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.

Connecting All Kids: #FutureReady

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I am so excited as I arrive at the airport Tuesday to travel to Washington D.C. to join a group of thought leaders at the United States Department of Education’s ConnectED Summit. This day is doubly special because it is also my daughter Audrey’s 16th birthday, and she is traveling with me to Washington.

I met Lisa Snyder, a superintendent from Minnesota, right away Wednesday morning while we were hailing a cab for our drive to the White House. While standing in line with other superintendents from across the nation, the anticipation and enthusiasm is evident and I feel like an eighth-grader on a school field trip. You can sense the excitement.

As a social studies teacher and life-long educator, experiencing the history of the White House is a highlight of my career. Many of the historical events I taught took place here! It is truly incredible to know that Abraham Lincoln walked the halls and grounds of this building. The security is phenomenal; it’s the safest I have ever felt in my life.

Watching the President stride into the room, shaking hands with all of the superintendents sitting on the aisle, is a moving experience. As he starts his speech, it is clear that he is committed to connecting ALL students and educators to technology. In fact, he set a goal that 99 percent of the country’s students will be connected to the Internet within five years. This goal, coupled with increasing digital learning opportunities, will help close achievement gaps between affluent and less affluent learners in our country. It will also close access gaps and develop equity among all students.

The President spoke about how learning is changing and that today’s classroom is not the classroom we remember. Learning today must be relevant, engaging, and infused with both critical thinking opportunities and real-world learning experiences. If not, we risk students dropping out or, even if they stay in school, merely going through the motions.

The President sees investment in education as an economic driver if the United States is to remain a global leader in research and innovation. This investment in our children is seen as a path to the middle class where everyone can participate in the American dream. However, for that to occur, our schools must prepare students for future jobs that will require critical thinking, the ability to learn and the capacity to build positive relationships while solving complex problems.

Finally, the President celebrated educators and thanked us for our dedication and commitment to our students. He asked that we continue to work hard as learning transforms in the digital age. Secretary Duncan also commended teachers and principals for their work. He said, and this is paraphrased, “Technology will not make teaching obsolete, but teaching will evolve as a profession into blended learning where great teachers using technology will take kids farther than they ever thought they could go.” Secretary Duncan also said that the Department of Education will help by releasing a professional learning tool kit, expanding funding for e-rate to assist with infrastructure needs, and developing accountability systems to measure outcomes. Please go to www.tech.ed.gov and www.futurereadyschools.org to learn how you can join this effort to make ALL students future ready. Also, please watch this video of President Obama talking about all kids being future ready in the country.

The good news is that District 66 is well positioned to lead this initiative. Our current strategic plan aligns with the ideas discussed in Washington. We provide access to digital learning across our District on a daily basis, but we also must collaborate with other civic leaders to provide connectivity outside of the school day so all our students can continue to learn in a 24/7 environment. It is my opinion that equity will improve and students will benefit greatly from this effort to connect learners to digital content through the Internet as they develop, with our help, their own pathway to success.

Our innovative and creative staff and supportive community are leading the way toward a transformation of learning in our District. After this meeting, I know that District 66 is a leader in our state, region, and nation in this effort to blend learning using technology as a tool to close achievement gaps and engage all students. Educators truly do work in the future. They encourage each student’s strengths and passions, which leads to success and a lifetime of learning and of contributing to their communities and nation. It is an exciting time to work in public education, and I have never been prouder to be an educator than I am today.

It is hard to leave the ConnectED Summit because of the “powerful learning” taking place between and among the many participants. As I leave the White House, and its history and power, I look back at the building and am verklempt. I want to stay here, but I cannot wait to get back to Westside where we will continue our great work and where we have the power to change the world… one student at a time. The following video illustrates that commitment.

Now I’m off to celebrate Audrey’s birthday… again!!

Blane

The Future of Learning

During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, amid the chaos in my home with my grandchildren, my children, and their spouses, it occurred to me once again how learning has changed since I was a child.  I’m keenly aware of the pace of this change across generations from my 31-year-old son, to my 15-year-old daughter, to my 2-year-old grandson. The evolution of learning from static to dynamic is akin to the evolution of yesterday’s Encyclopedia Britannica to today’s Wikipedia. Technological advances are transforming us from passive learners to active learners.

Information is everywhere and is available all the time, fueled by the passion and interest of our learners. My children download recipes for a delicious meal or watch a video that teaches them how to bake a pie or prepare sweet potatoes.  Learning is becoming more personal because technology provides information instantaneously.  This instant access to knowledge is pushing the education profession in directions we thought were not possible just a few years ago.

PK-12 education truly sits at a crossroads and is in the midst of deciding its future. We must remain relevant by designing educational opportunities that embrace the technology and help our students understand what they are learning. We must guide them as they apply their knowledge and show them how to behave ethically with large amounts of information.  Today, teachers must be conduits of learning, instead of the sole purveyors of knowledge. They must engage all students to become independent learners.

I hope we take this moment to shake off the legacy of the factory model where we sort and select kids. I hope we design a future where we support our teachers and administrators as they transform our schools from a “one size fits all” to a collaborative, problem-solving environment where students think critically and globally.

