Will we need a Plan B?

With Julie Wurth’s latest update (New Central High School: it’s back to Interstate Drive), prepare yourself for a November ballot question, “Will you spend x millions of dollars to build a new Central, refurbish Centennial, and possibly fix up South Side and Dr. Howard?”

 

There are several angles to this I wish to address. First I am going to defend the board and the administration. *grin* But I will not stop there, so please keep reading.

 

A large number of those who leave comments on the relevant NG articles (see my Index if you want a comprehensive list) demonstrate that they do not fully understand the historical context of how we have arrived at where we are. I will even go so far to say that some are being purely emotional and just spouting opinions that have no basis in reality whatsoever. It is easy to say the board/administration is not listening. Isn’t it odd that Unit 4 has spent over $200,000 on multiple consultants and experts to “prove” that they are listening (that is not meant to be flame bait – hold on a couple paragraphs)? Casting such a wide net of blame is not fair; “Wah! The board didn’t pick my favorite option, they must not be listening to me!! WAAAHHHH!” The board and administration have heard many things from the community; in all that, they have finally made a decision to act and are acting on a portion of community feedback that is easiest for them to work with, aka “low hanging fruit”. You know the saying, “haters gonna hate”? It is impossible to reach 100% consensus, so we will always have a group of people who do not like “the idea”, no matter what the idea is. To give credit to the board, they have not been idle; aside from the forums and other opportunities at various school district locations, individual board members have made themselves available and Dr. Wiegand has been on Penny for Your Thoughts to answer live questions, not to mention a twitter chat that some were able to take advantage of.

 

I must also remind the larger community that over the past several decades Unit 4 has done just about nothing to plan ahead for capital growth, not until the past 6 years or so when a semblance of a plan has been batted about. I cannot blame the current board and administration for that; it was an inherited problem. It should be obvious that we need to do something – renting out trailers to house additional students is a horrible long-term plan. That’s a black eye for any proud community.

 

Finally, way too many people are ready to cast stones without even going through the steps of representative government; if you don’t talk to board members, if you don’t show up at board meetings (*cough cough*), if you do not participate in the public “Community Conversations”, and if you don’t make alternative suggestions before the 11th hour, can you really expect to start complaining now and have it mean much?

 

And now I am going to flip it around. As much as the community has issues, so does the board and the administration. Karen has talked about the “Delphi” effect, and from the external evidence we have (not having access to closed board meetings, nor all the many conversations that do not happen in the public sphere), there is certainly the appearance that some group in the school district decided what direction this would take, and then went through the hand-waving motions of engaging the community. There are those of us (tax-paying, voting citizens who do not draw a check from Unit 4 nor sit on the board) who are very much engaged at various levels and yet we have an exceptionally difficult time trying to affect change. There are a lot of heads beating against walls, which leads to trust issues with the school district. Imani Bazzel had a super awesome collaborative effort all packaged up nice and neat for Unit 4, and all that effort and hard work all but disappeared from Unit 4 after the final presentation – never came up with Dejong-Richter or Gorski Reifsteck. Holly Neslon’s excellent work (for FREE!) was largely brushed under the rug as well.

 

To this end, I hold the board at fault for not fully adopting the IASB’s John Carver Governance model. Granted, it is relatively new and the IASB is still in the process of pushing it out, but the board for a long time (ie, at least over the past decade that I have been involved, and I hear longer from others) has had a hard time of demonstrating that they are beholden to the community. It is not that I want the board to do more, but rather, change what they are doing and how they are doing it.

 

 

Circling back to the topic of this thread, “Will we need a Plan B?”

The writing was on the wall back in January that the district was focused on Interstate Drive. Hiring Gorski-Reifsteck and considering Spalding were, I believe, just steps to pacify the angry mobs. 🙂 The district has shown that they are following a loose blue-print that came out of “Great Schools, Together” (GST), to the extent that the 1% sales tax and “Promises Made Promises Kept” were all about achieving some of the goals from GST. The November referendum is just an extension of that effort, to further address the goals outlined in GST. The problem is that the GST is, for all intents and purposes, dead to the community. Most people have completely forgotten about it. The Unit 4 website for GST was absolutely abysmal. Thus, it seems (feels) like this whole business about building a new school and vamping up the high schools is totally out of the blue. On top of that, it is obvious that there are many different ideas on how to proceed from here – the community is very divided.

