Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Memorable Moments & Momentous Occasions for Norris District

As a final hurrah to 2012, I invite you to reflect with me on some of the most substantial accomplishments of your Norris School District that occurred from January through December, 2012.  These are things that may have escaped your attention but are clearly worthy of notice and the acclamation of our team members and constituents. I believe that these are the sort of things that help to foster an environment where teachers can continue to teach masterfully and students' opportunities to learn are maximized.  Norris has an excellent achievement profile and a faculty recognized for its excellence. In the annotated list below, I am focusing on district-level operational and infrastructure or policy and organizational-level changes I believe help to sustain such a culture.

Some Top 2012 Norris District Accomplishments - Gratitude to others for a job well done! 

  • It all starts with an incredible Board of Education that steers and guides all policy matters and provides careful oversight on district-level decision making. Your Norris Board earned another consecutive annual Outstanding Board Award from the Nebraska Association of School Boards.  Board members from Wards 1, 3, & 5 (Kruger, Glenn & Grosshans) were each up for reelection in November and each prevailed with at or over 99% of votes.  The stability in leadership and careful stewardship of the district remains a key factor in Norris' excellence.  You can view the rigorous criteria for Outstanding Board Status here (scroll to the bottom).
  • In March, district voters overwhelmingly passed the largest bond issue in the history of the district, allocating $14 million for a new 3-4-5 Intermediate school and high school renovation.  The new school will open in the fall of 2013 and increases our growing district's capacity by another 600 students with the provision of another 13 acres of developed campus and 65,000 square feet of full service educational facility. Thank you, patrons!
  • The district's bonds rating was upgraded to AA3 by Moody's, based on the district's healthy financial operations and economic outlook.
  • Norris won over 50K in an Early Childhood Education grant to expand pre-school services by enlarging identification criteria for preschool eligibility; the grant has allowed us to serve a record-number of preschoolers, hire additional staff, and ensure we are providing excellent early interventions for pre-school aged students to ensure these future Norris k-12ers thrive!
  • In August, after over 6 months of work and 8 months of planning and development, the district unveiled a new web presence, switching from the old (no longer maintained) FrontPage platform to Drupal, an effort that was spearheaded by Norris webmaster Andrew Carlson.  The new website has been rightfully acclaimed for its visual pop and relative ease of navigation for users.
  • Healthier US Schools Challenge Competition winner: In November, the district received official confirmation of earning HUSCC award status, (to date less than 10% of Nebraska districts have earned this distinction), taking bronze for its commitment to Coordinated School Health and meeting rigorous new federal school lunch program regulations.
  • The district capitalized on the liquidation of assets from the defunct UNO football program (The Mavs' loss was the Titans' gain) and added permanent west stadium seating in summer, 2012, expanding Titans Stadium capacity by 1,200 with the timely assistance of district partners Hausmann Construction and Gana Trucking.
  • The Board of Education appointed an ad hoc committee of Board members Craig Gana, Jim Craig, and Jim Kruger on athletic facilities development and worked with district design partners to develop a strategic plan for future facilities needs to address comparability with cohort Class B schools and help sustain Norris' tradition of competitive excellence by ensuring infrastructure development in this area.
  • The Board of Education formed an interlocal agreement with Lancaster County and enlisted a traffic study by Iteris consultants to ensure further paving of west Princeton Road and a traffic flow that will serve the new Intermediate school and district busing safely and efficiently for years to come.
  • The Transportation department acquired two new buses and a used one on standard regulatory-approved fleet rotation, and said goodbye to the analog era with the move to digital frequency radios and the adoption of GPS tracking for all routes, allowing constant real-time oversight from Transportation HQ by Gaylen, Frank, and Bridget.  The added safety and communication benefits are outstanding.
  • The district hosted Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman"The Commish" Dr. Roger Breed, and Education Committee Chair Senator Greg Adams for a forum this fall to discuss the Norris district's promising programs and practices.  Several Norris Board members, admin, teachers, and parent volunteers formed the special stakeholder group to speak with our state's leading policymakers. 

I am certain there is much omitted from what I could have placed above; it is by no means intended to be an all-encompassing list.  But I am equally confident that I've identified some of the more substantial occurrences in what you'll recognize as tremendous achievements for the Norris District - and some you may have forgotten about until reminded. It is my fond hope that all of us stakeholders in the Norris District (students, staff, parents, and patrons) take a moment as the year winds down to reflect, recognize and celebrate with one another a great year for your Titans.  It is wonderful to be a part of something that transcends the individual and contributes to the success of our youths and the welfare of our broader Norris community. Thanks for everything you do!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What a Chef knows about School Change

...he also happens to be the Obamas' Assistant Chef, and a very eloquent one! 

