My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Amherst Meeting, September 9 2008

I want to start with two brief updates based on comments I've received from my past blog entries. First, the report from Glenda Cresto (the middle school principal) that I refer to in an earlier blog is now posted on the middle school website (or will be soon). I had so many requests for that report that I thought it would be easier for all interested parents to just be able to get it on the school website, and I'm delighted that Ms. Cresto and the Superintendents have made that happen. Second, I have received a number of comments about how a retreat of the Amherst Regional School Committee seems like not a particularly good use of time -- and of course I agree with this sentiment. But my favorite comment came from a friend, who pointed out the following:

Can you imagine the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Community Preservation Act Committee or the Conservation Commission going on retreat because they had disagreements? Of course they have disagreements--they are supposed to! This is how democracy works. Is it because education has been a historically female profession that people think that "getting along" and doing things by consensus is paramount? The School Committee is a government body not a gang of office staff charged with product development.

That pretty much sums it up for me ... I'd like to spend more time working on specific strategies for creating the best education system we can for our kids, and less time (or honestly, no time) working on discussing how we get along as a group.   But based on the vote at the last meeting, a retreat is indeed supposed to happen.

Now, on to the meeting ... which was, encouragingly, one of the best meetings I'd say we've had. The following issues related to academics were discussed:

1. Andy Churchill described his view of the "growing pains" of the current school committee. The most important point about this statement was that he believed we should set "a tone of inquiry based on data," which of course is something I whole-heartedly endorse. I very much appreciate his leadership on this (and more on this topic was discussed later in the meeting).

2. Steve Rivkin asked three questions about math in the district -- what types of support are provided for kids who need it (and how effective is that support), would the elementary schools adopt, for 6th graders, the Level 1 version of the new math textbooks that are being used in 7th and 8th grade (as levels 2 and 3), and what evidence is there about the effectiveness of the K to 5 math curriculum. As a member of the Math Curriculum Review Committee, I found these questions very useful, and am glad to see them raised. The Superintendent suggested we ask for a report on math in the district at the next meeting, which I think would be very useful.

3. We then discussed, as part of new business, an idea Andy shared from Jere Hochman, which is to form a "How're We Doing?" subcommittee. This subcommittee would look at identifying data to examine (e.g., school climate surveys, exit surveys, assessment data), identifying a set of benchmark districts with which to compare common data sets, and establishing the capacity to collect these data and produce an annual report. I think this is a great idea, and I'm delighted that the committee voted unanimously to move forward on forming this committee. I commented that I hoped such data could also include teachers' views (e.g., how are they supported, do they have adequate time/training/mentoring/resources, etc.), information on how the administrative structure of the Amherst schools is similar (or not) to other districts of our size and complexity (e.g., do we have too many administrators? too few? a comparison with other districts should be useful), and that the results of such an evaluation process should be clearly conveyed to the community (e.g., potential opportunities for the parents/community members/staff members to participate on the committee, reports of the committee available on line, etc.). The Superintendents will prepare a recommendation for how such a committee might be formed (e.g., should it include community members, teachers, administrators, etc.) at the next meeting. As Andy wrote in his proposal, this proposal should help us move to "a data-driven inquiry and improvement model." And I think this would be a good step for our district -- let's examine what works well, and what could work better, and then let's develop strategies for improving what could work better.  

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Superintendent Search Forums

The search firm who will help find our new superintendent will hold three open forums for parents/community members. These forums will take place as follows:

Monday, September 15th, 6:30 to 7:15 pm in the high school library
Tuesday, September 16th, 11 am to noon at Jones Library
Tuesday, September 16th, 7 to 8 pm in the high school library

Please come and share your views about the strengths/weaknesses of our district and the characteristics we want in a new superintendent.

September 2, 2008 Regional Meeting

I'm assuming that by the time anyone is reading this post, you will already have a sense of how this meeting went (based on the newspaper coverage) ... and for those who have already contacted me expressing support/encouragement, thanks much! Unfortunately this meeting was not videotaped by ACTV, and hence there will not be television coverage to watch, so I'll do my best to provide the "highlights."

