What do we really stand for?

April 22, 2014

In my remaining few months as superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools perhaps I can be a bit bolder than I’ve been in the past. What is weighing heavily on my mind in recent days is a continued commitment to the Bridge to Excellence (BtE) plan – a plan developed with tremendous input and passion from our staff and community just one year ago. When I first arrived in Stillwater one of the things I heard over and over was the need for a vision – a clear plan. I also heard from community members that a levy request would only be supported if it included a bold change for our schools, something new and exciting. With this input, my team and I moved forward to lead a process to develop both of these goals.

We knew that this plan would require a new way of thinking, a willingness to use resources differently, and the abandonment of things we’ve done in the past to make way for new solutions and ideas for the future. The last few months have been the first test of this new vision. I say this because even though we have moved forward with our promises, we are being challenged and tested by those most impacted by the changes.

Whether we like change or not, our students need to develop an entirely new skill set for our rapidly changing world. Those of us with school-aged children see this every day. Our kids must be able to produce knowledge, solve complex problems and collaborate in a world where geography, language and communication are no longer hurdles. They must be able to compete not just with their neighbors for jobs, but also with individuals from across the globe. The skills that made our country great in the past –such as curiosity, creativity and ingenuity - are coming to the forefront again today. And with all of the focus on technology and social networking, there is a renewed need to connect with others, give back to our community and provide service to others. This is what BtE is all about – fostering that curious spirit within our students to continue learning, seeking answers, and solving complex problems.

The learning happening in classrooms across the district is changing as we begin implementing this plan to prepare our students for the 21st century. But the conversation has become blurred. I’ve heard complaints about adding art, classroom technology and instructional coaches – core components of BtE. To be fair, much of this push back has been because of budgetary challenges that are impacting class sizes in a few classrooms - something we are diligently working to address before the start of next school year.

What’s been lost in recent conversation is the intent behind these bold changes. Adding art is really about changing our elementary day and offering students more opportunities to be creative and curious as they develop the skills needed for our new world. And adding instructional coaches is about providing support and hands-on training to our teachers to make them more effective – regardless of the number or the vast differences of the students they serve. Instead of removing them from the classroom for workshops, or providing infrequent training throughout the school year, coaches can work with teachers where they are to address the wide range of student needs that we see today. This is what best practice says we need to do, and research shows significant gains in student achievement as a result. Nevertheless, we are experiencing some discourse, which if we hold true to our vision is likely just the start of many such disagreements. 

When we lose focus it’s easy to point blame and cling to what we know. But to provide our students with the best opportunities in a time of continued resource challenges will require us to do things differently and be courageous. Difficult decisions need to be made. Other districts have made similar transitions by reconsidering the way in which they teach their students. Things like class size, long held sacred here, have been increased in other districts where the focus has shifted to teacher development and student opportunities. Although any teacher will tell you it is easier to personalize learning and build connections with fewer students, the research regarding class size impact on student achievement is inconclusive. I venture to guess that many of us have been in small classes and still had a terrible experience, and in larger classes where we had a great experience.  In these situations class size did not matter, but the quality of the teacher did. Our children deserve great teachers – teachers who are supported and have the skills necessary to help students succeed. This is why our BtE plan places a premium on putting the very best teachers in front of our students every day.

“Success is never final and failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” The vision has been set. My hope is that we all find the courage to cling to it through this time of uneasy transition – now and in the near future - to emerge stronger than ever before. If we do not, what will the future look like for our schools and students?