Finding the good: board meetings


As with all posts in this “Finding the good” series, it is quite easy to find things that are bad, need improvement, or candidates for complaint. But the point is that there are also good things if one is willing to look a little harder.


finding_good_1Take Unit 4 school board meetings for instance. The current board has taken significant steps to listen to stakeholders, constrain their discussion of public matters to public meetings, and reflect openly on their progress. On top of that, there are often times many excellent informational items that broadcast the priorities of the district. Let’s look at a few examples.

Back in early February, the Administration kicked off a series of “Goals and Indicators” for High School, Middle School and Elementary School. Each document spells out the relationship between Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, fortified with details of the the players involved (and how they work together) as well as specific programs used to reach these goals. For indicators, the presentations focus on how tests are used, how often, what is being measured, etc. Over and above the documents by themselves, the “live” presentation (as one can watch via the Vimeo recordings) were much more charismatic, lively and the presenter often went into much more detail. My point in raising this as an example is that the district is throwing open the doors – there is nothing hidden here. If you want to know how education happens in Unit 4, you can dig into these resources.

Another example are the times when various programs are featured; lots of amazing awesomeness being shared with Operation Hope (and Operation Hope Jr), PBF (Positive Behavior Facilitation), social justice clubs (RISE, “Real Talks”), and recently at the July 11th meeting, Marc Changnon spoke about ‘Education to Career and Professions’ (ECP) and the Summer Youth Employment Program/Summer Trades Apprenticeship. This is just a very small sample of really cool opportunities that our students have. There are also the other partnerships and afterschool programs that we learn about; United Way, Champaign Urbana School Foundation, Tap In Academy, Freedom Schools, etc.

Train-your-mind-to-see-the-good-in-every-situationI will wrap up with the approach this current board has taken to governance. There have been changes, some small, some more noticeable; a new BOE blog maintained by board member Kathy Richards; the Board President now reads through and sometimes asks for details in the Consent Agenda; there is a metacognitive exercise in the form of the question “Whom did we affect and whom did we tell?” at the end of most meetings; communications to the board, in the context of the referendum and facility planning, have all been published on the district website, as well as any responses. In fact, did you know that a majority of the board members were always in attendance at every Tier Two committee meeting? I found that to be quite impressive. Last week, at the July 11th BOE meeting, the board took some extra time to talk in open session about their thoughts and opinions on the work and recommendation of the Tier Two committee. As Dee Shonkwiler was spotlighted as the only member in the audience, the rest of us can watch the video. I point out that the board took time to discuss in open session because, in my experience, this kind of lengthy dialog between board members while in open session is somewhat rare. Why should you care? Because you elected these people to make decisions, and here they are reflecting on all the feedback they have received and telling you what they think about it. We need to do our part and urge others to make their voice known as well – without your participation, there is no democracy. This board is listening to you.

#EdCampCU, PBF, and the Achievement Framework

I have been wanting to post about several things, so instead of shoving them into the background again and again, I thought to wrap them up in a 3-for-1 deal.

edcampcu-9-26-15EdCampCU 9.26.15

On the last Saturday in September (back when it still felt like summer), a number of Unit 4 staff, area teachers, parents and community members gathered at Kenwood for the second EdCampCU. For those not familiar with an “edCamp”, it is labeled as an “unconference”, where participants bring the topics that are near and dear to their hearts, in the form of a question. It is specifically meant to be a group dialog, not a lecture/monologue at all; and the interaction is where cool things happen. It is an excellent way of exploring topics in a non-threatening manner. A certain board member attended as well, and wondered about the possibility of the entire school board being involved in a future EdCamp; the next EdCampCU will be in early February, so keep your eyes and ears open.

I love the conversations and the exchanges we shared. For next time, I personally would find it extremely helpful if we tried a few things:

  • Have a note-taker at each session that updates a public document (google doc, etherpad, etc) so everyone can read about other sessions during or afterwards
  • Have homework. What do we do when we leave the building? Or like Lekevie Johnson (recently in the News-Gazette) asks, “what can I do to help?”
  • Have a longer or more intense large-group discussion about the main topics covered in smaller sessions; common themes, action items, reflection, etc.

Positive Behavior Facilitation (PBF)

pbf_bookA couple weeks ago I had the privilege to sit down with Mr. Orlando Thomas and Ms. Katie Ahsell to discuss discipline in Unit 4. As we were discussing numbers, Mr. Thomas started to share with me about PBF. PBF is not new to the district at all – we have been holding PBIS and PBF sessions for quite some time. However, with ACTIONS coming online within the past couple years, the district has started to train staff who specialize in PBF and are resources not only at the location housed with the Family Information Center, but also who go out to all the schools to observe, consult and proactively intervene.

I am a big fan of PBF and have written about it before. During my visit to ACTIONS, I was very much impressed by the focus on restorative justice and the way staff gave both respect and guidance to students of all ages.

