Fix our school district with nothing, please!

Here’s the second of four essays submitted for the superintendent application. You might want to use it as a sleeping aide?!

LCSD Superintendent Essay B: In a district with growing diversity and students of special needs, how do you allocate limited resources to provide a wide variety of curricular choices, fund extracurricular activities, maintain good but aging facilities, fund competitive salaries, and keep current with technology?

Lake County School District serves students with diverse ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and interests, and it is this diversity which brings both richness and complexity to the school community. From the perspective of being able to provide differentiated instruction for our current generation, every child should be considered to have “special needs.” One of the greatest challenges for the leader of this school district is the allocation of increasingly limited resources in a way which best serves the needs of all of its learners, its teachers, its staff, and its facilities.

We must remember that the mission of a school district is to ensure that our students are both successful while in our care and prepared to realize success in schooling and employment beyond high school. This is particularly crucial in light of articles like the one shared on my Facebook page today (January 26, 2012): “Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education. . . . Only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas.” The article goes on to suggest innovative ways some districts are restructuring their pre-K through 12 classes. Our K-12 curriculum should not only satisfy state requirements, but should also provide elective options that will transfer into skills needed to be competitive in the future. Clearly we must prioritize the courses we will fund based on the availability of instructors and schedule hours, and must create a schedule which maximizes the ability of students to populate elective classes. Knowing what we know about the current economic environment, we must not allow our students to waste valuable hours by selecting to be a “student aide” rather than by earning legitimate course hours; this has been an issue in the recent past, and elective classes have gone significantly under-populated, wasting valuable resources. We must also accept that not every student will continue on in a degree program after high school, and embrace ways to prepare those students to secure jobs in other vocational areas. Once these students demonstrate mastery of the basic requirements at each level of their education—in courses that are at the top of the funding priority list—they should be provided with opportunities to intern with established local governmental and private agencies. The school superintendent should play a key role in establishing contacts to secure those potential job related programs.

When considering funding for extracurricular activities—as it is highly unlikely that funds will be available for many programs desired—we should consider instilling in our students the idea of a lifetime activity, and helping them to become more resourceful in their efforts to secure extracurricular options. A fabulous example of how this was accomplished recently is the high school’s new competitive mountain biking club. Because of the generous sponsorship of Pedal Power bike shop, and contributions of time and money from members of the faculty and community, our school’s team was able to compete in high visibility events across the state, and with no cost to the school district. We have people in our community who are passionate about many diverse activities and who would love the opportunity to coach/sponsor/mentor our students; we need to find those people and encourage them to help our students with enriching extracurricular events. With available funds, we should ensure that historically popular activities such as drama, skiing, track, cross country, soccer, basketball, and volleyball remain viable. We must also do whatever it takes to keep the 21st Century grant program alive. Involvement in extracurricular activities will pay dividends far into the future for our students, and finding creative ways to support them should be a priority.

Our students and employees deserve to feel safe in our aging facilities. We must develop both a short and long term schedule for allocating available assets by prioritizing “Must do,” “Should do,” and “Would like to do” projects. Just as we will ask our students to be creative with finding ways to fund their activities, we need to employ innovative ways to match potential funds available through grants. How might we use in-kind matches for funding? Could we quantify efforts from our shop class? Could we rent out space for activities? Do we have professionals in the community who might provide services or property as a match for funds? We should apply for all available grants, and encourage our community to take part in ensuring that our students have better than adequate places in which to learn.

Our teachers and staff—sadly—are accustomed to earning less than competitive salaries these last few years. Lake County has lost more than 500 people between the 2000 and the 2010 census, and with a smaller population comes less funding from tax revenue. We need to scrutinize our budget and look at areas of possible reallocation. We need to evaluate the amount we have, and should keep, in reserve.  We must find a way to unfreeze the salaries that have been locked for the past three years. We know that most people who work in public education do not do so because they think they’ll make big money, so as a minimum, we need to find other forms of compensation for our employees—time, rewards, special recognition—to let them know that their service is valued . . . and that they are valued as people.

Beyond ensuring that our 20th century buildings are safe and—as a minimum—adequate, it is vital that we bring both students and staff into the 21st century in the area of technology. Again we must be creative in finding ways to train our staff on “the latest” tools for integrating internet resources into the classroom curriculum. Undoubtedly we have students both in our own district and at CMC who could teach the staff a thing of two in exchange for community service hours. What a perfect opportunity it would be to have student interns in the district office to ensure the district web site—the first place most incoming families will go for information—is state of the art. Sites such as the Khan Academy and TED talks are free and would provide relevant data to supplement the school curriculum. Social science classes could conduct interschool dialogs around the world using Skype. All students could follow Twitter feeds on different topics and be expected to discuss the most interesting ones. Students and staff could use Google Documents to collaborate on projects. We should also ensure that the technology curriculum is relevant to what our students will be expected to use beyond high school. Let’s ensure that time is not wasted on what our tech-savvy students already know, but let’s challenge this new generation to employ the internet for intellectual advancement and preparation for a future in which computer technology is ubiquitous. While some may argue that communication skills are lacking in this generation, they are, in fact, changing, and we all need to keep up with these changes in order to remain culturally literate. Our staff should feel as confident as our student do with these essential 21st century skills.

Yes, we have many tasks to accomplish with limited funding, but if we all pull out our MacGyver knives (with blades shorter than 3”, of course), there’s nothing we cannot fix! (I’d like to credit my husband for the MacGyver suggestion).   [end]