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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Seeing the trees, or a forest?

The “Keep Central Central” group, formerly known as “REWIND” (and with slightly different leadership), is making a push to argue for a site for the “new” Central to be almost anywhere except Interstate Drive. Well, anywhere south of I-74. There is a press conference advertised this coming Saturday (Jan 31) at 10:00 am at the Champaign Public Library; the doors will open at 9:15 am for the room for people to gather and mingle. And this morning, Bruce Hannon has a letter to the editor in the NG.

Even though these conversations are happening WAY TOO LATE in the game, I am glad that they are finally happening. Moreover, I wish more people were involved in those conversations, especially new voices.

But here is where I have a problem – I will use a quote from Mr. Hannon’s letter to make an example:

“Only a no vote will cause this board to work with our citizenry toward the best solution, a central city location.”

No, Mr. Hannon, I think you missed the bigger picture.

 

Rather than direct my arguments against Mr. Hannon, with whom I have never spoken nor communicated, I will address this as an open letter for all of us to consider.

First and foremost, there is an even bigger vote that just happens to be on the same day (April 7th) – voting for 4 school board members (there is one more seat that is uncontested). If the citizenry were truly earnest in wanting a board to work with them, they would be very mindful about whom they elect to represent them, and then hold those elected agents accountable. Voting “NO” on the referendum and also not focusing on new board members is a complete waste of time, energy and votes.

Second, stop being so passive aggressive! I have heard quite a few members of the “citizenry” complain about the board, but leave out the most crucial aspect of having a voice – they do not offer constructive criticism or viable alternatives for the board to address such complaints. If you think the board is not working with the stakeholders or “owners”, how do you suggest they do so? Believe you me, I have already made my own suggestions, and have been talking with board member candidates about changes I would like to see (see my IASB post).

 

So in my opinion, we have spent way too much time focusing on the “trees” of a high school site. Yes, it is an important issue, and obviously a lot of people feel passionate about it; it is not my intent to mitigate that. However, we must keep in mind the whole forest – what is it that the Champaign Community Unit School District #4 does? You could answer that question by looking at the Mission Statement, crafted quite a long time ago and tweaked over the years. More specifically, what do you want our fine school district to do? What does Unit 4 produce or provide?

 

In our community of some 80,000 odd people, we have 80,000 different ways to answer those questions. I believe that is a problem. So why not have passionate discussions about this root issue? Why not form citizen groups around this topic?

 

One way or another, the “tree” of a new high school site will pass away in a few years, and will be replaced by other “trees”. If we do not contemplate the gestalt of public education, we will forever be bickering about which tree to tackle next.

 

So here is your homework. Figure out what you want public schools to do. From there, determine which school board candidates are willing to make that an Ends for Unit 4, or persuasively convince them – it is the job of the elected school board members to exercise governance over the school district. Period. Take this conversation to existing school board members as well – we already know that two of them are in the middle of four-year terms.

Your homework is due on April 7th. Turn it in at the County Clerk’s office.

 

PS – one final note. The NG tells us that recently in Danville the public had an opportunity to “meet and greet” two of the seven school board candidates. I am calling on the nine Champaign school board candidates to hold open “meet and greet” times as well. Kerris already has semi-regular “office hours”, take advantage of it! I collected their contact information on a separate page if you want to reach out to them; most, if not all, are more than happy to meet and talk with members of the community.

The Purpose of the School Board, part 2

Two years ago, I wrote a post about “The Purpose of the School Board“. Recently, a number of events have persuaded me to revisit this topic. In particular, at least two groups (possibly more) are actively seeking to form a slate of board member candidates for the April 2015 elections. I have asked, but I am not yet at liberty to disclose more details. I will say that I am involved in one of those efforts.

 

But this post is more about what role the school board plays. Or to look at it from a different angle, what would happen if there were no school board in Unit 4 as it currently exists? Who would hire the superintendent? What else would be different?