At this point, I think Unit 4 has a pretty strong backing of followers who fully support any decision they might make. The last minute campaign, which was partially already put into play via the fine Shatterglass videos, will convince some people that yes indeed, Unit 4 is stuck between a rock and a hard place and we need to pass a referendum to build buildings. But there are also a lot of divided community members whose only common point is that they plan to vote “no”.

From where I sit, I believe the November referendum will fail. Why? $100 million dollars is a lot to ask for! Unit 4 has already asked for almost $100 million since 1998, and there is the promise that Unit 4 will have to ask for more again in the very near future. This is a huge burden on our lower income folks, and probably even the nebulous middle-class. Additionally, I think the style and method by which the board has conducted its business has not adequately crossed the chasm of distrust built up over the past couple of decades. And please note, I must again point out that I am not blaming specific individuals for this – rather, it is a huge systemic problem with the way we exercise governance. We need more people to rise up and demand changes. Voting helps, but is a very limited tool.

 

So what is going to happen when (if) the November referendum does not pass? One popular sound-byte reported by the NG is that Unit 4 will get more trailers. Obviously, that is not the only thing Unit 4 will seriously consider; most likely they will try for another referendum. Here is my challenge for all of us – if/when the November public school referendum does not pass, we need to figure out why. Yes, I hear the sentiment that we are “done talking” – however, it has been the wrong kind of talking, in my opinion. With all that talking we did, where are the 20- and 40-year plans? Supposedly we have a GST Strategic Plan and a Capital Improvement Plan, but I found them exceptionally hard to plot a course with. Yes, let us stop talking – let us do more planning charrettes; let us have a Unit 4 classroom that finds solutions for us; let us reflect on our true mission, collaborating with community to training up all learners to be wildly successful at life; let us volunteer for programs like ACTIONS, 1-to-1 mentoring, TALKS, or as a classroom parent or helping in the lunch room or with after-school programs. Heck, get involved with Pre-K and CUC2C.

 

If the November referendum does in fact pass, we need to stand up and support the schools still. Giving up is not an option. If 50.01% voters vote yes, that is what we have to live with and move forward.

2014 Annual Report

Unit 4 has posted their 2014 Annual Report, as well as sending it home via “snail mail”. I would assume all student households received a copy of this full-color, 12-page spread.

 

There are always two sides to a coin. The Annual Report does a fantastic job highlighting the progress and many successes of Unit 4; it delivers a bevy of facts, accomplishments and progress reports with a flair of enthusiasm and unabashed pride. And with good reason – there are many awesome things happening inside Unit 4! There is a even a nice full-page layout that gives a broad overview of the 2014 budget (tip of the iceberg, I know Pattsi).

 

What I did not find were answers to many questions I have been asking of late. In Tom’s Mailbag, here on this blog, and in personal email to Stephanie Stuart, I have asked about the 57 “outcome measures” put forth by the Great Schools, Together (GST) initiative. As the Annual Report boldly proclaims, “[o]ur District continues to use the Great Schools, Together strategic plan to guide our annual goals and initiatives.” Yet it is hard for an observer like me to see how the Strategic Plan is accomplishing this “guidance”. Yes, I agree that the GST Strategic Plan lends some buzzwords and gives us a vague notion of goals that we are loosely following, but it hard to get more concrete than at. At least, from my point of view.

 

Another thing, which I have pointed out before, is the graduation rate. Yes, it is fantastic that we are making progress. However, having said that, we have already missed our goals set forth by the very same GST Strategic Plan we are following. Even as recent as the 2012 update to the board, we missed last year’s goal for African-American graduation rates. While I understand nobody wants to put that on the front page, what are we doing about it?

Great Schools Together: a few sidenotes

When I started this series, it was my desire to track down various metrics outlined in the Strategic Plan to measure progress. I have encountered some serious obstacles in that effort.

