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District Administration, October 2015

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Cover Story

Environmental education is not just a walk in the woods anymore. It’s a project-based walk in the woods with an iPad. And the learning goals span the curriculum, from STEM to social studies to language arts.

Features

Some districts can’t find music teachers while others struggle to buy instruments. Many administrators must cut music classes to prepare students for testing. Still, schools large and small have kept the music playing with innovative grants, online fundraising and by scouring their budgets for any available resources.

School administrators across the country are turning to portable panic buttons, cloud-based crisis management systems and other technology in the search for new ways to keep students and staff safe. The price tag can run from a few thousand dollars to well into six figures, but administrators say the cost is worth it.

Districts are getting creative in how they address the need to rein in costs and still provide employees with good benefits. They can’t resolve some issues, such as the definition of a full-time employee (the Affordable Care Act uses 30 hours). But unconventional thinking is yielding ideas that other districts can learn from.

Some say that for principals, every day is their first day on the job. Alongside day-to-day building management issues such as hiring teachers, overseeing finances and student discipline, principals now guide teachers through new state standards and testing.

Environmental education is not just a walk in the woods anymore. It’s a project-based walk in the woods with an iPad. And the learning goals span the curriculum, from STEM to social studies to language arts.

District CIO

From hurricanes to software viruses to accidental keystrokes, many dangers threaten to corrupt school district data or impede access to it. To prevent loss of critical information, districts back up data routinely, on location and off-site. New devices and lower-priced cloud offerings mean districts no longer have to trade access for cost.

Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system arrived in late July free, for one year, to schools and other customers running copies of Windows 7 or later. By the end of August, it had been installed on 75 million devices worldwide.

Windows 10 joins an ever-changing mix of Apple, Android and Microsoft devices and operating systems found in U.S. school districts.

Opinion

Building a strong, empowered community is at the heart of any successful education institution and is transformative in the lives of students, educators and parents.

While teachers and students are key participants in achieving academic success, parents are the glue that holds everything together. Many parents in our communities work multiple jobs, with irregular schedules, making it challenging for even the best-intentioned parents to stay involved with their child’s academics.

Following a change in leadership in the Puyallup School District during the summer of 2012, we committed to align the work of the district with professional learning for leaders and staff to serve each student.

Working with the board of directors, “Improvement of Instruction, Student Growth and Achievement” became the central focus of the district, supported by three commitments.

Making public education more accountable has for years been the solemn pledge of government officials, including the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Yet that same level of accountability and transparency doesn’t seem to apply to the fastest growing sector of K12 education—charter schools.

Solutions

When Sheila M. Harrity became superintendent-director of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School District—better known as Monty Tech—she hit the ground running, transforming programs and searching out partnerships to ensure her students find good work right out of school or attend college.

Briefings

School gardens used for instruction are on the rise nationwide, and with them, student engagement and test scores, according to a recent study.

The nonprofit REAL School Gardens works with corporations to build outdoor classrooms at low-income schools. The gardens include 150 square feet of vegetable beds, perennial and herb beds, rainwater collection systems, composting bins, earth science stations, and animal habitats.

Millions of youth are disproportionately affected by health problems that impair their motivation and ability to learn, according to the August Education Commission of the States report, “Heath barriers to learning and the education opportunity gap.”

Schools can play a central role in identifying unmet student health needs, and connecting students to community health services, the report states.

The accompanying graphics shows some major health barriers to learning.

Despite fewer unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America, many U.S. K12 schools still struggle to adapt to the challenges of educating this diverse set of immigrant students.

During the 2014 fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security reported that 57,496 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2015, the number dropped to fewer than 18,000.

One central Virginia high school replaced hundreds of lockers with device charging stations this fall to bolster its 1-to-1 program.

A new curriculum released by the USDA teaches middle school students about the most dangerous invasive species threatening the nation’s trees, plants and crops.

Available this fall, “Hungry Pests Invade Middle School” is the first curriculum created by the USDA that focuses on all 18 species, including the khapra beetle, the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Asian longhorned beetle.

Emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries in adolescents have risen significantly since 2009, according to a study in July Pediatrics. Schools looking to curb this behavior have turned to new mental health programs that focus on navigating stress and emotional regulation.

A physical education program that brings commercial-grade fitness equipment to under-resourced schools—along with a curriculum based on boosting confidence and fun—dramatically increases students’ performance on California’s standardized physical fitness test, according to a UCLA study titled “Targeting the Body and the Mind: Evaluation of a P.E. Curriculum Intervention for Adolescents.”

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott was appointed by the state in August to lead a team studying the troubled East Ramapo Central School District in New York. Last fall, a state investigation found that the district’s school board members diverted money from public schools to children attending private religious institutions, leaving the district in financial trouble.

Walcott’s team will study the district’s operations and offer recommendations to the school board.

Testing companies find themselves competing on a tougher playing field for state assessment contracts after a rocky first round of Common Core exams spurred new expectations from state and district education leaders.

In the past year, Pearson has lost testing contracts in Florida (to American Institutes for Research, or AIR), Texas (to Educational Testing Service, or ETS), Ohio (to AIR), and, most recently, New York (to Questar Assessment Inc.), according to each state’s department of education.

Combating a $1.1 billion deficit, Chicago Public Schools’ new budget proposal phases out district pension contributions for central office, regional and non-union support staff. The district says the change will save about $11 million annually once fully implemented in 2018.

A state-mandated $676 million pension contribution accounts for a large chunk of the deficit, district officials say. Unlike most other districts in Illinois, Chicago and its local taxpayers are required to pay 7 percent of the 9 percent pension contribution for all employees.

Departments

Education professor Cathy Vatterott says that grades have come to reflect student compliance more than student learning and engagement. In her new book, Rethinking Grading, she advocates for a standards-based approach that more accurately demonstrates learning through mastery.

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

Viking

Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader on creativity and human potential, proposes a transformation of the nation’s schools from an outmoded industrial system to a highly personalized, organic model.