AASA Superintendents of the Year Aim to Boost Student Achievement
What should district leaders do to improve student achievement? The four finalists for the 2007 National Superintendent of the Year award, recently selected by the American Association of School Administrators, are committed to that very goal, and each has implemented new strategies to boost student performance by focusing on a variety of areas.
Susan Andrews, superintendent of the Harris County School District (www.harris.k12.ga.us) in Hamilton, Ga., wanted to give special help to struggling high school students whose difficulties weren't tied to learning disabilities or behavioral problems.
Her district created an alternative high school for students who fail the ninth grade and perform at least at a sixth-grade level in math and language arts, most of whom do not enjoy school, have attendance problems and don't respond well to traditional instruction. To appeal to such students, the school utilizes nontraditional teaching strategies, such as computer-assisted, projects-based instruction. Classes are held only four days a week to accommodate students who have outside responsibilities.
"Parents are so grateful, because the children ... are excited to come to school," Andrews says.
Brenda Dietrich, superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn Unified School District (www.usd437.net) in Topeka, Kan., says her district saw a rise in test scores after it aligned its curriculum to state standards using the "bull's eye" model. This model helps prioritize curricula to emphasize the "mastery" curriculum, the vital state standards that "100 percent of students need to learn with 100 percent mastery," she says.
Based on that prioritizing, the district developed "early warning" assessments that are given twice before state exams. Teams of educators at each school analyze the results to spot students' weaknesses and then adapt their instruction or give extra help to certain students in the hope of improving their performance on the exams.
Larry Nyland, superintendent of the Marysville School District
(www.msvl.k12.wa.us) in Marysville, Wash., has focused on improving professional development. The district has set up "studio classrooms," in which teachers from outside the district are contracted to demonstrate teaching methods that they have been recognized for in their own schools.
Each school allocates funds for substitutes so that grade-level or department teachers can be freed up to hold sessions with the individual teachers who are being trained by the outside consultants. After the training and sessions, the trainee gives an actual lesson to students in the studio classroom as other teachers observe. Feedback is given and teacher discussions are held afterwards.
Krista Parent, superintendent of the South Lane School District
(www.slane.k12.or.us) in Cottage Grove, Ore., has made school principals an active part of improving student achievement. In the past, principals would often focus on administrative issues such as budgets or tardy policies during meetings with the superintendent.
Now when Parent meets with principals twice a month, all their conversations "are focused on learning and student achievement," she says. Additionally, principals are directly addressing student learning in their own school staff meetings, rather than confining discussions to administrative matters.
The 2007 National Superintendent of the Year will be named at the AASA National Conference on Education (www.aasa.org) on March 2.
Cracking Down on Boundary Hopping
Schools across the nation are wrestling with large numbers of student boundary hopping, as more and more parents provide false addresses to enroll their children in specific schools.
Most of the time, parents are looking for a better or safer education for their children, says Jim Burcio, director of child welfare and attendance for the Antioch (Calif.) Unified School District (www.antioch.k12.ca.us). Convenience also motivates parents, says Norwalk (Conn.) Public Schools (www.norwalkpublicschools.org) Superintendent Sal Corda.
Costs can add up as a district provides services for unidentified nonresidents, and boundary hopping can be a significant strain on overcrowded schools. So districts are now getting tough and spending thousands of dollars to investigate cases of boundary hopping.
Last year 3,000 parents at Grosse Pointe (Mich.) Public Schools (www.gpschools.org) signed a petition, and in response the district spent $8,000 to reregister its 9,000 students, and uncovered 40 boundary hoppers. Now the district is spending $14,000 to investigate 102 cases. So far, 56 families have demonstrated legal residency, 26 nonresident students have been removed and 20 are under investigation.
Investigations were less fruitful in Norwalk, which spent $14,000 to uncover fewer than a half dozen nonresidents in its 11,000 student population, says Corda.
Sometimes parents and taxpayers exaggerate boundary hopping claims. When Antioch built a new high school for 3,000 students, residents claimed that the unfamiliar kids were from a neighboring district. A civil grand jury determined the district was doing everything it could to maintain an accurate roster.
The district's two child-welfare staffers now ride public buses to see where students get on and off. Students whose circumstances seem suspicious are asked for proof of residency.
"Most cases end with a home visit, but a few require a private investigation at a cost of $300 to $400 per student," says Burcio.
Burcio estimates that four out of every hundred reported suspicious students are actual boundary hoppers; the majority are legitimate residents.
A few districts, like Reynoldsburg City Schools in Ohio (reynoldsburg.schoolnet.com), are requiring landlord affidavits and oaths of residency and are billing boundary-hopping families up to $120,000 for tuition and legal fees.
Mentoring in Kentucky: District Employees Walk the Walk
The benefits of mentoring are clear and well established. Kids thrive when they can foster a solid relationship with a caring adult. Children matched with mentors are 80 percent more likely to finish high school, and they tend to achieve higher grades, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada.
Kenton County, Ky.
(www.kenton.k12.ky.us), District Superintendent Tim Hanner is well acquainted with the benefits of mentoring. As Piner Elementary School principal, Hanner mentored five students weekly from 1997 to 1999 during his lunch hour. "We focused [our talks] on using their leadership skills in more positive ways," recalls Hanner, as the students were demonstrating the potential to use their leadership qualities in a more disruptive manner.