 

The first set of obstacles comes from the fact that while Unit 4 does a TON of reporting and “information sharing”, there is no central repository or index of where to find such metrics. Some are much easier to find than others, just by a google search of the champaignschools.org site; for instance, “Attendance Rate”. Yet even with this, you will have to dig through seperate documents for each year, as Attendance Rate is not aggregated that I know of. You can find it in Board Meetings, the district Report Card and various committe reports. What about metrics on discpline issues (“Discipline referrals and suspensions” from “Student Achievement and Well-Being”)? That information is shared at the “Discipline Equity/Advisory Task Force Meeting”, but it isn’t online, so the only way to get the updates is to attend the meeting. After a bit of searching on boarddocs, I did stumble across a Board Retreat presentation that aggregated numbers over various years:

http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/files/9A7KHL51F6D0/$file/06%2024%2013_Monday_Noon_Revision5.pdf

 

When I asked Unit 4 for advice on how to find each of the 50 metrics outlined in the Strategic Plan, I was told that all the relevant information was shared out on the champaignschools.org website and boarddocs.

 

The next set of obstacles is the fact that Uit 4 paints a moving target. In a recent email exchange, Stephanie Stuart indicated tha these metrics are “determined each year by the Board of Education”. Some times the name/label changes, other times they are dropped and new ones added.

 

On the plus side, Dr. Wiegand has wrapped each of the six GST Strategic Goals into her Superintendent Goals:

GOAL #1: The Superintendent will foster high academic achievement, wellness, and well-being among all learners in a safe, supportive environment.
GOAL #2: The Superintendent will align the District’s priorities and resources through a community-involved planning process implemented through focused action plans with regular progress reports.
GOAL #3: The Superintendent will retain, hire, and support highly qualified faculty and staff that will best serve the District’s diverse student population.
GOAL #4: The Superintendent will effectively and efficiently engage parents and other community stakeholders resulting in strong partnerships.
GOAL #5: The Superintendent will leverage the strength of the District’s diverse population to create a rich academic and social environment in each of the District’s schools.
GOAL #6: The Superintendent will revitalize, build, and maintain facilities that are safe, sustainable and allow equitable access to programming services across the District.

 

I think it speaks volumes that Unit 4 holds the tenets of the Strategic Plan in such high regards. In the words of Stephanie Stuart, “all that we do here in Unit 4 is responsive to that plan.”

Great Schools Together: Stewardship and Accountability (part 2 of 6)

Stewardship and Accountability cotinues the Great Schools Together series:

  1. Student Achievement and Well-being
  2. Stewardship and Accountability
  3. Faculty and Staff Excellence
  4. Engagement of Parents and the Community
  5. Diversity
  6. Facilities

 

As a reminder, these are taken from the Strategic Plan developed through the “Great Schools, Together” initiative back in 2007-2008. Page 10 of that plan covers one of the shortest strategic goals (the other being Diversity).

Goal: Align the District’s priorities and resources through a community-involved planning process implemented through focused action plans with regular progress reports

 

I think this is where the term “community-involved planning” originated, at least in the context of Unit 4. Another thing that I found interesting about this particular goal is that there are no mid-term (2011-2016) or long-term (2016-2013) actions – they are all short-term actions, and thus should have been accomplished already:

Short-term actions
A. Continue to engage in a long-term strategic planning and visioning process
B. Build an annual reporting process to the School Board that includes public input
C. Hold bi-annual open forums for the community to participate in upcoming school year plans and assess the previous school year.
D. Improve the District’s efforts to identify and pursue grant proposals
E. Continue to institute principles of fiscal responsibility
F. Actively seek private donations to build/maintain facilities

 

It is safe to say that many of the financial stewardship aims have continued on past 2011; Gene Logas and later Matt Foster have prepared many reports for several committees, including the Finance Committee and Promises Made Promises Kept, not to mention the many individual efforts of staff and administrators to seek out grants and donations.

 

I am not so sure about the “community-involved planning” pieces. I think the Board Retreats are counted as “open forums” in which the community is expected to participate in the planning process, but the number of community members that show up at those forums can be counted on one hand. There are tons of “reporting processes”, but which ones “includes public input”? I do not know the answer to that. Prior to September of 2011, how was the public involved in the planning process outside the small handful of folks that made committments to various committees? Mark Aber’s Climate Surveys? The Dejong-Richter experiment? The one and only avenue of “input” as part of a planning process (that I know of) that the community regularly provides is done at the Mellon Center, either at board meetings in a 3-minute window or during committee meetings.

