The changing face of the school board (but what changes on the inside?)

There was quite a splash, for those that follow news about the school district and/or politics, when the school board appointed John Bambenek to be the next school board member, serving until the April 2015 elections. Just from reading several pages of commentary on BigDebbiesHouse, and even the online reel via the News-Gazette, it is obvious to me that some folks are entirely upset, flabbergasted and just a tad pissed off. But what does it all mean? At the end of the day, who really cares? Or rather, what are the real ramifications and consequences? So many times I have heard “time will tell”, but that is not good enough for me.

First, I am obligated to disclose my own perspective, to help you understand the framework from which I write this post. I have corresponded with Mr. John Bambenek (infrequently) since 2006; at the time, I was just coming up to speed on Unit 4 and the Consent Decree, and I had asked John what he thought some of the issues were surrounding the district and the board. In a January 2007 email, he pointed out the issue of a lack of trust:

“The biggest problem, and I think everything feeds into this, is that the current Board and Superintendent have lost the trust of the community. That’s ultimately why there is a consent decree and the problems that are there now.  I don’t want to come right out and say Culver has to go, but he certainly would have to come up with a real plan to win back that trust.” (quoted with Bambenek’s permission)

His second comment was about how much the district spends per child; not so much in the dollar amount, but the “bang” of each dollar – what are we getting out of the investment? At the time, he was worried that Unit 4 was spending way over the state average (per child), yet our results were not anything to write home about.

“The next budget is projected to spend about $10,700 per student.  I have heard both the statewide average being $7,000 and $8,500.  I need to review more, but if that holds, I’d be going over the finacials with a fine tooth comb.  Spending that money is fine, but we ought to be getting more results for our dollar.”

That was seven years ago. On a more recent occasion, Read the rest of this entry »

Houlihans report

I am finally get caught up on what we have been talking about at Houlihans. Two weeks ago, Tommy Lockman dropped by to chat with Chuck and I, and then last week Kristine Chalifoux took a lunch with us. This week I was flying solo so had time to reflect a little and think about where things are at.

Obviously the negotiations with the CFT is a big topic, but there really isn’t much to say about it. Both board members had some interesting things to share from their own points of view and we all toss around our opinions. However when we get down to it, these are closed negotiations – we can speculate all we want. But what’s the point? There is still something that bugs me about that, but it is really difficult for me to put my finger on it.

I think it was Tom that first mentioned the then upcoming retreat (this past Monday, October 8th). If I recall correctly, there were still a few unknowns – while the doors were open to the public, there wasn’t much of an emphasis on bringing people in. Which become obvious on Monday evening. *grin* And last week, I believe Chuck asked Kristine rather point-blank what they are doing to increase engagement. We chatted a little about how board members are being asked to adopt schools and develop a stronger relationship and go to more events. Actually, I have to confess it is rather fascinating sitting at the same table with Chuck and Kristine – sometimes the gloves come off (in a good way), and I think we have some real conversations. I think it is good to practice being totally honest while at the same time exercising a respectful manner and not being overly abrasive.

Chuck and I had a moment to chat before Kristine showed up. One of the things we Read the rest of this entry »

Stuff: board meeting video, Houlihans, community interaction

I. For starters, the July 9th Board meeting video is now available (right-click and “save” if your browser cannot play the video):

http://www.cb-pta.com/wp/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=44

II. Houlihans: I plan to be there tomorrow, anyone else? I have a meeting at 10:am with Dr. Wiegand and can report on that, talk about the Board Meeting, or my new plan to introduce new Board Policy that aims to increase interactions with the public (cue “taking over the world”). Which is an excellent segue into ….

III. Community interaction

Kathy Wallig wrote a guest commentary for the News-Gazette on Sunday, July 8th entitled “Urbana school board needs to repeal Board Policy 2:82” (unfortunately, not online). Ms. Wallig does an excellent job of painting the picture on a large canvas to help us understand what is really going on. She uses the example of Jed Bartlett and quotes the line “that’s where all the governing that really matters to anybody really happens” in the context of school boards. Ms. Wallig goes on to point out the many problems of Policy 2:82, but more importantly Read the rest of this entry »

Two items: Upcoming Board "retreat" and expansion of classes

I was informed that the Board has set the date and time of their next retreat, which I am told is open to the public.

When: June 21st, 8:am – 12:pm

Where: Mellon Center (??)

In the past, Board Members have told me that these retreats are very helpful and they got a lot of out of them. In fact, Greg Novak had this to say of the last retreat:

BEST   –  BOARD   –   MEETING   –   EVER  !!!!      Got a great view of the district and its issues and strengths from an experienced outsider it was the Superintendent – seven board members – no one else – serious and open discussion (in open session no less) of issues facing the school district today – including lack of district engagement with the community.

I have never been to one before and I am not sure if many members of the public have been either. It is not exactly the most convenient time for those of that work, but the same goes for the existing Board Members as most (if not all) of them will have to take time off work.

