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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Propane Buses: Environmentally and Financially Responsible

Isle of Wight County Schools recently ventured into a new era of student transportation with the purchase of our first propane powered school bus.  We began researching the possibility of adding propane buses to our fleet this past fall.  In March, a representative from Carter Machinery gave a presentation to our School Board on the benefits of using propane versus diesel buses.  Afterwards, we moved forward with acquiring the first propane bus for IWCS.  Currently, the bus is receiving some light use during this “trial run”.  It is currently being used to transport students to one of our regional programs, on a few field trips and as a substitute bus.  We’ll be investigating the addition of more to the fleet when we purchase replacement buses for next year.

I’m sure some of you are asking “Why propane?”    First, it is a much cleaner fuel than diesel.  As Transportation Coordinator Lee Livingston told me, diesel was never meant to be green.  A lot of money goes in to making a diesel bus run as “clean” as possible.  Propane buses use less oil and don’t require all the sensors and parts needed for a diesel bus to run.  For example, a catalyst in a diesel bus costs about $3,500 to replace, and this part will typically need to be replaced at least twice over the expected 15 year life cycle of a bus.  Plus, you have to factor in the labor involved, not to mention the bus being out of service during this repair.

Second, there are significant fuel rebates and tax credits from the state and federal government associated with using alternative fuels.  This makes the cost for propane fuel less then diesel.  We already have a contract with a local company for the small amount of propane used in our buildings.  With increased usage comes the opportunity to renegotiate our contract for a better overall price, further reducing the cost of propane.

A third benefit is the much quieter ride.  Bus drivers will be able to hear and talk to students without having to shout over the roar of the diesel engine.  This will increase safety on the bus and at loading/unloading zones.  There are other divisions throughout Virginia already using propane buses—Roanoke, Gloucester and Chesterfield are a few examples.  The drivers have compared the switch from diesel to propane as “going from a Pinto to a Cadillac”.  One division noted that the only complaint they received was from a parent whose child was missing the bus because they could no longer hear the roar of the engine as it was coming down the road in the morning. 
Propane buses do cost a little more than a diesel bus—ours was about $9,000 more than its diesel counterpart.  However, the cost differential will be covered by a grant through the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.  Because of the savings in maintenance and fuel, the total cost of ownership for a propane bus compared to diesel should save the division approximately $23,000 over the 15 year life of the vehicle.

Moving to propane buses is an innovative, cost-effective direction for the division. The quieter engine reduces noise on the bus, which allows the driver to focus on the road while being able to better hear what is going on around them.  Students can talk at a normal level and not have to yell over the loud engine.  In addition, the bus complies with all the safety features required of any school bus in Virginia.  Plus, the propane technology will result in savings over the life of the bus.  So keep your eyes open for our new propane bus. You will definitely see it before you hear it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

School Finance 101: The Ins and Outs of the Budget Process

Welcome to a crash course on school finance, specifically the budgeting process.  School budgets are unique creatures and for many people, even those in education, it can be a very difficult process to understand.  Development of a budget starts for us in October as we start to collect information from our schools and departments. All of this information is analyzed to ensure that the budget is a reflection of the strategic goals of the school division.  In December, the Governor releases his budget which then prompts us to start determining the amount of money we will need from our locality to meet the needs of the school.  However, the General Assembly doesn’t make their final recommendations on the budget until March 16th which can alter the Governor’s budget.  That was the case this year.  These changes required us to review our budget and make revisions to our proposed plan.

On Tuesday night, May 10, the Board of Supervisors met for final approval of the county’s budget.  Prior to Tuesday, the Supervisors held several work sessions to gather information in order to make the most informed decision possible.  They analyzed and researched all department expenditures and requests, asking detailed questions along the way.  Several members contacted me, as well as School Board members, throughout the process in order to have a better understanding of our budget.  Because of the diligence and commitment exhibited by the Supervisors and our Board, we received the majority of the funding that was requested.  The Board of Supervisors prioritized requests from the schools and the Sheriff’s Department, all while maintaining no tax increase to the public.
As a Superintendent and as a taxpayer, I am very appreciative that the process was conducted both professionally and thoroughly. The School Board and the Board of Supervisors, as well as county administration, need to be commended for the tireless effort and responsibility exhibited during this very difficult process.