 

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Wiegand and Stephanie Stuart to discuss “community-involved planning”. At the outset, we all agreed that it is difficult to see what good “community-involved planning” looks like because 1) we are sorely out of practice as a community, and 2) there are so few well-known examples to follow. Stephanie even boldly mentioned the need for accountability, which I was very much quick to support her in. To me, Accountability is one side of the coin, community-involved planning is the other. And here is the crux of the matter – why are these so important? Because the local community bears a majority of the financial burden of public eduation via property tax dollars, the community entrusts their children to the educational system, and the community elects board members. In short, as the Unit 4 Policy 105 so succintly and so powerfully says, “(t)he public schools belong to the people.” Or as Article X of the Constitution of the State of Illinois says:

SECTION 1.  GOAL - FREE SCHOOLS
    A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

 

In general, our society has fallen into the bad habit of letting “someone else” do the work of staying informed, going to meetings, deliberating ideas and holding elected officials accountable; we feel we do our “duty” when (or if) we complain, maybe on facebook or as some anonymous online troller.

 

We need a huge paradigm shift; and the really bad news is that it has to come from the people. The people have to want to own the schools. We have to take seriously our obligation to provide for “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” If you are unwilling to do so, then you forfeit your “right” to complain.

 

Great Schools Together: Student Achievement and Well-Being (part 1 of 6)

There has been a lot of media coverage and talk about the Central High School relocation project, and the related ensuing referendum in November that probably will be aiming to raise our property tax for the purpose of raising funds “north of $100 million”. As I have contemplated on how we got to where we are today, I have constantly fallen back to 2008 “Great Schools, Together” initiative. That effort has subtley shaped the direction of the Administration and the Board for the past 6 years, and I would wager that most folks had no clue that it was woven into a bulk of the decision-making. Thus I am starting a 6-part series to take a careful look at the “master plan” as released in September of 2008, one part for each of the strategic goals identified by that effort:

  1. Student Achievement and Well-being
  2. Stewardship and Accountability
  3. Faculty and Staff Excellence
  4. Engagement of Parents and the Community
  5. Diversity
  6. Facilities

 

My intent is to analyze and measure how we are doing on these strategic goals by evaluating each of the sub-goals listed in the Strategic Plan itself. I invite you to read the document for yourself and offer your own observations. I can already tell you that the district is doing really well in some areas and poorly in others. One thing I noticed as I have studied this document and the surrounding literature (mainly more presentations) is that there is a not really a prioritization of goals, thus it is not clear if we are doing well in the “really important” matters or not. Perhaps that is up to use to decide. So my aim here is to simply evaluate things as they stand, for better or worse. I will go after numbers and objective data as much as possible, but I am not going to discount the subjective.

 

For those that are interested in the “3 paragraph read” and don’t have time for the rest (ie, tl;dr, #tldr), here is my condensed cliff note’s version:

Overall the district is making really good progress with Student Achievement and Well-Being, as stated in the GST Strategic Plan; having said that, I would still like to see specific actions tied to individual “action steps”, better online transparency of the gestalt of where data is and how we measure progress, and why certain goals either were not met or are not being met.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Unit 4 should spend money on instruction”

Great letter to the editor this morning:

 

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/letters-editor/2014-05-30/unit-4-should-spend-money-instruction.html

 

I have asked several questions of Dr. Wiegand along similar lines (I’ll publish those later). I have also started to look at the “Strategic Plan” and “10-year Capital Improvement Plan” that came out of Great Schools Together, which the Board and the administration say they are following. The 10-year CIP is extremely short on actual plans, in my opinion, and it seems like we have missed a bulk of the goals in the Strategic Plan.

 

more to follow

April 14th BOE meeting agenda has been posted

As I was typing up this post, it occurred to me that perhaps my tone is critical and even negative towards the school district. Know that I very much support Unit 4, and I love many of the things that are going on. Yes, I am critical – but I aim to be constructively critical. The main goal of this post is to raise awareness in the community on various issues and developments, to make people aware and maybe even to generate discussion. I am of the belief that the more we involve ourselves, the more we care and the better we can work together. Yes, we will always have differences of opinion. That is a good thing. 🙂

 

A number of items are on the agenda for Monday’s regular board meeting. One of the first things is a continuation of the future facilities discussion (aka, strategic planning):

We have spent time learning about several potential scenarios regarding our facility strategic plan.  The administrative team would like to recommend that the Board narrow the scenarios for consideration to Scenarios One, Eight, and Nine.    We believe that these three options have many positive elements to consider as we continue to work towards one comprehensive facility strategic plan. 

