Archive for September 10th, 2012

Special Ed Monitoring TETNs 2012-2013

  The Special Education Monitoring TETN schedule from TEA has been announced: (All sessions are from 1-3 pm) September 13, 2012 (Topic: Residential Facilities Tracker and other issues) November 8, 2012 (Topic: TBA) January 29, 2013 (Topic: TBA) March …

iPad Video Editing App – Free for Limited Time

Hello readers.  I was informed of an iPad app that I think you might want to hurry and get. It is free for only a limited time.  http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pinnacle-studio/id552100086?mt=8 Pinnacle Studio is a pretty robust video editing suite an…

Q&A with Round Rock Superintendent Jesús Chávez

The American-Statesman sat down with Round Rock school district Superintendent Jesús Chávez to discuss the district’s progress and his expectations for the school year. An edited version appears in Monday’s American-Statesman.

What are some of the most exciting new initiatives going into the school year?

I’m going to talk about two areas. One is Bring Your Own Device. For a number of years we have talked about allowing students to bring their smart phones and use them for instructional purposes, or bring their tablets or laptops. This year for the first time, we are formally allowing that. It’s a voluntary basis, school by school. And even with our teachers, we’re not requiring it, but we are allowing it. So along with that, we’re going to be providing a lot of training and support to our schools and teachers to use technology more so than we’ve done in the past, particularly technology that has been brought from the home. As time moves forward, we are going to provide more devices to our students. We’re limited in the number that we have right now, so that’s a limitation that we have, but in years to come, it will continue to be an emphasis.

The other piece is continuing the implementation of our academy programming. We are in our third year; we started with sophomores that are now juniors. So our sophomores have declared an academy program they are interested in. We have one more year to go, to where nearly everyone in high school will be in an academy program. At the freshmen level, we give them a lot of information about careers, jobs and education so that they make an informed decision come the end of their freshmen year when they are enrolling in their sophomore years. Sophomore year is when the academies begin. It’s at high schools. Each high school has three programs that are the same across the district. In addition to that, each high school has at least one more, if not two, academy specialty areas, like fine arts at Westwood and Cedar Ridge, and we have a science academy at Stony Point and McNeil.

The other part of that, and it really is about our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) academies, is Project Lead the Way, an engineering program. We’ve had tremendous success. There’s a great shortage in our nation, in Texas and in Austin with regards to engineers. So we started that a number of years ago at McNeil. We now have four high schools that are implementing that program and of course we will be working on Cedar Ridge for them to implement that program as well.

You’re in your sixth year as superintendent. What kind of superintendent do you think you’ve been?

I’m certainly very proud of all the successes that our students, teachers and schools have had. Performance has increased; college readiness has increased; dropout rates have come down. We have stronger programming at the high schools, particularly with our academies. We have been able to implement in a very good way our construction program. We had the 2006 bond election that we’ve completed projects under. We’ve had the 2008 (bond program), which we’re finishing up. We just had the ribbon cutting for Elsa England, our last elementary school that we have monies for. Really, we don’t have any more dollars for new schools. We’re working with our board on facilities and a possible bond election. We’re very proud of the success this district has had. I think as we look to the future, there’s always room for improvement, and I focus on improvement a whole lot. Principals will tell you, teachers will tell you, every year it’s about getting better.

Let me talk about college readiness, career readiness. We’ve done a tremendous job over the years with getting students college-career ready. When you look at how many of our students go to college, whether it be a two-year or a four-year program, within any given year, it’s going to be 68, 69, 70 percent, which is very high. You look at where other school districts are, and there are some that are at that rate, there may be some that are higher than us, but with a district with 45, 46,000 students, 70 percent of your students is tremendous. Now, we want to push the envelope on the other 30 percent that are not getting to college. There’s a lot of opportunity for that 30 percent of students to continue on with higher education and get certifications in the kinds of areas where employers are looking for high-skilled employees. In Central Texas, there’s a lot of need here. I drive to my hometown of Brownsville and all the way down, I see a lot of activity as it relates to the re-emergence of oil fields and the new wells and/or the old wells that are being refined. There is a lot of need for skilled workers in those areas, too. We have the opportunity to push the envelope beyond the traditional college and get more students to certification programs, high-skilled jobs, so that’s an emphasis we’re going to continue to have, not only this year, but in years to come. My hope is that we’re able to break through that 70 percent, that when you combine college enrollment with certification enrollment, that we go to 73, 75, 78, 80 percent down the road.

Most superintendents stay in their districts just 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?

