Monday, February 22, 2016

Superintendent’s Budget Message

I am excited about the future of Isle of Wight County Public Schools and the future of our children.  We have many dedicated individuals who are leading the way and setting the example as life-long learners.  Administrators, teachers, and staff are innovatively thinking, brainstorming, and researching to provide a 21st century education to our children.  This is a tribute to the dedication and professionalism they demonstrate each day.

The budget presented this year will focus on providing the funds necessary in each category in order to accomplish the School Board’s Strategic Goals. We must solidify the operational budget on the instructional side as well as provide a strong operational budget for facilities and support services.  This will enable us to provide a positive learning environment for our students by proactively maintaining our buildings and support resources.

We are planning to conduct a compensation study during the 2016-2017 school year.  This aligns with the Governor’s 2016-2018 budget that initiates a raise in year two. Once the compensation study is complete, a strategic plan for employee compensation needs to be phased in over a period of time and on a rotational basis in cooperation with the Board of Supervisors.  This will best provide for employees and for school and county officials to plan together to keep our salaries competitive with other divisions.

As we continue to learn with our students, we will be focusing on several new areas this year. The focus will shift from a single score on an SOL test to the skills necessary to be successful lifelong learners.  These skills include collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.  Performance based learning and STEM will be the vehicle in which these skills will be taught on a regular basis.

We are researching a more rigorous reading curriculum in our elementary schools to ensure all children are reading on grade level by third grade. We will be implementing coding as a resource class for all elementary students.  Coding is the second most used language in our country.  Elementary guidance counselors currently used as part of the resource class rotation will be utilized to mentor students and work with the reading initiative.

The secondary schools will focus on creating new learning environments in the media center and throughout the schools such as maker spaces, writing rooms, music studios, and areas to brainstorm and collaborate.  These environments will provide the tools and space for students and teachers to use their creativity in solving problems and providing a benefit to their school and community.

We will also focus on Career and Technical Education.  Conversations will continue with local businesses and industry to provide us the information as far as the technical and soft skills that students will need to be employable after high school. We will use this information to design CTE programs in which students will be ready for employment in local industry upon graduation. We are investigating design and manufacturing, HVAC, electrical, and welding opportunities.  In addition to this, a Career Pathway curriculum will be developed for middle school students to expose them early on to possible careers and college.

Teachers will be exposed to professional development focused on deeper learning in order to provide performance based learning opportunities for students.  Students in turn will be able to apply the knowledge that they have learned in the classroom and solve real world problems in addition to being prepared for the new performance based assessments developed both locally and at the state level.
We are requesting additional funding in this budget in the area of maintenance and transportation.
The funding will help us establish preventive maintenance schedules and a rotation for painting in all of our schools. A line item fund to implement a new rotational purchase of furniture that will keep the school division proactive in providing a positive learning environment for our students.

There is no better way to invest in your community’s future than to support the school budget and support giving students the opportunity to achieve their goals.

Dr. James Thornton
Division Superintendent

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

School Culture and Motivation

My last blog discussed the effects of environment and culture on student motivation for learning. I am sharing the results from my high school focus group meetings with students.  I asked them to share with me their insights into the climate at their school, as well as classroom instruction and the courses available to them.  I appreciated their candor and thoughtful responses. 
I asked them to share their thoughts on being a high school student.  Students mentioned a time in elementary school when they were excited about their learning and eager to share with their parents when asked “So how was your day?” Those same students now dreaded that question. What changed over just a few years for students to feel so negative? They mentioned they thought they would receive more responsibility in decision-making and student choice as they progressed from starting middle school and finishing high school.  The comments included “The restrictions that are put in place squash any creativity.” and “School spirit is dead.”  They stated that they believed high school should be a time to prepare them for life. They said that with the current restrictions that it is difficult to see the connection to life.  “We need more career counseling and information to make good choices about college, the military, and work.”

