Wednesday, July 24, 2013

College In High School, & Other 7/23 Highlights

Well, it's finally happening for real:   attended my first Hillsboro School District board meeting as an actual member, rather than just sitting in the audience.   As I promised during the campaign, I'll try to post highlights after each meeting.   These aren't a substitute for the official minutes-- I'll skip a bunch of boring stuff and focus on the interesting bits--  but should be able to give you the general idea if you couldn't make it to the meeting.   (And of course, as with all my posts, these are just my take, not any kind of official statement by the board as a whole.)

So here are the interesting topics from last night:
  • Podcasting the board meetings:  Fellow new member Glenn Miller suggested that we record the meetings and make them available on the web, an idea that I seconded.   Communications Director Beth Graser explained that they had considered this a few years ago, but fees to broadcast on public access TV were prohibitive.   Public Access TV???  Does anyone really remember that still exists?   Upon further discussion,  we agreed that we could podcast these things for nearly zero budget, assuming we accept the limited video/audio quality of our current equipment.   Hopefully we'll be able to implement this sometime soon.    I really think the public deserves a full record of these meetings, instead of just secondhand minutes and blog posts.
  • The new chair:   Following board tradition, the majority voted for current vice-chair Kim Strelchun as our new chair.   She seems very dedicated to board work, and I'm sure she'll do a great job.   My favored chair candidate, Monte Akers, was elected as the new vice-chair.   I think Monte's 40 years of accounting experience will be increasingly relevant with all the financial troubles going on.   And Monte holds a special place in my heart, having been the only local elected official to speak out against the Hillsboro Hops stadium boondoggle, which I was very unhappy about.
  • The Youth Advisory Council:   A presentation by a great group of kids who have been very involved in the community.   But one aspect of it made me a little uneasy-- one of their goals was "political activism", and they talked about all going together to Salem to demand more money for K12 education.  Have they really thought deeply about this issue, or are they being used as political pawns?    How many of them have been exposed to conservative ideas, or to the concept that maybe PERS reform might be a more sensible request at this time than just begging for more money?
  • School Bus Purchases:  The district needs to buy some new buses, to replace decaying ones from the 80s.  But what really worried me here was a remark that due to new state emissions standards, we would have to spend an extra $15K per bus in the future (we have a fleet of 150+ buses), plus upgrade our garage facilities.  This is an example of an unfunded state mandate with real costs to the schools.  When I asked what the total cost to HSD of this mandate would be, nobody had exact numbers.   I asked if we could get some more detailed data on this; I will follow up with the superintendent and in future meetings.  
  • College and Career Pathways.  A new program for helping students to comprehensively plan their futures.  I saw a lot of good stuff here:
    • A web interface for parents, students, and counselors to share info on a student's strengths, weaknesses, and career plans.   
    • When assessing student strengths and weaknesses, a question-by-question breakdown of recent standardized tests will be available, with individual questions linked to relevant subtopics.
    • Increased opportunities to do college-level work in HS, and take classes within their school for college credit, encouraging every student to see themselves as potentially in college.
    • I did have a couple of concerns here.   
      • We need to make sure we are also allowing for potential vocational education & other non-college choices.   As I pointed out in the meeting, there are plenty of 20-something college-educated Starbuck's cashiers, living under crippling bankruptcy-proof debt, who could have been much happier at this point in their lives as experienced, financially-secure electricians.   
      • Will the "college credits" be as good as the real college courses?   I could easily envision a student who completed Linear Algebra thru PCC being totally lost when they try to move on to advanced classes at a top engineering college afterwards.   We need to track the students who get out of these programs, and make sure we are not setting talented kids up to have a much tougher time in college.
    • Another question to keep in mind:  does the ability of so many non-exceptionally-talented HS students to complete college level classes indicate that our HS standards are getting higher, or that our college standards are getting lower?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Oregon School Board Association summer conference

I attended my first Oregon School Board Association conference this past weekend.   Quite an experience-- I would highly recommend it for other school board members.   