We must support teachers as they help students discover the joy of learning through real-world opportunities. As educators, we must share their excitement for learning. We must give students nurturing and supportive environments where they can create, solve problems, make mistakes, and find their voice under the watchful eye of a professional educator.

At Westside, we are developing programming to help students direct their own learning PK to 12th grade, through approaches such as school-wide enrichment, internships, and possible academies. These approaches allow students to understand the relevance of school and how classroom content applies to the real world.  We want to develop opportunities where students can identify interests and see a glimpse of a possible future, one that is meaningful to them and fuels their passions.

Building Hope

Since the start of our new school year, Westside teachers and other staff members have been actively building hope among our students.  Building Hope is our theme for the 2013-14 school year. At our opening meeting for employees, Gallup senior scientist Dr. Shane Lopez, explained his research on the impact of hope. He told our staff members that hopeful students perform better in school. They are more engaged in their education and are more resilient than less hopeful students.

As educators, we play a pivotal role in creating hopeful environments and helping our students learn how to overcome obstacles.  We can help students believe in a bright future.  Last year, Westside Community Schools asked students in grades 5-12 to complete Gallup’s Student Poll that measures engagement, hope and wellbeing.  We are now working with Gallup to better understand this research.

Last month, during a professional development afternoon, we also engaged all of our employees in a “Nexting While Walking” event.  The idea was inspired by a conversation between Dr. Lopez and his son http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/making-hope-happen/201308/nexting-while-walking. We asked staff members to take an hour, go for a walk, and talk with their colleagues about the future, for themselves, for their students, and for our District.  Some of the thinking from the day was captured on a Twitter hashtag we created for the event, #Westside66Hope.  I encourage you to visit this feed and review the staff inspirations from this event.

We know that students will not succeed solely by practicing hope.  We understand that we must combine hope, wellbeing and engagement with a rigorous curriculum, well-educated teachers, and a supportive academic environment.  Through this multi-layered approach, we can create multiple pathways so students may experience a glimpse of a possible future and a bright tomorrow. We must do this for all of our students – those who are currently hopeful, and those who we must nurture a bit to build their hope.  I am confident we can help every student find success in Westside Community Schools and I have so much hope for the future of this great District.

Westbrook Hope Word Cloud

Westbrook staff created a Hope word cloud during the “Nexting While Walking” event.

 

In Support of Public Education

I’m usually not a very political person because as a social studies teacher, I wanted students to form their own opinions and not parrot mine.  As an educator for the past 31 years, I focused my efforts on what I felt was good for children and our schools. As I watch the Nebraska Legislature debate legislation that would allow charter schools, I felt it was important to speak on this topic.

I’m reminded of Diane Ravitch’s remarks at a recent conference. Dr. Ravitch is an education historian who has worked in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Dr. Ravitch previously advocated for the privatization of public education through various choice programs, including charter schools; she now admits she was wrong.  The very ideas Dr. Ravitch once promoted in her role as assistant secretary of education, she denounces today as so flawed that they could ultimately lead to the demise of public education as we know it.

Her ideas resonate with me because it is my belief that our country’s successful democratic culture is built on the very concept of educating every student and developing an informed citizenry. These ideas are now in danger, due to the wishes of some to privatize public education.

I admit that public education created some of its own challenges by not providing focused professional development and by not implementing strong national standards to help all students succeed. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation, however well-intentioned, set up schools for failure, especially those with the most disadvantaged students. We should not create an educational culture of rewards/punishments based on a test. Instead, we must create an educational culture based on rigorous liberal arts programs that develop the critical thinking skills of all, not some students. Only then can we provide a strong academic foundation for our future innovators and entrepreneurs. Our conversations must focus on the whole child, including academics, but also on developing ethical students with strong character traits.

In my 31 years as a teacher, the education field has experienced continual reform.  I was in graduate school when A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983.  At that point, our profession began a generation of reform to fix our public education system, which has led us to our current situation. As Dr. Ravitch observed, A Nation at Risk made sound recommendations that were appropriate at the time.  Those recommendations were focused on the teaching and learning of students and staff.  The report did not promote privatization or heavy-handed accountability structures that exist today.

In my opinion, A Nation at Risk did not go far enough to redesign our educational system. However, it offered solid recommendations that focused on stronger academic and behavioral expectations, increased graduation requirements, more time for students to master the curriculum, and better training for teachers. Given some of the same freedoms afforded charter or choice schools, I believe that our public schools can design institutions that work for all students.  We have great employees and supportive communities throughout our nation ready to design schools that develop persistent, independent learners.  Why not encourage and allow our public schools to innovate and try new practices without fear of penalty?

With that said, I am not aware of any specific reform effort that will solve our challenges easily.  I only know that through collaboration, communication, creative problem solving, and really hard work, we can begin to implement our vision for children who attend our schools. We need to think deeply about the future of schooling in America if we are to meet the needs of every learner.

As your Superintendent, I recognize that our success is directly due to the unwavering support of our Board of Education, our community, and the many outstanding employees, including support staff, who serve our students every day. Thank you for your continued commitment to the Westside Community Schools.