“draft” agenda for the Oct 12th BOE meeting is up

For those that like to read ahead:

http://www.champaignschools.org/sites/default/files/meetings/agendas/10.12.15%20DRAFT%20Agenda_10615.pdf

I bet we will see something soon on the U4 Board Corner as well. *grin*

Observations about this draft:

  • Why is the document typed up on a computer, then printed, then scanned in, then posted online?
  • Report from Angela Smith about EEE; the EEE website has not been updated in a while (since 2014).
  • Semester update from Orlando Thomas about ACTIONS; I had a fantastic chat with Mr. Thomas and Ms. Katie Ahsell a week ago on this topic – I hope they talk about the Edna Olive PBF book. Good stuff! I also chatted with both individuals about getting more information online.
  • 10-Year Capital Improvement Plan: Once this is actually online, I encourage folks to look through it (now online). The last time I saw it, it seemed to represent a very small percentage of the maintenance items the district has to work on. Like, A/C at Central was rated as a low-priority. 🙂 This will apparently be approved in the Consent Agenda.
  • Special Board meeting on October 26th at Garden Hills – I hope they have a huge turnout.

Finding the Good: Spotlight on ACTIONS and Novak Academy

In the comments of the previous post, there was an unspoken but implicit challenge to find the good in the things around us. So I am kicking off a series of blog posts. They will be scattered as I find good examples to highlight. I am calling the series “Finding the Good”, and I fully believe it is not hard to find as long as we have open eyes and minds.

 

Today I am shining the spotlight on ACTIONS and the Novak Academy. I had an opportunity to visit both of these amazing places last week, and I extend my warm thanks to both Katie Ahsell of ACTIONS and Tony Maltbia of Novak Academy for making the time and opening the doors. Both initiatives are completely different, but they do share some similarities in that they offer alternative support for students who need that little something “more” than what the normal classroom offers.

 

ACTIONS

The Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and ONgoing Support (website) actually serves the district in two distinct ways. The first is more obvious, taking in kids who are in some kind of suspension. The second floor of the Family Information Center (FIC) is reserved for a couple classrooms, which typically are split up between the older kids and the younger kids. But it changes all the time, as you never know who is going to show up. The other function provided by ACTIONS is more of an outreach program, whereby ACTIONS staff go out to other schools to offer support in classrooms, to provide adhoc on-site training or just to actively observe.

There is a lot that I really like about the underlying framework at ACTIONS. One piece is a weighty phrase that needs a little explaining, restorative justice. To borrow from Howard Zehr, “Crime is a wound. Justice should be healing.” My understanding of restorative justice (RJ) is that is seeks to mend what was broken contrasted with a penal system that segregates broken parties into victims and offenders, creating two separate and opposed societies. Since I am a big fan of couching life around the significance of relationships (which can be messy, hard, time-consuming and definitely NOT efficient), I personally see a lot of value in a RJ type of philosophy which also prioritizes relationships.

Another aspect of ACTIONS that tickled me pink is that there is an infusion of (in my opinion) critical social skills; conflict resolution, identifying and expressing feelings, and seeing from another point of view, just to name a few. Ironically, at one point I told Ms. Ahsell that I wish my daughter could go to a school like this. *grin* I hold that the purpose of education is to equip people to succeed at life, and I really like how MLK Jr. stated that schools are to prepare students to function in society. I cannot see that happening without the development of such social skills.

The last characteristic of ACTIONS I wish to bring forward is that of the focus on what they call “parent empowerment”. This is a six-week afterschool series that focuses on family bonding and building trust between student, parents, teachers and staff. Based on anonymized comments I read from participants, it seems to be a big hit. Parents also learn about advocating for their child, in addition to forming a team relationship with the teachers. I wonder what would happen if thousands of families had this opportunity….

I was exceptionally impressed with the dynamic nature of the work carried out at ACTIONS; this is certainly not for the faint of heart. Imagine going to work and not knowing if you were going to spend time with a 7-year-old or 17-year old who started a fight, or traveling to a school for the day.

As we were observing one classroom, the staff person displayed a video of a fight and facilitated a very candid discussion that honored honest, concluding with a reminder that even the students in the video who were standing around, laughing, or recording with their iPhones, were complicit as well, for they did not fulfil their moral obligation to step in and stop the fight. This is the essence of the anti-bullying message, I believe; standing up for what is right does not imply passivity in the face oppression.

 

Novak Academy

The Novak Academy (website) is just down the street from the FIC. Mr. Maltbia makes it clear that even though Novak Academy is an alternative setting for learning, it by no means is easy in any sense of the word; every day at Novak is like two days in “regular” school.

