Thursday, March 30, 2017

School Board: The Movie

Recently, there has been some concern that we don’t have enough citizens willing to step forward and run for school board.   I think I know one of the root causes:  we simply haven’t made it appealing enough.   We need to effectively communicate the tension, the excitement, the highs, the lows, the heartbreak, and the edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that comprise the life of a typical school board member.   And who can do this better than our leading entertainers in Hollywood?    

Thus, I have begun work on a movie script, for a summer blockbuster that will completely turn around the current perception of school boards as boring and inefficient.   I’m hoping to convince Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Pratt, and Jennifer Lawrence to star, though I am open to alternate casting suggestions.   As a special treat to celebrate the upcoming first day of April, I am sharing with you, my readers, a sneak preview of the script for School Board: The Movie.


SCENE:  A busy boardroom at the beginning of a meeting.   At the front, the camera is focusing on Superintendent Scooter Michaels chatting with board chair Cliff Wen, as the rest of the board take their seats one by one:  Millie Glin, Alan Issa, Kerry Montrose, Stretch Kimmel, Sol Jansen, and Selig Ericson.     Cliff bangs the gavel, and the meeting begins.

CliffThanks for coming, everyone.   I know your time is important, and we have critical business to conduct tonight.   Now we will begin this meeting with a special performance by the Valleysboro High Reggae Ensemble. 

Students begin shuffling into the room, squeezing themselves and their instruments into the space in front of the podium, over the course of 20 minutes.   They then proceed to play a moving 3-hour arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”.   

As they conclude, everyone in the room enthusiastically applauds for another five minutes.  Eventually the applause subsides and the band begin packing up their instruments.

Millie:  I’m so glad we had the opportunity to hear this amazing music tonight at the meeting, instead of having to attend one of the twelve scheduled upcoming performances.   But before we move on, I’d really like to hear from the individual students about what the music means to them.
Cliff:  Excellent idea.  Can each of you in turn step up to the microphone, and tell us some more about your musical experience?

Students awkwardly get in line and begin speaking at the microphone.
Student #1:  Ummm…  The Reggae Ensemble is really fun.  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions.   And it increases my chances of staying in school.
Student #2: The Reggae Ensemble is really fun.  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions.   And it increases my chances of staying in school.
The students continue, each speaking in turn.
Student #77:  Hi There! The Reggae Ensemble is really fun!  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions!   And it increases my chances of staying in school!

The students spend a few more minutes packing up their instruments and finding their way outside.

Cliff:  Thank you, that was inspiring.   Now, our next agenda item is a proclamation, to be read into the record by Superintendent Michaels.  
Scooter:  Thanks, Cliff.   

Scooter unrolls a large scroll he is holding.

Scooter:  Whereas, the Valleysboro School District prides itself on being an inclusive community,
                 and Whereas, our 14 Russian-American students are a critical component of our rainbow of diversity,
                 and Whereas, this week marks the 120th anniversary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, one of the worlds greatest novelists,
    and Whereas Tolstoy’s greatest novel was War and Peace, which goes as follows:  “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes….”
                Scooter proceeds to read the full text of War and Peace from the scroll.
                “… to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious,”
                Therefore, the Valleysboro School District formally proclaims our observation of National Tolstoy Week.

Cliff:  Thank you, Scooter.   That proclamation was very meaningful, and will have long-lasting effects on our district.    Now we will move on to Data and Reports.   Assistant Superintendent Trevor, I believe you had the update on our school cafeterias?

Trevor steps forward from a side table.

Trevor:  Hi everyone.   In your board packet, you have the detailed written report I prepared on our cafeteria management plan, which I believe you have all had a week to review before this meeting.   I will now proceed to describe the exact same content verbally.   On slide 1 we see…  
Trevor opens his laptop, and begins walking through his painstakingly-prepared slide deck.
              … And to conclude, as you see on slide 182, we can now show that over the past year, our cafeterias became over 0.73% more cost-efficient.   Thank you.      

Cliff:  Thank you, that was very useful.  Now, we move on to our main item of business for the evening, approving the routine maintenance contract.   These are boilerplate contracts largely dictated by state law, which you have all already reviewed in your board packets, so I don’t expect much debate.  Any comments before we vote?

