Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tremendous Titans Moments From A Wonderfully Memorable 2014

As we wrap up the 2014 calendar year, we are also halfway through the 14-15 school year. With a sense of anticipation, our thoughts turn to the year ahead and we refine and revise our individual and collective goals for 2015. Before we allow the sense of excitement for the impending year take over, however, we should pause and reflect on the many good things that transpired in 2014.

50 years strong! The 2014 year was a special one for the Norris District as we celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the district. The Norris story is one of successful consolidation. The vision and the foresight of the district's founders in creating a unified campus that, while centrally located geographically, is not in any one district municipality, has fostered a sense of unity and cohesiveness that is tremendously beneficial for the school culture. Many school consolidation stories chronicle a contentious and bitterly divisive process; the Norris District has become a model for successful consolidation and efficient operations to support student learning.

As I reflect on  a quick highlights reel from 2014, here are some of the prominent memories that come to mind. These are events and achievements that helped continue to make Norris a great place for our students and staff and a school district our community can be justifiably proud of as we are on the verge of our second half-century!

  • In January, Norris teacher Betsy Barent was celebrated as one of the authors of an iTunes U course from the California Academy of Sciences on "How Science Works" which had already surpassed 10,000 downloads at the start of the year. Barent's outstanding work was featured by the Beatrice Daily Sun and picked up by AP. Just another way Norris teachers are leading the way in tech infusion for student learning!
  • In February, Norris was notified that the new Intermediate School, which opened in the fall of 2013, had been selected by the Nebraska Chapter of the American Concrete Institute for an Award of Excellence. The award was bestowed on the new Norris school for extensive use of precast concrete as a key structural and design element to accomplish an efficient, safe, and architecturally beautiful school. Congrats to our design partner DLR and Construction Manager Hausmann on the recognition and thanks to our community for the resources to make the building possible!
  • Special educator Dr. Mary Schlieder was one of the authors of a research study in the Journal of Social Change on Peer-Mediated Interventions (Circle of Friends) for students with autism spectrum disorder. You can download the study here
  • 2014 was another great year for Norris performing arts - a couple examples: Coach Millington's speech squad took the district championship and went on to bring home two medals in state speech. The Norris jazz band earned first place honors at the Northeast jazz contest in March.
  • Agricultural education continued to flourish at Norris as a means of enhancing college- and career-ready learning opportunities for students as well as providing an avenue for students to develop their leadership skills. The FFA chapter was profiled in Nebraska Farm Flavor magazine and Norris senior Ben Rice was elected a state officer (vice president) for 2014-15, following Norris alum Bryce Doeschot before him to continue an unprecedented string of Norris chapter leaders serving at the state cabinet level. The Norris FFA and Learning Lab projects (and sponsors Mr. Malone and Dr. Harms) were also honored by the Hickman Kiwanis Chapter at the annual Farm City breakfast in November. 
  • Norris students won the Nebraska Stock Market game, turning a 31K profit from a 100K investment during the market simulation competition. 
  • Norris repeated and won the fourth annual Cleanest High School Campus award - a county-wide competition among city and county schools for campus cleanliness. Congratulations to Dave Allder, the Norris HS Student Council and our entire school community on the recognition!
  • Eleven tremendously talented new teachers joined our district. Through the leadership of Curriculum Director Dr. Brenda Tracy and coordination of Reading Coach and lead teacher Alisha Bollinger, Norris kicked off a new teacher mentoring program to provide key orientation and acculturation experiences for Norris teachers to successfully integrate these educators to our system. Each teacher new to Norris was paired with a master teacher mentor for the inaugural program.
  • Norris was invited by the Center for Rural Affairs to participate in the Governor's proclamation of October as Farm To School month, and hosted an apple tasting event featuring a variety of apples for our Intermediate school students to taste and rate. The special event volunteer was Nebraska First Lady Sally Ganem, and featured support from HS students enrolled in the Culinary Arts program. 
  • The Norris volleyball team embraced their role as underdogs and overcame the odds to win an unprecedented repeat Class B State Championship. Photos from webmaster Andrew Carlson and student photographers chronicling the team's amazing return journey to the summit of Class B are available here.
  • The Norris HS Math Team finished in the top 10% of over 100 schools competing in the UNL Math Day, earning second place Class II honors in the Math Bowl and a bronze medal in the Probe I Team Competition.
  • District patrons, parents and partners joined up to mount the single largest successful capital campaign in Norris history, donating 250K from July to December so the district could enact its second phase of an ambitious multi-step activities facilities development plan. Because of the successful commitment of donors, the Board will enact its pledge to commence construction and cover the remaining costs of an artificial turf field and track resurfacing project in the spring and summer of 2015.

