"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Monday, May 31, 2010

Conversations with Principals

I had been working as a Project Manager for a couple of years when our team received a new boss. He was full of ideas and wanted to change everything before evaluating what worked and what didn't. The upside of a new person is that they don't have any loyalty to how things have always been done. The downside is that they don't have any loyalty to how things have always been done.

I want to make sure that I don't take what is good and dismiss it. So in that vein, I have been discussing the issues with some of the principals in the district. These are incredibly talented indviduals who really know what works and what does not. I have enjoyed our conversations. Overall, the theme is we have a good district. They are pleased with the support and respect they receive from the district. They feel the district is being run efficiently, and they appreciate the collaboration that takes place.

A number of the principals referenced "The Four Questions". I wanted to learn more about this concept and I think you will also find it interesting. In all things, the schools are to ask: 1) What do the kids know? 2) How do we know that they know it? 3) What do we do if they don't know it? 4) What do we do if they DO know it? I like the emphasis on both extremes: those that don't know and those that have it mastered. Therein is the trick in any classroom, how to meet the needs of those who are struggling, while providing the next step for those who have mastered the concept.

Another thing that was mentioned were the Areas of Focus that were put together with a lot of community involvement. To view this, click here. Also, a couple of them mentioned the Moral Dimensions of Teaching. These are principles adopted by BYU's College of Education and used to train teachers. To view these, click here.

One principal mentioned how the teachers were finding creative ways to use materials and supplies so as to reduce the amount needed during difficult times.

Finally, one of the schools has 'gifted' programs for all of their core subjects. After seeing how many children came to test for the pilot 3rd-grade A.L.L. program a few years ago, it is apparent to me that this is something parents want. A little more of a 'push' on the students is something I have heard repeatedly. It's nice to see some of this desire coming to fruition in our schools.

I congratulate these principals in their achievements and their endeavors. We have a good district. My goal, which I invite you to share, is to make a good district a great district. How do we do that? By changing the culture so we all take part and contribute what we have to offer. There are many things that can be done. Every principal, teacher, parent and student knows ways we can improve. Some are small improvements, some are major improvements.

To have the absolute best district possible, we must all do everything necessary to contribute to success. What does that mean for a school board member? I believe it is necessary for the school board to reclaim its position in preserving the balance between the interests of the district administrators and the interests of the families which they serve.

Our district has tremendous assets in its students, families, teachers, principals, and district administrators. Obviously, everyone has a vested interest in wanting the best education possible for the students. How that is actually accomplished is where people begin to differ. It is only natural for people to come at a problem with varying solutions. The role of the school board is to fairly evaluate the interests of all parties and make the best decision. The "best decision" should be defined as the decision that most effectively educates the students at the highest level possible.

Too often, leaders become insulated against the real world of those they seek to serve. It is a natural process where, left alone, decision makers begin to rely on their own set way of doing business. That is why we have elections with the wonderful opportunity to infuse our bureaucracies with new people, renewed passion, and those who more accurately represent the ideas and ideals of the common person.

My candidacy is about bringing the voice of the everyday family to the school district. We must keep what is working well. We must change what is not working. The only way to reach a higher level is to acknowledge we can do better and be willing to accept better ideas when we find them. To find them, we must be willing to listen. We can make our district better by opening up the system to greater communication, accountability, and representation. There are great ideas out there. The school board needs to return to a culture that embraces the views of the people they serve. By doing so, we tap into what truly makes our district great: the families and individuals who make up our communities.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1. Parents and the District

One of the biggest factors in the educational success of a child is parental involvement. But how does one get involved and find out what's going on? With the information age, we have a great advantage over previous generations: email, websites, social networking, as well as the standards: word of mouth, newspapers, TV, and radio. The trick is how to get the information out there in a form parents can use to their benefit.

First of all, a very simple option on the district website would allow parents to sign up for updates from the district and to receive emails of the agenda and minutes for school board meetings. Knowing the information is somewhere on the district's site is good. Getting it in your inbox is better. Our local school sends out email updates as well as using the 'robo-caller'. It works great and should be implemented at the district level as well. Making an automated email list is better because it is a proactive invitation to be involved. I would like to promote a more open and inviting relationship between the district and the people they serve. We have a good district; we can make it better.

Another issue is the way the district treats parents with complaints. I once worked for a business with a policy that acknowledged that we would occasionally make mistakes. But, once something became a problem, we would go out of our way to delight the client in how we fixed the problem. Parents are the customers of the district. When the customer takes the time to let you know something isn't quite right, the correct response is to acknowledge and thank the customer for their information. Then, you need to evaluate how you can fix the problem. In short, when you receive a complaint, you have failed: either in meeting expectations, in setting those expectations, or in communicating. Honestly accepting mistakes or other points-of-view enables us to improve our ability to serve others.

The two most public examples in the last few years were Investigations Math and the "America: Republic or Democracy" website link. In both instances, the board took a defensive approach to parental complaints. Their estimation appeared to be only a few, misguided parents were involved. So, rather than acknowledge the validity in the parents' concerns, the district wanted to show there were other parents and teachers who supported the district's positions and these parents were in the minority; those who disagreed with the district on these points weren't supportive of the district. Interestingly, our best friends are often those who are willing to point out our flaws and work with us in spite of them.