 

I have an ongoing conversation with Ms. Cathy Talbert of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). She has been very helpful in giving me a broad, 10,000ft picture of how the IASB’s stance towards governance affects the way they train board members. I have also learned that John Carver’s “Policy Governance” has had a huge impact and heavily influences how those perspectives are formed. Ms. Talbert has warned me that while Carver’s philosophy is definitely a significant ingredient, it by no means implies that the IASB follows “Policy Governance” 100%; while giving me some ideas of how to get started in my understanding of IASB’s philosophy, she mentioned that I should read John Carver’s books and also cherry-picked a few IASB websites for me to look at.

Diving into John Carver’s world is kind of like swimming in an ocean; it is vast, deep, and not much land in sight. I started with “Boards That Make a Difference“, the official primer for Carver’s “Policy Governance”; in this post I’ll focus on that which seems ideal for our school district. And hopefully I can present a much simpler, much more concise version while still being true to the source material.

 

The purpose of the school board is to be the moral compass of the school district. Not strictly dividing “right” from “wrong”, but more generally painting the long-term description of the “products” or “benefits” that the “owners” desire of the “organization.” There are several salient points that make this fundamental and critical:

  • The people who pay the taxes and vote are the owners; they must fully take ownership of the public school district (Unit 4 Board Policy 105).
  • The board merely represents the will of the people; they are not necessarily experts in education, but they are the people when it comes to the boardroom table.
  • As such, the board is obligated to build relationships with the community over and above the staff; an inherent part of a board member’s job is to seek out diverse opinions and to make himself or herself readily available to the “owners”; they are to be collectors of opinions and perspectives across the wide gamut of community members.
  • The board policies should be very broad, very global, categorized into perhaps 4 distinct groups, and able to be easily summarized in 5 pages such that every decision made by the school district can be measured against those 5 pages. Carver calls this the “Policy Circle”, and allows for more detail as necessary, but the starting point and the thrust is that these are overarching statements of motivation which drive the direction of the entire school district; in other words, the board policy should succintly determine “who gets what benefits for how much”.
  • The board’s business should boil down to deciding whether or not anything put in front of them is in alignment with the clearly documented, widely communicated, simplified board policies.

 

The IASB’s official “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance” reflects many of the virtues espoused by Carver, going so far as to adopt Carver’s terminology and use of “Ends”. I wish to clarify that while the Board’s primary job is to govern and take responsibility that these Ends are clearly defined and adhered to, it is the people who give breath to the Ends in the first place. The Board cannot and should not adopt Ends as put forth only by the organization and/or its staff, but the board should be engaged “in an ongoing two-way conversation with the entire community. This conversation enables the Board to hear and understand the community’s educational aspirations and desires, to serve effectively as an advocate for district improvement and to inform the community of the district’s performance.”

 

The IASB has another page dedicated to “connecting with the community“; this page repeats much of what is already on the “Foundational Principles” page, but also links to a new report that strives to put forth good community relationship building practices.

 

I do have one major criticism for IASB, and I’ll have to think of a polite way to ask this question of Cathy Talbert when I talk to her next; “If the IASB is responsible for board member training, why the hell do we struggle so much to exercise that ongoing two-way communication?” Obviously this criticism does not apply to all board members – I place this on the IASB shoulders because they are the ones telling board members how to do their jobs.

 

Five seats are up for board positions in April; five out of seven. I think people sense that if they truly want to make changes to the board, now is a really good time to do so. Here is the measuring stick I am going to urge the entire voting community to consider when contemplating board members candidates and even whole slates (taken directly from the IASB “Foundational Principles”):

  1. The Board Clarifies the District Purpose
  2. The Board Connects With the Community
  3. The Board Employs a Superintendent
  4. The Board Delegates Authority
  5. The Board Monitors Performance
  6. The Board Takes Responsibility For Itself

 

This is what board members should be doing. This is what I will want successful board member candidates to set their agendas on. And for any slate, I would want them to fully embrace these guiding principles. Granted, this calls for a lot of work – we have a lot of bad habits we need to correct. I love how Carver casts the ideal board meeting; it should be lively, filled with debate, but also well kept on track (“moral compass”). A 4-hour, boring board meeting means you’re doing it wrong. A board policy manual that measures 8 inches thick when printed means you’re doing it wrong.

