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.

World Languages Curriculum

I mentioned earlier that I noticed an RFP for 180 iPads (2nd Generation). I was more curious than anything; the RFP gives no indication whatsoever of the justification or the purpose for these devices. So I asked. As noted in the post, Stephanie Stuart replied right away that they will be used to support the World Languages instruction. Recently I further learned from Dr. Wiegand that the board approved this new curriculum back on April 9th, 2012.

 

Looking back, April 9th was an interesting day (post 1, post 2). At the time, I did not make any mention about the World Languages curriculum due to all the intensity dealing with Working Cash Bonds. World Languages happened to be the first item on the business agenda, and looking back I am surprised at all the supporting documentation available via boarddocs. In the end, the administration asked for $684,926. Of the six supporting documents, only one mentions iPads, and only 60 at that. I am not exactly sure why the district is requesting 180 now, nor why 2 years later. Presumably, the iPads were supposed to come out of the Summer 2012 budget – now that we are sitting at Spring 2014, I am thinking the figures have shifted a little bit.

 

So here is my quandary. Is this a big deal at all? World Languages sounds like a really good idea given all the ethnic and cultural diversity we have, thanks largely to a Big Ten research institution. Obviously, a number of teachers, administrators, not to mention consultants, put some serious time and effort into the pilot (at least, according to the documentation available to us). Is it worthwhile to start digging into this niche circumstance, to learn how effective the World Languages curriculum has been, what “bang” our $685k got? Should I care what the iPads are used for? Or what about the involvement of Pearson and all the other curriculum materials we purchased?

On the other hand, I might just ask questions about the curriculum because I truly am curious and want to learn more. In my experience, if I start off talking to administrators and teachers with “Hey, this is cool, can you tell me more?”, they usually jump at the opportunity to tell me all about it. And my first response to Stephanie Stuart was along the lines of admiration for geeky gadgetry being used to tear down language barriers. I kinda want to see it at work. 🙂

 

On a more general issue, it concerns me that the RFP has absolutely no mention of “World Languages” at all. There is no indication that the board approved x number of iPads at a previous board meeting. But how much of a concern is this really? Does anyone in the community really care about RFPs? I don’t hear anyone else making any noise.

 

Which ties back to the same post about the iPad RFP in which I mention “normalized deviance.” Have we become so numb to the way things happen in our school district, our cities, our state and our nation that we are willing to let these minor things slide?

 

I do not want to nit pick really small things. $685k (spread over 4 years) is a reasonable chunk of change, but we currently have bigger fish to fry. Heck, if I wanted to make a big deal about small things, my panties would get all bunched up over the silly $900 plaque we hang in school buildings for LEED certification. But I am contemplating how to use this as a small example of holding our district accountable. Truly, I think we have lost the art of respecting the social obligation and civic responsibility of looking out for one another. It is not with judgement and criticism that we should look carefully at each other, but rather with a genuine desire to see improvement hoping that others would do the same for us.

 

Now to go learn more about World Languages…..