Our school division will slowly begin implementing elements of the 5 C’s, STEM initiatives, and new Career and Technical Education courses, such as nursing, EMT, and engineering.  We will be painting several buildings this summer, while putting a schedule in place for painting the remaining schools by doing a few each year.  We will be providing new learning spaces for children and replacing furniture in 4th grade this year with plans to address other grades annually.  We will have a strong maintenance program and a rotational lease to buy and maintain buses for the future.  The common theme here is “schedule”.  IWCS did not have a formal plan for addressing these needs and, consequently, they were often neglected, especially during tight budget times.  Fortunately, the timetable we have put in place will ensure these needs aren’t overlooked in future years.

We started the budgeting process in October.  It’s now May and we have an approved budget for next year.  There was a lot of work, both behind the scenes and in public, to get us to this point. I would like to extend a big Thank You to all the individuals involved in this process, including parents, community, business leaders, and my staff. 

I hope this has given you some insight into what it takes to eventually have an approved budget.  The time and attention we put into the process allows us to present a budget that accurately reflects the needs of the division.  We owe that to our students and to all the citizens of this county.

Friday, May 6, 2016

In Appreciation of Our Teachers

Teacher Appreciation Week is drawing to a close and I certainly hope it’s been a great week for all the teachers throughout IWCS. I truly appreciate the commitment you show each and every day as you provide a quality education to our students. I’m sure we can all think back to our time in school and the teachers that had a tremendous impact on our life.  In most cases, they hold a special place in our heart because of how they made us feel. Safe, confident, intelligent, and happy are just a few adjectives that come to mind when I think back on my favorite teachers.  Right now, every teacher is, or will be, some child’s favorite teacher, and in many cases the students don’t even know it yet.  They will look back on their time in certain classes and realize just how much their teachers helped to shape their lives.
While it may take the students some time to appreciate what our teachers are doing for them, I am thankful now for several things and I would like to take just a moment to share with our teachers my thoughts:

Dear Teachers,

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  the excellent year that we are having; the high quality of education which you provide; all the dedicated and professional teachers working our schools.

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  having the chance to work with you this year; your cooperation; all the extra effort you have put into making Isle of Wight County Schools such an incredible place to be.

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  being made to feel so welcome during my first year; knowing that you are there and that our students can always depend on you.

Finally, I AM THANKFUL FOR YOU, the teachers, and I offer my deepest gratitude and respect.

I have a video dedicated to all of our teachers.  It highlights many of our classroom super-heroes from all of our schools.  As you watch, you will see teachers in many of their roles, and you’ll even see a few in costume.  They really will do anything for their students.  

Lastly, I hope all of you have a wonderful weekend, and I wish all the Moms a very Happy Mother’s Day. 

Video:  Thank You Teachers

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Windsor 5K: It's not about where you finish

I had a great time last Friday at the Annual Windsor 5K, an event started 13 years ago by Georgie D. Tyler Middle School PE teacher Jeff Hampton. Students from Westside Elementary, Smithfield Middle, Georgie Tyler, and even a small group from Windsor High participated in the event.  This event has evolved quite a bit from the first year when only 40 runners from then Windsor Middle ran the race on the school grounds.  Six or seven years ago, other schools began participating as the race moved to the roads around Windsor High and Middle. The students spend at least six weeks training during their Physical Education class or through before and after school running clubs.