While the preceding is hardly an exhaustive list, these discrete events are some of those that combine to create the mosaic that is your Norris School District: a place where students can and do thrive because of the opportunities provided to them for both academic and activities-oriented success; a place where our dedicated staff members work diligently to provide the best learning environment possible for our students; a place where our community comes together to help create an even more promising future for Norris students. Thanks for a great 2014, Norris, and let's make 2015 an even better year!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving thanks for great leaders @norris160!

Today I'm giving thanks for the great school leadership that surrounds us at Norris 160! I'm taking a moment from the nonstop turkey and football feast to share some gratitude to the leaders who make so much of what we do possible.

Brian Maschmann, Assistant Superintendent: the trusted voice of reason in every initiative we take, Brian brings a calm voice and practical insights to every situation.

Dr. Brenda Tracy, Special Ed and Curriculum Director: She is making an impact in teachers' growth and professional learning daily. We now have a comprehensive design for professional development that is instilling a common language for instruction and ensuring our teachers' learning targets are clear and explicit for all students at all levels.

HS Principal Ryan Ruhl: This is the man who has not only helped to sustain a culture of positive sportsmanship and student participation in our HS, he's taken it to the next level. 4 years in a row with a state tourney sportsmanship award, he has created a Principal's Advisory Council that has leveraged the power of student leadership. 

HS AP Charlie Hutzler: from helping reimagine lunch detentions to create an emphasis on academic improvement to overseeing a highly effective RTI process, Hutzler's wizardry could make a google apps guru gasp in awe. 

MS Principal Mary Jo Leininger: MJ exemplifies commitment: when it comes to supporting her teachers in sharpening their skills or bringing new opportunities like the EC3 math mentoring program to our students, MJ will find a way! 

MS AP Matt Rice: only Mr. Rice could make the otherwise mundane work of the safety committee fun and bring a spirit of enthusiasm to our annual safety audits and online trainings. Matt continues to be a positive character influence and developer of the unique talents and tremendous potential of our middle schoolers. 

Intermediate Principal Mike Wentz: a strong supporter of his great faculty and a decisive veteran leader committed to doing the right things to support students, Mr. Wentz has streamlined the successful system in place in our Intermediate School in its second year of operation. 

Elementary Principal Dr. Jenny Piening: Jenny is approachable, accessible and highly knowledgeable. She brings a great combination of positivity and pragmatism to every situation. Dr. Piening has been a great addition to the Norris team.

Norris leaders, thanks for everything you do to support our talented teachers and tremendous Titans students.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Comments on the Nebraska Accountability System for State Board of Education

September 5, 2014

I was honored to present at the State Board of Education meeting today as a panelist representing the NePAS Task Force to bring forth recommendations on the evolving state accountability system. This was an informal exchange with the State Board to update them, and was conversational and informative. I was privileged to be among several speakers, including lead presenter and psychometrician Dr. Chad Buckendahl, State of Nebraska Director of Assessment Valorie Foy, and Dr. Leslie Lukin, LPS Director of Assessment and Evaluation.

