Friday, January 28, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson

This is a fabulous talk about the current state of education in our society.  The way the lecture is presented is equally fascinating.  For anyone that is interested in education, creativity and improving the school experience for all children, this video is a must watch.  What he says about the decline of divergent tihnking in kids as they move through the school system is very disheartening.

Article on Education in Finland

I have just read a very good article given to me by Mr. Jared Kuleck, one of our fifth grade teachers. I appreciate (and enjoy) the professional conversations that result from sharing articles and books with colleagues. This particular article discusses the educational system in Finland. For those of you who have a life and don’t read about educational issues all of the time, Finland is every educational policy maker’s “darling” right now. Regardless of where one comes from the political field, it seems that all agree about what a great job Finland is doing educating it’s kids. This particular article attempts to understand the “why” of Finland’s success.

The article is written by a famous educator, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University. In the article she posits that two areas of reform within the educational system created the Finnish success. The first area was that the government decentralized education. Finland went from a highly centralized system where a national curriculum must be followed to a system where the national curriculum is simply a guide for the local areas to follow. In a related policy change, Finland also deemphasized mass testing of students (you do not need the testing if you do not have to “check” on the curriculum). These two policy changes were implemented to give more local control of education to communities. The second area of change was to create a teaching cadre that is well trained. The government encouraged college graduates to go into teaching by paying for graduate school and giving the teachers a stipend while they continued their education. Educators also have much more say in their continued professional development. In other words, the teachers help decide what they will learn from year to year to help students achieve. The end result of this professionalization of teaching was that decentralization was more effective. The government trusted the local schools to make good educational decisions and the government did not have to monitor the system. This is a refreshing idea which is NOT the way in which the United States operates its school system.

There is a lot that all of us can learn from good examples. Finland does many things right. Here at RASD the school district has spent a lot of energy to align professional development with needs expressed by teachers. These needs are focused on improving student achievement. Although the school system must operate in a educational system that is increasingly centralized and “top down”, the district attempts to create a local imprint everything that we are required to do by the state and national educational policy makers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mr. Connelly and Mrs. Hanes

The school district offered a retirement incentive this year as part of the 5 year budget plan. Fifteen employees took advantage of the incentive. I will spend the next month or so profiling the people that took advantage of the incentive and have served the students and community of the Ridgway Area School District.

The first two people have spent a combined 76 years working for the school district. Sandi Hanes and Bill Connelly have been an integral part of the school community for many years. Mr. Connelly started teaching English at the high school in 1971 with Mr. Jim Donavan his first principal. Throughout his 28 years in the classroom he taught everything from English Literature to Stage Design. Mr. Connelly also directed many student plays and musicals at Ridgway with his most memorable being “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. After 28 years in the classroom, Mr. Connelly moved into the principal’s chair where he served as a high school and middle school principal for 12 years. It is difficult for anyone to condense a 40 year career, but I asked Mr. Connelly what was his fondest memory of his time at Ridgway. Although there are many, he told me about one time in particular:

“One of my fondest memories was when I was high school principal and I had the opportunity to present a World War II veteran with his diploma. He had enlisted before graduation and never received his diploma. The veteran’s family contacted me and requested that he receive his diploma. Dr. Grandinetti authorized the diploma. Signatures were obtained, and I presented him with his diploma on stage during graduation. The expression on his face as he received his diploma was priceless.”

Mrs. Hanes started working for the school district in 1975 as a substitute and a teacher aid. In 1976 she was hired as a Spanish language teacher. Throughout the years Mrs. Hanes has been very active as a sponsor for clubs and sports. She has served as the cheerleading advisor for 35 years and student council advisor for 33 years. During her time as a teacher at Ridgway Mrs. Hanes has also served as a ski club advisor and assistant National Honor Society advisor. In 1979 Mrs. Hanes started taking the Spanish Club to Mexico every year. Starting in 2002 these trips were changed to yearly trips to Spain. Both Mrs. Hanes and Mr. Connelly have become woven into the fabric of Ridgway Area school District. I wish them well next year and they will be missed. I am also confident that both Mr. Connelly and Mrs. Hanes will give over 100% to the school district and the students right up until the last day they are here!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Play and Challenge"

What does the word “challenging” mean for students and education? I recently read an article in The School Administrator that discusses the change in the philosophy behind the way schools teach Kindergarten kids. For those of you unfamiliar with Kindergarten today, let’s just say “it is not your grandma’s kindergarten”. Kids are reading small booklets and many schools have entrance requirements to kindergarten that can prevent students from enrolling. (Ridgway does not prevent students from enrolling no matter how poorly students may perform on the enrollment screening) The authors are concerned that the strategies being used to “drill” reading strategies into children in all early grades simply do not work. In fact, the authors claim, the schools are doing harm to children when you consider what is taken out of the school day to make room for these strategies----namely play. Play is important for cognitive, social and emotional development. Play is also the first casualty of increased “drill” in schools. On the other hand, supporters of a more drill oriented curriculum like to talk about the fact that “their way” is more “challenging”. The word “challenging” is what I would like to discuss.

