Sunday, August 6, 2017

There's Excitement in the Air!

Originally Published in the Newton Kansan, July 2017

Do you feel it? There’s something in the air! Yes, it’s hot, but that’s not it. It’s not the weather or pollutants or even moisture. It’s excitement - a feeling that something good is about to happen. It’s as if the community is poised to embrace a new positive outlook. Can you feel it?

It is seemingly everywhere I go these days. There’s talk of the great things that are happening in Newton and nearby communities. There are dreams being shared that are inspiring and engaging – creating a sense of urgency for action. It is an amazing and wonderful time to be a resident of Newton. What are we waiting for?

Being an educator for longer than I have been anything except a wife and mother, I am excited about the changes in the air at the state level. Through the direction of the State Board of Education and the leadership of Education Commissioner, Dr. Randy Watson, there are dreams of redesigning schools and education to better meet the needs of students, to provide more personalized learning, and to embrace the benefits of industry level certifications for high school graduates. “Kansans Can” create an educational system that leads the world!

I attended the hearing in the Kansas Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of SB19, which includes the Kansas School Equity and Enhancement Act. While there are differences of opinion about whether or not school districts should engage in legal actions to address concerns over the constitutionality of school finance laws, it was an experience to watch our legal system in action.  The Justices asked pointed questions of the attorneys to determine how the newly crafted school finance law addresses the inequities and inadequacies in the previously ruled unconstitutional system. The Justices focused questions on the differences the funding amounts from what the Legislature approved and the Governor signed and the recommendations of studies and the State Board of Education. Will the new law provide for all Kansas students to meet or exceed the Rose Standards? How will it address the academic and social emotional aspects of education for our neediest students? These are factors that the Justices are now deliberating. The Justices and attorneys seemed to agree that money matters in the educational outcomes for students. I would agree.

How does this relate to how this article started? What about the school finance formula relates to exciting things happening? Well, the short answer is that for the first time in approximately nine years, the school district will experience an influx of new dollars – in the amount of approximately $1.1 million dollars. These dollars will directly impact students and their classrooms. And, for the first time in as many years, the district is not discussing what can we cut from the budget. Instead, the conversation is around: what can we provide to help support students and teachers? How will our decisions impact relationships and responsive culture? How will we prioritize among the list of needs and enhancements that we would like to address?

If you are feeling the excitement in the air, I encourage you to get involved. It is up to us, the citizens of Newton, to be the change we want to see. It is up to us to embrace inspiring and engaging dreams. It is up to us to recognize the great things that happen every day all around us. Sometimes, it is hard and we really have to be aware, to look, to observe and engage, and respond positively to the good things around us.

If you aren’t feeling it, if you are somehow not convinced this is a great place to be with the potential to be more, then consider looking more closely. Rather than complain about what isn’t right about our community, our schools, or our churches, get involved. Be a force for the good things that you want to have happen in our community - because it is our community. We have a responsibility to come together and promote what it important to us and create the place we want to be! The place where others will want to be!

This will take work and commitment. It will not happen over night. We may become frustrated with the slowness of progress. Margaret Mead stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” I believe this to be an absolute truth and that we can make a difference.

Kansans Can and Newtonians Can! Join in on the excitement! Believe in the dream!

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Generation and A Half Later - The Time Has Come

Time flies. Generations pass. It seems like yesterday. But it wasn't. In 1974 a new high school was opened and an old high school was repurposed for a middle school. Twenty years later, in 1994, community members and school district staff developed a facilities plan for addressing building needs. The district reduced the number of elementary schools closing several in-town schools in favor of fewer schools that were larger and thus more efficient from an economy of scale perspective. As a part of that plan, my children's school, Roosevelt Elementary, which was held together with a bolt that ran through it, was vacated and eventually razed. At the same time, a new elementary was built in a new location - Slate Creek, which opened its doors to students in 1996 - 21 years ago.

During the decision making phase regarding other buildings, a commitment was made to make improvements to Newton High School that included Career and Technical Education classrooms and additional gymnasium space. As a reminder, when the high school was built Title IX (which expanded girls' sports among other things) was in its infancy. When Newton High School was designed there may not have been a clear understanding of the impact Title IX would have on the sports opportunities for girls or how that would change the needs for gymnasium and locker room space. So that was 20 years, two-thirds of a generation later, when improvements were made.

