Sunday, August 15, 2010

Economy's Impact on Schools

Families are dealing with the impact of job loss, increased poverty and hunger, reduced access to health care and other social services and greater instability in the family unit. The long-term impact on schools is uncertain but it is clear that schools play a vital role in supporting students and their families during these challenging times.

One of my graduate students recently shared a link that tells an absolutely compelling story about the impact of the the recession---

As you prepare for the coming school year I encourage each of you to work with your staff to develop a plan for supporting your students and their families. The evidence is clear about the link between regular meals and schooling, between access to health and dental care and school success.

In North Carolina I met an elementary principal who worked with her food service staff to provide larger portions of food on Fridays and Mondays knowing that many of her students had little to eat on week-ends. A Michigan principal made a list of free medical and dental clinics available for parents. In Oregon a community organized its churches so that a free meal was available every night of the week. Another North Carolina principal got towels and small bars of soap from local hotels so that students could take showers. A third principal kept a supply of t-shirts donated by local businesses available for student use.

Click on the link and watch the impact of the recession on our country. Then work with your school community to provide help in whatever way you can. I'd enjoy hearing from you about the ways your school supports your students and their families.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Solving Tough Scheduling Dilemmas

Last year I completed a project at Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan. Faced with declining resources a group of teachers, administrators and parents were asked to resolve a perennial middle school problem---how to reduce the total number of minutes of planning time so that distinct individual and team plan times did not exist, and at the same time, continue their exemplary interdisciplinary teaming model.

It was a tough problem with serious implications for both teacher workload and the student day. However, people of good will find a way to persevere and meet the challenge.

I worked with the group to agree upon norms of collaboration, to review the research, to identify priorities, and to develop several alternatives. Balancing competing priorities proved to be the most difficult task.

Over time agreement emerged on a strategy. The length of the school day remained the same but the day consisted of six rather than seven classes. Each class was approximately 75 minutes long. Longer classes provided teachers with additional instructional time, particularly important in language arts and math. Teams continued to be part of the program at each grade level.

Teachers have one daily planning period of 75 minutes (375 minutes weekly). That provides 250 minutes for individual planning and an additional 125 minutes for team planning.

A unique feature of the schedule was addition of a seminar period at the beginning of the day. This period will include several interest-based electives, time for remediation, and allow scheduling of some cross-grade elective classes.

Most importantly, the group reached consensus on the model. Striving for consensus was a powerful indicator of the goodwill everyone brought to the discussion. Consensus almost always assures a successful implementation of any recommendation.

Royal Oak continues to struggle with declining resources and they continue to search for a way to balance their collective commitment to a high quality education with the financial reality faced by the district.

My book Scheduling to Improve Student Learning offers other tips on dealing with complex and contentious scheduling issues. It is available from the National Middle School Association.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

School Improvement in Small Schools

Small schools, particularly in rural communities, face real challenges to provide their students with the educational opportunities available in larger settings. For more than eight years the Union Pacific Foundation has funded a program focused on improving leadership in high schools in its service area. The railroad serves the vast western part of the country generally from the Mississippi River west.

While many schools are in urban areas like Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Portland, Houston or San Antonio, many others are located in small rural communities along UP rail lines.

West Desert High School is one of those schools. Located in Trout Creek, UT, in the middle of the Great Salt desert several hours from Salt Lake City, West Desert has fewer than thirty students in grades 7-12. Principal Ed Adler described the school as about an hour after the end of the blacktop. Despite its remote location and small size, the staff at West Desert is committed to being the best. It was recently recognized as the highest performing public high school in Utah.

The curriculum is unique in design but meets all of Utah’s curricular requirements. The daily math class includes every student and everyone studies the same subject. One year it may be Algebra, the next Algebra II or Geometry. At West Desert they’ve discovered the power of students working together, regardless of age, to master the content. Similarly, the science program includes only one subject each year. They’ve set aside the age and grade parameters that are taken for granted in many schools.

West Desert is a wonderful example of the power of a principal and teachers working creatively to assure that their students have a quality program. If you ever want to visit Great Salt Desert, you’d be very welcome to visit the high school.