What are public schools supposed to do?

I have often asked myself variations on the question “what is the purpose of school?” When asked, my then 9-year-old daughter offered her perspective, “to learn how to learn.” I asked her a year later about the purpose of the teacher, and she said “to make learning fun.” (for more reading, “The purpose of Education” part 1, 2, 3)

 

I find myself aligning with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and many others both before and after MLK, who paints a picture that the purpose of education is to generate successful citizens. Citizens that can navigate and participate in society, that know how to collaborate and compromise, engage in healthy debate to voice different ideas, and overall “be family.”

 

 

A related question is “what is the purpose of the board?” (part 1, 2) Basically, the school board sits at the 10,000 foot level (right below the clouds) and determines where the bus is going to go in the long run.

 

Having laid all that out as a preamble, I now turn your attention to the November 16th school board meeting, the agenda of which can be found on boarddocs (I still do not have a way to deep-link the agenda – you will have to navigate there manually). In particular, the interesting presentation on High School Configuration. First, I think it is great that this board is trying to 1) be very open in their discussion, and 2) are trying to invite the community to the table on “big issues”.

 

The High School Configuration document is interesting because it starts off with a summary of Lisa de la Rue’s literature review. For those that want to rewind back to the June 11th, 2012, meeting, I have a couple notes you can look over; June 9th, before the meeting, and June 12th, after the meeting. Basically, there is a weak correlation between school configuration and student achievement (too many other variables). This current document goes on to list several pros and cons between a 1-HS model, a 2-HS model (current) and a 3-HS model. I noticed a trend in the carefully phrased “possibilities” – the single high school model might increase the number of opportunities/services while at the same time might decrease climate, while at the other end (not really an extreme) the three high school model looses the number of offerings (due to lack of consolidation) but increases the innate intimacy. Funny how the two high school model has one and only one “concern” listed. Oh, by the way, the current HS principals will be spearheading this presentation. 🙂

 

I am not shy about my own preference, but the point I want to make with this post is that I believe the board as a whole needs to focus first on what kind of students they want to produce. Regardless of configuration or location, when you hand a diploma to a kid, what qualities and traits will they have acquired because of Unit 4? What exactly is a successful citizen? What about those students for whom the current system is not working at all? What are we doing wrong if students (young citizens) are “failing” the public school system?

 

The district administration has recently taken a stronger stance in support of Positive Behavior Facilitation (PBF, a concept originated by Dr. Edna Olive who has a book by the same title). Mr. Orlando Thomas and Ms. Katie Ahsell are pushing PBF, with good effect, with ACTIONS staff used throughout the district. During a recent email exchange with Dr. Wiegand, it sounds like the district is looking at including PBF and cultural relevancy more thoroughly within Professional Development in the near future. Having read Dr. Olive’s book, I find myself agreeing with her belief that “relationships are everything.” In fact, Dr. Olive goes so far as to call PBF a paradigm not a program; it is more of mindset, a method of taking a step back and thinking about all the factors going on in a given situation, starting first with yourself.

 

My own high-level goals for any student going through Unit 4, regardless of the physical building they happen to be in, are:

  • her sense of curiosity, creativity and wonder are encouraged and enhanced; she is a critical thinker who, because she is a life-long learner, questions everything
  • although she is a single citizen, she is a valuable citizen who appreciates the value of others around her; ergo she seeks to resolve conflict, collaborate, and compromise as needed
  • alongside her repertoire of reading, writing and math skills, she also gains the confidence that she can acquire new skills as desired
  • she is both street-wise and world-wise

 

What goals do you have? What goals do our students have? And how will we realize those goals?

 

I hope lots of people show up for the chat tomorrow, and I hope many more continue to provide input on their own priorities. I urge the board to focus more on the purpose of Unit 4 schools, and provide course corrections to the administration as necessary. Personally, I don’t think the board as a whole should decide the location or the configuration; certainly as individuals and voters they have an opinion that should be expressed, but as a board, I see their job as setting the big picture first.

 

Let’s make learning fun. 🙂 And let us learn how to learn. Always.

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#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.

“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?