Archive for September 3rd, 2012

More questions and answers with the Leander superintendent

The American-Statesman sat down with Leander school district Superintendent Bret Champion recently to discuss the various issues the district is facing and what the new school year has in store. A shorter version of this Q&A appears in Monday’s newspaper.

What are the most exciting new initiatives the district has going on this year?

A couple of things come right to mind. The conversation around bullying and anti-bullying efforts is continuing to evolve. We’re certainly listening to our community about that. And at our anti-bullying miniconference we hosted back in the spring, one of the things we asked is, “Are there other things we can be doing like leverage technology in some way?” for example. So we went and are actually are going to be bringing on a new system called Talk About It. It offers students an ability to confidentially send information to a trusted adult on campus if they are feeling picked on or if they’re feeling bullied or that something is not going well. They can use an app they can get on their phone or they can use their computer to fill that out and push it out to a person they trust on campus. That allows the adult to meet with the kid or get it to the counselor or wherever it needs to go. It takes away that stigma for a kid. What we found when talking to folks with kids, is sometimes going to the counselor, sometimes going to the principal, it’s overwhelming to them. It’s too big, it’s too much. So this offers them to do something they do all the time, which is be on their phone, and shoot that to an adult who they trust. We’re very excited about that rollout. We’re piloting that this year throughout the district, fourth grade through high school. We’re excited to see how that develops in our ongoing efforts to combat bullying, as well as well as focus on the whole student.

We’re also dipping our toe in the water of Bring Your Own Tech — that’s what we’re calling it. For years our schools had the big signs in front that said “cell phones” with a big red slash through it: Leave your cell phones at home. We recognize that we now have more computer power in our pockets than we had on our desktops 10 years ago. So instead of trying to provide a device for every student, why not leverage the resources students already have? So we’re starting some initial steps toward that. Teachers have ultimate control in classroom. If they say it’s time for no devices to be out, then no devices out. But whenever you are doing a project and the world of resources available on the Internet of course, it just makes sense to use resources readily available and that students are used to.

We have done a mass improvement to our wireless network for that effort. One of the reasons we had that big red slash was not just because we were trying to adjust to this new thing, it was also because our wireless (network) couldn’t support too many devices. Our bandwidth just wasn’t wide enough. But that should be corrected with the updated wireless improvements we have done. We’re really focusing on the secondary level on this. There are some details we will continue to work through, but we’re excited about that. Certainly we will want to communicate well and often with parents about how that is going to look and take away the stigma for children who don’t have access to something. There are a lot of moving parts to this, but we’re really excited about that initiative.

The average term for a superintendent is a few years. Where do you see yourself three years from now and what goals do you have, both short term and long term, for the district?

Three years from now I certainly see myself still here. I’ve been part of this system 19 years and I love this system. I love Leander ISD. I love this community. I love the parental support and the community support we get. We have terrific teachers and kids. Bigger than that, though, I love where we’re going as a school district. One of the things I’m incredible proud of is our common shared vision that we have now, which is ensuring our students exit the system with the same passion for learning they had when they entered our system, without economics determining success. And that has become the rallying cry that we rolled out … four years ago. At that time I put out a vision called, “Ten years from now,” that’s how our system is going to look. That stayed the same. So that clear vision, with clear focus on specific initiatives, we’ve been able to continue and sustain.

It’s a challenging job. But whenever you can get a superintendent to stay and a board like we’ve got with a true focus on student learning, and staff rallying around a common vision, we can really do some transformation within the world of public education. That’s really what we’re after with our focuses on closing the achievement gap, ensuring our kids are college- and career-ready, our focus on the whole student with our anti-bullying efforts, along with a whole lot of other things, and finally — and this is very education-ese — our focus on student learning behaviors. Shifting that focus and seeing: What are students really learning and how are they learning it? We did an organic study in the district to come up with these student learning behaviors so it’s exciting to see where it’s going to go. And we’re at the front end of it. And so, three years from now? I plan to be right here and seeing where we are. We should be 3 years closer to our long term vision and I very much want to be a part of where that continues to go.

Like other districts, Leander has had to have different budget cuts, undergo changes in staff, hold back on raises until this year. What do you think staff morale is like now as a result of those changes?

