Monday, February 22, 2016

Capital Improvement Thoughts

I’m going to take a brief break from my series, “Portrait of a Graduate,” to give attention to the county’s capital improvement project for our secondary schools.  Everyone giving attention to these articles is aware that the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors has authorized the architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh, & Associates (CR Associates) to conduct a study of best options for new secondary school(s) in Mecklenburg. Basically the study will be to determine the best solution for updating or building new middle and high school facilities. The first public hearings on this project will be held at the Park View High School gym on Wednesday, March 2, and at the Bluestone High School gym on Thursday, March 3. Both meetings will begin at 7:00 PM.

What has brought us to the time for these public hearings? The Board of Supervisors and the School Board have a joint Education Committee that has created a Steering Committee to oversee the process of determining what type of structure(s) will best serve the needs for new secondary facilities. CR Associates was hired to conduct a professional study of current facilities, gather public ideas, identify educational needs, and identify the potential costs related to each different option to be considered. With public input, the Steering Committee will make recommendations to both Boards for final decisions about what to build.

There are several options to be considered. Mecklenburg is one of the largest counties in Virginia. It is wide and has been traditionally divided by east and west with Park View Middle and High Schools on the east side and Bluestone Middle and High Schools on the west side. All four of these schools were built in the 1950’s and are in poor shape. Part of the work that CR Associates has done to date is to conduct a thorough engineering study of all four sites. This information will be shared at the public hearings. Typically there are two issues that will be the driving forces for the final decision of the committee, public emotion and cost.

Public emotion engages a number of important topics. Traditional Dragon/Baron rivalries, transportation issues for our students, size and number of athletic teams, and placement of new facilities are a few of the issues that I hear debated. Passions run deep about each topic and there are good arguments backing each person’s point. Cost is also a huge factor that is argued logically from a number of perspectives. These issues have the potential to create great tension within our community. I would like to add a third element of consideration that might build a bridge of consensus among differing opinions. Lets focus on the need to create the learning environment that will prepare our students for success in the highly technical global economy that they must compete and live in. If we do this, we will serve the best needs of our children and our community and get the best return on investment for our capital outlay.

The foundation components for an education system that will prepare students for the global economy are established in my articles “The Portrait of a Graduate.” It’s the focus on career literacy, academic excellence, skill development, and community interaction. There are more details to be considered:

·      Today’s schools were created at the beginning of the industrial revolution. They are basically set up like an old manufacturing plant with students the rivets that are molded into the same end product. Every other institution has been forced to modernize with technologies that allow for customization of the product. We can do this for our students by creating career centers that engage them with career information and custom education programs to prepare each student uniquely for their chosen goals.
·      An estimated 70% of the jobs in the global economy require skills one acquires through technical programs leading to certifications. These are available for careers in advanced manufacturing, healthcare, STEM areas, IT, agriculture, energy, and law enforcement, to name a few. Certification programs in these areas are currently available at the local community colleges and higher education centers. The equipment for training students is expensive and trainers are hard to recruit. We need to partner with those programs for our students rather than duplicate this effort.
·      More and more academic and skill development resources are being made available to students online. For example, a student interested in a computer science career can earn a whole series of coding credentials online through Code Academy or Team Treehouse. We must give our students the opportunity to take advantage of these programs for local credit.
·      Schools have traditionally functioned in an isolated environment. We must make our schools reflect the realities of the business world. Therefore, it is increasingly important for students to interact with local businesses that represent the career pathway they have chosen. Business recruiters complain that most students do not have the appropriate “soft skills” for their business. This includes such things as coming to work on time, getting along with other workers, dressing appropriately, and knowing how to be friendly with the public. Schools reinforce these issues but the best environment for learning is on the job. This can be done through career exploration camps, internships, apprenticeships, and entry-level jobs. Our schools are now able to track student participation in these programs and give appropriate credit.
·      Students that are preparing for careers that require bachelors or graduate level degrees must have a very strong academic foundation that will prepare them for university rigor, thinking, and time management. We need to secure these classes with appropriate curriculum and teacher training.  

These are components that should be built into new schools to prepare today’s students for the careers of tomorrow. Building this environment will prepare our students and also create a reputation for our community to make businesses want to locate in Mecklenburg County. We will have a school system that produces a good workforce and one that current and prospective business leadership and employees would be proud to have their children attend. I encourage you to join us for these public hearings.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Success With SOL Tests Is Not Enough

Please excuse the delay in this blog since the last posting. The local newspapers have agreed to run these as articles each week. I've delayed the publication of Portrait of a Graduate, Part 3, until today so that the blog and article will be on the same timetable. 