Check out these inspiring session notes and quotes from Sam Kass, a Policy Advisor at The White House.  And, oh yeah, Asistant Chef for The Obamas! He made these comments at the GenYouth summit yesterday, talking about the importance of, anong other things, school-based initiatives to promote student health,  and I was fortunate enough to hear him in person.  I found him articulate, passionate, and inspiring: 

The right information is actionable; it can be translated into real life. 

We change course or we prepare to live with devastating numbers that indicate poor quality lives: 1/3 of our kids today could become diabetics. 

We must change now because over 20% of health costs already are preventable obesity-related ones.

We change now because every General tells us that it's already our biggest national security risk because poor health due to obesity is the number one reason why we have to turn people away from military service. 

Kass's Keys to change:

Universal access: if it's good, make sure all kids can get it 

Age-appropriate activities: do what's right developmentally 

Right amount and duration: Make sure we do justice to it 

Have to make it fun: that's not as easy as it sounds

Have to provide training and knowledge for teachers and coaches

Partner with local businesses and organizations 

We must use positive reinforcement, and do so in small, meaningful ways

We must take action. None of this matters if it is not put into action. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Norris FFA Learning Lab Field Day 2012

To me, more than anything, this day symbolizes the power of partnership and the importance of providing a relevant and engaging learning experience for our students.  We could not achieve this without the support of the reps who are here tonight and without the vision of our Board of Education and the FFA Alumni group and Farm Committee to make all this happen. 

The Norris FFA Learning Lab is one of a kind.  It is unique.  It puts property that belongs to our growing district for future development into good use as an active farm operation from which our students learn practical lessons in agronomy and the real life economics of farm management.  So, our students are the immediate beneficiaries of this project.  But more than that, the partnership serves a higher purpose.  The FFA Alum, the parents who volunteer time and resources to make this project happen, exemplify servant leadership.  The revenue goes from the FFA Farm Committee overseeing this operation back to Norris graduates who qualify on a needs basis for the SCC Learn To Dream program.  We’ll have a participant this fall who is a child of immigrant parents, the first in his family to go on to postsecondary level.  And additional dollars from the project provide added value to our existing programs, such as a 3-D printer that can create an actual design prototype for kids in our graphic design and CAD classes. 

I want to share something with you tonight: We just hosted the three leading policymakers in the state out here a couple weeks ago on the 17th.  The Commissioner of Education, the outgoing chair of the legislature’s education committee Senator Adams, and our Governor came to us.  They came to us equipped with the data.  They knew Norris has one of the highest annual ACT averages in the state, one of the highest graduation rates, and that our district is near the very top year in and year out in student achievement based on state assessments.  Yet we are also one of the most efficient economically on a per pupil basis.  And they want to know how we’re doing that because they’d like to see it done elsewhere. To me, it’s not a mystery.  Look around, you’re looking at the reasons for the district’s success -- just take a look at one another – it’s an all-in commitment from kids, parents, and community partners that enhances what those of us on staff are able to do.  And because of courses in the agriculture curriculum, our students are able to better apply the concepts they are taught in reading, math, science and economics. That is reflected in their performances on state assessments.

I want to acknowledge something else:  As a school district, we rely on the support of our farmers and the ag community.  Your commitment back to the district has helped provide us with the ability to build that school to the northwest and expand our Ag and IT areas in the High School.  Thank you for that. 

I want to recognize Doug Malone and Dr. Kristyn Harms, two of the finest teachers I’ve had the pleasure to work with and they are advisers for one of the very best FFA chapters in the nation - and if you're skeptical of that, I'm ready to throw down the gauntlet and challenge you right now because we have the hardware to prove it!

I want to commend and introduce the following:

*To a Norris School Board member and district FFA Learning Lab partner: a guy who is relentlessly optimistic because he is driven by one thing as a Board member, that is that every kid experience the kind of success he had as an FFA leader while a student here at Norris.  Mr. Craig Gana – please give him a hand.