First, the meeting started with the Chair, Michael Hussein, describing various policies for how School Committee meetings would run. This information focused largely on the need to sometimes cut debate/questions from the audience/School Committee members, given that there is a set agenda (determined by the School Committee chair and the Superintendent). I asked a number of questions about this information, which were as follows:

1. Would it be possible to distribute answers to questions from the audience at a later time? Understandably people sometimes ask questions that need to be investigated, and hence answers aren't always forthcoming at that exact meeting, but the policy thus far has been to respond to THAT PERSON only with the answer -- and I've found that often one person asks a question that many other people have. Thus, I'd like to see a policy by which answers are posted in a public way (perhaps in future School Committee Meeting minutes or on line). No one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

2. Would it be possible for us to create ways of eliciting feedback from the public about things we are discussing in another way, such as through a public forum? I often feel like I need more information from other parents/community members/teachers before making a decision, and our current system really doesn't provide much opportunity for this. Again, no one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

3. Are there topics that we welcome additional public comment on and others that we do not? I am very struck by the fact that this School Committee devoted much of three meetings (and portions of other meetings) to the debate about the cafeteria workers ... and yet topics on academics and curricula seem to be very limited in terms of public comment. This seems ironic and unfortunate. Again, no one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

4. Would it be possible for community members/parents/teachers to add topics to the School Committee agenda? I did receive an answer to this one -- I was told that board members CAN suggest topics, so if anyone has a topic they'd like me to bring up, please let me know and I'll try to add it to the agenda.

Second, two parents in the audience brought up questions. Steve Rivkin asked about the trimester report, and when that report would be available. He particularly noted that he hoped that report included information about learning outcomes, given that he has learned that some students go as long as 9 months without their world language (although my understanding is that the trimester evaluation included no information about learning outcomes). I believe that the Executive Summary is supposed to be posted soon, and I'll let everyone know when that happens. Alysa Braverman asked about middle school math placement, and the system that is being used to give parents information about the placement test. I believe that the superintendents are looking into answers about this, and we are hopeful that the new middle school principal is going to work to further clarify this system (which seems to have been very confusing to many parents for a long time).

Next, the Chair turned to a set of 9 School Committee guidelines that were created by the interim co-superintendents based on their past experience working with School Committees (these guidelines had been sent to School Committee members earlier in the week). I found these guidelines very helpful, and in particular, I liked the following two guidelines:

3. Establish ways to go deeper into governance or debatable issues and gather more information by 1) forming ad hoc or sub-committees; 2) holding public forums; and/or 3) reviewing before approving School Improvement Plans. The give and take needs a "brokering" strategy that clarifies without polarizing.

6. Ask for school committee majority vote/consensus on requests for producing new reports, data, initiatives, actions from administrators/teachers/staff. The Feds, State, DESE, and other agencies have us overloaded.

I noted that since my arrival on the School Committee (April 1, 2008), I had never seen either of these two approaches used by our School Committee, and that I would find this approach very helpful. In particular, I'd like to see us form ad hoc or sub-committees to study areas of concern, hold public forums to get parent/teacher/community feedback on certain topics, and vote on whether we want new reports/data. I would find each of these approaches very helpful, in part because I arrived on the School Committee with particular goals, but have found it very difficult to make progress on any of these. As many who have attended School Committee meetings (or watched them on TV) have noted to me, I often make suggestions, and these suggestions are completely ignored by the other members of the School Committee. At the last meeting, for example, I asked for a report on the trimester system (following the presentation by Mark Jackson), and another member of School Committee said, "That isn't what the School Committee wants, Catherine" -- as if she was able to determine on her own what the other members wanted (and that is was obviously only me who would want such a report). I certainly understand that my goals may not be shared by other School Committee members, but I think it would be appropriate for all members of the board to openly vote on whether they do or do not want a particular report or data, form a sub-committee, etc. I intend to ask for such votes in the future, because this does seem like the right approach.

At this point in the meeting, things became somewhat heated ... as you probably gathered from newspaper reports of the meeting. Given that this part really didn't focus on academics, I'm not going to go into detail about what occurred, other than to say it focused largely on how boards should work together, whether consensus should be the primary goal, and appropriate strategies for change. Let's just say that there were differences of opinion stated emotionally.

We also discussed whether we should attend a retreat to work on "how we operate as a board." I am not in favor of such a retreat, because I frankly think there is a limited amount of time/energy we all have to devote as volunteers to School Committed work, and I'd rather see us focus our time/energy on actually doing things (not talking about how we do things). So, if we are going to spend a morning together, I'd prefer for us to use that time creating a list of comparison districts we could evaluate ourselves against, creating an approach for evaluating our current curricula/policies, and/or reviewing what information we'd like on our district web page. I also think the public should have a right to see how we discuss any topics, including how we work together to make decisions, and the rule for a retreat is apparently that no press/public is allowed. So, a vote was taken, and I lost -- 1 to 8. A retreat will happen in private to discuss how we operate as a board.

Finally, we had a brief discussion about a new policy on "Evaluation of Instructional Programs." This policy will create a system by which all programs/curricula are evaluated on a regular basis, which should include measures of student achievement, comparison to other benchmark districts, and a public distribution of the results of the evaluation. This policy will be further discussed (and voted on) at a later meeting.