But I also understand it isn’t a silver bullet – it is not the Holy Grail that will solve all our problems. At the September 28th Board Meeting (held at Centennial), Mr. Terry Townsend spoke about the Letter of Complaint he filed with the Office of Civil Rights. I also had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Townsend in early October to gain a very different perspective. I was encouraged that Mr. Townsend wants to work on these issues together; moreover, I think we all agree that the only way we can address issues of race, class, equity and discipline is by doing so together.


Achievement Frameworkachievement_framework

Back in April I took advantage of an opportunity to chat with Angela Smith about Unit 4’s Achievement Framework. There is a lot going on to help our students succeed, and I was quite impressed.

If you click on the image to the right, it will take you to a Word document prepared by Ms. Smith that explains the 10,000 ft view of the Achievement Framework. In her own words, “[t]his picture shows the relationship between our non-negotiable goals that will help all students achieve.  It refers to what we teach, how we teach, how we monitor, and how we grade.”

I asked a number of follow-up questions and Ms. Smith provided some excellent responses. For instance, I asked about differentiation, and I learned that in the middle school level, there are a number of built-in opportunities to accommodate different learning paces; FLEX time (a 40 minute block with variable content), ENCORE remediation supports and summer school slots that are prioritized for those who need it the most.

Ms. Smith also told me about “power standards”, essentially over-arching curricular themes that build in intensity over the course of several semesters (as opposed to being wrapped up in a single class). Taken in the context of the Achievement Framework, teachers can better track progress towards mastery and assess growth along the way. Student growth is important because not everyone comes in with the same skill set or the same educational background, so it is not helpful to compare students to each other, but rather the Framework allows students to be compared against themselves.

Ms. Smith also made a point to explain how teachers can make their practice “authentic” (her word) by “explaining, modeling, demonstrating, group-work, independent work” and allowing students to respond in their own way.

One of my concerns is that this is just a framework. A really good one, to be sure, but still only a skeleton. I wonder, how does it work when applied? What do teachers think of it? What do student think?

The other concern I have is how exactly children are assessed. If done organically and within the flow of teaching and learning, that’s cool. If the intent is to depend upon standardized tests, that does not sit well with me. Especially when a test result takes 6 months to come back! That is just insane.

Another perspective of siting the high school north of I-74

I had the opportunity to have a really great conversation with Jamar Brown Wednesday morning; I am thankful that he opened the door and allowed me to gain a different perspective. So just to qualify – Jamar speaks for himself. He doesn’t speak for the Board, but for his own person. And he didn’t ask me to say that, I am just getting that formality out of the way up front. 🙂

We hit on a number of different aspects of how the board is going about siting the new location for Central. I’ll bounce around a little bit and re-arrange how our conversation actually went to give you an overall picture.

Again, we have to go back to the bigger picture. Jamar reminded me of the urgency to get something going; due to the lack of chutzpah (not lack of foresight, per se, just lack of acting on any foresight) from previous administrations and previous boards, we are kind of in a bit of a pickle since the student populations are notably growing and the high schools are already at capacity (bursting). So even if we completely remove the need for athletic fields, band fields, parking, etc, we still need more raw seats. At least that is what the current trends and demographic data are telling us. To this, I would agree. The timeline does get a little tricky. If a referendum does not pass in November, what happens? Will there be enough time to go hunting for yet another site and then build a new high school. I get the impression that the current board is not willing to take that risk. Another sense of urgency was the clear message from the Town Hall meeting that we need to stop talking and start doing. This has been echoed elsewhere, and in general, it can be a good idea. I know I am often told that myself. 🙂 Granted, all around there is some question about how the Town Hall was conducted in the first place.

The issue of transparency and accountability is sticky one. I think this is partially because, on the one hand, community members (myself included) have a super high expectation of how open and communicative the board should be. For instance, in regards to the discussion of potential sites, the public does not have any access whatsoever to the great discussions that are going on behind closed doors. We were told that the Board would not publish the list of candidate sites (and then they did list the four sites), and then we are told the Board will not publish the final site due to “negotiations”. On the other hand, Jamar feels that the current board and current administration is a totally different ballgame than what we have had in the past, and that the board is slowly rising to those expectations that we have. I heartily acknowledge his point that the current situation is much different, and I acknowledge that there has been more openness. Jamar reiterated the point about how the board was all set to make a high school siting decision last year and instead, because of feedback from the community, made the conscious decision to put it off and gather more community input. Another case to look at; both Holly Nelson and Minnie Pearson shared stern warnings and thoughts at the December 2nd BOE meeting, and both publicly apologized at the December 9th meeting, acknowledging the hard work of the Board and wanting to collaborate and keep each other accountable. Perhaps one thing that is happening is that folks are hypersensitive to buzzwords like “transparency”, and when we start tossing those terms around and painting with a huge brush, we gloss over the finer details both of the good that is happening and the challenge areas where we need to improve.

