Family Matters

I recently visited Ireland on a family trip with my wife Marie, her two sisters and one brother-in-law.  It was an amazing trip and we visited several areas of a very beautiful country.


I also had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home in Killinchy, Ireland in County Down south of Belfast. I found a Presbyterian Church built in 1739 that included a cemetery with several generations of McCanns. I brought my great aunt Adella’s research of our family history, dating back to the early 1700s in Killinchy, Ireland.  In 1792, my great, great, great, great grandfather brought his family to America from this small village in Northern Ireland.

While I was standing at the gravesite reviewing our family history, a woman approached our group. She explained that she saw us at the McCann grave site and, since she is also a McCann, wanted to see if we needed any help or had any questions.  As it turns out, we are probably 5th or 6th cousins as we compared our families’ histories.  I am already in contact with her daughter and we are sharing information to determine common relatives. It was fate that we had this chance meeting.


On the return flight, I reflected for several hours about this chance meeting with a stranger that turned out to be a relative. I recalled a book by Dawna Markova titled I Will Not Live an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion. I strongly encourage you to find and read this book (click here if interested!).  It is very inspiring and meaningful.

The one thing I remember from Markova’s book, and that I was reminded of on my recent trip to Ireland, is the concept of family. Markova tells us that we all have relatives that have been working for generations to make our lives better.  My relatives worked very hard to make my life better in 2017 when, in 1792, they made a decision to leave Ireland and travel over the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, they did not realize they were working for me – their great, great, great great grandson – to find success.  I do feel them standing behind me each and every day encouraging me and my children.  Markova reminds us that we are doing the same; we are also working for our grandchildren and their children, many of whom we will never know, and helping them to find success throughout their 80+ years.

I then reflected about my 30 plus years as a teacher and educator. I realized in our jobs as teachers, educational assistants, principals, custodians, maintenance experts, and food service staff that we are also building upon the legacy of Westside employees who, for the past 70 years, built a positive culture of excellence in District 66.  We are standing on the shoulders of great people who never knew us but worked very hard so that our careers would be successful and meaningful.

We, like our predecessors, are working for future generations of students, helping them to find their path, and to be prepared for life after their PK-12 schooling is complete. We do this, not because of recognition or awards, but because we want to make a difference.  We are working for future generations that we will never know.  Today’s kindergarten class is the senior class of 2030, and I am pretty sure that I will not be preparing commencement remarks for their graduation.  Like you, I work today for future generations of students that I will never meet and it is what gets me up every morning to come to work.


Education is a relational profession. We are like parents and these students are “our kids.” As a parent of five children, I know how much teachers have done for my children and their current success. We do “pay it forward” in our profession. We have generations of great teachers behind us, and we do work for learners we have never met. I once spent four days with Margaret Meade’s daughter, Catherine Bateson, and she told me “…if you want to leave a legacy get a kid in your life.”  Our profession allows us to impact the future long after we are gone from this world, just like my great, great, great, great grandfather James McCann and grandmother Elizabeth Sibbett McCann did for me during their lifetimes.

Blane K. McCann



Personalizing Learning in Every Classroom: A Case for Implementing the Schoolwide Enrichment Model

I recently attended the 40th anniversary of Confratutue sponsored by University of Connecticut. This was the 8th or 9th time I have attended this very special event. As described by founders Joe Renzulli and Sally Reis the event is a hybrid of a conference, institute and fraternity, or a “Confratutue” (once voted the worst word to enter the English language.)

At each event, I learn so much that I am able to use in my daily work.  The following is my reflection of my time learning over they years at Confratutue and the fact that I believe that all teachers must treat all kids as gifted students because they are in their own ways.

Blane and Madden

Consider the notion that any student with a commitment to learning is gifted. It is not only intelligence that plays a role, but also creativity and commitment. Giftedness is not just a test score.

How many students have we, as educators, seen who did not have a test score to qualify for a gifted program, but became an expert in an area of passion and interest? I’ve personally seen hundreds of students. I remember one learner vividly who I knew would become a meteorologist. Today, he is considered an expert on the weather of the Great Lakes region and is sharing his research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the National Weather Service. Task commitment can take students places they never thought possible.

This broader definition of giftedness is one I learned from Dr. Joseph Renzulli, a longtime professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, for whom the Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education, and Talent Development is named. I met Renzulli at a conference in 1996 and in the more than 20 years since, I have worked in three school districts as a building principal and superintendent, collaborating with him to apply his pioneering ideas about giftedness and personalized learning approaches in PK-12 settings.

Westside Summer School students programming robots

Implementing change in public education is not easy. Renzulli understands this. He himself encouraged me to embrace the vulnerability I felt and he provided me with the courage needed to make changes based on what my students wanted and needed to be successful. I was able to help teachers see how student agency and student engagement could be improved along with their test scores. We built a school culture focused on learning and engagement for all students. I observed changes with our teachers as they implemented these practices in their regular education classroom. They took into consideration students’ interests and allowed for more student voice and choice as well as flexibility in their classrooms because they facilitated an enrichment cluster.

