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.