I think staff morale is incredibly strong. The reason that is, is because those things happened here in Leander ISD within the cultural context of Leander ISD. One of the things I’m most proud of in all that budget stuff that went on is our continued effort to keep folks well informed, to keep them involved in the process so there were no surprises. Whenever that ultimately rolled out, it was terrible. It was devastating. But there was nobody who attended any of our forums, who got our weekly messages, who was surprised that the cuts looked like they did. While it was awful and sad, there were some remarkable things that came out of it. For example, (in) our exit surveys, the percentage of employees recommending Leander ISD at that time last year actually increased 16 points or so from the year before, even in the middle of all those budget cuts. We went somewhere from 74 percent of staff would recommend Leander ISD to others as a place to work (in 2010) to 94 percent (in 2011).

One thing we kept as our central message – and continues to be — we never wavered from the central message, that ultimately we are about the center of the learning model, which is the focus on student learning. We’re going to deal with whatever it is that the Legislature brings, whatever happens at the state. At the end of the day we’re going to provide a quality public education for all of our students in our system. By staying true to that message and hopefully making decisions that we felt were in the best interest of students first, folks got it and morale is strong. It’s exactly what we knew would happen, we would have these cuts and have devastating changes, and then the next year, people said we survived, we did great. Do I wish we could have our middle school schedule back, where had double block in math and language arts? Absolutely. Do I wish that some of those things that we had to change that we could get those back? I would love to. But the reality is we’ve stayed focused and true. Once we got to through the grieving process, we talked about ‘how do we make this work?’ and I feel that folks stepped up and had done that. It’s really a credit to teachers, principals, and to folks who are on those campuses every day.

How are things different or the same from a year ago, when we were just off the passage of all those legislative cutbacks, and what do you think the future has in store this legislative session?

I mentioned the middle school schedule. That’s the No. 1 thing, that we did change the way we approach language arts and math. We did add an additional class, the APS (Academic and Personal Success) class, that allows for differentiation, should a student need additional time in math or additional time in language arts. So instead of a kid getting another elective, every student in middle school takes this APS class.

There are other changes that have occurred — the size of classes at the elementary level. We now staff very close to the bone. We just hold it at 22 to 1. But at second, third and fourth grade, we’ve actually made that bigger. I would love to not be able to do that, but it saves us. Every time we can save a teaching slot it saves us another $55,000. Those are the things that jump out.

From a parent’s perspective, adding a transfer fee. We don’t love doing that, that they’re going to submit a ($30) check every time they submit a transfer (starting in 2012-13). We’ve been doing student transfers in Leander ISD for years and we had a system that is wide open and we’ve had to really bring that in and bring some science to it because it costs us teaching positions if you allow too many transfers into a certain grade level. We have it down to specific grade levels in specific schools that get closed (to transfers). We love parental choice and we encourage it, but we also recognize there are some financial realities we have to deal with. (The district has a sliding scale fee for students who are economically disadvantaged.)

In Round Rock, the district tried to implement standard-based grading, which was pulled back last year after community input. You do that on a smaller scale at the middle school level in language arts. What do you think the community’s response is to that?

I can’t speak to Round Rock, but I can speak to the way we rolled out our rubric-based grading in Language Arts — writing, specifically. It’s the way we roll out pretty much anything in this district. We started out with a pilot program. It started at one middle school at one grade level a few years ago, and we tweaked it to death. We made changes. The first reaction? They’re not always happiness and sunshine. Because in the absence of knowledge, people create theories. We recognize we need to overcommunicate this and just be really transparent with how this works.

If you think about the writing process specifically, it’s such a unique thing that we teach, that it really lends itself to this type of grading. So, you have a piece that you work on, and with some peer editing, they can follow a rubric to know what those things are that the piece should have included and at what scale. So the teacher is able is to give that feedback to the student as well. And then the piece isn’t dead, because we know that with writing specifically, that it is a process. It’s something we do over and over again. So then the student can look at the rubric, look to his or her writing and improve it. Another part of it, in addition to starting small and communicating along the way, is that this particular process, this rubric grading, fits very well logically with the curriculum area that it’s in. We can sit down with parents, and they can see how the rubric system is benefiting their kid. In terms of grading and stuff, one of the things we recognize is that it is a highly emotionally issue for everybody: students, teachers, administrators, the parents. As we look as potential changes, we’re always going to be interested in starting small and communicating well.

This is still one of the fast-growth districts, but you have held back on opening a couple of campuses, a middle school campus for one year and an elementary school for two years. Tell me about the decisions behind that and the feedback from the community.

