systemstate dump (aka, flushing out my head)

Over the past week or so, I have been reading and searching (is that called researching?). I am a bit overwhelmed and so for the sake of my own sanity, I am going to dump it all right here in a post. I apologize up front if this is in a format that is hard to consume.

Warning: Clicking “read more” may give you a link-heavy wall-of-text. Read the rest of this entry »

Unit 4 releases the Fall 2011 Handbook


This thing weighs in at 73 pages. Going to take a while to read and digest the tome. Here are some observations gleaned simply by skimming:

  • Quality Two-Way Communication: Hundreds of volunteers work with Unit 4 students each year as mentors, tutors, and guest speakers, as well as providing classroom support. Ad hoc committees allow parents and community members to provide input into district-wide programs in areas like attendance and discipline. Each campus has a Building Council that includes parent representation, and strong PTA/PTSA groups offer support for students and staff. A Key Communicator Network (KCN) provides community members the opportunity for direct dialogue with the Superintendent about issues of interest.” (p 5)
  • Listing of BOE members w/ contact information (pp 7-8)
  • “Unit 4 is committed to transparency and responsiveness. News and information are posted and clearly labeled on our website for your convenience. We have over 10,000 pages of information for the community, parents, and staff members and strive each day to communicate effectively” (p 10)
  • A mere two paragraphs for Schools of Choice (p 21)
  • Educational goals – very ambitious (which is good) (pp 23-24)
  • Almost 8 pages devoted to health information (pp 35-43)
  • About 6 pages for discipline (pp 47-53)
  • 3 paragraphs for the PTA, followed by 2 more paragraphs for other community engagement (pp 67-68)


I’ll have to come back to this later. A part of me is wondering what a “bottom-up” handbook would look like.

No Child Held Back

Victor Rivero recently wrote an EdTech article about moving away from NCLB. Interesting timing, eh?


So this is just a little strange for me. I feel like reflects a lot of the conversations that I have already been having. Except these guys take it to the next level and bring in people who know what they are talking about. The major downside is that I don’t see any conversations on the website. I see “Join the conversation”, but no conversation. It’s very much like walking into the Grand Opening of a store and all the shelves are bare. I see “Take action” but no actionable steps to be taken.


Here is another strange thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday Open Forums at Houlihans

Just another OPEN invitation to join us for some OPEN discussion concerning Unit 4. I have invited a few more folks (via personal invitations), but I have no idea if they are coming or not. I hope they do, but they are busy individuals. We have no set agenda for tomorrow (hence, OPEN), but I would like to talk about something other than WordPress, Facebook and PTA websites if possible. 🙂

Last week we talked about PTA websites a bit. And we had some really good discussions. We covered the pros and cons of Facebook (ease-of-use and ubiquity vs security and lack of certain features like tracking conversations and static content), as well as things we are looking for in a PTA website. Basically, we prioritize:

  1. low maintenance and sustainable
  2. central updates; the ability to update one thing and have it propagate to all appropriate outlets (ie, admin email to PTA website which automatically goes to Facebook)
  3. Attractive look and feel
  4. low cost

I realize this sounds rather Utopian. But Read the rest of this entry »

Today's Wednesday Forum at Houlihans

I started the ball rolling on getting an official “Tech Committee” up by sending out an email to those identified in each PTA as a “tech person”. Today at least two PTA members, possibly four, will be joining us at Houlihans. NOTE: We are meeting at 12:30 today to accommodate schedules. This is a special time change, but may become more regular if folks want.


Again, the gathering is open to the public. We will most likely talk about PTAs and websites today, but don’t let that discourage you. 🙂 I am still on the look out for more teachers to join us. And in the back of my head, I am still chewing on ideas of going to other locations to attract different folks.

Is your PTA online?

I gave myself a mission to contact PTA “webmasters”, and frankly I am disappointed that most schools have absolutely no information about their respective PTA, much less how to find them online. I am scratching my head trying to figure this out. I can understand that PTAs are simply volunteers, and it is entirely possible that most do not know how to generate a webpage (even though there are wide array of tools to help with this). The bigger issue, I think, is that Unit 4 does not make this easy at all. Unit 4 gives the “keys” of the PTA page to the school principal – if the principal has any free time whatsoever (a rare occurrence, I am sure *grin*), what are the chances they are also quite web-savvy and know how to get their PTA online? Of the few schools that have information on their PTA page, some have no links, email addresses and/or phone numbers. Makes it really hard to contact folks like that. 🙂


My self-appointed mission? To make it a ton easier to get PTA information in a webpage. Heck, I would even volunteer to pop up a very basic page for each school. The tricky part is ongoing sustainability, and teaching all the right people the steps they have to go through. Ideally, I would want to remove the PTA information out from under the principals domain; I am confused why that is set up that way. As part of that, I would encourage PTA folks to use a 3rd party site (not Unit 4 is joining up with IlliniCloud, and I have hopes (and designs) to get them to host more stuff for us. If that falls through, there is always the IMC, and I can donate some space as well.