Westbrook Elementary staff taking part in professional learning before children arrive for the 17-18 school year

In working as superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., I wanted to put the joy and wonder back into learning after decades of high stakes testing had sucked the joy from our classrooms. So I asked our staff the question: What if we could personalize learning for all kids in all classrooms?

Another of Renzulli’s principles — the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) — serves as an entry point for schools that want to do just this. I want all kids to be able to follow their passions and interests every day. Every one of them could be “gifted” if we could find ways to engage them in their learning. As I learned about personalized learning, I quickly saw the connection to SEM to this evolution of learning.

What connections did I make? First, students identify their interests and passions through a survey. Next, SEM is about student ownership of their learning. In a SEM cluster students drive their learning with the help of the cluster facilitator. Additionally, teachers do not create a lesson plan prior to the cluster meeting but help student determine their own learning path through class discussions, which allows students to choose different learning paths.

Summer school students from Westgate and Paddock Road researched different animals & built models during a Rainforest Enrichment Cluster.

From my 20 years of experience with SEM and now personalized learning, my colleague and I have identified five elements to personalize learning. Those elements are:

1) Know your Students

2) Voice and Choice;

3) Flexible Groups, Spaces and Mindsets;

4) Data Informed; and

5) Technology Support.

A teacher must know their students well before they can teach them. A teacher who knows their students well can allow for more voice and choice because they know their interests and their capacities to learn and work. Once students find their voice and make learning choices a teacher becomes more flexible. I had a teacher tell me she was letting go of deadlines because students wanted to make sure they submitted their best work and needed more time.

Data is used to inform our work with individual students. This data is critical for a teacher to map out a learning pathway that is personalized based on student needs, which can extend learning or help relearn content.

Finally, Westside Community Schools is a 1:1 learning environment.  Our teachers enhance learning by using technology such as iPads and MacBook Air computers in our classrooms. We do this because we want our students to create personalized content and use individualized applications while they work at their own pace to master our standards and benchmarks through a personalized learning approach.

Yes, I experienced many obstacles and barriers to building this culture. Most issues are about control and trust. We alleviate those issues by focusing on our District’s standards and benchmarks.  However, I would hear comments such as “we don’t have time to implement this framework” and staff told me “the cluster did not exactly follow the curriculum” or “students will miss critical learning time.” I explained that students would be applying District standards in many different, but authentic ways. In each district where I worked, the staff and I altered the daily schedule to accommodate student learning that allowed for this type of deep learning.

The results we now are seeing are definitely worth the journey. Our current results are measured with not only test scores but with engagement, with voice and choice, and with student ownership for their learning. At Westside Community Schools, reading scores are improving and fewer students are in need of remediation. Further, our Gallup student and staff engagement scores are on the rise demonstrating that people enjoy the teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms.

Did You Know

I have seen similar results every time I have implemented these types of learning approaches. For instance, we first implemented SEM in our middle school in 1997. At John Bullen Accelerated Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I observed an increase in student ownership for learning as well as an increase in student attendance and a decrease in poor student behavior. Achievement gaps closed. Student achievement increased. Students seemed to see the relevance in the subject matter based on their interests. Most importantly students’ academic confidence grew. They knew they would accomplish their learning goals especially disadvantaged students who are rarely given an opportunity to experience learning in this manner.  SEM leveled the playing field.

Today, Westside has 9 of 10 elementary schools and our middle school implementing SEM. In addition, our high school, with the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, is implementing a version of SEM through our Center for Professional Studies (CAPS) and other academic departments such as Business where high school students operate and manage the Colosseum, our school apparel store. All of these students participate in a variety of meaningful, real-world learning opportunities, such as job shadows and meaningful internships.

CAPS students working on the Oakdale Media Center desk, a project they owned from conception to creation

One group of students recently took part in a CAPS project focused on designing and building a circulation desk using recycled materials from a historic district elementary school that was recently torn down to make room for a brand-new school. One of those students became so engaged that he is now pursuing a major in architecture this fall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His excitement and engagement is off the charts, thanks to his involvement in this project.

I strongly urge other educational leaders to consider making this journey. I was able to transform the middle school where I was principal in a 2-3 year period. At Westside, the District is making tremendous progress with staff to transform learning for all students in four short years. It can be done.

Today with the emphasis on personalizing learning for every student, SEM is a perfect entry to explore and help staff feel comfortable relinquishing classroom control and begin to trust their students. It is my sincere belief that if you commitment to this journey that like my former student, it will take your learners places you never thought they could go.

Blane K. McCann


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.”


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.

blane and student

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.”  

OPD AND students

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.  


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.  

blane and staff

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.


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.  


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.  


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.


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.  


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.

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.  


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.


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.  


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.  


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,

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.