Portrait of A Graduate, Part 3

The second circle of the Portrait of a Graduate graphic, as we move clockwise from the far left, is focused on academics. To quote Dr. Steve Staples, our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, “this is almost the only focus we have given real attention to over the past two decades as we have mandated student success with the Standards Of Learning (SOL).” Lets consider the purpose of the SOL.

In the early 90’s our nation was coming to grips with the workforce realities of a global economy. We began to give serious consideration to data showing that our students were, on average, preforming among the lowest among their peers in the other industrialized countries on reading, math, and science achievement at every level. This was partly due to the fact that there were tremendous variations of education expectations from state to state. Furthermore, in Virginia, the academic expectation for students from community to community was vast. To deal with this problem our State Board and General Assembly established the Standards Of Learning as minimum academic content that would be expected of all students and began testing to be sure that these minimum academic concepts would be taught across the Commonwealth.

I was working with the Governor’s Best Practice Center in Southern Virginia when the Standards Of Learning were mandated. There were many presentations to parents and to school staff about how this sweeping change was to take place. We discovered that many school systems didn’t have a standard curriculum with accompanying pacing guides or resources. They had textbooks and the teachers were responsible to begin teaching with the book at the beginning of a school year and make their way through the book as far as they could. In our elementary schools we often found that academic concepts expected to be taught to students by the third grade, according to the new (minimum) Standards of Learning, were not taught until 5th or 6th grade. Many high school graduates were actually reading and writing at no more than a 4th grade level.  Over the past 20 years we have done a fair job of stabilizing minimum academic content across Virginia.

Unfortunately the minimum expectation of academic engagement became the primary focus of our schools and the problem of low achievement has not been fixed. Our students are still, on average, ranking among the lowest of their peers on international academic tests. More important, we are finding that most high school graduates are not prepared for success in life. Some reports claim that nearly 70% must take remedial courses when they enter university or community college for the next step of their education. Businesses often claim that young employees have difficulty understanding most rudimentary tasks such as reading a ruler, counting change, or understanding fractions.

Is there any wonder? Teachers are now evaluated primarily on the percent of their children that pass the SOL tests. Schools are rated as Fully Accredited, Partially Accredited, or Not Accredited, based almost exclusively on the percent of students that pass the test. Funding formulas for the state share of financial support focus primarily on teaching minimum expectations. A school division that wants to move beyond focusing on the SOL must raise local funds to support these programs.

What happens as we encourage teachers to focus only on the SOL when teaching? We create an old assembly line manufacturing environment where all children are considered as widgets and the student’s primary goal in life is to get through the required classes to earn their diploma. Teachers teach for content memorization and test taking strategies. Most students are bored to tears. Parents are fooled into thinking that the child who scores well on the test is a very smart student. Actually, the SOL is not a comprehensive curriculum and teachers in middle and high school find glaring holes in required content pre-knowledge because students have only been exposed to material preparing for tests in earlier grades or subjects. Algebra is a very good example of this. Algebra II teachers must teach a considerable amount of material that is considered Algebra I content because the students were not required to be engaged with that material to pass the Algebra 1 test.  

So what can we do to overcome the problem of teaching to the SOL tests? I believe that this is a primary goal of the Governor, the Legislature, the State Superintendent, and the State Board of Education as they create this Portrait of a High School Graduate concept. As Dr. Staples, the State Superintendent stated, “for the last two decades academics is the only thing that we have focused on, and students need to engage much more to be prepared for life.”

In our schools there are several goals to pursue. These include but are not limited to:
·      Having our teachers and administrative staff complete a comprehensive curriculum for each of our academic areas, and then work on the development of pacing guides and resources to be used by teachers.
·      Partner with business to build the strong career literacy program that I addressed in my article last week. This will help students answer the question “why do I need to learn this?” and provide practical applications for teachers rather than just theory.
·      Use Internet technologies to provide access to academic content to students beyond the confines of the classroom. We can connect what they are doing in informal education activities such as summer camp, boy/girl scout activities, 4H or YMCA programs, and part-time jobs to what they are learning in school.
·      Create advanced academic programs for our students that are pursuing careers that require a Bachelors or advanced degree and provide professional development for the teachers that will teach these courses.
·      Identify ways to give verified credit for academic work that students complete at the appropriate time that matches their unique learning style and pace. Technologies are making these opportunities available to students. Schools must find a way to accommodate them.

It will take time to put these goals into practice. This process is not another educational fad or grant supported program that will only last until external funding fades away. It will take energy and commitment of teachers, parents, administrators, and community partners. If done correctly it will place academic development in an appropriate place as a key component of a child’s education, but not the only component. Academics will become integrated into career development, career and technical education, community interaction, and ultimately to a successful and fulfilling life.