I don’t like the trend where superintendents serve three years or less. It’s not good for education. It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for the progress that one needs to make. When you think of the change that needs to happen and the system that one needs to create, that takes time and three years is not long enough. Probably at three years we are just figuring out, yes, these are things that are going to make a difference for us. Then you get a new leader, and everything changes: Approaches change; maybe programs change. So I’ve never liked that we have a short tenure for superintendents. I’ll always promote longer tenures. If you look at where I’ve been, I spent 6 years in Harlingen, 41/2 in Corpus Christi; I’ve completed six here. So I’ve always felt as superintendent, that when one takes a job, one ought to commit long-term, more than the average three years.

For me, it’s to continue to work in Round Rock. There is still work to do. This district and this community is a great place to be. The community values education. They have high expectations. We have the will, we have the resources — although those are limited because of the state situation. We have great people, great teachers, great principals. We have great specialists, not only here at central office but in the business operational side as well. So we’re well positioned to be a leader, and I see Round Rock as a leading school district, not only here in Central Texas but across the state. We have a state reputation. Some of our schools make national lists. When you think of people moving to the area, particularly some of the specialty programming that we have, whether you think of our advanced programming, whether you think of the special education programming, they seek us out coming from California or Michigan or out East because they do their research and find Round Rock as a great school district. For me it’s maintaining that great reputation, that great programming, and improving it.

At the point that I do retire, my hopes would be my legacy is the quality people that are in place, that the programming that has been developed has been engrained in the system — and here I’m talking about things like Project Lead the Way, academy programming, a focus on IB and AP (International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement) testing and the programming, college-career readiness — that those things are part of the culture and they remain here.
I’m certainly a high-energy kind of person and want to continue to be a leader in the area and want to continue to make a difference, not only in the Round Rock community but the larger Central Texas community. I’ll be here for a while.

There have been changes in staff, cuts by the state, holding off on raises, increased class sizes. How is staff morale as a result of those changes?

Across the state, morale was down last year because of the state budget cuts and the state situation. Local school districts, local communities want to support education. They want to support their teachers as much as they can. I do need to commend our teachers and our principals. Even last year, they kept morale up. It’s impacted somewhat. We survey and when people respond to those surveys, what are the areas where there are concerns, and the concern was benefits. We didn’t give a salary increase (last year) and that was the first time in a great number of years, 20 or 30 years probably. The good news this year is we were able to give a salary increase, and you saw school districts around Central Texas follow suit and do the same kinds of things. Pflugerville, Leander or Austin, a number of us were able to do that. As a side note here, if we want quality education, then we have to pay for the quality teachers that we want and need. We do have to pay an appropriate salary to our teachers.

Morale is a little higher this year because of the salary increase. We are one of the few school districts across the state that is in a strong financial position. We did get cut this year from the state. We would have qualified for another $10 million that we’re not getting from the state. But because of our frugalness over the years, the conservative nature in how we manage the budget dollars, how we save dollars and we put those dollars away, we were able to use $6 million in fund balance this year. The other thing that we’re able to do — the board is very supportive of planning for the future; they’ve done a tremendous job in that area — we have set aside $30 million as well from fund balance in case there are additional cuts at the state that would be forced upon us. I’m hoping not. Fifteen million for this year and $15 million for next year. We’re well-positioned to maintain the level of staffing, particularly at our schools. We cut our central office budget — and I’m talking about the operational budget — initially by 3 percent, then we asked them to look for some more. We probably cut between 3 and 5 percent, some budgets a little bit more, some a little bit less as far as individual budgets. The state has to come forth and support and help public education.

A lot of districts are hurting out there. We don’t have to go far. I don’t like what I see as far as the cuts needing to be made in Hutto. Georgetown had to make more cuts. It impacts the quality of education, and we all have to understand that. If we want to be the leading state in the nation — that’s what I hear the governor saying — then we’ve got to invest in education.

On that topic, how are things different or the same from a year ago when we were just off the passage of all those legislative cuts? What do you think the future has in store this legislative session?

I’m going to talk about our district versus other districts in the state situation. I think for us, we remain stable, strong. That’s not the case for Texas school districts. Texas school districts are hurting. They don’t have the fund balance or savings that we have. So they’ve literally had to cut programs, raise student-teacher ratios and cut support for schools, and that’s not a good thing. Quality is going to suffer as we move forward in time. The interesting thing is that quality is going to suffer at a time when the state has higher expectations. We have a new accountability system. We talk about having all kids who are college- and career-ready. Setting some very high standards for our state, yet the state is in a cutting mode. My hope is they don’t cut public education in this upcoming legislative session.