Not seeing anything on the District homepage yet, but I would expect them to post a formal, if brief, agenda.

Secondly, concerning all the new classrooms and teacher shuffling going on, Trevor has finally come out and laid out the cards:

http://will.illinois.edu/news/spotstory/unit-4-prepares-for-influx-of-students/

However, I would still like to hear more from the district. For instance, Robeson is getting a ESL class. What about all the support structures that go along with ESL? Where are the new teachers coming from? This makes me wonder what else is happening beyond the mere mention of “adding classes”. Another thought I have, it seems just a tad odd that these decisions were discussed and completed internally with little communication with the public. And perhaps little communication with the Board? I have heard a number of parents who were affected by these changes; for instance several Latino parents were told they were moving to Robeson. They were not asked, they were not included in any of the decision-making. The picture that was painted to me was that this was quite abrupt and disruptive for those affected. To give the District a little credit, I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were in a rush to make some big decisions. Certainly, they need to do something about the larger Kindergarten and First Grade classes. I am hoping that in the future there is a bit more of a collaborative effort between the District and the community to address larger issues like this.

Action Step from Houlihans (May 16th)

At Houlihans on May 16th, Chuck and I decided that we are going to bring to the June 11th Board Meeting a concern about communication (need to clarify and finalize) and ask about an update for the high school options; “Where are we, how did we get here where are we going?”

 

We have 3 minutes to chat away, so I’ll be looking for other talking points to hit. And I am looking at you. 🙂

Social Justice in education

I sent the below note to Unit 4 Dr. Wiegand, the Unit 4 BOE and Unit 116 Superintendent Dr. Preston. What I did not mention in the note was that I had a follow-up conversation with one of the two PhD students (Gabe Rodriguez); I am really impressed by the grad students’ work and am anxious to see how this plays out further down the road. I cannot help but be convinced that healthy, human relationships form the fundamental core of a thriving community (ie, not Facebook, not bottom-line efficiency, not the almighty dollar, not laws, not Government).

Good afternoon, Dr. Wiegand and members of the Unit 4 Board of Education,

This morning I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a class presentation on Social Justice at Urbana High School. Ms. Dahlke has 22 intelligent, concerned and forward-thinking students, each of whom shared a little of what their semester-long class has accomplished. Although the focus and direction of the class morphed since the beginning of the semester, their final project was an impressive field study of discipline referrals and suspensions. My personal take-away was seeing how impactful and significant personal relationships are at any level of a community, how students want to be heard and sometimes how the perceptions of students do not match the perceptions of adults and the conflicts that ensue. I saw how important life-skills like conflict resolution are – these are not skills set aside for marriage counseling, but very relevant and applicable to anyone that desires a functional and healthy society.
The class made several recommendations. One of which was to form a student union and to enact student advocacy at some level. They recommended better communication, the goal of which would be to provide an opportunity for students and teachers to know each other as humans. I was quite impressed.
I have had a couple one-off chats with Board Member Jamar Brown and I appreciate how Mr. Brown attempts to better understand the full story when he is faced with discipline issues. This is not to say that he is the only one, but I do believe that gaining a better cultural understanding makes a huge difference, especially when the statistics show that referrals for African-American men are disproportionately skewed.
I understand that a pilot curriculum on social justice is being considered and analyzed for insertion into Unit 4. I applaud this effort, and I hope that the Board and the Superintendent are able to effectively communicate with the wider audience of the community how important and crucial this topic is. I realize “social justice” sounds kind of kooky and may seem like a hard sell. But I believe very strongly that there is something going on here, something worth talking about.
May each of you have a chance to enjoy the beautiful warm weather outside.

Filling in details for the April 17th Open Forum

At our Houlihans meeting this afternoon, we covered a lot of ground. Much of it was discussing ideas for the April 17th Open Forum, although we did briefly talk about a certain candidate forum as well.

While I cannot say we have finalized anything, our Houlihans session was really good at uncovering some very nice ideas. For instance, next week we are planning on having “wondercards” (as Chuck calls them) at the open discussion on Tuesday; if you wonder about something, have an idea, a question or a comment, fill out a card. Our intention is to have a display board or three that we can group the cards on and at the end of the evening have a full board that we take pictures of and post online. These will be our proof that many people had a hand in developing ideas – far be it from us to be the sole voice. The whole point of these forums is to open up communication channels. We are also talking about using a 12-minute Ken Robinson video as a way to break the ice and jumpstart conversations.

An overall list of goals we think we want to address would be:

  • Communications: The current system of communication has a couple holes. We don’t necessarily have all the answers, but the major reason we are having these forums in the first place is to kick the tires, uncork our brains and see what happens.
  • Teacher/staff isolation: After talking with some teachers, we learned that some teachers would appreciate a little more support, and a little more connection with other teachers, not to mention with Administration and community members.
  • Student Climate: This one we intend to address bullying and lack of respect; not merely from students to teachers, but also the other way as well.

Again, this is just a working prototype, something to Read the rest of this entry »