Sol:  I know we probably all agree that we should pass this contract.   But I think it’s important that before voting on it, we all recognize what routine maintenance means to us, and the impactful role it plays in each of our lives.   My first experience in this area was at the age of 3, when I tugged at my father's pant leg as he opened his toolbox and took out a #2 wrench…  or was it a #3 wrench?   Anyway…
Sol continues his monologue, illustrating the topic with many heartwarming anecdotes.
And that leads to just last week, when my great-grandmother used her final breath to sit up from her deathbed, grab my shoulders, and whisper her last two words on this earth:  “ROUTINE MAINTENANCE”.   Thank you.

Cliff:  Thanks Sol, I’m glad you shared that.   Now, all in favor of approving the contract, say “Aye”.

A chorus of Ayes is heard.

Cliff:  Excellent, the contract is approved.   Well, it’s taken 98 hours, but we have finally reached the end of our agenda.   Now, the customary final statements from each board member before we close the meeting.

Millie:  Thanks everyone, and good night.

Kerry:  Thanks everyone, and good night.

Alan:  Before we go, I’d really like to talk about the schools I visited over the past month.   I sat in on classes in each of our 83 Velleysboro elementary schools, and I would like to describe each of them for you now.   First, at the Aaron A. Anderson Academy, …
Alan continues, describing 83 classroom visits.
     … And that was what we did during my final visit to Zachary Z. Zinoviev elementary.   Thanks everyone, and good night.

Cliff:  Let’s see, where were we…  Ah, I think Selig is now up for the next final statement.   Sellig?   

There is an awkward silence.

Cliff:  Selig?   Come on, you’re holding up the meeting.  

  The camera pans slowly to the seat at the end of the boardroom, where Selig’s decomposing remains gradually come into view.  Apparently he has died of boredom at some point during the past hundred hours.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


You have probably heard us talking about STEM programs, designed to improve student skills and interest in the focus areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math.   These areas are important due to a nationwide crisis:  Americans just aren't studying or sticking with science and math topics, often preferring easier but lucrative areas like law and business.   This may seriously impact our national competitiveness in the long tern.     Success in STEM topics requires a level of persistency, focus, and discipline that is significantly tougher than most other subject areas, so students tend to be easily discouraged or scared away.   Thus STEM programs try to encourage students to get more excited about these areas starting at younger ages, increasing both their excitement and level of confidence, improving the chance that students will eventually get a STEM degree.    I think these programs are a great idea.   But recently, they have been modified slightly in many districts to add Arts, changing STEM to STEAM.   Is this a reasonable change?

We need to focus on the original goal:  addressing the national STEM crisis.   We simply do not have a similar crisis related to lack of arts graduates.   If anything, we have the opposite:  an over-abundance of spoiled middle class kids who think that maintaining a B average in the arts at a mid-ranking state college makes them the next Michelangelo.   There just aren't enough jobs for artists (or art teachers) to absorb all these graduates.   I'm not arguing that nobody should study art;  it's a nice enrichment or recreational activity, but we need to recognize that if you're not at the very top of the field, making a decent living in an art-related area is very unlikely.   In contrast, even the average STEM graduate is fully prepared for a solid and well-paying job.    And of course I don't object to integrating art into STEM lessons when appropriate- creating computer art programs, for example, is a great engineering exercise--  but the STEM topics need to remain the focus and the key motivation.   

I think STEAM arose because some politicians who were never good at STEM topics had fond memories of art classes in their youth.  But adding unrelated topics to the STEM acronym dilutes the focus, and risks directing scarce funds targeted for STEM into other topics.   If money targeted for the STEM crisis is going towards the arts instead, then we have missed the whole point of STEM.  If we really want to let every busybody insert their pet subject into our STEM programs, instead of incrementally adding letters to the name, I propose a new acronym: STEAKS:  Science, Technology, Engineering,  And the Ktichen Sink.   This way every politician can direct the funding to whatever subjects they find personally meaningful.    But then STEAKS will be yet another random bureaucratic money hole, and we'll have to come up with new strategies to address the STEM crisis.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Make Hillsboro a Real Sanctuary

