Thursday, October 13, 2016

Vision and Mission for Our Schools

Our vision for Isle of Wight County Schools is to create a learning environment that will enable every child to discover his or her unique gifts and talents. Our mission as educators is to enhance and expand on each child’s gifts and talents to ensure every child is college, career, and life ready. This is simple and to the point. Somehow legislators, administrators, and teachers over the last 20 years seemed to have lost their way. If you ask most of these well intentioned groups of people, they will probably tell you the purpose of education is to teach students cognitive and social skills, prepare students to be contributing citizens, build character, assist students in self-discovery, inspire students and prepare students for productive careers.  If we look closely in most schools, do the classroom experiences match the purpose? Most schools struggle with getting past the teaching of cognitive skills.

Let’s discuss why this is happening and whether can we make a change here in Isle of Wight. The cognitive skills are defined by the Standards of Learning and accessed by the SOL tests. Therefore, we understand how to do this and how to measure the progress. When we start to address the other areas such as building character and self-discovery, we start asking ourselves, “How do we do that, and how do we know if we are making progress?” This is why we frequently have these goals in our priorities but we often do not take the time to incorporate them into our curriculum and common language.

How will we ensure that every child has the opportunity to discover his or her unique gifts or talents? The answer is: it has to become more than a slogan; it has to become integral to the culture in our schools. Students need time to explore and discover. For this to happen, schools have to look at their practices that are in direct conflict with self-discovery for students. Far too often school divisions articulate a vision for their schools, but, when the rubber hits the road, the way students are taught and evaluated demonstrates a priority to meticulously cover the specified content in a skill and drill type format. This leaves no room for self-discovery, communication skills, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and citizenship.

We will continue to provide training for teachers, administrators, and support staff to prepare them for opening new doors for our students. Teachers will be free to teach the Standards of Learning in innovative ways that will give students an opportunity to explore, discover, and create. I was inspired this summer by our staff’s commitment to improve instruction for our students during the training sessions held on deeper learning. After walking through all of our schools these first few weeks, I am more convinced that Isle of Wight County Schools will fulfill our promise to our students. Our teachers’ willingness to take risks and fail is a great model for our students.  If we do not let our students take risks, explore, and fail, then they will not discover who they are or how far they can go.  As we journey down this path, please get involved and ask questions.  We are definitely stronger when we all collaborate and communicate with each other.

Every Child, Every Day.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Safety of our Students and Staff is no Laughing Matter

There is a very disturbing trend going around through social media that is affecting schools across the country.  Individuals posing as clowns are making threats and warning of attacks on schools.  Unfortunately, Isle of Wight County is not immune to this sick behavior. 

Please know that we take all threats seriously and will continue to work closely with local law enforcement to examine any that mention harming students or staff.  Even though the Sheriff’s Department has not deemed any of these online statements as credible, we will continue to follow our safety procedures and protocols to ensure your children are protected while they are in our care.  We also appreciate those parents and students who have shared information with us so it can be investigated thoroughly. 

I encourage parents to have conversations with their children about the importance of reporting to an adult any situation that jeopardize student safety.  We will continue to share information with families and staff through our Connect 5 Alert system, as well as other outlets, such as our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. 
I sincerely hope this disturbing trend will end soon.  Regardless, we will continue stay vigilant with our safety procedures in all of our schools.  If you have any questions about the security measures in your child’s school, please contact the building principal.  You can also contact my office if you need more information. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Supporting Struggling Learners

I am pleased to share that Isle of Wight County Schools is undertaking a three-year effort to improve the effectiveness and equity of services for supporting struggling students both with and without disabilities.
 While we are proud of the quality of services provided to struggling students and the hard work of our staff who help all children achieve at high levels, ever-higher expectations require us to look for ways to further increase student learning and improve the way we deliver services to our students. The division has engaged the District Management Council, a Boston based organization, to assist with this project.

 This systematic study will examine our current regular and special education services, programs, procedures, and staffing for serving struggling students through the use of quantitative (both in-division and benchmark division information) and qualitative data gathering (using focus groups, stakeholder interviews and classroom observations). The review will also help the division understand how various categories of staff use their time as they serve struggling students. With this information, the division will be able to make thoughtful and informed decisions to ensure all of our students receive appropriate support. Later in the process, DMC will help codify practices that will best serve students in the division as well as help with the development of staffing guidelines in accordance with these practices.

The result should be a better picture of what is working well in the division, a better understanding of what the appropriate level of staff and services are, and overall improved delivery of services to struggling students and parents, and better utilization of division resources.

 We are excited to be undertaking this study, and appreciate your support in this process. I will be sure to keep you updated as the project achieves key milestones. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions. For more information contact: Mr. Thomas Chelgren at

Jim Thornton, Ed.D.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

First Day of School - An Expedition of Learning

I spent today on an expedition to all five of our elementary schools! I started at Carrollton early this morning as the students and parents came flooding through the front doors, eager to find their rooms and get started on a new year full of high expectations. I was able to watch students unload from the buses with drivers, teachers, and volunteers helping to make the start of the new year a positive one for all the children.

Hardy Elementary, Windsor Elementary, and Westside Elementary looked welcoming and fresh thanks to summer painting throughout the school and classrooms. Other buildings will get a facelift in the near future. 