*Our Board President is here tonight with her husband, Gary.  She provides great leadership and vision for our district and understands the need for us to manage efficiently and produce great yields in student learning year in and year out – Mrs. Patty Bentzinger.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The eternally elusive mission: Thoughts for the new crew of Norris teachers

Welcome, teachers! Norris is a special place, and today marks the formal start of your employment with our school district.  The Jedi-mind trick you have to master, though, is the realization that this district will only remain special if you endeavor to make it so.  You have to perpetuate a legacy of great instruction because we have brought you in to replace people who established and sustained that over many years – or we brought you in to meet the growth needs of a burgeoning student population.  We need you at your best. We don't want you to settle in and settle for average outcomes from yourself or mere proficiency from your students.  Strive for more.  It is the commitment of classroom teachers and the combination of compassionate care for every learner coupled with rigorous academic expectations you uphold that helps us realize our mission.

You should realize – you must realize - that the process starts with selection and you are not here by accident.  We do not make arbitrary hiring decisions.  We have a data-informed decision-making process for our teacher applicants.  We know the characteristics we are seeking.  Teachers here must possess a dualistic mindset that is equal parts content knowledge and a love of learning combined with an unwavering compassion for the individual learner.  Either of these in isolation is not enough.  A teacher with content expertise who does not fundamentally care about the individual student is unable to build relationships that support learning.  A teacher who is compassionate and caring about children but fails to create a rigorous academic environment is actually doing kids a disservice and will never reach the outcomes we expect. 

We are very fortunate to be blessed with an abundant applicant field from which to select our candidates.  Some of that is geographical proximity to Lincoln and some of it is that this is simply a great place to work and people know it.  So we have high teacher retention, low teacher turnover, and that fosters the kind of outcomes we want because it helps to establish a common language for instruction and a lot of experiential wisdom.  Wisdom I invite you to lean upon and draw from as you reach out to your new colleagues in the coming weeks and months.  We do vet our teacher applicants very carefully. I am not saying we subject applicants to the same level of scrutiny as an FBI background check, but we do make sure that we have sufficient screeners in place to be able to verify that you possess the fundamental characteristics of a quality educator: that you have yourself a zeal and a passion for learning and that you are possessed with a desire to continue to grow professionally and to do so with an earnest commitment to collegiality that stems from a compassionate desire to help every learner thrive. 

Our mission is simply stated, but it is also eternally elusive.  We realize it by degrees and by increments, but we can never truly say "we've arrived."  Our mission is that we guarantee quality learning experiences so that each learner thrives as a productive and life-long learner.  So unless we undertake the most ambitious longitudinal academic study in the history of educational research, we'll never really know, will we?  But we can have a pretty good idea.  On an elemental level, it starts with classroom teachers who uphold and uplift the noble spirit and essential humanity of every individual learner.

Norris has a unique and interesting demographic. Like many districts, we have seen increases over the last five years in the number of students in our district who are in poverty.  They do not enjoy some of the benefits that affluent families are often privileged to bestow upon their children which impact out of school learning and may translate to increased achievement gains in the classroom as well.  We have also seen increases in the number of students in our district whose special education status carries with it very particularized learning needs as dictated by their IEPs and we must strive to fulfill those needs. We also have a population of students where on almost any national assessment instrument administered two-thirds or more of them will perform in the upper quartile.  We have had grade-level achievement indices where an entire cohort has three-fourths of its students in the top quartile, which based on a normal curve distribution would only be one-fourth of our students.  Think about that!  And the thing I want you to understand is that this awareness of achievement data, this little bit of assessment literacy about Norris does not mean that your work is done because a substantial number of students walk in the door day one already proficient.  Quite the opposite! What this means instead is that you have a moral mandate here to differentiate your instruction.  Because we are interested first and foremost in individual student growth and we must surpass minimal standards and mere proficiency if we embrace that philosophy.  Our mission statement insists that we guarantee quality learning experiences because we want every individual learner to thrive.  So this means we will immediately identify the students who are not proficient on the state assessments since those are grade-level standards measures and we will intervene, effectively, and get them to baseline.  Just as importantly, though, we will use our other assessment data such as the MAP test to ensure that we know what the next appropriate learning targets and mastery goals are for those learners who are already at baseline proficiency.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

My running companions Doubt, Fear and Worry

I have been rolling up miles at a substantial rate of 40+ a week for over four years now.  I have run a dozen marathons and battled through some truly treacherous training conditions and some fairly adverse race day scenarios. In the process, I've conquered Heartbreak Hill, Hospital Hill, the ultra-distance Bohemian Alps outside of Brainard, and battled a gritty wind in the starkly sublime Sandhills.  But it occurred  to me when the alarm went off this morning signaling me to get up for another early morning workout that it never changes.  What never changes is the fear, the doubt, and the nagging voice of negativity I hear in the back of my mind.  And if you run, every day you hear that and you choose to refute it. You renounce fear and uncertainty to embrace commitment and the courage to keep after it.