The heightened pace is due in part to the Apex Online learning environment, a classroom packed with computers, students and one facilitator. The other factor is well-trained staff in smaller classrooms. And by smaller classrooms, some felt almost as cramped as a closet. 🙂 It is my understanding that this approach allows the staff to offer an environment that is highly responsive to different styles of learning; one classroom was very hands-on, another was lecture-based supplemented with video, while Apex allows a kind of “go as fast as you can” opportunity.

One of the ramifications of the warp speed velocity is that attendance becomes much more significant, which is reflected in the consequences and occasional rewards. Students actually sign an attendance commitment, and if I recall correctly, missing a few days could get you dropped from the program (I need to look up the specifics when I find the brochure…..).

Mr. Maltbia also laid out some plans they have to utilize more of a project-based learning approach. Their ideas are still in draft form, yet I found them exciting none-the-less purely because I am a big fan of PBL. It will be interesting to see PBL mature at Novak Academy.

One of the things I loved about my visit is an emphasis on understanding the child, trying to figure out what works best for each student; one child may be quiet, another loud, do they both need the same thing?

 

Wrapping up

After visiting ACTIONS and Novak Academy, I had a visit with Dr. Wiegand. I offered praise for these wonderful programs, and thought it was a shame that too few people know about them. So that planted the seed for this article, the discussion on the previous post fertilized that seed.

I will point out that both have been covered in the News-Gazette; Meg Dickinson wrote about ACTIONS in August 2013, and Jodi Heckel covered what was then the Academic Academy in 2008 and 2009.

 

Where have you found good?

 

ACTIONS

ACTIONS: Acronym meaning “Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and On- Going Support”

The news media has totally overlooked this one topic that easily took up half of the entire board meeting last night. For me personally, I was blown away by the reports. One student bravely stood up during public comment (that takes some chutzpah!) to talk about how he specifically has benefited from this awesome program. There were several other reports throughout the meeting. One student was quoted as saying “Thank you for suspending me” and went on to testify how his/her life has changed. Mr. Orlando Thomas will be forwarding me the presentation used at the board meeting (which for some reason is not on boarddocs), and I will post it here when I receive it.

There were several points that made an impact on me.

First was the desire and ability to target the needs of the child. I realize there is a segment of society that just wants to punish bad behavior and close the book; I believe that type of attitude is detrimental, not only to the individual child, but ultimately to society as well. Just take a look at our misnamed “correctional systems” – do you think everyone who goes to jail is “corrected”? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think these students are being pandered to in any way, their suspension is not a mere hand-slap. Instead, there is a serious attempt at reflection and building up a “next time” scenario.

Next, I rather like the emphasis on engaging the families. It is not clear to me how successful this actually is, but just the initial “enrollment” is somewhat of a choice. Somewhat. In the course of the suspension hearing, the child and the family is told that the child is assigned to ACTIONS, and the child and/or the family could (conceivably) choose to not take advantage of the opportunity, in which case the suspension would be like an out-of-school suspension (opposed to an alternative in-school suspension). It seems like a good thing that the staff realize the importance of involving the family. I am curious how the families on the receiving end view this whole thing.

In the end, it seems this program is empowering certain students who otherwise have difficulty functioning successfully among their peers. Empowering them in a very positive way. When is the last time a student got up at a board meeting to address the board, about his own struggle and how we overcame it, to boot? Board members also gave a shout out to other students who had emailed the board about various issues. The implication is that this was a very rare thing, but the board very much encourages this type of communication.

I am reminded of a Jim Dey editorial from 04/15/2013:

http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2013-04-15/new-approach-suspensions.html

“Rather than suspend the students, they wish to create a special environment where these young people can develop social skills and improve their academics.

Good luck with that. It would be great to be wrong, but it’s hard to imagine that something so basic as what’s being proposed actually will have the desired effect.”

It would appear that this program really is having the desired effect. During the ACTIONS presentation last night, several numbers were quoted, including graduation rates and academic progress. When I receive the presentation, I’ll update the numbers – I think they tell a significant story. Special thanks was given to all the volunteers and mentors that helped to make this program a success. Which got me to thinking…. it would be awesome if more volunteers and mentors stepped up to the plate.

Board Member Jamar Brown made the point that while most people were concerned about the high school location, he considered ACTIONS to be even bigger. In a lot of ways, I agree. True, the new high school is going to hit our pocketbooks rather hard (speaking from the viewpoint of those who are already struggling), but a new high school does not in and of itself have any impact on transforming society. I believe ACTIONS does.

 

UPDATE: Mr. Orlando Thomas has sent me the powerpoint used during Monday’s BOE meeting – it is a good read:

https://thecitizen4blog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/actions-boe-1-27-14.pptx