First of all, making sure that all students have the foundation for reading proficiency in kindergarten through third grade is paramount. The biggest disservice a school system can do to a child is NOT to prepare them at this critical time to be able to read. The false dichotomy is that a school must choose between a “drill and kill” approach that is “challenging” and a total “play” approach that is not “challenging”. Here is what I would like to see in a reading curriculum at the primary grades

1. I want to see a curriculum at this age level that is challenging for students to be creative.

2. I want to see a curriculum where students are challenged to think critically. Does “drilling” reading strategies promote critical thinking and creativity?

3. I want a curriculum that challenges the schools to make reading instruction relevant to students in kindergarten and the primary grades.

4. I want a curriculum that challenges teachers to use research based approach to instruction and curriculum that is holistic and addresses the entire child’s needs.

I do not think that the preceding wish list is unattainable. The word “challenging” should apply to everything that a school district uses to help children learn regardless of whether it is “drill” or “play”. In other words, the words “play” and “challenging” can (and should) be used to describe a good, well thought out reading curriculum.  I know that is what the Ridgway Area School District is striving for.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sled Riding

I usually try to write blogs that relate either to the school district specifically or education generally.  Today I am not going to follow that script.  Today I want to talk about the unadulterated fun that is involved in sled riding through the woods with your children.  We have a nice steep hill behind our house and there is a path that winds its way through it.  In the summer we use the path for walking and in the winter for sled riding.  Yesterday the path was a sheet of ice and it was great fun.  We built a “ramp” and we took turns flying off the ramp either by ourselves or with partners.  My youngest child and I went down the hill together quite a few times.  On the last trip we hit the ramp and flew at least three feet in the air and landed ten feet down the trail before crashing. (Okay, we got about an inch of “air” and landed about a foot past the ramp, but it felt like a lot more!)  I recommend that everyone invite a neighborhood elementary student to go sled riding.  You will find your inner child and have a blast.  One caution if you do this:  you will be sore the next day!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Professional Learning Communities “Think Tanks”

Today I am going to discuss “think tanks”. In the elementary school, think tanks are grade level teams of teachers who meet every six weeks. Think tanks are a time when a group of teachers come together for a day to accomplish three things: 1. Set goals for their classrooms 2. Set goals for themselves 3. Discuss students who may need help and develop a plan to address these needs. Think tanks are a form of a “professional learning community” (PLC). PLC’s are a powerful tool in education because it allows for collaboration among colleagues. PLC’s are a form of adult professional development that builds the skills and learning capital of the teachers. This in turn benefits the students as the focus of teacher attention becomes specific students and specific learning outcomes. All schools within RASD have some form of a PLC operating. PLC's are another example of how the school district has incorporated cutting edge initiatives to benefit students.

When I listen to politicians bash public education and public educators, I wish they would come and spend some time in one of RASD’s think tanks. Teachers spend their time in think tanks intensely focused on students and student achievement outcomes. The teachers will focus on individual students and what their needs as well as what the group of students collectively need. The passion to help kids is evident during these meetings and politicians and other public education naysayers need to see this.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Curriculum Maps

Today I would like to take some time and discuss curriculum mapping. Curriculum “maps” are documents that detail what the children are learning for different subjects throughout the year. School districts develop curriculum maps to fit the needs of their district. If you compare Ridgway’s curriculum map with another school district it may look different. Usually all curriculum maps have content standards and essential questions but they may have even more information. Teachers create the curriculum maps to assist them in planning instruction and developing common assessments. Ridgway Area School District and the Ridgway School Board believe that curriculum maps that are made available to the public will lead to more transparency in school district operations.

At RASD curriculum mapping is part of the two year curriculum action plan that the school board has adopted. Teachers and staff are creating curriculum maps this school year to help build a final curriculum this summer. The school district will start posting curriculum maps next week on the district’s web site. Although some maps will not be complete because the school year is only half over, I want to make sure that the public has the opportunity to view the documents as soon as possible. The first grade team has created a very good curriculum map for math. Please review it and keep on the lookout for the rest of them on our web site.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2011-2012 Preliminary Budget Part I

The preliminary Budget for the 2011-2012 school year is now available for public inspection. The preliminary budget calls for a 1 mill tax increase. This is the second year in a row for a tax increase but there had been no tax increase the previous 11 years. I will discuss the particulars of the budget in tomorrow’s post, but for now I want to discuss the timelines and procedures that district must follow to adopt a budget.