Lunch at Carrsville Elementary was one of the highlights of my day. My taco lunch was hot and tasty and I learned a great deal of information from my new first grade lunch buddies. I then enjoyed some fun time on the playground.

Teachers at all the schools were already implementing strategies that they learned during summer professional development.  For example, Windsor Elementary students worked on the 5 C’s—Creativity, Collaboration, Citizenship, Critical Thinking and Communication. One teacher had a great collaborative activity where students had to describe what each of the 5 C’s looked like and sounded like.  Students were brainstorming and trying to come up with creative ways to define the 5 C’s.

Throughout the day, I saw many classrooms that have evolved into inviting learning environments. New furniture for fourth grade, including flexible seating, was a big hit with the teachers and students.  I’ve included a picture of Ms. Reed’s unique room which allows for a comfortable spaces and areas for students to work.

These are just a few of the wonderful things I experienced today in my travels. We have so many creative teachers!

Have a great week and I’ll share more with you soon.        

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gearing Up for Deeper Learning: Convocation 2016

Welcome to the start of a new school year.  In a few days, students will return to classrooms and buildings where they will be greeted by several changes.  We are placing a focus on deeper learning throughout Isle of Wight County Schools, and moving away from teaching that is driven by SOL testing.  Our students will participate in more project-based learning opportunities with a focus on the five C’s:  collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and citizenship.  These are the skills our students will need in order to be college, career and life ready.  

We are implementing a new reading program in Kindergarten through 2nd grade. Our goal is to have all third graders reading on grade level by 2020.  We have implemented Coding as a resource class in our elementary schools.  The middle and high schools have video and music studios for students to use for developing and showcasing their projects.  The high schools have new or expanded programs in Career and Technical Education such as Nursing and Manufacturing. Students will use laser cutters and 3D printers to bring their ideas to life.  These changes all focus on the needs of our students and preparing them to be successful in the real world.

Many teachers voluntarily gave up 8 days of their summer vacation to participate in professional development on project based learning.  They are eager to try new ideas to provide students with more opportunities for deeper learning. We need to keep in mind that many of us will struggle to move outside of our comfort zone.  Even though we may dislike the emphasis on determining student success through a standardized multiple-choice test, it’s what we know.  It’s what we’ve known for two decades.  Instructional Coaches will be assigned to each school to help support our teaching staff in this transition.

At this year’s Convocation, our Central Office team put on a skit that took us a little out of our comfort zone.  It was based on the TV show Hee Haw but with an Isle of Wight County twist.  (You can see a video of the skit below.)  One of the songs on our skit had a chorus about gloom, despair and agony.  I shared with the staff that moving to project based learning doesn’t have to be this way.  I know that it will be a journey that will take several years to implement.  It will also require significant training and support for our administration and teachers, but it is the right thing to do for our students.  A video of my remarks to the teachers and staff at Convocation can be found below.

I hope you will follow my blog throughout the year as I share updates on the exciting activities going on in our classrooms and the beautiful work being produced by our students.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Science of Ice Cream: A Visit to Mrs. Littlefield's Class at Windsor Elementary

Mrs. Elizabeth Littlefield is a 5th grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School.  I recently had a chance to visit her classroom and saw her students working in groups on math skills.  They were in small groups, spread throughout the classroom, and using manipulatives to focus on solving math problems.  Everyone in the classroom was sitting on the floor as they collaborated on the assignment.  Yes, I said everyone.  Over in one corner of the classroom I found Mrs. Littlefield crouched down on the floor herself while she was working with her students.  I love to see teachers in classrooms where there is no boundary, real or implied, between the teacher’s space and the students’ space.  It conveys to the students that the approach to learning is really going to be a team effort.  

I asked Mrs. Lynn Briggs to stop by and get some video of Mrs. Littlefield’s class so I could give you a glimpse into her classroom.  On the day of Mrs. Briggs’ visit, the class was learning the steps in scientific investigation.  That includes creating a hypothesis, learning dependent and independent variables, collecting data and interpreting results.   Like most teachers, Mrs. Littlefield had the students do an experiment to learn about scientific method.  But not just any experiment.   The students got to make ice cream!  They placed milk in a plastic bag that they sealed.  Then that bag went into another bag with ice.  Each member of the group had different amounts of salt in their bag.  After shaking the bag for different lengths of time, they measured the temperature of the ice-salt combination.  The bags with more salt got colder and actually produced a soft-serve ice cream.  Once the experiment was over, Mrs. Littlefield let all the students get more salt so everyone could end up with some ice cream.  

Throughout the experiment, Mrs. Littlefield was always on the move, circulating about the room and checking-in with each group.  She answered questions and provided guidance to the students as they moved through the steps of the experiment.  It was obvious that the students had collaborated in small groups many times throughout the year.  Everyone was engaged and on task.  

I applaud Mrs. Littlefield for not just covering the standards, but for adapting her lesson to make it more meaningful and fun for the students.  She definitely focused on the C’s of Creativity and Collaboration.   I think sometimes we forget that learning can be fun.  It’s often those types of activities where the students don’t even realize they are “learning” until the assignment is over.  And how neat to enjoy some homemade ice cream as a result. See for yourself in the video below.

The Science of Ice Cream