Major Themes:

  • There is a lot to learn about being on a school board!  Got many useful little tidbits & advice from more experienced school board members from across Oregon.
  • "District Culture" was a major theme this year, showing up in the keynote and in various forms in many sessions.   We need to try to foster an environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking, open communication, and trust.
  • Being a school board member is a legal minefield-- if on a board, be careful that you know about the basic laws regarding your service.  Some examples are the Public Meetings laws (can't discuss school business if a quorum forms by chance at a non-meeting event), and the rules regarding Executive Sessions (possible individual $1000 ethics fine if you divulge content!)
  • One area where I think the OSBA needs to improve is in the boundaries between recommended practices and legal requirements.   In their talks they often blurred the distinction between the two.  In some cases, it looked to me like they were trying to push opinions as facts:  in particular, the "one voice" policy that a board member should never express disagreement in public once a majority vote on an issue has occurred.   I see it as my duty to tell you the truth here-- and if I think the board has made a fundamentally poor decision, I won't be shy about telling you.

Amusing Moments:

  • Great opening quote:  "To you newly elected board members:  remember, the public voted for you, they believe in you, they like you, and they will back you up.  Until you do one tiny thing they disagree with."
  • To illustrate the need to not get focused on minutiae while running a district, one presenter used the famous "gorilla video".   He asked us to count basketball passes in a game going on on a video, and afterwards asked if anything unusual had happened.   Most of us who were concentrating on counting the passes missed the gorilla that walked across the video and waved at the camera!
  • You've probably heard about the politically correct movement to outlaw Indian-based team names for school sports teams.  Did you know that there's actually a Native American-themed charter school run by the Siletz tribe, that would have had to eliminate Indian references from its own team name under the originally proposed policy?!?

Random Conversations:

  • It was interesting to see how unique Hillsboro really is among OR school districts.   Most board members I spoke to had less than 3000 students in their district, with some as low as the 200s.   (We have over 20000).  Not too surprising, given that we are the 4th largest in OR, but something to keep in mind when comparing experiences with other boards.
  • Had a nice chat with Todd Miller, who used to run the OR Connections Academy but moved to become superintendent of a brick-&-mortar district.   He has nothing bad to say about ORCA, just wanted to help out his home district & try some new experiences.   He hopes to introduce more online options locally once he gets his footing.
  • It was a great opportunity to meet some facebook/email contacts who I had been in touch with but didn't yet know in person.

Session Highlights

Boardsmanship Workshop   

A fun workshop where we watched videos of an obnoxious board member named Andy, and had to discuss what he was doing wrong in each one.

  • In one, he accused fellow board members of accepting bribes due to receiving cookie baskets from a vendor.   He may have been technically correct, depending on basket value (annual limit: $50 due to ethics laws).
  • Be careful of requesting reports from the superintendent or staff!  Remember that any request might take $$$ to research/report on-- discuss with whole board first.
  • Revealing executive session info?  May subject you to $1000 individual fine, & district to lawsuit.
  • Be careful about "shall" vs "may" in policies-- may subject yourself to all kinds of minutia if public "shall" be allowed to appeal to board in various circumstances.   In one case board subjected to deliberating voleyball game lengths!
  • In one case, I was on Andy's side-- he talked to a constituent in the supermarket about a recent board vote, and why he disagreed with it.   My interpretation of a board member's duties differs from the OSBA on this one.  If I think the board made a bad decision on a major issue, I will consider it my duty to inform the public.   I won't be trying to stir up trouble over every lost vote, and will make it clear when I am stating my own opinion's rather than the board's, but I won't pretend to agree with poor or misguided decisions.

School Safety- Legal issues

  • The lawyer pointed out that this is one issue that has been very over-legislated:  once a law to "improve safety" is proposed, everyone wants to get on board supporting it, even if it creates major unfunded mandates that take away from education.
    • One particularly egregious example:  schools required by law to inform victims of a bully's discipline-- but are also prohibited by law from discussing one student's discipline with another!
  • Remember, nobody will sue a teacher, they will sue the district-- they go where the $$$ is.
  • In athletics, every student needs a physical-- but flexible laws allow alt-health practitioners such as licensed herbalists to do it.  Hmmm....
  • Making a student sit in the principal's office for a long time is not an illegal seizure, since law lets the student be "seized" to go to school anyway.
  • "Discretionary Immunity"-- school immune from lawsuit if they had reasonable  policy in place for an issue, even if policy fails in some cases.