My wife and I have been runners for many years, so I was extremely excited to see a teacher inspire young people to set goals, keep their focus, and compete in a sport in which everyone can be successful and get healthy at the same time.  Most every parent would be thrilled if their child was a superstar athlete or high school valedictorian.  Encouraging students to be competitive can help them develop discipline and commitment.  However, there can be negative consequences if the only benefit the student or adult sees with competing is to always win.   Many of the successful people I’ve met have several things in common. They have a pure love for the activities they are involved in, and have unconditional supporters, such as coaches, parents, siblings, peers and other positive role models. It was clear on Friday that Coach Hampton is one of these unconditional supporters.

I had the privilege of observing one of his classes a few weeks before the 5K. I witnessed young people at all levels pushing themselves and training for the event. Coach Hampton encouraged each student to work hard in order to reach the goal they set for themselves.  I saw all children, regardless of their athletic ability, excited about participating with their peers.  I also saw students supporting each other with words of motivation or even by running together in a buddy system. It is obvious that Mr. Hampton has created an inclusive, positive, learning environment in which all students can reach their potential. 

All of this work definitely paid off on Friday.  The smiling faces, the encouraging cheers, and the relationships built during this special event will not soon be forgotten.  To some, it may have been just a race.  To me, it was the culminating event to a great learning experience that, for some, will inspire a love for running that will last a lifetime.  Thank you to all of the people who assisted with this great event.  A special thank you to the PE teachers in the participating schools who also served as unconditional supporters for their students:  Westside—Mrs. Bradshaw, Mr. Britt; Smithfield Middle—Mrs. Felts, Mrs. Roggie, Mr. Dockery; Georgie Tyler—Ms. Tina Shaul.  Please enjoy a video of the race by clicking on the link below.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Keep Calm and "Hands On"

Recently I had a chance to visit Mrs. Ann Rose Wright’s Pre-Kindergarten class at Hardy Elementary.  She was teaching her students about the life cycle of plants.  She could have shown them pictures of the different stages, or even had them grow seeds in cups in the classroom, but she carried the lesson a step further.  She took a class of four and five year olds outside to the raised garden beds to plant their seeds.  They actually turned this in to an experiment.  Some of the seeds they planted had been soaked in water while others had not.  Soon they will see if water has any affect on the growth of the seeds.  They can watch the seeds develop into mature plants, with leaves and flowers.  While the students were planting the seeds, they got their hands dirty and there may have been an incident of some thrown dirt.  Instead of stopping the experiment and sending everyone inside, Mrs. Wright dealt with the situation and the students continued with planting seeds.  I applaud Mrs. Wright for having the courage to provide these opportunities for her young students.  Instead of restricting the environment because a student may make a poor choice, she anticipates what might happen and handles the behavior accordingly.  She doesn’t eliminate these experiences for her students.    

I asked Mrs. Lynn Briggs, Director of Communications, to put together a video of Mrs. Wright in action with her class.  Of course, she was doing an experiment with her students related to their study of the Arctic.  Students were learning about the types of animals found in the Arctic and their adaptations for surviving in the cold weather.  They learned about blubber and how it helps to keep the animals warm.  Mrs. Wright could have just told them that blubber insulates animals and moved on to something else.  Instead, she turned the lesson into an experiment.  Each student got to place their hand into a bucket of ice water.  Then she showed them the “blubber” they were going to put their hand in before placing it back in the water.  First, she had them predict what the temperature would be when they put their hand back in the water—cold or warm.  Then each child got to place their hand in a glove surrounded by shortening in a plastic bag.  This had the potential to be a very messy activity, and there was some mess, but she knew that ahead of time.  Mrs. Wright also knew how learning this lesson through a hands-on experiment would be more meaningful than just being told the function of blubber.  

As we move forward toward project based learning, I’ve heard more questions about how this will look at the elementary level than middle and high school.  This is what it will look like.  I commend Mrs. Wright for taking a risk by introducing hands-on activities with her Pre-Kindergarten students.  I appreciate her courage for taking risks with her students and realizing that learning is more than what is found in a book.  I hope you will watch the video below that shows how our youngest students benefit from an environment that encourages them to use their brains, and their hands, for learning.