In 2007, another upgrade was planned for Newton High School. The improvements included a state-of-the-art vocational agriculture and buildings construction building; additions to other Career and Technical Education programs - machining, automotive, and welding; addition of a media center and administrative center on the front of the building; and remodeling of the space vacated in the center of the building (old media center and administrative offices) into classroom space. However, for whatever reason, the original 1974 classroom space was NOT remodeled or renovated.

Since 1974, graduation requirements have changed and more mathematics and science courses are required for every student; electives for music, art, and drama have increased; the career and technical education courses have increased and changed. For example, home economics has evolved from a mostly "course for girls" to culinary arts designed to introduce students to potential future careers. However, if you step into Mrs. Jeffery's classroom it will be like time travel - you will step back to 1974 home kitchen space rather than a commercial kitchen that you would find at the Meridian Center.

So, now 10 years after the last set of improvements, community and staff members are being asked to consider a new facilities plan. A plan that honors the commitment of the community to be responsible for what we have and providing exceptional opportunities for our students. For the last year and a half community members and staff members have been focusing attention on the future and what education practices and opportunities are desired and now 43 years, a generation and a half after the high school was opened, opportunities for educating the next generation in the academic space at Newton High School have been identified. The improvements will enhance instructional opportunities for students with up-to-date science classrooms, improved air quality, new heating and cooling, noise reduction in classrooms, and better lighting - to name just a few of the improvements. It will make a difference for a new generation of students! Go Railers!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Addressing Educational Outcomes

When you think of schools and the education of the youth of our community, what thoughts, ideas, or questions pop into your consciousness? Does your mind float back in your memories to your favorite teacher, class, or activity? Do you ponder how school might be different today than when you were in school? Do you begin to question how schools and teaching and learning might need to change to prepare students for jobs and careers that don’t yet exist? Do you wonder what are our students learning in our schools? What opportunities do they have to explore, problem solve, and create?

As I write these words today, our classrooms are filled with students who are curious, creative, and challenging! Teachers and others work diligently to create classroom environments that are safe, secure, and supportive. For some of our students, school may be the safest place that they know or experience. And, while teachers are working to support the learning of a diverse population of students, there are more concerns raised and limited resources available to them.

Maybe I was just naïve when I was a student in school or a new teacher in the classroom, but I just wasn’t aware of the life issues that my classmates were faced with outside of school and I thought most of my students had parents and homes much like those of my own children. Time and experience has taught me that neither of those assumptions were correct. In today’s classrooms many students are faced with problems that most adults would struggle to overcome and at the same time these students are expected to learn.

So, what is ahead for our students? We know that education, whether it is a college degree or an industry certification, in the form of post high school is and will continue to be necessary to earn a living wage. In order for our students to be as successful as they can be, and, therefore assist our communities to prosper and grow, it is important that we begin to understand and ultimately find solutions to some issues that are beyond the doors of the classroom.

Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education, and the Kansas State Board of Education have outlined five outcomes for measuring the success of education in Kansas. First among the outcomes is Kindergarten Readiness. This outcome will focus on providing parents and teachers with information to help them make decisions about the readiness of the child to enter school but will not be used to prevent a child from entering kindergarten. It will also provide parents with suggestions for supporting their child before he/she enters kindergarten. It will help educators to intervene more quickly with students who may be entering kindergarten significantly behind his/her peers.  What might we as a community or state need to do to support children’s readiness for kindergarten? There are a few things we are already doing well including the programs that are available to Harvey County children and parents at Cooper Early Childhood Center and the literacy work of Harvey County United Way through the 0-5 book program.

The second outcome provides that every student in grades 8-12 will have an Individual Plan of Study (IPS), which focuses on career interest. Our counselors and administrators are engaged in the development of an IPS that will provide for cooperative development involving parents, students, and teachers to reflect the students’ interests and talents. Our district is studying some online resources that will help students to determine their interests and talents. That information along with career goals will be used to help guide students in selecting courses, investigating career interests, and planning for post secondary learning.

