First, sorry for the long delay in this post ... my semester starts in less than a week, so I've been swamped with course preparation and the newly arrived first year students (and of course with getting my own three kids ready to go back to school). I'll have the posting of the Amherst Meeting from last night up soon.
So, this was a VERY long (4 hour!) but I think extremely productive meeting -- and I'd encourage blog readers to try to watch it on ACTV (or at least portions of it) to really watch parts that interest them, as I'm going to hit the major business that we did. The bulk of the meeting was spent hearing the school improvement plans from the MS and the HS (these are typically presented in June, but were delayed this year), as well as a discussion on the superintendent search process (the law firm discussion was on the agenda but was delayed due to time pressures).
The school improvement plan for the MS was presented by Principal Mike Hayes (and you can see the whole report at: http://arms.arps.org/node/1636). As I said at the meeting, this was the single best school improvement plan I've seen presented at any SC meeting over the last 4 years. It was extremely detailed (lots of data provided -- both about the current state of the MS and goals for the future), covered each academic discipline, and included information on both strengths and areas for improvement. Specifically, it included goals around instruction (lesson planning, alignment, assessment), homework and grading policies, family-school communication, and academics (math, social studies, English, science).
I would really encourage readers to check out the whole plan on line, but I'll just give a few key things I noted in terms of areas for improvement we can look forward to in the upcoming year -- a greater focus on higher expectations for reading in English (as noted as an area of concern on the parent survey), a greater focus on consistent assessments across teams in social studies (as of now, only 2 of 11 assessments are common across teams), a stronger focus on experiments in science (with 48% of 8th graders not reaching proficient on science MCAS), and requiring all kids to do honors-level work in math for the first trimester (which is a shift from the past, in response to requests from parents). These all sound like great areas to work on, and I look forward to seeing how well these goals are accomplished later this year.
Mike also presented very interesting data on algebra in 8th grade. Briefly, 39% of all 8th graders take honors algebra, but that percentage really masks major sub-group differences: only 37% of girls (but 52% of boys) are in this class, only 15% of Hispanic and 12% of African American kids (but 46% of White kids and 50% of Asian kids), and only 9% of low income kids. This is extremely important data to examine, because it really shows that our current approach to allowing students to choose whether to complete extensions isn't really eliminating the achievement gap (and of course, kids who take 8th grade algebra are basically the only ones on track to take calculus in high school). As I've noted before, I would really prefer for us to require all kids to complete honors level work in 7th grade math (which has been shown in other districts to lead to a major reduction in the achievement gap), and I'm encouraged that all kids will complete this level of work at least for the first trimester this year. I will be interested to hear how this plan works out, and whether it increases the % of kids (from all backgrounds, but particularly girls/low income kids/kids of color) in 8th grade algebra.
Mike also noted that he would prefer to see 6th grade in the middle school (you can read the Gazette article on this topic at: http://gazettenet.com/2010/08/26/6th-grader-middle-schooler). I believe this is an idea that we definitely need to examine, particularly since moving to a three-year school was recommended by not only former superintendents Hochman and Rodriguez (and in the Hamer report last summer), but also was suggested by each of the superintendent candidates we interviewed in January of 2009. I hope we can form some type of a task force/subcommittee to examine the pros/cons of such a move this year.
The SC then voted unanimously (and I would say very enthusiastically) to approve this school improvement plan.
Next, we heard the school improvement plan for the high school from Mark Jackson. This plan included 4 goals: preparing for the NEASC accreditation (which will occur this year, and involves a fair amount of work/self-study), social/emotional needs and school climate (which was prompted by an increase in the number of students harming themselves), school/family partnership (largely focused on having parents have greater awareness of students' grades via an on-line system), and inclusion (better implement ion of special ed plans). You can read more about the frequency of self-harming in the Gazette (http://gazettenet.com/2010/08/27/amherst-high-principal-number-students-harming-themselves-goes-w).
Compared to the middle school improvement plan, the high school plan was significantly less detailed (with almost no data provided on the current state of the school or numerical goals for the upcoming year), and also included no specific goals related to any of the academic disciplines. The SC therefore requested some revisions to this plan before approving it (and will hear this plan again, and hopefully approve it, probably at the September 14th meeting).
We then turned to a discussion of the superintendent search process, and in particular how to go about hiring a search firm to assist with finding good candidates. There was a pretty lengthy discussion (mostly involving the issue of time-line and legal requirements in soliciting bids/requests from various firms), but ultimately the SC agreed unanimously to appoint a subcommittee to write a proposal to submit to four search firms. The members of this subcommittee are Steve Rivkin, Debbie Gould, and Irv Rhodes. They will submit a proposal to the entire SC for review at the next meeting. We also approved a timeline for a search, which starts with an application deadline of November 1st, semi-finalists interviews in December, and finalist interviews (in public) in January (with an offer out by late January). This timeline is a bit earlier than the one we used the last time, both because it was our experience last time that some candidates took offers prior to our interviewing finalists and that was the recommendation of the Union 28 superintendent.
We then conducted a few brief items of business -- agreeing to reconstitute the CBAC group (probably to examine per pupil expenses), accepting gifts, discussing goals for the upcoming year (which will be discussed/presented in September), and planning items for upcoming meetings.
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.