I think runners are a superstitious lot and, let's face it, mustering the will to go 26.2 is not an entirely rational endeavor. It is only in voicing these fears and articulating the bizarre subconscious monologue I have that I can see how truly vapid the unholy trinity of Doubt, Fear, and Worry are.  Here are some of their litany of concerns:

-Is today the day I blow an Achilles?

-Does my knee hurt because my patella is disintegrating?

-What if I face-plant out there?

-What if I just can't go today?

-That wind outside sounds stronger than 15 to 20 mph gusts. I wonder if it could blow a car into me.

-Could that tightness in my back be the beginnings of a ruptured disc?

And of course, -Am I in danger of being attacked by a Mountain Lion on this trail?

These fears are (mostly) silly, irrational, and easily dismissed when confronted for what they really are: excuses masquerading as reasons.

So to heck with it.  Today, tomorrow, and the next day, just like yesterday: let's go for a run!  And we'll leave Doubt, Fear and Worry behind.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Marathon Training Nutrition Commitment

I had a two-bag-a-week habit...Bazooka Joe
himself had to stage an intervention for me.

I have been training for the Lincoln marathon, which goes off  a week from now. A month ago, I decided I would get aggressive with my nutrition because I figure an old runner like me (43) needs every possible advantage if I want to crawl across the finish line in under four hours much less 3 1/2. So I set out to eliminate empty cards and refined sugars from my diet about five weeks ago.  I thought that this would be a good means of enhancing my nutrition while also improving my chances of turning in a good performance on race day.  I said goodbye to the chips and candy, and mourned the loss of my fries and popcorn...

There definitely is a connection between intake and output.  How you eat, how you sleep, and whether you're drinking enough water- all those things contribute to outcomes on race day, not just miles and pace. I have thought a lot about what fellow runner and Norris emeritus faculty member John Votta said when he described himself in the past as having been a 'junkfood jogger' for many years, and I realized I resembled that remark. I decided I needed to set a higher standard for myself when I came to my training regimen including nutrition.

Over the last month I've learned a lot about self-discipline and I've also learned that in avoiding refined and processed foods and eating more fresh fruits and nuts for snacks, I feel better and I have more vitality throughout the day.  The afternoon fatigue that used to set in is lessened and I only infer that is because I am better hydrated and eating foods that sustain my energy levels more effectively.

Eat This, Not That - Skretta  version:
Cocoa Roast almonds have become a new favorite for me.
Trace amounts of sugar & good protein 

compared to these chocolate chip cookies.
Eliminating the sugar from my diet proved tricky.  The HS Food Service ladies bake these incredible cookies that we sell as an a la carte item and I had a cookie-a-day habit (preferably chocolate chip, but the snickerdoodle is also to die for).  Fortunately, we also have a great fruit and veggie bar so there's lots of better options to choose from. It was more difficult than I anticipated it would be. Another thing I had to come to grips with was the fact that I am an aggressive, constant gum chewer and I needed to eliminate the hardcore Dubble Bubble. Dubble Bubble has about 5 g of sugar in every single piece and I was chewing at least five and sometimes fifteen pieces a day with my chewing habit.  So I started chewing sugarless gum (Bubble Yum sugarless [nutrition info available at] is the closest I've come to a sugarless that has similar texture and consistency to classic bubble gum).  [For old-school fanatics trying to make the switch, the sugar free version of the classic Dubble Bubble can be ordered online at]

The next thing I realized was that we still have a lot of foods in our house that don't have much (if any) arguable nutritional value and it was important for me to demonstrate the discipline required to avoid
Both of these snack foods actually offer ample sugar.
The banana's a decidedly better choice! But those
little candy buttons on the Cosmic Brownies? Cosmically delicious.
those unhealthy items. It strikes me as a bit heavy-handed and prudish to eliminate every snack food in the place that might not be a great choice.  The thing is to surround yourself with other alternatives that are also appealing to the taste buds and can satiate your hunger for something sweet or something salty.

Here are 3 things I've learned in my quest to maintain better nutrition as a part of an overall fitness program:

*The will to initiate and stick with better eating choices is the same willpower it takes to keep putting one foot in front of the other to keep going and finish strong. It comes from the same place.

* I can reduce the likelihood of making a poor impulsive eating choice by having better options and alternatives readily available.

*The more consistently I eat well, the less attracted I am to junk food.