Some schools have some nice stuff setup already. Some are using facebook, at least one is using tumblr, several are using Google Groups (and even Google Sites), a couple utilize (I have a mail to Mr. G David Fyre about that), and one seems to be run by a colleague at work (small world, eh?). I had a great meeting with Maeve Reilly last Friday; she is currently helping the Centennial PTA and has inherited a Google Sites/Groups setup. I also got her going on a Facebook Page. It is great that parent volunteers are stepping up to the plate. But why are each of us re-designing the wheel? Why is there so little apparent support from the schools? Keep in mind, I have a limited perspective on this – most assuredly, I am receiving a lot of support from our school. But system-wide, I see very little support.


More to follow.

Follow-up to Family Engagement

This started out as a comment, but it made more sense to promote it to a full-blown post.


Unfortunately, I did not find the documents I was looking for. But I did stumble upon a host of other research; in particular, a partnership between PTA and the Harvard Family Research Project. This site is actually quite amazing, if rather dry and dull to read. 🙂 Here are two papers I have read recently:

As I think about it, the argument is not whether or not Family Engagement is worthwhile or important, but rather “What can we do about it?” How do you engage families from very diverse backgrounds, whether they are a dual-income, ultra-professional, busy-all-the-time family or a single parent working two or more jobs just to put food on the table?

The only thing that comes to mind is community partnerships. Where those that have the time and resources can help engage children of parents that do not have the time and resources (or choose to spend them elsewhere). It’s not a blame game, but rather, how can we all work together to help us all be better.

Personally, I do not find it hard at all to blame the values of our society for our current economic and political morass. Which should be clear from the first post. 🙂

So what next?

We have to accept that the current system is broken. Yes, there are some good things about it, so let us identify and hang on to that which is favorable. For instance, we have some ties to the University in our backyard – they send over students to interact with our children for Fun Days, Carnivals, Tutoring and mentoring. We benefit from some of the research (Dr. Mark Aber comes to mind). We also have the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation which organizes generous gifts and incentives to reward outstanding individuals. We have lots of amazing folks striving mightily to reach the needs of our children. But the brokenness is clearly demonstrated by such symptoms as poorly attended forums, board meetings and PTA.

After that, we have to be serious about reform. In some ways, I wonder if it would behoove us to obliterate the school district (the burdensome policies especially) and start from scratch. When thinking about reform, it is way too tempting to think about our limits, to be trapped inside the box of “that’s how we have always done it”. Want a practical step? Bring back “Great Schools, Together” with a passion. Breathe new life into it. It had a lot of potential at the beginning. Tie that in with Imani Bazzell’s work with “Great Campus”. Both efforts have shown that we have a tremendous amount of skilled and intelligent people who really want to see Unit 4 thrive. Why are we not tapping into them?

Empower school principals and teachers to be the face of the school district. Do not saddle them with rituals, policies and rules that create busywork. Hire somebody else to do that. Even in the context of online information – why are local schools burdened with coming up with their own PTA web resources? And to carry that further, why does the district not have a webmaster who is in touch with the latest technology? The public needs to know they can reach out and connect to school officials (email, website, phone, snail mail, face to face) and be confident that they are heard.

Finally, the idea of “Board Meetings” needs to be revamped. I understand that the district has business to do, and that there are many many many hours devoted to keeping the system running. But the BOE members and public-facing staff are overwhelmed with “business”, which saps their time, energy and strength from being public-facing. Streamline the business so it happens like clockwork, and devote more time to engaging the community. Lynn Peisker has done a good job putting a pretty face on Unit 4, and Sue Grey has started to put grit into the words of improving that image – in a way, they are working backwards and trying to draw the public in. This is a good approach, and I sincerely hope it works, but at some point their efforts are going to hit the brick wall of District Business.

Which is where a new Superintendent comes into play. We have to be clear about our priorities as a community. We have to want Family Engagement and Communication to near the top of the list. In fact, I personally would place those two values much higher than School Performance – in my mind, performance follows engagement like night following day. We have to make sure that we reject (actively, vehemently) any candidate that does not match our criteria and do whatever we can to grab hold of the one who does.

Ok now I am rambling. More to follow. Later.