Last fall, Hanner decided it was time for the entire district to tap into the benefits of mentoring. Rather than soliciting local businesses for volunteers, he looked closer to home and asked district employees to consider spending one hour a week mentoring a child or small group of students. The goal was to attract 18 mentors-one for each district school-but 38 clerks, administrators and bus drivers stepped up to the plate and committed an hour to the program every week.
After teachers and building administrators identify which students can benefit most from mentoring, based on assessments of academic performance and social and emotional needs, the district matches each with a mentor. Mentors focus on anything from academics to social and emotional support, depending on students' needs.
Hanner says that the program is a huge success. Students are building leadership skills and earning better grades. Schools are clamoring for even more mentors, and the employees' willingness to commit to the program has made it easier for principals to ask for business volunteers, notes Hanner.
Four businesses thus far have joined the mentoring program as partners in the new Business Education Success Team. After a business group commits to the program, the district provides training to help new mentors work with children. River Ridge Elementary's BEST partner, First Security Bank, allows two employees to work with two students on learning activities every week.
The program is also growing on the technology front. District employees who are unable to commit to an hour of face-to-face mentoring are exploring e-mentoring, an e-mail based mentoring program.
For many mentors, the biggest surprise has been the program's personal impact on them. "The majority of participants report enhanced job satisfaction. It gets them back to the roots of why they are in this business," says Hanner.
California District Goes Solar
The Pleasanton Unified School District (www.pleasanton.k12.ca.us) in San Francisco signed a 20-year contract in January with Honeywell International-a diversified technology and manufacturing leader serving clients worldwide-for a unique solar project that will supply 20 percent of the district's electricity, the first of its kind for a California school district. Honeywell will install, own and maintain solar panels on seven district buildings and sell back the electricity at a price that will save the district $2.5 million.
The district is also working with the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED)-a nonprofit organization promoting energy awareness and education in schools-to create curriculum that teaches students about energy-saving measures.
"A large part of becoming a more efficient school is educating students and staff about conservation practices that positively affect behaviors," says Bill Radulovich, principal at Walnut Grove Elementary School. "Through the new curriculum and solar technology, we hope to decrease our energy consumption and waste output by 50 percent in the coming years."
Honeywell Building Solutions will install the solar panels and begin providing the district with electricity by October 2007.
CDW-G and Discovery Education to Award Five Wireless Labs
CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G) and Discovery Education, both committed to helping districts provide the best educational environment for their students, are marking the fifth anniversary of their annual "Win a Wireless Lab" sweepstakes by awarding a record of five labs to K12 educators nationwide.
Designed to empower teachers to deliver lessons in exciting new ways and enhance the learning experience through improved student and teacher interaction, the labs, each valued at more than $50,000, include 20 laptop computers, a wireless cart and three access points, educational software and training.
CDW-G and Discovery Education have awarded more than $720,000 in educational technology since 2003 to capture the imagination of teachers and expand their use of technology in the classroom.
A complete list of rules is available online (school.discovery.com/cdwg), and the sweepstakes ends on May 1. Public and private school teachers, school and district technology specialists and administrators are eligible to enter by filling out an online form.
Grant Awarded to Help Curb Obesity in Districts Nationwide
Action for Healthy Kids, a national leader in improving nutrition and physical activity in schools, received a $275,000 grant in January from the Kellogg Corporate Citizenship Fund to strengthen schools' efforts to combat childhood obesity. The funding will bring the knowledge and resources of Action for Healthy Kids Teams to school districts across the nation to help them implement federally mandated local wellness policies during the 2007-2008 school year.
More than 6,000 health professionals, educators, parents, community leaders and administrators serve on Action for Healthy Kids Teams in each state; funding will give teams the opportunity to receive grants ranging from $15,000 to $22,500 to work directly with schools.
In compliance with the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, school districts began implementing local wellness policies at the start of the 2006-2007 school year, which include guidelines for all foods available on campus and goals for nutrition education and physical education. Many schools, however, lack the funding, resources and staff to successfully implement their district's policy, much less foster sustainable and meaningful change. Action for Healthy Kids Teams will use the grant to work towards filling this void.
"We cannot expect schools to carry the burden alone," says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids. "Kellogg's support will allow Action for Healthy Kids Teams to provide the crucial assistance that schools need."
Merger to Create Largest Connected K12 Global Learning Community
In2Books and ePALS Classroom Exchange announced in January that they had merged to form ePALS Inc., combining In2Books' comprehensive Web-based literacy learning program with the ePALS network of 6.5 million students and teachers from 191 countries worldwide. The new combined company now creates and distributes learning programs and services as well as protected collaborative technologies, such as email, blogs and classroom profiles, all designed specifically for K12 school and home markets.
ePALS Inc. is now a subsidiary of the ePALS Foundation and is a for-profit company that owns the technology and platform upon which the In2Books program is based. The ePALS Foundation, on the other hand, is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that works with local civic groups and schools to bring ePALS to under resourced areas.
As the first global K12 collaborative learning and literacy community, ePALS Inc. now focuses specifically on fostering reading, writing and critical thinking skills, and connects teacher-supervised classroom-to-classroom pen pal exchanges and cross-cultural learning projects in more than 120,000 classrooms.
"Literacy across the curriculum, collaboration among peers and between peers and mentors, and the capacity to act with global awareness are important attributes of effective 21st century learning," says Nina Zolt, chief program architect of the combined companies.