I don't know what I'll end up running for a time next Sunday, but I am more confident than ever in my ability to make good choices and to follow a healthier diet.

By the way, I'm not a complete fitness zealot or nutrition psycho: when I finish the marathon, I intend to celebrate with a snack - and not just a post-race banana and Cutie orange. I may indulge in a Twinkie and chase it with a can of Coca Cola (fully leaded). But I think the changes that I've instituted over the last month have gotten easier to abide by with each passing day and will help me stay healthier and keep running for years to come.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ski School lessons for Educators

We drove out to Colorado with the four boys over break and spent a couple days in Keystone.  It occurred to me again that skiing holds many life lessons and in particular many metaphors that are applicable to educators. I wanted to share these with you in the foolishly optimistic hope that some good can yet come from my Colorado travails.  

I am not a great skier.  I’m the kind of guy who considers it a monumental feat to simply avoid the urgent care clinic. I had the ignominious distinction of probably being the only guy on the mountain to be approached not once, twice, or even three times - but on four separate occasions on day one by Keystone ski patrol with the prompt, “Dude!  Are you alright? That was a colossal wipeout, bro.”  (Actually, the first two referred to me as “bro” and “dude.” The latter two who approached me to help gather my ski apparatus that was scattered over the debris field of my latest wreck referred to me as “Sir” - as in, “Are you okay to get up, sir?” which I took to mean I was aging rapidly during my brief sojourn on the mountain).  

Here are some lessons for educators I took from our family outing::

Speed is your friend, until it’s not. Momentum is everything in skiing.  You definitely want to go just as fast as your mastery of the mountain permits.  However, the slope can sneak up on you with unexpected changes in conditions - suddenly the terrain becomes icy under a veneer of powder and, next thing you know, you have faceplanted in a most humiliating fashion.  

Lesson for educators: Curricular pacing is everything. You must find the balance. Seek the balance between a slow pace that simply frustrates learners because it is too plodding and proceeding hurriedly in a way that bewilders and induces fear in the learner, since neither extreme is good.  Proceed at a pace that is manageable or you’ll make yourself miserable and end up having to crawl back up the mountain to collect your things!

Stay high side or you will lose momentum. If you ever want to see a frustrated snowboarder, find a fairly flat part of terrain on a ski run and watch them do the hop-along.  A snowboard does not glide very well over flat ground, but most runs have a rise near the middle and slope off to the edges.  The hop-along is what I call the situation where a boarder has to remove one foot from the board and literally hop along, dragging his board to get to the next descent.  The key for a snowboarder is to stay high on the ridge.  The better boarders manage to get enough speed going and continue to glide along without sliding over to the margin and losing momentum.

Lesson for educators: Take the high road.  Don’t allow digressions to destroy a great run (or a great semester).  When the going gets tough, you have a choice.  Stay focused and intent on what matters most- the key learning objectives for the day.  Don’t drift off to the margins or you’ll find yourself hopping along on one leg, cursing the conditions, and wondering how you got there.  

Yield to those in front, but beware of those behind. The Skier’s Responsibility Code requires that you yield to those in front and that you are always aware of skiers and snowboarders in your “periph” as you go down a run.  You must also maintain an awareness of obstacles both man-made and natural that are part of the surroundings.  To fail to do so jeopardizes your safety and the safety and serenity of others who are out there with you.

Lesson for educators: Teaching requires a vigilant awareness of your surroundings and an almost uncanny knack for sensing what’s happening elsewhere - out there - beyond your immediate visual field.  You don’t have to have eyes in the back of your head, but there would be some days where it’d help.  Be mindful not just of those students who are “out in front” but also those who are struggling, slipping, and scrambling downhill as you work your way through the term.

Take delight in other peoples’ successes.  Sometimes, the student surpasses the teacher.  Such a situation should not be cause for petty resentment or adult annoyance. We should take delight in the accomplishments of our students, even when they’re a bit precocious and we’re a bit perturbed.

Two years ago, entering a lift station, Coby knocked me off the chair with his board, the lift chair raked my back, and the lift just kept right on moving.  His comment as he soared away from me was, “Well . . . bye, Dad.”

This year Coby was much more proficient in his handling of the board, his lift chair etiquette, and his skillful maneuvering on the slopes.  As we exited the Summit Express lift he simply glided away on his board turning his head back just partially to say, “You can go down the run with me, Dad, but seriously: you’ve got to try to keep up.”  

A Happy New Year to all and good luck “keeping up” with your students as you conquer learning objectives both Green (“Easy”) and Black (“Difficult”) this semester!