Recently I heard that the City of Hillsboro is thinking of declaring itself a “sanctuary city”, willing to defy unjust laws that are enforced by other levels of government.   This sounds like a great idea to me.  There are so many good people who have never hurt anyone, and never intended to break any law, yet must tremble in fear that at any moment, federal agents or other police officers will lock them up (or worse) for peacefully exercising their human rights.    We need to step in and protect these people from the violent actions of a runaway government, which destroys lives and breaks up families.   I am, of course, talking about legal gun owners.
As a key example, you may be familiar with the recent Mike Strickland case in Portland.   Mike was attacked by an angry mob at a protest, and pointed his gun (without touching the trigger) in order to get them to back off.    Mike had good reason to fear this mob— a similar protestor had beaten him so badly last year that he ended up in the hospital, and the attacker was never prosecuted, despite his identity being known and the attack being caught on tape.   Although none of his attackers was ever charged, the Portland authorities were offended by Mike’s possession of a gun:   he was quickly convicted of “menacing” each member of the mob, which may result in over 50 years in prison.  (You can read more details about this case at .

So, while our city council is in a mood to protect selected classes of people from the police, I believe they should include those like Mike Strickland.   Anybody who is being unjustly persecuted for possessing a gun for self-defense should know they have a safe haven, since there is one city that will defy all outside law enforcement agencies and stand up for what it thinks is right.   I urge Mayor Callaway and the Hillsboro City Council to support justice and the Constitution by declaring Hillsboro a Second Amendment Sanctuary City.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Questions for School Board Candidates

It’s school board election season again.   As usual, I find myself a bit frustrated as I read candidate websites and statements— 99.9% fluff, “I’m a nice guy who loves children”, etc, with barely a hint at any actual issues.   It’s even harder during this election season:  since I’m stepping down, I’m anticipating that several new candidates will be asking for my endorsement.  Thus, I’m supplying a set of questions which I believe should be asked of every board candidate.  
I know some candidates will try to resist making direct statements on any of these issues, trying to please everyone.   Or some will say “Many of these are political questions, and I’m above politics, I just do what’s best for the children.”   Saying “I don’t know” is OK— but in that case I expect some info on how you would go about deciding.  These questions are all based on real issues that have been faced by HSD or other school boards— and when your choice of candidate really matters is when these controversial issues come up, not when everyone agrees.  It doesn’t matter if someone claims to be non-political; when these issues come before the board, members must vote one way or the other.   
Thus, I will be asking that any newcomer seeking my endorsement answers each of the questions below.  And I believe you should too.   They don’t have to agree with me or you on every answer, but they do need to demonstrate a drive to seek reasoned, intelligent opinions on these issues, rather than simply evading them or voting with the crowd.    (Though of course you will be able to infer my opinions pretty easily by reviewing past entries in this blog.)   If any candidate refuses to answer these questions on the basis of being “above politics”, they are actually the worst kind of politician— an evasive weasel who can’t be honest about their beliefs.  Keep that in mind when deciding your vote!