School Safety- Policy  

This is a session we need to take with a slight grain of salt, since given by rep from "New Dawn Security", which sells security certifications to schools.   But still had lots of good info.
  • Good policy/procedures are much more valuable than cameras.  Cameras don't prevent incidents, but make followup easier afterwards.
  • I was surprised to see lower safety scores on some metrics for private schools vs public.   While it's true that private schools keep out some level of violent students, an in-house predator is actually the greatest risk.   
  • Simple policies are important.  
    • One bad example:  30-page emergency guide in one school, kept under teachers' desks, that 2/3 of teachers could not quickly locate.   
    • Good example:  if bus driver receives code signal, drives to known location & waits for police.  Successfully used to apprehend student involved in armed robbery.
    • Another example:  If responding to an urgent issue, always trigger nearest fire alarm.   Claim: could have sped up response at Sandy Hook.
    • DC spent $32M to outfit emergency responders with (slow) system to bring up video maps of each school.   But could have had supply of printed maps ready for about 78 cents per school.
  • Look for opportunities thru creative environmental design.  Example:   Large field didn't have fence, so installed blackberry bushes around perimeter.   (Though based on my experience with a backyard blackberry infestation, I'm kind of scared of the long-term effects of this one!)

Keynote- Jim Bearden, "Leadership & Culture"

Great speaker, Vietnam vet who lectures on culture & management for a living.   Highly recommended if you have an opportunity to catch him somewhere.
  • What subordinates see from you is what you should expect to get from them.
  • "Happily Ever Afters" don't just happen.   Often people are hopeful that a new change will be the ultimate answer, then go through a denial/anger/blame cycle until the next panacea shows up.   
    • Dangers of emphasis on blame:   lose ability to draw lessons, lose your own accountability, black hole for energy
    • Need will to learn from failure & create a "heroic culture"
  • What is a culture?
    • Composite of behavior
    • What gets noticed, honored, or confronted by leaders
  •  Most orgs create culture unconsciously-- try to do it consciously
    •  Support those who step up  & do the right thing
    • Support those who challenge the status quo
    • Active Accessibility-- not just "open door policy", go out & seek input
    • Ask, listen and understand.
    • Reward risk-taking- even if it results in failure sometimes.
  • Steps to create the culture
    1. Ensure others understand their expectations
    2. ID & eliminate barriers
    3. Model the behavior
    4. Measure performance vs expectations
    5. Honor efforts & progress towards expectations- including mistakes
    6. Confront unwillingness & bad faith

District Climate & Culture

Workshop taught by Steve Lamb, OSBA.  Probably a good workshop on its own, but largely felt redundant after keynote!   A few points to emphasize.
  • Dissatisfaction can be good-- need to reach a certain level to overcome inherent resistance to new ideas
  • High trust is important to create positive culture.   But be careful of silly gimmicks like "trust fall" exercise (where one worker falls & others catch)-- trust in one domain may not lead to trust in another.
  • Be careful about treating board's "accountability" duty as seeking out things to punish:  can create climate where everybody ruled by fear & won't do anything without permission from top.
  • Recognize what you want to see.   Why is academic recognition so rare compared to sports recognition?  (I liked this one-- back in HS, I successfully fought a battle to get varsity jackets for the math team!)

School Law Basics for Board Members

Kind of a dry recitation by an OSBA lawyer.  Good stuff to know, but I think they could have made a more lively seminar by using more Andy videos, role-playing, or something similar.   A few of the more interesting legal points:
  • The board's duty is to "make policy", but there is no specific legal definition of a "policy".   Kind of surprising.   So in reality the board can do just about anything, though focusing on big-picture stuff is highly advised.   
  • Be careful to follow all your policies-- if you don't, can significantly hurt district's case in court if sued.
  • If a board majority is gone, ESD gets to appoint a new board.
  • Board members may be fined by state ethics board for ethics violations, or for violating rules of Executive Sessions.

