Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Options Tour & Our Final 2013 Board Meeting

Last week a group of us from the board went on an "Options Tour" of visits to several local schools. There are some great innovative lessons happening in Hillsboro classrooms: Qatama's STEAM program showed creative ways to integrate arts, engineering, and literacy as kindergarteners assembled letter shapes. In Tobias's STEM program, a group of kids using an electron microscope analyzed hair samples and other clues as they tried to catch the teacher who stole their pencil sharpener. At Minter Bridge, I watched kids learn a math lesson in Spanish as part of their dual-language program. And we visited the Online Academy (yes, they have a physical building), where a couple of students had come in to work on their lessons while teachers were nearby to answer questions.

Of course, since you've constantly heard me advocating school choice in this blog, you can probably guess where this discussion is going! I think we should be doing more to make such opportunities available to students throughout the district: right now the term "Options Program" is a misnomer, since nearly all students attend their geographically assigned school. Kids can transfer on request, and I encourage you to try this if you like the idea of these programs but are not near a STEM/STEAM/dual-language school, but this seems to be discouraged. Parents who request transfers have told me they were subject to strong attempts at dissuasion by their local staff and made to feel guilty for asking for exceptions to standard policy. Wouldn't parents feel more satisfied if empowered to make these kind of choices on a regular basis, and actively encouraged to choose the program that best fits their child?  

We also had our final board meeting of the year this past Tuesday. We had a discussion of the book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", which we had all read in an effort to improve our teamwork, spawning an amusing article in the Argus.  As you will read there, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the value of the exercise.   Apologies to any business consultants I may have offended. 

Other points discussed included:

  • Anti-Bullying programs: Looks like our Youth Activities Council is running some excellent programs in this area. I especially like how they described their efforts to make it positive: "be a friend" instead of just "don't bully". One yellow flag though: there seemed to be a lot of focus on "protected categories". If someone is bullied based on a non-protected category, such as being a religious Christian, are they a less important victim? (Yes, I was told of such a case during the last board campaign.)
  • Legislative priorities: This is another topic that got a good summary in an Argus article, so no need for much more detail here. I continue to point out that we need to have a clear list of unfunded mandates, with dollar costs, that we can pressure our legislators to repeal.
  • Strategic Plan Performance: I was glad to see that bringing our bottom-5% schools up to parity is now shown as an element of the Equity category. Though I do also think it should be considered the top issue in that category, and the other items discussed there (mainly how many teachers are sent to politically correct seminars) are of very little value in comparison.

    That's about it for this year. Have a good Christmas & New Year, and I'll hope to see you back at this blog in 2014!

    Saturday, December 7, 2013

    Boundary Changes or Choices?, And Other 12/3 Highlights

    This past Tuesday 12/3, we had our first board meeting in a month. Surprisingly, we didn't spend much time on the controversial issues in the news recently: the Evergreen math revolt  is mostly in a stable state with the district continuing to work with affected parents, and the cell phone privacy issue is under review for discussion in a future meeting.   

    Probably the most interesting issue at this meeting was the need to change elementary school attendance area boundaries, due to concentrations of new families in the area not matching the locations of schools. Superintendent Scott reminded us that this always creates a lot of controversy, as parents don't like being told to attend a different school than they expected, especially when the new one may be farther away. The staff outlined a process that involves a lot of public notification, meetings with representaiton from affected parties, etc. If we are going to change boundaries, this seems like a good process to me.

    But I had a slightly different take on the issue: instead of telling selected parents to move their children, could we provide incentives for voluntary transfers?   For example, I bet many parents would be willing to let their children be bussed farther away for unique opportunities like a dual-language or STEM program, or even just to attend a school with a higher state rating. As an additional incentive we could provide guaranteed transportation from certain high-density neighborhoods (normally students transferring out of their local school are not guaranteed transport.) This would work better if we had more differentiated programs at our elementary schools, but why not consider some new ideas specifically due to this motivation?   And I bet parents would be a lot happier solving this problem through voluntary means than through dictating a solution based solely on residence areas. The staff is going to think further about this idea, though at this point we need to also start the boundary change process regardless.

    Other highlights of the meeting included:
  • A review of ELL (English Language Learner) programs and staff development.  Travis pointed out that some major gains by younger ELL students in the past couple of years are not yet reflected in test scores, since students are only tested at certain grade levels, but we should expect some dramatic increases soon.
  • Numerous small policy changes recommended by the OSBA to comply with state law. The more meticulous engineers of the group (Wayne and myself) nitpicked a new proposed policy on harrasment reporting: "In the event the designated person [to receive the report] is the suspected perpetrator, the assistant superintendent of Human Resources shall receive the report." Doesn't this re-create the original problem, of possibly needing to report someone to themselves, in case someone who is under the assistant superitendent of HR & needs to report him?  It would make more sense to state something generic like "the next higher manager in the organization", etc.

  • Our next board meeting is in two weeks, on Tuesday 12/17. Note that both this week's and the next one are full meetings rather than just work sessions, to make up for the lack of a meeting over Thanksgiving. Hope to see you there!