 

The people elect school board members to exert their will upon the school district; those five people you elect will effectively become your voice.

Who is this John Bambenek guy?

I had a great chat with the new Board member, John Bambenek, on Friday. My interaction with Mr. Bambenek on Friday reinforced my previous interactions with him, and I had two take-aways; 1) he is very open to talking, just drop him a note and work out a good time, 2) he is passionate about bringing a deeper level of transparency and financial accountability to the school board.

As an alumni of the University’s Computer Science department, I was somewhat compelled to start our conversation on the topic of computers, a topic that came up frequently. John teaches a 400-level course at the University dealing with operating system and network security. If I recall correctly, their latest task is to reverse-engineer a computer virus. I asked about special projects, and he mentioned one I was fascinated with, a quadracopter carrying a raspberry pi to accomplish specific tasks. Computers bled into other aspects of our dialog as well.

For instance, Bambenek has a tie into Adam Andrzejewski’s Open the Books project (I believe he said he either sat on one of the boards or consulted for them). For those not familiar with Open the Books, I encourage you check out the website and/or go read Jim Dey’s Editorial on it (11/02/2013). The basic idea is to track where and how all the money flows, or as their motto says “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” For me personally, I find this to be a fundamental part of modern democracy, giving normal taxpayers the tools and authority to see what their tax dollars are accomplishing. I believe it has the potential to bring the voice back to the voter, so that we can ask intelligent questions, but more importantly, give critical feedback to our elected officials so that they have concrete guidance on how to perform their duties. “Transparency” is something that becomes a bit of a buzzword when folks are campaigning, but it makes me wonder how many people really “get it.” I believe Mr. Andrzejewski gets it – and if Bambenek is following in the same path, I am happy with that. To bring the conversation to Unit 4 in particular, there are several things going on. First, we recognize and acknowledge that Unit 4 has gotten better about transparency. For instance, they have been posting check registers online for quite a while now, and even better, Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

News-Gazette article about the Board

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2013-05-31/board-officers-vote-may-have-had-outside-influence.html

Also, the results of the FOIA: http://www.news-gazette.com/sites/all/files/pdf/2013/05/30/FOIA_request.pdf

Text searchable version (has errors due to conversion): https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/misc/may-31st-ng-foia-request-pdf-converted-to-text/

This is one of the rumors I hinted at earlier. I have a number of issues with this, but I fear I have not fully gelled my thoughts coherently, yet. So, in a sense, right now I am merely hopping on the news bandwagon since a number of readers already alerted me to the article – figure I might as well at least say something about it.

From my own personal conversations with those involved, I know there is more going on than what is being said publicly. What I struggle with is “what is really important here?” I mean, I can see folks getting all worked up about “he said she said” kinda thing. But what do we want to fall out from this? Of course, everyone is going to always be wondering who this mystery 3rd party is, what their motives are, etc etc. Does it really matter? Does it really have to be a big bad secret? What about all this talk of transparency? Or is transparency only to be applied when conveinent?

I don’t know all the answers. I am still chewing on this myself.

Read the emails. Form your own opinion.

PS – I am going to convert the FOIA pdf to searchable text. (now done)

April 2013 School board candidates

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2012-12-26/champaign-urbana-candidates-file-april-school-board-elections.html

 

7 candidates for the 5 open seats in Unit 4:

 

I have added links for candidates that have a public page  – I personally know that some candidates are working to get a page up soon. And I plan to bug each of them, so consider this fair warning. 🙂

 

It is an interesting cast of characters. When I look at this list, I think of what a school board is supposed to do, and what I want a school board to do. Which is very tricky, because if nothing else, we are often very divided along several paths and we all want different things. But my slant, my bias (or lens) is that I am looking for a kind of change that does away with the “way we have always done things” and instead keeping an eye on what is best for our community and our schools. “Isn’t that what the board already does?” I am not convinced that the spaghetti code of our policies, the way the Federal and State governments proclaim unfunded mandates and the “traditional” way of holding meetings is up to par with what we need in our time. They may have served a purpose is days gone by, but I firmly believe we need to try something else, even if they have already been tried in the past.

 

What kinds of things do you want to know about?