s Policy Governance; one of the most exciting things, in my opinion, is “Effective Community Engagement”. The model also establishes clear relationships between the board and the Superintendent, the administration and the community. And finally, it guides the school board in focusing on policy and school-wide direction, not falling into the trap of micromanagement, which I think has been a sand trap for quite a while now. All these facets will be even more critical as this school board contemplates the process to select a new superintendent in two years time.

The new board will have a Board Retreat later this month, where I believe they will meet with IASB representative Patrick Rice, Dr. Wiegand and other members of the administration to lay the ground work for their collective goals and ambitions for the coming year. In the meantime, I am going to go out on a limb and put forth the idea that board members (all of them) really want to hear from the public, so I encourage you to contact them at:

u4boe@champaignschools.org

“A new kind of Kindergarten”

This morning I was sent a fascinating TEDx talk about this amazing Kindergarten concept: an oval shaped building with no boundaries, no walls between the classroom or the outside, kids can run on the roof or in the “atrium”. The speaker does not go into the psychology involved – it would certainly be interesting to learn about the scientific basis behind this “out-of-the-box” idea.

http://www.upworthy.com/a-new-kind-of-kindergarten-design-encourages-kids-to-be-their-silly-selves?c=ufb2

Educating the Community

In just two more days, five brave volunteers will be sworn in as new board members. I for one am very excited, for I feel that this incoming group is set to make some very positive changes in how the school board acts as the agent of the community that elected them.

As you might guess, the agenda for the May 4th special board meeting is rather small. The old board will meet in executive session on last time at 5:30, they will go through the normal routine (public comment, communications, upcoming events, action agenda where new board members are sworn in) and then back to executive session with the new board members. Although it is a short agenda and a very specialized meeting, there is one item that I would like to highlight in today’s post. That of “Appointments – Board Committees/Representatives”.

First, it is my understanding that these are actually Superintendent committees; I believe they are commissioned by the superintendent and they report to the superintendent. Sure, they may make a report to the board from time to time, but legally speaking, they are not Board Committees as spelled out. Furthermore, I believe as Superintendent appointed committees, they are not subject to the Open Meetings Act. It is tricky enough to even find out the name of all the committees that have been created, let alone when they meet or find the agendas. (While researching the OMA, I found out that Evanston/Skokie School District 65 neatly spells out the function of board committees for their school district: http://www.district65.net/domain/66)

Here’s the rub. Based on my own experience, and hearing from others that have attended various committee meetings, there is a depth of excellent information reported at some of these meetings. For example, The Education Equity Excellence (EEE) Committee shares a ton of information about the achievement gap, and often has overlap with the Discipline Equity/Advisory Task Force in terms of inequities in suspensions and expulsions. Both the Finance Committee and the Promises Made/Promises Kept (PMPK) Committee share a wealth of information about the finances, and I know from personal experience that Gene Logas in the past, and Matt Foster currently, were more than happy to share their knowledge about finances. Some committees have become, over the years, much better about posting relevant documents (in addition to agendas and minutes) on a committee webpage, but there are still quite a few for which it is exceptionally difficult to learn about.

And now we come to the topic of this post – Educating the Community. The school district is all about education, right? The core of the Unit 4 mission statement says the school district “… is to guide all students in gaining knowledge …”. Are we to consider that only those aged 5-18 and enrolled qualify as “students”? *grin* Are we not all supposed to be “life-long learners”? So try this suggestion on and see how it fits with the so-called “Board Committees”. Given that committees are tasked with a project or responsibility, what if all committees were structured to address an audience that is not physically present? Maybe perhaps podcasts, prezi presentations, online documentation – basically, an online class. The face-to-face meetings can (and should) still happen as a way to have an organic discussion about the “lessons”, but the “lessons” should be able to reach a much broader audience. This means they are not only available, but also accessible and delivered in such a way that the average Joe can understand it. I have challenged the board in the past to make it so a Unit 4 5th grader can understand the content. The challenge still holds.

Let me close with one more example. The Facility Committee has had an interesting history, recently resurrected/reborn at the time DeJong-Ricther was hired. The Facility Committee was “ground zero” were members had an opportunity to chew on all the various high school location options. All those questions you see being asked in the News-Gazette online comment section were already asked and pondered 3 years ago by the committee. The number one problem is all that great discussion, debate and deliberation were all locked up in the four walls of the meeting. Worse, even though the public was invited to attend, the public was not allowed to particpate (based on first-hand experience). Yes, granted, some if trickled out via board meetings or the occasional News-Gazette column, but by and large, the community was not educated. The fact that the April referendum failed by such a large margin is a testament, in my opinion, to the lack of the community’s engagement in the process. This is why it was so easy for the Keep Central Central crowd and the tax-defeating interests of the Koch Bros. to sway votes.

The bells may ring at 8:00 am and 2:30 pm for most schools, but the School of the Body Public is going 24/7. We are students also – teach us.

PS: I gave the KCC a hard time about the billboard they put up near Judah. It has come to my attention that the flyers Unit 4 sent out cost significantly more than the billboard. I believe those full-color flyers were propaganda paid for with public tax dollars – I am still trying to determine the facts whether they were actually paid for with public money or private donations.

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