The three scenarios have been posted as well if anyone wants to compare them:

The meeting minutes from the last few meetings will be “approved” at Monday’s meeting, so we can’t see them, yet. For those that want to get “caught up” in this ongoing discussion, you will have to go back and watch the videos (Vimeo). The News-Gazette also has a bevy of relevant articles and “letters to the editor”. Several of those have a long list of comments from a small group of readers that make for interesting reading in their own right. If I had to summarize, I would say it like this.

The school district feels pressure to get a high school built because 1) previous administrations and boards didn’t do diddly squat to help plan or prepare for growth, and 2) the current projections for growth warn us that within the next eight years, we will be exceeding capacity at all schools. Right now, the school district is concerned that the high schools are already at 103% capacity. There also seems to be a huge amount of pressure to have schools ready for the “21st century”, but it is not clear to me where this comes from. On the other hand, the predominant voice I read/hear from those who are not Unit 4 employees orbit around feelings of frustration, anger and consternation. Especially about plans for land-hungry athletic fields, building out on the edge of town, contributing to sprawl and how much worse the traffic on north Prospect will be.

In the middle of all this, I reflect upon the district’s desire for “community involved planning.” There have been some token efforts in the past to engage and involve the community; much of the current planning and directives come from goals set forth in the 2008 “Great Schools, Together” project. Some of the decisions have been shaped a little by the 2012 DeJong-Richter work. And right now, the Facilities Committee is pretty much carrying the torch (the genesis of the “three scenarios” above). The deadline for the district to submit  a referendum for the November ballot is August, which leaves us with about four months. As expected, the Unit 4 PR machine is in full swing, with a lot of help from the sharp Shatterglass videos (more are in the works). What I long to see is an effort to build unity. How are we addressing some of the deeper issues in our community? What are the deeper issues of our community?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really awesome things going on in Unit 4 – there is a ton of positive energy and excitement all around. Stephanie Stuart has been a “veritable cornucopia” of many of those things; there are also lots of really cool things going on with the Magnet programs, STEM at various schools (not just BTW), cultural understanding and appreciation via efforts of a group out of NYU and also local activist Imani Bazzell. The list goes on.

Back to the agenda.

This next one really concerns me, and I have to get my ducks lined up to make sure I am reading this right.

Agreement for Consulting Services Approval: Tom Lockman

Administration is recommending the approval of the Agreement for Consulting Services with the team of Gorski Reifsteck and DLR Group.

Architectural and professional services would be provided under this Agreement for a fee of $120,000.

 

There is a lot going on here. First off, Gorski Reifsteck was hired to the tune of some $60,000 last year to help the district narrow down the list of 16 different potential high school sites around Champaign down to one. So the fact that they are now being hired to consult on and design the school on a site where they acted as primary consultants in choosing seems a bit controversial to me. Second, this isn’t just about consulting on the architectural designs – this is also about promoting and building support for the November referendum; Gorski Reifsteck is going to be tasked with making sure at least half of the Champaign community votes in favor of a $100+ million referendum.

These raise my eyebrows quite a bit. Like I said, I need to chew on this some more and read up to make sure that I understand this correctly.

 

And to round it off, that previous RFP for 180 second generation iPads was upgraded to fourth generation because nobody wants to sell 180 IPAD 2 units:

Administration recommends the award of the RFP for iPad 4’s to Apple Computer for $68,220.00.

 

I am concerned about the push for “21st century” technology, and all these cool little gadgets (not to mention all the other computer equipment being purchased). I did follow up and talk to a few folks about the World Language program and how these iPads will be used. Again, there is a lot of positive energy and even synergy at various levels. However, there are some downsides as well. One employee I talked to said that they do not even want the iPads because they do not support Flash, and many of their programs require Flash. If the district is pushing these devices, what input from field staff did they take? How are the people who are actually using these things playing a role in the decision and planning of the utilization of technology in the curriculum? Also, in my own experience, using tools like eToys is a bit of a challenge on the netbooks; the trackpads are not that great for general navigation, and some of the finer details are really hard to appreciate. However, in the end what amazes me the most is how kids adapt! You give them a challenge and you watch them figure it out. It is so cool when that happens. Yet we have to figure out how to work with those children for whom these technological approaches are not a good fit.