Projections indicate that by 2020, 71% of all jobs in Kansas will require post-secondary education. Whether that is an industry certification or a two-year degree or a college degree or degrees, it is necessary for students to successfully graduate from high school before they can enter into the post-secondary opportunities. And, for those that might not fully understand the impact of not graduating from high school, it is important to note that only 17% of all jobs do not require a high school diploma and many of these jobs may not provide a living wage or health care benefits. The third of the State BOE’s outcomes addresses high school graduation rates. What does this mean for Newton High School students? As a 4-year cohort, our most recent data indicates that 82.8% of students graduate and the state average for all Kansas students is 86.1%. So, is this good enough? No. Is this a problem for the school district to solve alone? No. Will parents and members of the community need to be involved? Yes. Will we need to work together to encourage and educate some of our students about the importance of a high school diploma and the negative impact of not graduating? Yes. What additional resources might be needed to address this outcome?

And, the fourth outcome addresses student resiliency in pursuing post-secondary opportunities. Regardless of what students choose to do after high school, we know that they will need to be resilient in order to achieve their goals. We need students to not just enroll in post-secondary opportunities – we need them to complete a credential program so that we can meet the workforce needs of our state. In order for our students to be competitive in a labor market where the skill set for jobs continues to increase, students need to see the possibility of post-secondary education and be among those students prepared to take one of the higher paying jobs! How might we engage our businesses and industries in mentoring and encouraging our students?

The last of the outcomes focuses attention on the importance of social/emotional growth. We know that academic skills are critical to success, but simply having academic skills is not enough to be a successful and contributing member of our community. Students must also have skills such as perseverance, conscientiousness, conflict resolution, communication, and other skills related to setting goals, managing emotions, showing empathy for others, and making decisions. We will be asked to determine ways to measure the social/emotional growth of our students. What might be some indicators of social/emotional growth in our students? What might be some supports our students would need in order to grow socially and emotionally and graduate from high school prepared to be a good friend, an engaged citizen, and a productive employee? Will some students require more supports than others? How might we provide the supports that students from various backgrounds need?

As I stated earlier, I was naïve as a student and as a young educator. Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and some need more of our support than do others. Our students can lead the world! Our educators are prepared to facilitate their success! And, we need to work together to achieve all that we are capable of achieving and being “the place to be.”

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Originally published in the Newton Kansan.

Think back. Do you remember the first day of school as a kindergarten student? How about the first day of school as a senior? Or maybe it’s easier to remember the first day you sent your kindergarten-aged child into the school building for the first time? Or how about that senior into the high school for the last first day of school? How did you feel? Were you happy or sad? Were you nervous about what your child would experience during the day?

Most students attending USD 373 schools entered doorways and were welcomed by teachers, administrators, and support staff for the first time on August 17. Some students were happy – some were sad – and parents may feel the same way. For those who entered new buildings with new teachers and children that they didn’t know, there was likely some nervousness. Possibly there was even a little bit of fear – a fear of the unknown.

As educators, the first day is filled with hope and anticipation for the year to come. Some educators were brand new to the profession and some were new to the district. Some were starting another year in the district with new students filling their classrooms. What strengths are the students bringing to the school and classroom? What will the opportunities for growth be? There is so much to learn and so much to know.

As a parent and grandparent, the first day was filled with a little nervousness for my child and grandchild. Will the teacher like my child? Will my child like the teacher and connect with friends?

Personally, I have very few memories of first days of school as a student but I can remember that I always felt safe at school. I loved learning new things and meeting new people. I remember my fifth grade teacher who was responsible for the care of the library and encouraged me to “help out” and thus cemented my love for books and reading. I remember Mrs. Halliburton, my English Comp teacher, who didn’t let me get by with less than my best and required me to redo papers that did not meet that standard. As a teacher, I wanted the first day of school to be perfect – for the students to feel welcomed, excited to learn, and having ended the day with fond memories and the beginnings of positive relationships with peers and adults. And when the first day of this school year began, I imagine that the day was filled with emotion for the students, parents, and staff members.

One thing I have learned over the years in education is that positive attitudes and thinking, and the building of solid, collaborative relationships is critical to the success of schools and the students that enter through the doors on those first days. It is easy in the world today – whether you are a student, or a parent, or an educator - to be focused on what goes wrong or all of the problems facing education or all of the problems that we are faced with in schools.  This year, the district has embarked on a year-long initiative to fill the media – website, twitter, newsletters, and newspapers – with the message that USD 373 is The Place to Be! We want our schools to be the place where students are supported, where parents and patrons are knowledgeable about and appreciative of the educational experiences for their children, and where educators feel supported and appreciated.