From the Legislature — and all one has to do is look at past lawsuits — the cycle is we go to District Court, there will be a decision made, that decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court. So the Legislature is not going to, in any significant way, address school finance. They are going to await the Supreme Court decision, whether that means a special session, maybe, or whether we wait until the following legislative session. So part of what you hear right now is, don’t expect the Legislature to address school finance because of the school lawsuit case. … You’re already starting to see a wave of parents who are dissatisfied with the amount of testing — and we districts are dissatisfied with the amount of testing.

Let me say, though, that I’m for accountability, I am for testing in an appropriate way. Where we have gone beyond where we need to be is the amount of testing. Keeping accountable — and I’ve told the board that, I’ve told the community that — we have shown results in school districts, and Texas students and teachers have shown results, given the time and resources, but I think we’ve gone into overkill with regards to the amount of testing we’re doing, too much testing at the state level. And I want to differentiate between the state testing versus teacher or district testing or assessment.

I was in a conversation with some folks, and not everyone remembers the Friday testing that I remember. Going through elementary school, I remember my Fridays were about testing with my teachers. We always happened to start our day with reading, then I had my spelling, then I had my math. In the afternoon, I had my science and social studies and English. Friday was our teacher testing day, and we students were testing. Teacher testing, district testing is necessary so that we can ensure students are learning. In addition to that, we can adjust our instruction if students need additional help in particular skills or particular objectives. So that’s not what I mean by lessening testing. I’m talking about state testing, the STAAR test, the end-of-course tests. I wish I had the information on how many states are requiring 15 tests at the high school level. I don’t know how many. Probably very few, if any, have gone to the extent that we have gone to say high school students need to take 15 tests. I don’t hear of other states doing as much testing as we’re doing at the high school level.

There is a lot of uncertainty regarding testing and the state’s accountability system in the community. Can you tell parents and the community what to expect when it comes to the STAAR tests and where the district stands when it comes to counting the end of course tests counting as part of the course grade?

We do fairly well, and Texas does fairly well, when it comes to new standards. We have wording at the state (Texas Education Agency) that says we meet students where they are. What I mean by that is we phase standards in. We start with a lower standard, where a good number of our students are going to do well. Then two years later we increase it, then two more years later we increase the standard to the college readiness standard. Right now that is the blueprint for the standard setting. Talking about Round Rock specifically, we have done fairly well in the end-of-course tests. The surprise was we had lower scores in writing and lower scores in reading, but those are going to relate to a more difficult test, I believe. Some of the specific areas, chemistry was one of our lower scores, in alignment with reading and writing. So they weren’t very low scores. We generally did as well as we anticipated. We have not yet set the elementary and middle school passing standards for students, which again is going to be related to whether a school is rated acceptable or unacceptable.

Although when we looked at the percentage of items correct by our students, we’re in the 70s, high 60s. There may be a few that are less than that. But I think once they set the standard, a good percentage of our students, a high percentage of our students are going to demonstrate mastery because of the lower phase-in standard. Two years from now it will be adjusted, and two more years after that, the final adjustment. And remember, that’s not a for-sure thing. Information is going to be looked at by the agency, results will be looked at, to determine whether they will adjust up to two years or not.

Part of the challenge, though, and here I’m going to go back to the high school level, when you look at the number of students that didn’t pass the test. Remember at the end of their high school career it’s going to be 15 tests we’re talking about. The cumulative effect of students not passing means a high number of students. That’s going to put a challenge on school districts to be able to help and support the remediation, the tutoring, the summer school programming at a time when the state is taking away dollars, we’ve got to spend more dollars on education that we may not have. So we rob Peter to pay Paul is what a lot of districts are going to do. We do want to provide additional help to students who didn’t pass. Let me set up a summer school program for them, but what are you going to cut from the other side during the year to have dollars to provide summer school? Remember, the numbers are going to be increasing because right now we only tested our freshmen kids. This school year, we’re going to test our sophomore students and incoming freshmen students. So we’ll have a higher number of students who didn’t pass the test because of the higher standards, and that’s going to be a cumulative effect, which is a great concern of mine moving into years two, three and four of the accountability system. People have not seen that, they have not realized that. We educators have and are planning for it as much as we can, but the limitations on funding is a major road block to greater success by our kids. The state has to come through and provide the appropriate resources.