They were disappointed that too many of their teachers lectured or talked for the majority of the class period. They wanted time to work with each other and collaborate.  “Why put our desks together, if you are not going to let us talk?” Their questions on topics outside of the SOL curriculum were often unanswered or left for another time. The test-driven content tied to SOL tests was not a motivation to them. “We hear every day that this is going to be on your SOL test.”  What they really want to know is, “How does this prepare us for life?” The students realized that this is not the fault of the teachers, but a result of what has been prioritized over the past decade.  Teachers have been told that SOL scores are the most important measure of student success, so that is what they tend to focus on.  They are aware of the tremendous stress placed on their teachers when they feel that one test (SOL) is going to be used to measure their effectiveness. 

The students also commented on their own levels of stress which they attribute to learning in a restrictive environment.  They felt strongly that too much emphasis was placed on grades and they weren’t allowed to experience trial and error, or “failing forward”.  “It’s not about learning anymore, it’s about passing.” “We’re human, we are going to make mistakes and sometimes get a bad grade. That one bad grade can keep me from getting a B.”  “The stress from one bad grade takes the fun out of school.  What about the skills, effort, and time that we put in? Doesn’t that count?”
So how could their high school experience be better?  The students offered several suggestions, including training teachers and students in the uses of technology. General appearance of the school was also important to them and they said the learning environment could be improved by purchasing new furniture, frequently painting and keeping the school clean. They want to see student work on display throughout the school.  They see this in other schools and which only emphasizes the absence of it in their building.  They also wanted to know why school started so early and commented that a later start time like 9 am would work better for high school students.

While the students had significant concerns, they did share positives about their high school experience.  Their concerns and the changes they suggested were very insightful and align nicely with the direction the state and IWCS are headed with performance – based learning opportunities. After my experience with the student focus groups, I immediately saw the benefits of listening to what they had to say.  They students provided valuable suggestions and comments but I don’t think we’ve given them the avenue for communicating these ideas with school and division leaders.  As we move towards a culture with an emphasis on student’s producing beautiful work, with an emphasis on the 4 C’s, I am hopeful that many of the concerns I heard a few weeks ago will just be distant memories.

Friday, February 5, 2016

New Educational Outcomes

What are the skills that matter most in order for our students to be successful at learning, working, and being a good citizen in today’s world?  I have asked this question to many individuals, groups, businesses, and staff since July.  I also asked the School Board during our recent strategic planning session.  Most everyone agrees in the importance of the four C’s: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. 

Throughout my blogs, I have emphasized and described these skills as ones that matter most today. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that we teach the four C’s instead of content knowledge. You cannot teach critical thinking without engaging students in challenging academic content.   In today’s world, students can learn facts about content from many sources other than the classroom teacher which is why it is more important to learn how to critically think and apply that knowledge. I believe we must integrate the 4 C’s every day in every classroom by teaching and assessing students on how to use these skills.

Can our students develop the skills needed to ask new questions, solve new problems, and create new knowledge? We can if we are able to create a new learning environment and culture within our schools in which students are motivated to learn. Motivation is a critical component of learning but it has been damaged by our emphasis on standardized multiple-choice assessments. Motivation is more than thrill factor.  I like to look at motivations at having several components, including grit, perseverance, and responsibility, all of which fall under the larger umbrella of “habits of heart and mind”.

So, is the current environment and culture of our schools diminishing student motivation for learning and how do we know? One way is to talk directly to our students.  With the assistance of Donaghvan Brown, student liaison to the School Board, I have conducted a focus group at Smithfield High School to better understand student motivation, student culture, and proposed new changes in education. I will be conducting a similar focus group at Windsor High School with Noah Smith.  In my next blog, I will share my findings and some of the insightful observations made by our students.

Our goal is to provide educational change that will inspire students to acquire new skills they can apply to any content knowledge throughout their lives, enabling them to be successful in this era of innovation. I hope to find out from the student focus groups just how we are doing with fulfilling that commitment to them.