Table Session-- Communiation

Saturday afternoon we had several mini-sessions where we sit at a table with an expert on a topic.   
  • The communication one had a lot of good suggestions for improving district communication, such as sharing positive stories, developing elevator speeches about the school system, building relationships with local media, and taking notes on questions you can't answer.
  • However, this is another one where I had some reservations about the OSBA's position, which seems to be that we should be propagandists for the public school system, relentlessly pushing positive aspects of the district.   As an elected board member, I believe my primary duty is honesty with the public, and will continue to share both the bad and the good as applicable.   
  • One other item that annoyed me here "...make sure public schools are represented fairly and on par with private or charter options..."    Charter schools are just as public as traditional public schools!   And I don't think we have any problem with charter schools being over-emphasized in district communications-- it's quite the opposite in HSD.

Table Session-- Outsourcing

Another session to take with a grain of salt, since the speaker was Greg Johnson from Sodexo, an outsourcing service provider.
  • They mainly supply cafeteria mgmt, but also can build an entire school for a district & rent out the building, saving them the trouble of passing a bond when a new school is needed.   Sounds too good to be true, though I suppose we might look at such opportunities if the need comes up.
  • Interesting wrinkle of Oregon law-- district has to jump thru hoops to outsource, showing "cause" & demonstrating that employees will not be hurt.  Greg says that they often keep all the cafeteria employees and just insert new managers when taking over a school food service.
  • One guy at the table knows Sodexo from his non-board life, and pointed out that they do a good job running his company's cafeterias.

Table Session- Strategic Planning

  •  Goal-setting is short-term, strategic planning is longer term
  •  Often the process has as much value as the end result

Professional Learning Communities (PLC)

  • A PLC is a group of teachers who continually learn together on the job, helping to plan lessons, eval/critique each other & grow together. 
    • Also do "action research" together to tackle real problems encountered in classrooms.
  • Be careful of PLC-like forms that have little substance: just because you have teaching team meetings doesn't mean you have a PLC.   Need to allocate nontrivial time &; foster real collaboration.
  • International benchmarks show teachers spend 2x as much time on professional learning in other countries as compared to US. 

Roles And Responsibilities

This is the one where they showed the gorilla video, hammering home the point that we should look at the big picture & not focus on minutiae.   
  • How many school board members does it take to change a light bulb?  -- NONE.  They should pass a policy that there is light, and let the superintendent report back on how it was implemented.
  • 5 key roles:
    1. Learn together as a board-superintendent team.
    2. Set Expectations.   
      • Aim for Elevating Beliefs ("This is a place for all kids to excel") rather than Accepting Beliefs ("With the students we have, we just have to expect low test scores.")
      • Recent surveys show 37% of org employees don't clearly know their goals.  "This is like a football team with 4 members not knowing where the end zones are."
    3. Build Collective Will.     Culture matters.   
    4. Create Conditions For Success.
    5. Hold System Accountable.
  • Though elected, a school board member is a bit different than a legislator-- in fact, a board member has legislative, executive, *and* judicial roles!
  • Be careful about seeming to 'represent' a constituent on a low-level issue-- may later need to recuse yourself from board when appealed to for a final decision.

A Systems Approach to Student Achievement

This was largely a cheerleading session for the Common Core.   I've documented my reservations about that in enough other places that I won't rehash them here.   To learn more, listen to this podcast episode or read this blog entry.

Final Thoughts

Whew.   That covers all the notes I took at the conference.   Apologies if the notes on later sessions tend to be less detailed; note-taking fatigue began to set in.   Anyway, like I said at the beginning, there was a lot of useful info.  And even though I disagreed with the OSBA on a few points, overall I was very impressed with the conference they put together, and would highly recommend it for other board members.    

Thanks OSBA!