Whenever I talk to the community about those schools being vacant, I remind them that the mechanisms of opening a school start years before the school actually open or even before the concrete is ever poured. Whenever we were hot and heavy in the middle of growth, decisions were made to, looking at demographics, place certain schools. We were opening elementary schools every year, a middle school every other year. We opened two high schools virtually back to back, with Rouse High School and Vandergrift High School. So at that time, the demographics pointed to the need of having some buildings in those particular areas. When the economy did what the economy did, and slowed down significantly, we took a look at demographics. We took a look at the cost that it takes to open a school and recognized that we didn’t need to have kids in those buildings at this point. It means there were some elementary schools and some middle schools that just got very large.

One of the things we looked at first was student safety. … With Stiles Middle School sitting vacant, could Henry Middle School sustain the number of kids? It was (200 students) over capacity, without a doubt. We did a study and realized that yes, with additional resources, additional teachers and whatnot, that Henry Middle School could do that. But then we said, that’s it. Working with the board of trustees, they said (this year), we would open up Stiles Middle School. It’s a very wise decision.We did the same thing with Reed Elementary. This will be the second year that it’s not been used as a school, and we’ll continue to monitor and look at the elementary schools around and see if they get to a point where we must open that school, in which case, we will. We will not put kids at risk by being a school that’s overcrowded but we’ll figure out a way to open that school. Because we’re continuing to grow. We’ve grown by about a thousand ­— that’s our projections, it may be a little more than that. So it’s just a matter of opening the school.

We always promised the community, we will only open schools when we needed to. So the feedback has actually been positive. Not positive joyful but understanding. They understand the budget cuts we went through. They understand the economy slowed down. They understand that the buildings just didn’t pop up overnight, that it took years of planning that led to that. So they understand that we’re going to open it when we need to open it.

Any plans for a tax ratification election or a bond?

There are no plans for a TRE right now. The board adopted the budget and the tax rate (Aug.23). We already started earlier this month working on next year’s budget. I always say we will keep all options open, but there are no plans to do a TRE. On a bond, the same thing. We’ll be getting the demographer’s report in October and take a look at what the projected growth is. Anecdotally, the sale of resale homes are increasing, so I’ll be curious to see what the demographics report shows. We’ll work with the board and make decisions based on that.

This past year, the district has been faced with lawsuits regarding special education students and bullying issues. I know you can’t talk specifically about the merits of those lawsuits, but tell me in general what the district’s plan is with special education and some of the issues that have been brought up.

With special education specifically, I can tell you that much like every other aspect of our school district, I have folks who are wildly unhappy and folks that are wildly happy. Just two nights ago, I was in the Steiner area doing a presentation, and unsolicited, I had two dads come up to me who were raving about how wonderful particular programs were in our system. That doesn’t mean we don’t take feedback when there are people who are wildly unhappy. For example, when we receive feedback (about) the way goals are written, we take a look at that and say, “Is there a way systemically that we need to be changing certain things?” One of the things I’m most proud of in this district is we view feedback as opportunity to improve, and it doesn’t matter where that feedback comes from. If it comes from somebody who is clearly dissatisfied, then let’s talk about how we can change that level of satisfaction.

If you take a look at measures the state uses for monitoring special education, Leander ISD looks good. If you talk to a variety of folks about special education, you get a variety of answers, but it’s all very specific. That’s the whole nature of special education. It’s about getting a specific plan for a specific student. I feel like, on a whole, the special education department in this district does an outstanding job of educating our highest-needs kids very well.

But are there any specific changes because of these suits or because of issues parents have brought up recently?

We use feedback from a variety of sources to make systematic changes all the time. One of the things we’ve re-emphasized is strong communication and ensuring that we communicate well and often, particularly for our students of highest needs, particularly students who have no voice, and really ensuring we are true partners with parents in that regard. Again, that is a re-emphasis, not something that is new. I think overall, folks are doing a great job with that.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about?

Attendance, attendance, attendance. I can tell you that with working with E3 Alliance, if Central Texas, if every student were able to improve his or her attendance by three days for one school year, that would bring in$34 million to Central Texas schools. That’s the secondary part of attendance. The first part is that your kid is in school, where important education is going on, and having them there is of critical importance. You’re going to hear more about attendance from the Central Texas group. We can all agree on we want to get more kids in school regularly. Just Get Them Here is the campaign we’re after. We’re working with E3 on a Central Texas campaign called Get Schooled that we’re going to be part of. And then we’re going to independently do things as well throughout the school year.

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