We also discussed the desire to “remove the emotion” and deliberate on numbers. While I think this can be a good exercise, we have a couple obstacles before us. One, it is impossible to remove the emotion. Two, we don’t have the numbers. Jamar acknowledges this is a problem – even the board members do not have all the numbers. For instance, the MTD has not been able to disclose how much it will cost to route busses up to any of the new sites. We do not know how traffic patterns will escalate the already crowded north Prospect route – what will a big football game do? Since the sites of I-74 will have extremely limited “Safe Routes” to nearby homes on the other side of the highway, busing will have to increase as well. How much? We don’t really know. I also mentioned to Jamar that the community does not have any access to the metrics and weights the board has been developing for each site. I believe he is going to ask around about that (I hope! *grin*).

We got to talking about serving the needs of the demographics that are on the “north end”. Jamar mentioned that he has personally talked to a number of groups north of University, and the predominant message he has received is that the residents and parents are more concerned about what goes on inside the school rather than where the school is located. For me, this shifts the priorities a bit; if we assume that the location of the school is not the most important variable, then what are we doing to address that which is most important?

As I told Jamar, I do not envy the position of the Board at all. People are clearly fed up with hiring consultants and holding community discussions with no follow-through. If the Board decides to stick with a minimum of 45 acres (which, Jamar is quick to point out, has come down since the 80-acre recommendation from earlier), the number of sites that are “central” are exceptionally limited and hard to work with. If I were on the Board and was told that I had to choose land to buy RIGHT NOW, it would be hard for me to look at the areas south of I-74 right now and find something that would work for 45 acres. I did mention to Jamar that there are other options – there is some support for 3 high schools and multiple campuses (and smaller schools). Jamar observed that perhaps one of the prevailing factors in the Board’s current direction (again, Jamar speaks for Jamar) is that most of the people from the DeJong-Richter “engagements” want what we already have. Some of us cringe at that, for various reasons, but if we go straight off the numbers that we do have (as opposed to numbers we do not have), I have to agree, yes, most of the people who voiced their opinion indicated they wanted two high schools of roughly the same size (number of students) we have now.

We did not talk much about athletics and other programs that need additional land. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally, we did talk a little bit about the lack of a planner on the paid staff. We are in this pickle because we didn’t buy land earlier on when land was available, and there has not been a serious long-term look at how demographics change year by year. I think Jamar understands the importance of having a dedicated person for that role, instead of multitasking and/or sharing a planner with the City (which is no longer happening). As to how to tie new facilities into the goal of addressing the achievement gap? From my perspecitve, even though the District has been working on their “Achievement Framework”, the community has not been brougth up to the same page. Jamar tells me that the Board (and administration) has been inundated with various studies and research papers, and I get the impression that the Board believes a strong extra-curricular program will boost academics. This message came across very strongly from the December 9th board meeting.

In conclusion, I think we have to accept that no matter what the Board does, not everyone will be happy. We may even disagree with what is most important. I very much dislike how, not only with the school district but also at the State and Federal levels, we are getting screwed over because of poor decisions from past leaders. For me, complaining is unsatisfactory – I want to be a part of the solution. I believe this is what Board President Laurie Bonnett was trying to convey at the December 9th BOE meeting; given all our differences, how do we work together?

June 24th board retreat

This afternoon, the board held a Special Board Meeting dealing with the goals of/for the Superintendent, Dr. Judy Wiegand. Outside of the Unit 4 employees and the Board Members, I think NG staff writer Meg Dickinson, Chuck Jackson and I were the only others in attendance. There was a NG photographer who swung by, so depending on which pictures are made available, you will see that there were about 32-34 people total.

I appreciated that both Board President Laurie Bonnett and Dr. Wiegand made it very clear that public participation was very much welcome and that there would be a free-flow discussion. I like that format a lot; it probably would be a bit more challenging to adhere to that format if more community members (and more vocal ones *grin*) were in the room.

I was only able to stick around for the first hour. I believe that in that first hour, we only covered the first of the five goals outlined in the one public document made available online. Which reminds me, there were a number of handouts available for the public, but I do not know where they are online (maybe they are not posted? Yet) {updated} Documents now posted on BoardDocs – see the full slide deck for more details on what was covered. In that first goal, the Assistant Superintendents and the Superintendent spent a lot of time covering the “Achievement Framework.” I am still trying to wrap my head around it, and I cannot possibly do it justice here. At least, not yet. There was a lot of talk of utilizing more metrics and constant monitoring, of being very intentional and mindful of key waypoints (ie, Kindergarten, 3rd grade, 5th grade, 8th grade), and implementing Common Core with the idea of ultimately making all kids “college ready”.

Also, in a brief chat with the tech guys before the meeting, I learned that the “screen” (the computer monitor to display the various presentations) would be recorded, and Mr. David Hohman tells me that audio is going to be synchronized after the fact. I do not see either online, yet, but will keep my eyes open. My biggest concern, especially in regards to involving everyone who could not make it, is that the audio might be a bit lacking at times; they had technical difficulties with one microphone and ended up passing another one around which sounded a lot different; many times the mic cut out, and sometimes the speaker (ie, from the audience) was not near a mic. I hope the end result is enough for folks to bite into.

More later. I would love to get feedback from board members as well – we will have to see if anyone wishes to share their thoughts.


UPDATE: Vimeo video now available: