Public Service and Partisan Politics

I have recently been listening and watching the lack of bipartisanship among local, state and national governments. The negative rhetoric that goes back and forth between political parties seems to prevent them from working together for the common good of all. We may have lost sight of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, a message that hung on the wall of my father’s law office. President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

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Photo courtesy NPR

I grew up in the time period where public service was encouraged through Kennedy’s programs such as Vista and the Peace Corps and other public service opportunities. The greatest generation worked toward and encouraged future generations to improve the quality of life across our great country through public service. The idea of public service was a big reason I became a teacher.

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It has occurred to me that we are losing the values of the greatest generation, my mother’s and father’s generation, which lived through the depression and fought a World War. These men and women seemed to understand the need for hard work and for providing a helping hand. They saw the value of public services that supported the common good of all Americans. It seems to me that public services such as public education, law enforcement and firefighting are all partisan arguments now.  The idea that everything is a business and should be treated as such, with winners and losers, is breaking the covenant between the civil servant and the public.  

My dad and my father-in-law were members of the greatest generation. They were World War II veterans and leaders in their communities. They never once complained about taxes that supported their community.  My father-in-law would say “you never want to pay the firefighter until your house is on fire and then you will pay the firefighter anything.”  

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You see, they both understood the value and importance of a high quality education, public safety and key public services.  They did not see these “public services” as politics as usual, but as services needed to provide a high quality of life in a community.  Both men instilled these values in their children.  

Don’t get me wrong. They were political and, in fact, my father ran for political office. For sure, they both complained about taxes; just not the “quality of life” taxes that provided public services. I guess it’s because they returned from a World War where they felt lucky to come home at all.  My Dad earned a law degree using the GI Bill.  The fact that his fellow countrymen felt that they should invest in returning veterans made an impact on him, his future and, consequently, my future.  He taught us to “pay it forward.”  

My father and I

My father and I

I remember these values because of my experiences as a youngster and a young parent. I remember as a very young boy when my father decided our small town needed a swimming pool and tennis courts.  He walked the neighborhoods to raise the money so that we could learn to swim, play tennis, and have a positive place to go where we were safe.  I also remember the tennis courts had a curb that doubled as an ice rink in the winter, very efficient for the times.

I’ll never forget the time my youngest child was playing outside and walked to the corner of our block and a deputy sheriff stopped and brought her home.  While I was a bit embarrassed, the deputy was just making sure everything was ok with my daughter.  He could have kept driving but he provided the extra that improves the quality of life in a community.

As our great state of Nebraska goes through another round of debate on school choice, school funding, and the next silver bullet of school reform, we stand to lose time that could be spent collaborating on what is best for all learners in our state.  I find it so interesting that in today’s society people are so quick to tell schools that they are failing so they can justify taking more funding from public schools.  However, the fact is that public schools are doing better than ever with their learners.  

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Yes, I have seen change in public education and our profession has a moral obligation to help every child find success. I’ve watched public education become more inclusive with special education students, which was much needed and life changing for all learners. (Click here to see proof of that at Westside Middle School.) I’ve seen schools use data to increase graduation rates and test scores of students of color, and to close achievement gaps found in our student populations.  We are not where we want to be, but gaps are closing across this country despite the loss of revenue and an ever-changing set of state and federal goals as we all strive to fulfill the promise of President George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind initiatives. students 2

In my opinion, public service should not be discussed within the political realm. It is my strong belief that funding for public services such as public education, clean drinking water, sound electrical grids, and public safety drive a high quality of life in a community, attracting people to live and do business. My father and my father-in-law, one a democrat and one a republican, agreed on the importance of such funding. Both men were business leaders but did not see every service as being market driven or fee based. They worked for the common good of society, not merely for the good of a few.

Today, I see the values of the greatest generation slipping away, especially supporting our public servants because they are there to serve the common good of our democracy.  When I entered education in 1980, I felt that my local community valued what I did for their children and appreciated my hard work to help every child, in partnership with their parents, find a positive pathway to lifelong success.

When was the covenant between the public servant and the public broken? I’m  not sure. I have been a superintendent in two states over a 14 year period.  I have had to reduce expenses to meet inflationary costs in 13 of those years.  Each of those districts became much more efficient with school spending by focusing on the needs our children. Our learners never suffered, but staff were consistently asked to do more with fewer resources and they continue to rise to the challenge and maintain quality educational opportunities for all learners.

Unfortunately, it seems positive results have never really mattered. I only heard the public outcry if test scores went down and more money was withheld.  Yet, if test scores went up or achievement gaps were reduced, there was silence and no additional funds were allocated.  Those results went largely ignored and I was asked again to do more with less.  

I believe that all of us want and need our public servants, whether they be teachers, police officers, judges, or firemen. A public servant is not the enemy; however, if we continue to rupture the covenant between the public and the public servant, the self-fulling prophecy will play out in communities across the country where public services are compromised, including public education the very cornerstone of our democracy.  

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I propose that we work in a bipartisan manner to restore this covenant and collaborate to operate our public services efficiently, but with the eye squarely on the prize of a positive quality of life in every community – small and large. Please join me as we work toward the common good of all of our society.

Respectfully submitted,

Blane K. McCann

 

Respect and Dignity

At this time of year, I am always reminded of what I am thankful for as a citizen of this country. Since the recent presidential election,  we have all read and possibly experienced events that have made us feel uncomfortable.  No matter our politics, I am reassured and grateful that our democracy is at work and that a peaceful transition of power will occur on January 21, 2017.

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My father, who fought in World War Two, taught me that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  He was a small town Ohio lawyer who helped many clients who could not read, write or fully understand the laws impacting their lives.  My Dad took the time to explain things and make sure they had the best legal advice regardless of what they looked like or what they could afford. Additionally, as a high school government teacher, I taught children that freedom is not free.  We cannot say whatever we want without repercussions nor can we ignore the law. A free society is dependent on treating one another with respect and dignity.  In fact, our freedom is built upon a willingness to listen to our neighbor no matter our differences.

What concerns me today is the fear of losing the very values that our public schools were built on and have maintained since the mid-1800s.  One of the key elements of our democracy is the public school system, an institution that gives all Americans the chance of living the American dream.  As we look to the future, all public schools across this nation must work to improve achievement gaps to ensure that every child has access to a high quality education, and to develop a citizenry that respects the United States constitution and is able to live and function in a democratic society.  

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Our public schools today stand for inclusion of all students; not some or a few but all. Every staff member and student deserves to be treated with respect and dignity no matter how rich or poor, their zip code, religion, race or anything else that makes them different.  

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Our country and our public schools’ strengths are found in diversity.  We take any and all children who show up at the school house. We will not pick and choose who to educate nor will we send students away from our classrooms like some private or charter schools.

Respect and dignity are key components in providing an excellent educational environment; that foundation builds a great district and country.  As our nation’s demographics continue to shift, I am proud to work in diverse public schools where we educate all students of color, rich and poor students, students new to our country and those with exceptional education needs.

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For nearly 200 years, United States public schools have evolved, becoming more inclusive with each generation of learners. Our system provides excellent educational experiences where students and staff have been given the tools and opportunities to accomplish their goals and fulfill their dreams.  Please join me and remind everyone of the inclusive values of education and that everyone in our great nation deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  Let’s not forget that public schools are the vehicle nurturing ethical citizens and leaders who contribute to and thrive in a global society.

“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions to maintain and improve a constitutional democracy. We take this responsibility seriously and understand the challenge it represents for public education in our state with each successive generation.” (Rickabaugh CESA #1 Transforming Public Education, 2010 p.10)

Yours in education,

Blane McCann

Fostering the Professional Judgment of Educators

For the past 25 years, I have noticed that the confidence in professional judgment of educators is eroding due to a constant attack on the education profession.  I continue to observe state and federal legislators passing legislation that is inflexible and ties the hands of  teachers and principals.  These fine educators are unable to make decisions that will positively impact their learners.  They are robbed of their creativity and ability to innovate in the classroom because of these outside forces.  Educators across this country are frustrated and leave the profession because of the lack of respect for their judgment and experience.  

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Since 1987, I have been committed to developing processes and structures that would bring meaning to the work of those around me.  These structures depend on the professional judgment of educators who are closest to the classroom.   I feel that connecting community and organizational members to a shared vision and a common purpose developed with staff, parents and community members  is the best way for a school district to: learn in collaborative ways; constantly strive to improve the conditions for students; and allow staff members to do their best work on a daily basis.
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Consequently, I continue to search for ways that will bring out our best in times of transition and change.  All organizations seek stability and balance so that we understand the expectations of our work.  To be sure, public education is facing many complex issues such as school funding, various achievement gaps, school choice, and school safety among many others.  In addition, public education is experiencing a transition as learning is being transformed and the future of work is evolving both because of the influx of new technologies that our students must integrate with to find success. For public education to successfully navigate these changes, we must listen to and build the capacity of all educators to lead this transformation with stability, trust, hope and compassion.  

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It is important to establish clarity and focus and provide avenues that involve all staff in this important work.  It is imperative that we understand the needs of our students and staff to maximize and build the capacity of all stakeholders.  As we design educational opportunities, it is critical that we do so from the perspective of our students and with the professional judgment of educators. We should then work backward to align our behavior, and that of our system, to meet the unique needs of all learners.

14566189_10154902503516874_6378818163895903633_oWhat I am proposing here is very different from traditional school improvement processes or continuous improvement models, and is one that I feel will help our communities realize their shared vision with energy and purpose. By changing our language from school improvement to school design, we use our professional judgment to examine our system and commit to designing learning opportunities that are personalized and authentic and taught with a rigorous curriculum to ALL students.

By maintaining the language of school improvement, educators remain anchored to the current system. The current system is a deficit model that is focused more on remediation and dependency, and will not lead to independent, critical thinkers who are able to adapt to an ever-changing world.  Despite our best efforts and hard work to change and improve our current system, the weaknesses in this model hinders our ability to meet the unique needs of all our learners and build on their strengths.

By using the language of school design, we release our energy and create synergy using our professional judgment with multiple stakeholders to focus on designing new systems that support student learning.  With a laser-like focus on students and what they need, we create a system that is strengths-based and helps our students visualize a positive future.  Staff are not constrained by the legacy of an old system, but are often energized by the opportunity to design learning opportunities that are personalized and engaging based on student strengths, passions, needs and interests.

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The results we seek through this design process are to truly to share our vision for learners, infuse professional judgment into the change process, increase staff buy-in for innovative ideas, build the leadership capacity of all stakeholders, understand District expectations and, of course, increase the achievement and engagement of all students and staff members.

The school design process shared here is based on the work of Stanford’s Design School, The Collective Impact Forum, the Accelerated Schools Process, Adaptive Schools, The Institute at CESA #1, Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, and my experience developing learning organizations in several schools and districts.

14543841_10154923778386874_3579239965356324363_oWestside Community Schools

At Westside Community Schools we know that to realize our vision and reach our goals, we must develop a connection from today to tomorrow.  The bridge that connects today with tomorrow starts with strong professional learning program that supports our staff in their growth and development as professionals.

In addition, a set of design principles that lead to transformative student learning opportunities is critical to realizing our district’s vision and our one goal.  In our District, the administrative team co-created a strategic plan with a set of essential and supporting goals with internal and external stakeholders.  Today, we work collaboratively to meet agreed upon outcomes for these goals.  Westside’s individual building teams are now meeting to define what this looks like in each building using the design process seen below.  

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The following set of design principles and group norms guides the work of our  design teams.  The principles serve as a cornerstone for a process that will release the energy of staff in conjunction with the precision of our vision and strategic plan.  These design elements define our work, but do not limit our creativity. Rather, they provide staff members with clarity and flexibility, and create an opportunity for team learning to occur.  It is my hope to build rich learning environments where teachers and students alike want to learn.

In the Westside Community Schools, learning is grounded in the following design principles:

  • All learning begins with literacy across the content embedded in a viable and guaranteed curriculum for each content area.
  • All learning is grounded in best practices that are supported by high quality formative and summative assessments.
  • Learning is integrated with current and emerging technologies to calibrate student learning to fall within each student’s proximal zone of development, such that success remains within reach, but is challenging enough to require significant effort.
  • Learning is designed to encourage critical thinking through inquiry-based authentic learning opportunities for ALL students.
  • Learning is authentic and designed to foster learning independence through local and global partnerships, rather than dependence on others for direction, structure and solutions.
  • Learning encourages self-awareness, leading to an understanding of students’ strengths and a focus on their passions to nurture learners to “own” their learning rather than view learning as something they do for someone else.
  • Student learning capacity is seen as malleable and developable through practice, persistence and effective use of available resources rather than a hard-wired, unchangeable characteristic.
  • Learning is designed so that students recognize the value of and potential to succeed in relevant learning tasks so they are engaged and persist in becoming independent learners. Adapted from the Institute at CESA #1

 

csigpfmvuaasyh6The design principles are supported by a set of Design Team norms that serve as objectives by which to operate as a group. They are:

  • Be committed to the truth
  • Build leadership capacity of stakeholders
  • Exhibit trust and respect at all times
  • Take risks and learn from failure
  • Listen to multiple perspectives
  • Be clear of intent/outcomes
  • Presume positive intentions
  • Challenge our mental models
  • Suspend assumptions
  • Let go of the past

In summary, Westside’s design process fosters the creativity, innovation and professional judgment of staff members and facilitates collaboration between and among staff, parents, and community.  It creates a conversation that is open, direct, and respectful leading to a unique product for each building in the district.  Finally, It assists working groups experiencing difficulty to reflect and come together to overcome obstacles and achieve the district’s goal to maximize student achievement and engagement in a positive school culture.  

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Making Progress with Strategic Plan, Personalized Learning

Many of you are aware that District leaders, teachers, parents and community members spent considerable time early in my tenure as superintendent conducting focus groups and seeking to understand our desires for our children as we carefully crafted a new strategic plan to carry Westside into the future.

One of the key elements of that plan was to personalize learning for students and staff, with the goal of bolstering student engagement and, as a result, student achievement. We all know that if we’re engaged in an activity — from work to play – we try harder and are more likely to succeed. The same goes for our young people. That’s why you’ll see them devote untold hours – with no complaints — to perfecting plays at football practice or dance numbers at show choir rehearsal.

We’re trying to put that same kind of joy back into learning, both for students and teachers. But it takes a little recalibrating.

The five elements of personalized learning are giving students some voice and choice in what they learn and how they learn it, providing flexible groupings and spaces for them to do it in, encouraging staff to make instructional decisions based on data, and getting to know students and their interests well while integrating digital tools to make it all possible.

So far, we’ve trained more than 80 teachers in the elements of personalized learning, and a third cohort of 40 teachers will begin training this fall. That means we have early adopters in every building who are already putting personalized learning into practice as well as encouraging their colleagues, with more to come.

To ease into personalized learning, we started by adopting the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. These interest-based enrichment opportunities are our version of the University of Connecticut’s enrichment clusters, and they’re now up and running in most of our buildings.

The model was developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli, director of the Neag Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut.

Renzulli said he began to realize in the early 1980s that the kind of instruction used in gifted education could – and should – be used with all students.

While gifted education and the opportunities that go with it usually are reserved for students identified through standardized testing, Renzulli’s framework looks beyond standard measures of academic achievement to non-cognitive skills such as motivation, creativity, and interests. And it calls for offering enrichment opportunities for all students.

I began working toward personalizing learning in the late 1980s. I took more of a hands-on approach to learning, which holds that students construct their own meaning based on prior experience and knowledge. Further, I believe every child should be treated as if he or she is gifted and talented. As educators, it’s our job to figure out how to tease out each child’s special talents, whether it’s auto mechanics or the actuarial sciences.

That’s not to say we’re forgetting about gifted students. We continue to offer opportunities for accelerated learning, which is made more seamless by our commitment to one-to-one technology. Our teachers, by knowing their students well, ensure that every student is learning what he or she needs to know at his or her own pace as we prepare every one to graduate ready for college and careers.

Schoolwide enrichment, Renzulli said, looks like activities that are part of the regular curriculum. But the model takes those activities to the next level, exposing kids to new ideas, issues, problems and areas of study. More importantly, it gives students with a particular interest an opportunity to engage in advanced kinds of study that are creative and investigative in nature and to run with their learning and truly take ownership of it. They are able to practice critical thinking and problem-solving skills from a very early age through this interest-based learning approach.

In early June, our teachers had the opportunity to attend a two-day institute at Westside High School led by Renzulli and his colleagues to learn more about schoolwide enrichment and personalized learning. The institute followed a visit by a small group of Westside educators to a Renzulli-led conference in Connecticut in 2013 and a workshop for District administrators during the fall of 2015.

Our learners now can choose an adult-led enrichment area based on their strengths and interests. Clusters meet for an hour or two a week. The goal is to slowly shift the activities from being directed by teachers to being led by students.

Renzulli said what’s impressive about Westside’s efforts is that change is coming from the top down and the bottom up, from administrators as well as teachers.

“That’s what makes it work so well here,” he said.

While it’s still early, we’re beginning to see results from our commitment to personalization. Some are anecdotal, like the Westgate youngster who told his grandfather that he had to go back to school after a dentist appointment because he didn’t want to miss his enrichment time. A sixth-grade teacher told me her students tell her that they now feel more responsible for their own learning. Others are more concrete, such as our strategic plan student survey results that indicate that 67 percent of learners feel they have a voice and some choice in their learning.

We’ve also seen other positive outcomes as a result of this and other elements of our strategic plan. Graduation rates are up and, due to our renewed focus on literacy, 182 fewer students – a reduction of 4.5 percent — have required reading intervention since 2012. That’s huge, because being able to read on grade level allows students to advance in all areas and take ownership for their learning.

We anticipate having even more good news to share when the state education department lifts its embargo on last year’s test scores. We’re excited about the gains we’re seeing, and we hope you are, too. Meantime, we’ll continue to work hard to realize Westside’s mission as an innovative educational system that ensures academic excellence and serves the unique needs of all learners.

Reflections on Westside’s Budget

The past three weeks have given us an opportunity to reflect on our District as we announced approximately $4 million in budget reductions for the 2016-2017 school year. Following public comment during our Board of Education meetings, question/answer sessions during two town hall forums and feedback from hundreds of emails submitted through Let’s Talk, we announced our budget decisions during the March 21 Board of Education meeting.

As a result of community feedback and further internal discussions, we decided to reinstate the K-12 instrumental music position. With the help of local music leaders, we will take the next school year to study our program and look for ways to boost enrollment. We also heard concerns from our educators about the use of foreign language instruction software in our elementary classrooms. While we are eliminating elementary foreign language, we will not replace it with instructional software as we previously discussed. The other outlined budget reductions remain in place.

Going forward, we must work very hard to increase our revenue streams by working with the Nebraska Legislature, protecting our commercial property values, and developing partnerships with the Westside Foundation and other community stakeholders. We cannot solve our financial issues through budget reductions alone and will continue to look for ways to generate and increase our revenues.

We hope the outlook will improve through the work of metro superintendents with the Education Committee and the Nebraska Legislature. As I shared with our staff members a few weeks ago, we are following Senator Sullivan’s LB 1067. LB 1067 would eliminate the common levy for the Learning Community and fund open enrollment students as option enrollment students, similar to the rest of the state of Nebraska, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

While we had to reduce expenses, we cannot stagnate as a District. We must remain competitive with our salary and benefits. Research tells us that strong classroom teachers and strong building administrators provide the foundation for academic success. We will do all we can to attract and retain the best and brightest. At the same time, the community support of the recent bond issue is providing the funds to improve our K-8 school buildings and upgrade security, safety, accessibility and electrical and mechanical building systems. It is important to remember that these funds are separate from our general funds and cannot be used for district operations.

Westside has long been known for its excellence and innovation. We must continue to innovate. Whether through personalized learning, authentic problem-solving, or technology integration, we are seeing positive results with our students as we prepare them to live and work in an ever-changing world. I am confident that, in spite of our recent budget shortfall, we can emerge stronger and better prepared to face future challenges. I am so proud of our employees and the work they do every day with our young people. We are all fortunate to live and work in a community that cares deeply about its public school district.

At the Start of a New Year

Similar to sandhill cranes that return to Nebraska each year, I feel butterflies at the beginning of each school year.  This is my 36th opening of school and each year has brought its owns excitement for various reasons.  In the fall of 1980 after moving to Ft. Myers, Florida, I began my teaching career.  The butterflies consistently returned but came in waves in 1993 when I first became principal of Grant Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Although each year brings its own excitement,  it also comes with challenges.  The upcoming school year feels different to me because of the overwhelming support of a $79.9 million dollar bond issue by the Westside community.  I am so grateful to work in a community that understands the importance of public education and consistently supports the efforts of the District’s professional staff members.

I want to thank the voters who reside in our great District for this support. The community supported the District’s Facilities Master Plan, updating facilities that will improve the safety, security, and infrastructure of our buildings. We will soon be updating our safe areas, enhancing our security at school entrances, and improving our building systems, including heating and cooling systems. In addition, the District will build three new buildings and complete major renovations in two additional buildings.  These upgrades are important to the classroom experience and overall success of our learners.

The master facilities plan will be monitored by the District’s Bond Oversight Committee (BOC) over the next 15 years. The Board of Education appointed five members to the BOC with staggered terms.

Adam Yale       1 year term
David Cota      1 year term
Mike Williams   2 year term
Kris Karnes      2 year term
John Hughes   2 year term

John Hughes will chair this BOE committee during the 2015-2016 school year.  John served on the Facilities Task Force and was instrumental in preparing the 15 year Master Plan. The primary responsibilities of the BOC will be to monitor and evaluate the implementation of phase one of the master facilities plan approved by the Board of Education.  They will ensure that bond spending is  consistent with the Facilities Master Plan and aligned with the work voters approved.  They will review timelines, contingencies, and substantive changes to work or use of funds. They will  address issues or risks that may arise through the the course of updating our facilities. I encourage you to attend an upcoming meeting. Meeting dates are located on our District website, www.westside66.org.

Additionally the Board of Education hired Project Advocates, an Omaha firm, as the District’s  third party representative. Project Advocates will lead a process developing standards in the areas of functional programming, furniture, equipment, fixtures, heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing systems, and other key building systems.  Project Advocates will also lead meetings that will inform the community of the many decisions required to successfully execute phase one of the Facilities Master Plan.  Finally, Project Advocates will create all bid documents and help the District analyze the bids to ensure that the best qualified companies are hired to complete design documents and  the necessary work in a timely manner.

The District finds itself with a generational opportunity to build new and refurbished facilities while at the same time transforming learning across the District.  Westside is in year two of a five year strategic plan focused on literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, personalized learning, and integrating technology in all classrooms.  The transformation of learning is grounded in a strong educational foundation that has operated in the Westside Community Schools for many years.

Last year I shared the following quote from John Gardner “Do we have it us to create a future worthy of our past ?”  It’s clear to me that Westside staff and community members do have what it takes to create a future worthy of our illustrious past.

A Look at Open Enrollment

This is the time of the year when our Student Services, Teaching and Learning, and our Human Resources Departments all begin looking at in-District student enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. A review of these numbers helps us to determine our budget and staffing for the 2015-2016 school year. Reviewing these enrollment numbers is also critical in helping us determine the number of open enrollment students we will accept into the District.

As we reviewed a parent survey from last spring, and in conversations I’ve had with parents throughout this school year, I’ve discovered that District families have a lot of questions regarding our open enrollment process. I wanted to spend some time to share information with you, and to clear up any questions or misinformation that may be out there regarding open enrollment.

In 1989, the Nebraska Legislature initially authorized option enrollment, allowing students from other school districts the choice to attend classes in another school district. State law required that all Nebraska public schools participate in the Nebraska Option Enrollment program. The law also prohibited school districts from excluding students based on disability, English language proficiency, or previous discipline issues. I’m told Westside Community Schools initially had concerns about the option enrollment law, given many unknown variables, including the cost of educating these students, and whether state funding would sufficiently cover these costs.

Instead, option enrollment proved to be a lifesaver for Westside Community Schools. In the mid- 80’s, enrollment began to significantly decline in the District from a peak of 10,000 students in the early 70’s. The District had to make tough decisions to close some of its schools. As a result, two of the District’s junior highs, Westbrook and Valley View, closed its doors. Seventh and eighth grade were consolidated into Arbor Heights Junior High, which eventually became Westside Middle School.

Then, in 2007, as a result of the One City, One School issue, the Nebraska Legislature established the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County, the state’s Nebraska’s first political subdivision for education. The open enrollment process for the metropolitan area was launched two years later. Similar to option enrollment, the open enrollment law requires Learning Community school districts to accept students from other districts, provided that they are not at capacity within their buildings. However, open enrollment also requires districts to place students within individual schools based on their socioeconomic status. This means that students with a lower socioeconomic status receive first priority to attend schools with higher socioeconomic status. The idea is to balance socioeconomic diversity within all Learning Community schools. Given that Westside is in the center of the city, and we draw students from a variety of districts, we have been able to do this successfully.

Today, one-third of Westside’s students, roughly 2,000, come to us from neighboring districts. We welcome their enrollment in our District. Open enrollment students bring economic and racial diversity; the families of open enrollment students are often highly motivated and engaged, because these parents have made a conscious decision to send their children to our schools. Open enrollment students are a mirror or our in-District student population, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and ability. Open enrollment also generates approximately $15 million annually for the District’s general fund budget.

Open enrollment has helped us to maintain our District enrollment to an optimal size of 6,000 students. It has allowed us to keep our neighborhood elementary schools open, especially those neighborhoods that still have a high number of empty nesters and residents who don’t have children. Keeping our enrollment numbers stable helps to keep our teachers and support staff employed.

Westside Community Schools would not look like or operate like the District it is today without open enrollment. For example, at the high school, a third of our total students taking AP or honors classes are open enrollment students. In some AP classes, half of the enrollment comes from open enrollment students. Because of our total student enrollment at the high school, we are able to offer a greater number and a wider variety of courses. Without open enrollment students, the high school might be force to reduce or even eliminate these or other course offerings.

As I mentioned earlier, open enrollment helps us to balance our enrollment numbers, not to fill our buildings beyond capacity. I have heard several rumors that the District will continue to arbitrarily accept open enrollment applications, even when buildings are full. Those rumors are simply not true. We are starting to see an increase in enrollment of students who live within the District. A recent demographics study by RSP confirms this. As the number of resident students continues to rise, this will impact the numbers of open enrollment students we accept.

However, even with the internal growth, the need for future open enrollment remains necessary, since we can continue to enroll students into buildings where space is available. By every measure, Westside Community School has embraced and benefitted from open enrollment. We will continue to welcome these students as a vital part of the ongoing health of our District.

Supporting School Choice

I wrote the following OP-ED, which appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

School choice continues to be at the forefront of education reform, specifically charter schools.  I, along with the other Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium (MOEC) Superintendents, expect charter school conversations will take place during the upcoming legislative session.

My colleagues have asked that I share my experiences with school choice. These experiences include charter schools, voucher systems, open enrollment, dual credit options, choice-driven desegregation plans, and private/parochial schools.  What I have learned from my involvement is that the factors driving the success of any choice program are similar to what drives the success of a public school.  Achievement in any educational setting begins with highly qualified and committed teachers who engage students in a rich learning environment.  The governance of a school or school district rarely influences student achievement by itself.  Yes, structure is important, but to transform schools, we must set high expectations for students. We must provide comprehensive, readily available systems of support. We must develop and implement best learning practices that deepen students’ understanding of content and strengthen their ability to be independent life-long learners.

Recent studies at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, along with results in Michigan and Wisconsin, indicate that charter school outcomes are mixed at best. Last year, a Detroit Free Press investigative series highlighted that more than a billion dollars paid into charter school opportunities had not resulted in increased student achievement.  The Free Press also found that Michigan’s charter schools, as a whole, fared no better than traditional public schools in educating students in poverty.  Just as troubling, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that during a ten-year period, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $139 million dollars to schools that were ultimately terminated from a voucher program for failing to meet expectations and state requirements.

In my experience, the most successful charter schools were created by existing school districts and university systems.  My former district embedded a successful charter school within its high school. In contrast, I have not seen positive results when municipalities or outside agencies, not regulated in a similar fashion to public schools, were allowed to create charters. Too often charter schools syphon away both funding and students from an already cash-strapped public school system.

When charters were first created, they were designed to be incubators of educational innovation.  The hope was that the best ideas discovered at charter schools could eventually be replicated in public schools, leading to transformation throughout an entire system. Unfortunately, this original concept was weakened and charters instead ended up competing with public schools.  Sharing best practices, while a noble intention, simply did not occur in either direction. Further, charter schools have frequently failed to change the basic model of educating students.

However, through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a vehicle exists – called the Focus School concept – that allows Learning Community Districts to collaborate and develop innovative ideas. Unfortunately, only one focus school has been created since the Learning Community came into existence and is now supported by OPS.

Other choice opportunities also exist locally beginning with Omaha Public School’s many magnet programs as well as an OPS partnership with University of Nebraska-Omaha where students earn dual credit while they prepare to attend the University. Further, Millard and Papillion-LaVista operate student academies such as the Zoo School housed at the Henry Doorly Zoo.  Lastly, several districts collaborate and enroll students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center during their junior and senior years of high school in preparation for careers in medicine.

With the proper nurturing and funding mechanisms, additional focus schools and student academies could be created, and charter schools, as defined in other states, would be unnecessary.

Furthermore, I believe the concept of Innovation Zones, which are now in use in multiple states, is a concept worth examining. All schools within Innovation Zones are more likely to be transformed by implementing rich learning environments and not by creating additional governance structures. By collaborating with the Nebraska Department of Education and by removing regulatory obstacles for all schools, not just charter or voucher schools, all schools are encouraged to innovate and achieve excellence.  This kind of freedom sparks the best new educational ideas to transform learning.

Encouraging the transformation of learning through technology is also a factor. It helps to personalize education by encouraging academic engagement, by promoting deep learning, and by allowing students to learn at their own pace.  This kind of learning helps every student, but is especially galvanizing for students living in poverty.

Creating learning settings that encourage students to follow their interests and passions in a flexible environment is the type of choice that will lead to improved results. Rich learning environments in all schools, not just selected ones, will nurture our next generation. These young people will have the capacity to solve the complex issues facing our society in government, the economy, and at home.

Rich, customized learning approaches provide the ultimate educational choice.

 

 

 

Reflections on Vulnerability

Recently, I viewed a TedTalks video from Brene` Brown on the power of vulnerability. Dr. Brown is a qualitative researcher with a degree in social work. During this particular talk, she discussed her research dealing with shame and vulnerability. She shared that as humans, we have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses and disconnections. We have a fear that we’re not good enough. She had difficulty believing her own research and had to come to terms that being vulnerable was really courage in another form. The willingness to be “seen” and to accept being vulnerable may lead to great joy and accomplishment.

She also conducted research with people who feel worthy – as she described it “…wholehearted people living from a deep sense of worthiness.” She suggested that what separated these wholehearted people from those who did not feel worthy was the courage to be imperfect and the compassion to be kind to themselves and others. These people also formed deep connections with others and lived authentically, expressing their true selves, not the persons they thought they should be. In short, these individuals embraced vulnerability, recognizing it as strength, not as a weakness.

Her words resonated with me. As parents, we see newborns as perfect and our job is to keep them perfect. I was reminded of this when I visited my newborn grandson. Dr. Brown suggested that instead of seeing babies as perfect, we must realize they are imperfect. Our job as parents and grandparents is to nurture them and to love them no matter the imperfections.

As educators, her research is powerful to consider. Every day, we work with students who are still learning and growing. They come to us with all the joys and challenges in their personal lives. They open up to us as mentors; they wear their vulnerability daily. We must make deep, wholehearted connections to them as students find their way academically, socially, and emotionally. We must encourage tenacity and hope, so they have that “suit of armor” which can sustain them through tough times. We must recognize and accept their imperfections, which is not always easy. As a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, a book titled The Middle School Years: Love Me when I’m Most Unlovable, impacted me significantly and changed the way I built relationships with my students and transformed the way I viewed them.

We must also take some of these lessons and apply them to our own lives. Dr. Brown encourages us that as we go through life, to be seen deeply, to love with our whole hearts, and to practice gratitude and joy. She implored us to be kind and gentle with everyone around us, but most of all, with ourselves.

I encourage you to reflect on this research and to realize that we have the ability engage in powerful relationships with people of all ages, and to significantly touch their lives. We also have a great capacity for excellence and innovation, if we give ourselves permission to be seen, to take risks and to have the courage to make mistakes and to learn from them.

I’m enclosing a link to the video, in case you wish to view it https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.

Combating Toxic Stress

Recently, I heard some enlightening research about supporting very young children and building their capacity for success later in life.

The research came from Dr. Laura Jana, who is an Omaha-based board–certified pediatrician, health communicator, and award-winning author.  She shared research focusing on brain development in very young children and the dangers of toxic stress in young children.  She explained how that stress manifests itself much later in life and may actually lead to early death.  We know that children who are exposed to constant stress later exhibit health problems such as alcohol abuse, chronic depression, and poor self-esteem.  These outcomes are especially true for children who live in chronic poverty.

The key to combating toxic stress is to put a caring adult in the life of that child.  We all need to pay attention to a child’s emotional health very early in life. The emerging research suggested that children, who are emotionally healthy, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are healthy because they have a caring adult in their life.  A caring adult develops a more hopeful child by helping them build a picture of the future that they see as possible.

Learning Community Superintendents’ recently published a report that emphasized the need for excellent early childhood education as well as the need to support learners who live in poverty. We are currently exploring ways to help local school districts increase and improve these programs.  In fact, the Learning Community Superintendents’ have written an early childhood plan with the help of Sam Meisels and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute that will be implemented in the fall of 2015.

Educating the whole child is very important.  As an education system, we must not forget the importance of the social and emotional health of our students.  We are beginning to find out that it may be as or more important than their academic health.  Westside recently received a $1.2 million dollar federal grant to support and explore the importance of the social/emotional health of our students.

Educators like myself are lucky because our legacy is the relationships we develop and build with our students.  Part of our job is to help build hope in our students and keep them safe and free of toxic stress; at least part of the day.  Many of us see former students who tell us the difference we made in their life.  I know you can think of a former teacher or coach who changed your life.  Let’s be intentional about building positive relationships, safe environments, and hopeful people to combat toxic stress found in those who live in chronic poverty.