The budget is currently open for public inspection. You can find the budget here, at the school district’s web site, or you can come to the superintendent’s office to review it. The school board will vote on the preliminary budget at the February Board meeting. The word “preliminary” is very important. The Board is approving the budget in preliminary form this early in the year so the school district can apply for Act 1 exceptions. Act 1 does not allow school districts to raise property taxes above an “index” that the State determines. This year RASD’s index is .6 mills. However, Act 1 does allow for the school district to apply for exceptions that (if approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education) allow the school district to raise taxes above the index. This year the school district will ask for an exception because of the increase in retirement costs. I have discussed the pension “crisis” in a previous post. If PDE approves the exception then the school district can raise property taxes to the 1 mill level that is reflected in the preliminary budget. PDE will inform the district by March 23th whether or not the exception has been granted. Finally, in May the final budget will be available for public inspection and the board will approve a final budget in June. There is a lot of opportunity for public feedback during the budget process. Additionally, there can be changes made to the budget between now and June.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Board Meeting Tomorrow Night

The school Board meeting tomorrow night at the elementary cafeteria will be the opening round of building the 2011-2012 budget.  At this meeting, the Board will decide whether or not to build a “preliminary budget” What this means is that the board can make a preliminary decision to raise taxes more than the State allows (which is 1.7 mills). If they make that decision, then the meeting for the preliminary budget will be publically announced and the budget scrutinized.  The school board will then work throughout the Spring to create a budget that will meet the long term goals of the school district while at the same time preserving its financial sustainability. The final budget will be approved in June. I know that this Board is very dedicated to both the providing the best for the children while also keeping a close eye on the tax burden for the community members.  I will blog about the specifics of the budget and the budget process in the next few blogs.  I hope that these blogs will allow the community to understand the budget (and the process), and to increase the transparency of the budgeting process.  As always, please contact me through this blog or through our web site with any questions.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Adjacent Possible in Education

I would like to talk today about something that has been percolating in mind since I read Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. The idea is called “the adjacent possible”. This is basically the “space” that exists as a “next step’ in an innovation. In other words, what are the possibilities in the future for a particular innovation or good idea? As Johnson himself has written in an essay in the Wall Street Journal:

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: "the adjacent possible." The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. ….The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

What does this mean for education and Ridgway Area School District? First, I want to state that public education can be a place of innovation. I would further state that public education (and our society) must have innovation in public education if democracy is to survive. Second, I am using innovation as a term that means more than the politicized mumbo-jumbo that Federal programs like Race to the Top have turned the term into. True innovation can only come from a grass roots development of ideas that meet the needs of a local community and school.

The nature of innovation indicates that it must develop slowly and that it builds momentum as good ideas emerge and develop into the “adjacent possible”. Public school systems must start the process of building momentum by developing innovative ideas that address local needs. The first step is to ground decisions in a school district based on local values and needs. This will assure that the decisions reflect local “flavor” (something that Race to the Top failed to take into account). Once this is done, a list of issues that are threatening the values of the school district or community must be made. Solutions to address these threats are then developed. This is somewhat simplistic, but I believe that you must start at a basic, grassroots level. Action is important. You cannot move close to the adjacent possible if there is no action.

At the Ridgway Area School District the district has moved closer to an adjacent possible in a few areas and I will use one area for an example. The Ridgway Virtual Academy provides an alternative educational setting for students so they can access classes for enrichment, credit recovery for seniors, alternative placement, and use for classroom teachers. The adjacent possible for the RVA involves a “school without walls” that can complement the “brick and mortar” schools that we currently occupy. As the district continues to innovate more “doors” open to more possibilities to help the school district serve our community and students.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kindergarten Registration

Kindergarten registration is being held this Thursday and Friday at the elementary school.  The school district is having registration a little earlier so we can get a firm handle on how many students will be in kindergarten next year.  By having registration this early, the administration and school board will be able to have better data to make decisions when creating a budget.  If you or someone you know has a student that is eligible for kindergarten please register at the elementary school.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Welcome Back!

I hope everyone has enjoyed the Christmas holidays with their friends and family.  The Ridgway Area School District is starting the New Year running.  Tonight at 6:00PM in the elementary school library the school board will meet and discuss the budget for the 2011-2012 school year.  Tonight the board will have to decide whether or not to pass a resolution stating that the school district will not raise taxes above the index provided by the State.  If the board decides that raising taxes above the index is a possibility, then a preliminary budget must be adopted at next week's regular school board meeting.  If the board decides not to raise taxes above the index, then the regular budget process ensues which culminates in a first reading of a budget in May.  For perspective, the index for Ridgway this year is 1.7 mills.  In other words, the school district cannot raise taxes above this level without going to a voter referendum.

For some background about the previous budget please search for the blogs from last April.