Take, as an example, the latest brouhaha over the Democracy or Republic schism. The district admitted the website link was a "serious mistake", but the people who brought it to their attention and the concern that ensued (implied by the link) was dismissed. It is understandable when your best intentions are called into question, you feel defensive. However, a better response from the board would have been to say, based on what was in the article, they can see where parents might have concerns and miscontrued the district's intentions? While the district said the link was a mistake and removed it in a timely manner, the board only committed to review the mission statement after a very energetic crowd showed up to a board meeting to demand change. Had there been a culture of honestly considering input from the public, this situation would never have occurred. One of the best things you can do for a customer is to acknowledge their complaints and comments as valid... and then fix the problem. The fix, in this instance, may not be everything those parents wanted. But, for the district to acknowledge their concerns is a good first step. And for every person who complains, there are many more who have the same concern, but do not come forward.

I would propose taking the district from 'good' to 'better' can't be done unless you are willing to allow for criticism. None of us is perfect, so no organization can be perfect. But through our involvement with others, we learn to acknowledge and improve upon our imperfections. Obviously, issues will arise, but seeing them as opportunities instead of problems, in the end, will yield the better results.

Monday, May 24, 2010

School Community Council Conversation

I had a nice discussion the other day with a member of one of our School Community Councils(SCC). I have known people who have served on the SCC's in the past, and have seen the flyers and voting for members of the SCC, but I had never realized that the SCC's are responsible for the school trust lands money. I always assumed that the district or the State determined what was to be done with that. (BTW, the school trust monies amount to about 1/2 of 1% of each school's budget, on average.)

Some of the things we discussed were reading the minutes of the school board meetings, how much time will I devote to the school board, and what her perception was from moving from out of state a few years back.

I really appreciated the conversation. It was helpful to have input from another perspective, and here is what I've done.

1) One of my first thoughts was how often do average people read the minutes for any meetings? Unless we have issues with things, we usually just ignore them. However, we need to know what the main issues are in order to affect a direction. After the conversation, I tried to find the minutes. I was able to find the April 20 minutes. It takes some doing to get to them when you first look. As a member of the school board, I would like the district to be more pro-active in getting the minutes and issues out to the community. Currently, my city allows subscribers to receive agendas via email. This wouldn't be difficult to implement at the district level.

My thoughts on the minutes.

Overall, other than the community comments (most of which were about the mission statement and "enculturating"...more on that in a later post), I didn't find the minutes to be all that helpful. The property items struck me as the most important information to be gleaned. They mentioned that my opponent, Mrs. Hanneman, voted against ceding some of the Lone Peak HS property to UDOT for the widening of 4800 W. The minutes do not give specifics other than to say that she voted against this and would have preferred a 4 lane road. My SCC council contact mentioned that it was 25 feet in front of the school, allowing for a wider road that would come closer to the existing school entrance. This specific information would have been helpful to have in the minutes. It would have been even better for people from the Lone Peak area to be able to have a say on this issue prior to the vote. I assume that no one knew about it, as it isn't referenced at all in the community comments. In light of my contact's information, I agree whole-heartedly with my opponent's vote on this issue.

2) I have found in life that projecting how much time something will take is a moving target. The more you have done something, the better your estimates will be. If you've never done it, you will be way off. I am committed to spending as much time as it takes on school board issues. I am also committed to spending no more than that amount of time. If there are efficiencies to be found, I will find them. I have experience doing that in my business, which is why I can operate a full-time business and still be an 'at home' mom.

3) My SCC contact was concerned with academic excellence and encouragement. In her previous state, her child read Beowulf in sixth grade. In our district, it is a high school (or late middle school) requirement. Also, kids in AP classes in the old state, pushed and encouraged each other and were proud of their accomplishments. Here, the kids that are in AP classes don't see it as a good thing, but rather as inhibiting social status. She also mentioned that the top 10% of graduating students were automatically accepted to state colleges and universities. She would like to see a program like that in Utah.

I appreciate the time that she took to contact me, and to give me more information. This is the type of transparency and input that the board and the district need to encourage, not just from those appointed and filling notable positions (SCC, District Community Councils) but from every day people, parents, students, and teachers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why I am running

The main reason I am running is that I have kids in the Alpine School District. We all want the best education possible for our children. So, the question really is, what makes me different? What do I have to offer to you?

It's time that Alpine School District re-prioritizes Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. My set of experiences in operating my own data migration business, helping found a charter school, home schooling, participating in public schools (2 children in public school) and belonging to the PTA enables me to understand a greater dimension of educational needs in the district. These experiences have exposed me to varied programs, curricula, needs and solutions that exist in our area.

My top issues are:

1. Change the culture in the district to pro-actively involve parents in all levels of their children's education. Utilize technology to make the district more inclusive and transparent.
2. Encourage and promote academic excellence, specifically with the basics (three R's).
3. Math, math, math, math.
4. Evaluate non-classroom programs and expenses in order to be directly accountable to the taxpayers.
5. Ensure that associations and advisors are focused on academics and not politics.
6. Site-based management, e.g. more local control at each school.

I will go into more depth on each of these items in subsequent posts.