It’s a cumulative effect, because, and let me give an example: I’m a B and C students, I struggle in some areas. Maybe I didn’t pass my English test and I didn’t pass my algebra test. I do well enough to go on to English II this year and maybe I did well enough — and remember, there’s state testing and there’s whether you get credit or not, and the built-in 15 percent of the grade, which wasn’t built in this year. So now as a sophomore, I’m going to take my English II test and my geometry test, but I haven’t passed my Algebra I or English test. So now I have to take my English I test again, my English II test, my Algebra I and my geometry test. Hopefully I’ll pass these initial two, but if I don’t then I’m doubling up on how many tests I didn’t pass.
Now we’ll have two classes of kids, and the number of kids we have to serve (with intervention) increases, and that’s only two years. And I’m just talking about two subjects here; remember, there are five subjects. So it just continues. It’s more students who are going to need additional help because of the requirement that they either pass that test and/or get to a particular score, so we’re going to need to serve more students at a time when we’re getting less resources.

In the past school year, you had issues with standard-based grading, which you pulled, and some of the attendance boundary rezoning. What is the district’s relationship with the community at this point?

I don’t think there’s any question that we had a tough year last year for a number of reasons. You mentioned a few and I’ll throw in the state budget cuts. It was a tough year, not only for Round Rock but the other districts across the state.

With regards to the testing and grading, we listened to the community. We responded well. It’s always a difficult situation where you’re not going to satisfy 100 percent of everybody, whether you think of parents or whether you think of teachers. In my mind, we responded well to that situation. We continue to work to make sure that our grading system is a fair system, first of all, but then in addition to that, is one that is supported by our teachers and parents and our school board. I think we have gotten there on the grading piece.

On the boundaries, keep in mind that the situation was one where a segment of the community — I’m not going to say the entire community — a segment and/or maybe two segments, really wanted to change something that had already been decided two years before. They really have remained unhappy with the boundary changes that were made earlier. We the district, when we made that initial change, indicated that we didn’t want to make another change for students two years down the road or three years down the road, that we wanted something more permanent … and that’s the approach we take when we make a boundary change. The other important piece that you need to understand is that within one community, we had differing opinions, those parents who had experienced their children going to Round Rock High School didn’t want them to go back to McNeil, versus parents whose students were going to be at McNeil and wanted to reunite the entire group. Our difficulty of course was one of capacity and severe overcrowding wherever you took the entire group, which is why earlier, like three years ago, we made that boundary change.

Coming back to the larger community, our community has been very supportive of our teachers and our schools and continue that way. I’m not going to say that we don’t have some dissatisfaction by some parents who are dissatisfied at the high school level with boundaries, because there are some parents who are dissatisfied and unhappy with boundaries, but that’s not the entirety of the community. I’m fortunate that I work with our chambers (Chambers of Commerce), the Round Rock chamber, the Austin chamber, the Hispanic chamber. Business is very supportive of our district. So when you take a look at our parents in our community, our parents are very supportive of our district. Our business is very supportive. I have a very good understanding, as business people do, that we’ve got to have a great school district so we can have good economic development. That’s why I sit on the Round Rock chamber board. The community is very supportive of the district.

You’ve had some changes in leadership; tell me a little bit about that.

We certainly are excited about the three new individuals. Dr. (Martha Salazar-)Zamora who is coming to the district from Houston. She’s had a breadth of experience that will contribute a lot to our improvement and our progress over the next several years. She has been not only one who has supportive secondary schools, she was assistant superintendent for support services in Houston. Houston is the largest district in the state, so she had under her as far as support for schools a great number of schools, two or three times or more than what we have here. In addition to that, she has previously been an assistant superintendent for instruction, which is really the main emphasis of her job here. She’s a former superintendent as well, served as superintendent in Kingsville for a number of years. She has special education experience, teacher experience, federal program experience. All of that is going to help this district very well.

We happened to call on two of our employees to get promotions. Becky Donald, who was the principal at Westwood High School, to be the assistant superintendent of secondary education. She ran a great school over a great number of years, one of the top schools in the state, and a nationally recognized school. She’ll be very helpful in working with all of our secondary schools, and will have responsibility for middle schools as well.

At the elementary level, we called upon Carla Amacher. Carla had been one of our principals in the Brushy Creek area and brought that school to exemplary status for a number of years while she was there. Then in addition to that, she had the experience of being director of elementary education, so a lot of skills she brings, as well, to elementary education.
So we’re excited about the new individuals. Round Rock always attracts top-quality people and we’ve got three individuals who are top quality.

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