On Twitter and Facebook, the hashtag “placetobe373” will be a part of teachers’ and administrators’ posts. We will be looking to find those memories, big and small, that demonstrate our commitment to the students, our pride in our community and our students’ learning, our focus on excellence, and our celebration of the successes. If you tweet or post to Facebook, you are invited to use the hashtag “placetobe373” to share your story. If you don’t tweet, I encourage you to reach out to the school in your neighborhood, contact a teacher or principal, or email me ( and we will share your positive story! It will become a part of our fabric, a part of who we are as a community - as a district.

A word of caution: as a society, we have become a nation of venters (people who use social media to address a concern or problem). I don’t believe that everything is perfect and that we only want to hear the “good stuff.” But, I do believe that if you have a concern, please consider other options for addressing them than to post on social media and please don’t use our “placetobe373” hashtag for venting. We are focusing on positive action with the idea that positivity will breed positivity and that the world will be a better place because of it. Join us in making USD 373 the place to be! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Does Anyone Have a Crystal Ball?

This post first appeared in the Newton Kansan on May 19, 2016. This week (June 23, 2016) the Kansas Legislature reconvenes to address equitable distribution of funds for education in the state of Kansas. 

Did you ever wish you had a crystal ball? The ability to see the future? Right now, educators need a crystal ball or the ability to tell the future in order to provide the public with answers to some pretty tough questions. Why? What questions?

Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments regarding equity. The justices are now deliberating on the question regarding the school finance bill passed by the legislature and signed by the governor and whether or not the bill "fixed" equity. If it is determined that the bill is unconstitutional, the legislature will likely have one more opportunity to address the equity issue before the June 30 deadline.

What will happen if the Kansas Supreme Court determines that the bill is unconstitutional? Will the schools open on August 17? Will there be sufficient funding for programs and services to continue? Will there be options for enhancing opportunities for students? These questions are on the mind of many educators around the state. And, the answers to the questions are subject to our best guesses based on the information that we have available to us.

If the Kansas Supreme Court determines the bill is unconstitutional, the legislature may return to Topeka for a Special Session. We will have to wait until the Court provides its decision. So, we hurry up and wait. Meanwhile, the question about school starting in the fall looms large.

You may ask yourself, why does it matter if schools are not open in July as students are not attending. Well, the short answer is: there is a great deal of work that is done in June and July in preparation for the buildings to reopen in August and students to return to classrooms. As this school year ends, we are already planning for the 2016-17 school year to begin. Instructional materials are being ordered. Work orders for summer maintenance are being processed and scheduled. A technology infrastructure upgrade at Newton High School is ready to begin. Plans have been developed for online enrollment and processing for new students to the district.

If the school district is not permitted to operate or is substantially limited in its ability to operate, then the process of shutting down operations and then restarting again will be a huge undertaking. You might ask: Will this really happen? That is another one of the very uncertain aspects of ending this year. In the past, when the legislature has been faced with the potential closing of schools, it has found a solution to the issues it faced. This time, however, the state is in a much different place financially and politically. The school district’s role, and indeed the work of district leadership, will be to have a plan in place in the event that a shutdown occurs. Some things for parents to consider: you may need an alternate plan if you utilize Latchkey services; some summer athletic camps may be cancelled or moved to alternate locations; or you may need to consider childcare options if school does not reopen in August. We hope the plan will not be needed.

What about financial resources for next year? At this time, it appears that we will have the same amount of funding next that we had this year. This “flat funding” brings some significant challenges as the district is expecting increases in costs associated with property and liability insurance, employee benefits, utilities, and teacher and classified salaries. So, the staff has discussed building and department budgets and suggested areas for reductions to occur. An advisory council, comprised of teachers, classified staff, department heads, and building leadership has met, reviewed the suggestions, considered other options, and developed a prioritized lists of potential reductions. The prioritized list will be submitted to the Board of Education at the June Board Meeting for the Board’s review prior to the drafting of next year’s budget. At this time, most services and programs will remain and we continue to strive for reductions as far away from the classroom as is possible. However, tough choices still lay ahead. Any plans or dreams for enhancing programs must be accompanied by recommendations for reductions in other areas. In spite of that condition, the district continues to consider new opportunities and enhancements for students.

As we end this year, thank you for your support of our students, teachers, and support personnel! The Newton community has traditionally been a dedicated and committed supporter of public education. The district acknowledges its role in being a good steward of the resources that we have available and we will continue to strive to provide the best educational experience for our community.