  1. How do you believe we should judge overall district performance?   What kind of actions should we take if particular schools are found to be low-performing?
  2. Should the property taxes be raised for the citizens of HSD in order to provide more money for schools?   If so, by how much?
  3. What should we do about the fact that the state is showing complete incompetence in the school funding area, continuing to increase unfunded mandates (full day kindergarten, expanded PhysEd, etc) while failing to reform a thoroughly bloated PERS?
  4. If we find during some year that the district is lucky enough to have more money than we projected, should we spend the remainder on new programs and improvements, or save some for leaner years?  
  5. Are there any general changes or improvements you would suggest to HSD’s  budgeting process?
  6. If a local housing complex that contains many low-income tenants petitioned the district for a specific hardship-based tax break for their residents, would you support or oppose it?  Why?
  7. Should our college and career pathways program encourage each student to “follow their passion”, or try to guide students into likely career paths using other criteria?   What criteria would you suggest?
  8. How do you feel about School Based Health Centers, and their overall role in the district?
  9. Should a 13-year old girl be able to get birth control prescribed at school, during the school day, with no form of parental notification?
  10. What accommodations do you believe the schools should make for the proliferation of new gender identities?
  11. When choosing members for appointed boards or subcommittees, what kind of process do you believe the board should follow?
  12. Do you think we should focus on providing advanced and honors classes for high achievers, or push more towards mixed-level classes that bring all students together? 
  13. If we are directing resources according to “need”, does this mean we should spend more on at-risk students than currently successful ones?  What kind of spending differences between students are acceptable?
  14. How do you feel about charter schools and other educational alternatives?   Should our district aim for more charter schools?
  15. Do you believe it’s fair that City View Charter receives several thousand fewer dollars per student than the rest of HSD spends, even after subtracting services (like busing and special ed) that City View is exempt from?   Why?
  16. Should HSD be able to use taxpayer money to launch a marketing campaign, in hope of getting more taxpayer money allocated?
  17. Should HSD staff be allowed to form student “leadership clubs”, whose activities include traveling to Salem and lobbying state officials to take positions favored by our district?
  18. If a district boundary change is identified that will save the region several million dollars in costs overall, but cause a few dozen students (and their tax money) to be moved from Hillsboro to Beaverton, would you support or oppose it?  Why?
  19. What should our schools be teaching our children about the merits of the American system of government, in comparison to the rest of the world?
  20. Should our schools be teaching that we live in a fundamentally racist society, permeated with White Privilege, which is inherently unfair to anyone who is not a white male?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Graduation Rates and Credit Recovery

You probably read the recent newspaper articles reporting graduation rates in Oregon high schools, including in our district.   Hillsboro once again did very well, with small increases in grad rates in 3 of the 4 main high schools, leading to a 1.26% increase overall.   This is excellent news, and reflective of multiple HSD programs providing active outreach and assistance to struggling students who might otherwise be on track for failure.   However, we need to be a bit cautious here:  if you think about it, you can increase graduation rates by lowering standards as well as by educating students.   You may recall that last year a departing teacher made a number of critical comments about the district, which I summarized in my blog .   One of his major concerns was a lack of standards in the credit recovery system, based on an online tool called “Plato”.   In the last few months, I followed up and took a closer look at our credit recovery program.

To start with, if you just look at the Plato system in isolation, I can indeed see why there was a serious concern.   This system is much more bare-bones than the “real” online classes largely used by our Online Academy (which you may have seen me praise in the past ), sometimes amounting to little more than an extended outline plus a 20-question multiple-choice test for each major unit.   So I followed up by meeting with Assistant Superintendent Travis Reiman, along with teacher Jeff Gower, who runs the credit recovery at one of our schools.   I was very impressed after speaking with Jeff.   He explained that Plato is just one tool, and that the real goal of credit recovery is to work with the subject-area teachers and find appropriate ways for a student to demonstrate mastery after they have been failing under the standard instructional methods.   Some of these students just need some individualized attention and coaching, and are not truly incapable of absorbing the material— it is just hard for a subject-area teacher with hundreds of students to properly identify and address their unique issues.   He shared some success stories of students who were able to return to the regular classroom after catching up in the credit recovery program.   As to the question fo whether this involves lowering standards to rubber-stamp students through to graduation, Jeff pointed out that each year a number of students in his program fail to achieve mastery and are not granted credit.   After speaking to Jeff, I am much more confident that our credit recovery program has solid goals and processes, and is doing the right thing for our students.

Now, we need to remain vigilant for several reasons.   I only had a limited amount to time to look into the credit recovery program, so if you are a student or teacher who has been involved in this area, I would love to hear more about your experiences, positive or negative.   Also, of course, issues like credit recovery and graduation rates only show that our district is doing well at keeping the students near the bottom from dropping out, and do not really say anything about how well we educate the rest of our students.   To truly claim that HSD is a high-achieving district, we also need evidence that academic achievement is rising, both for average and top students.   (As I have mentioned before in my blog, this has been made harder by the redesign of curriculum and standardized tests in the past few years under Common Core.)   I would really like to see our district start to appear at the top of academic rankings, providing solid evidence that all our students are well-served, including the ones at the top, middle, and bottom.  But for now, I’m joining the rest of the HSD community in congratulating our staff for its exceptional achievement in once again increasing our graduation rates.