While I did not provide the comments below verbatim, I shared the gist of it and these are my thoughts on the evolution of the state's model:

"Good morning, I am here today as one of the delegates representing the NePAS Task Force and the collaborative effort the group has undertaken with assessment experts and under the guidance of Dr. Foy and NDE Assessment personnel to offer recommendations for the accountability model for the state.

One of the main things I want you to know about our Task Force efforts are that we have approached this throughout with earnest and sincere commitment proceeding from an awareness of the profound implications for schools and a desire to improve student learning. To that end, the Task Force anchored its work in guiding principles of accountability beginning with improving outcomes for all students, and doing so through reliance on valid and reliable measures, via a fair process while communicating in language that is easy to understand.

One of the more perplexing issues we have to grapple with is creating an equitable accountability system for the range of sizes and demographics in Nebraska schools. This is a particular challenge, given that we have large and densely populated metropolitan districts and small, sparsely populated rural districts. By relying on the expertise of the assessment gurus who have partnered with us and leveraging the experiential wisdom of the Task Force participants, I think that you are well on your way to creating and refining such a model.

Under the leadership of Valorie and Marilyn, the Task Force typically broke into smaller workgroups that deliberated on key facets for measuring growth and the best means of affirming strengths and identifying areas for improvement – for student populations as a whole as well as subgroups. Our dialogue was always informed by a common strata of baseline knowledge from the psychometrics experts who have assisted us throughout. I believe the process has been appropriately respectful of input from practitioners while working within parameters that are soundly established by policymakers. It has been some of the most meaningful and substantive exchange around student learning and its interpretation that I've had the opportunity to participate in as an educator. The tough decisions certainly are left with Commissioner Blomstedt to make recommendations and for you to collectively determine the best accountability model for our state. I can assure you that the members of the Task Force worked diligently and in a true spirit of collegiality, and we stand ready to continue to assist however you deem best."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014 reminders for rookies, newbies, novice educators, & teachers new to Norris

You are talented. You would not be here if you did not have the capacity to be great. Our selection process is very rigorous. We are looking for professionals whose commitment to the vocation and compassion for students drive your decision-making and we picked you because you possess that fundamental student-centered value. So long as you remain mindful of that, and base your decisions on what is best for kids and what is in the interest of furthering student learning, you will seldom go wrong.

You are never not a Norris teacher. You're always representing not just yourself but your team, your building, your school district, and your community. Remember that and conduct yourself accordingly, because in all circumstances you are an ambassador for the district and someone who incarnates the values of the profession.

We don't expect pedagogical perfection, but we do have an expectation of continuous professional growth. You must commit yourself to learning, because that is the most important asset or skill set that you can model for kids – a commitment to continuous learning. When you model the ability to be transformative yourself and show your students you have learned how to learn - they are more likely to adopt that mindset and acquire the resiliency life will demand of them.

Seize the day. There are mistakes you'll make as a teacher, but don't shy away from the teachable moment. You'll try things that don't work in the classroom or you may say something to get an outcome or to get compliance, and you realize that instead of motivating a child, this was detrimental to the relationship or hindered attaining the lesson's objective. But most of the time, the bigger mistakes are made when failing to follow through, not capitalizing on an opportunity, or omitting an action that could have realized your best intentions. So don't forget to seize the opportunity to say the affirmative words to a student, to offer specific praise, to validate your students and to support your colleagues. Follow through on the parent calls and contacts. Don't neglect to make the effort, because the relationship dividends are worth it. A thousandfold.

Technology has revolutionized education in so many ways, and has also made student engagement more attainable than ever. And that same technology has made screwing up in a grandly public and utterly ignominious fashion easier than ever. Choose wisely when you click 'send' and when you post or share. In every context.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Words of Wisdom from Chicago on Teaching to the Needs of the Total Child

Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the Chicago Schools CEO and oversees the daily education of hundreds of thousands of PK-12 Chicago children. Talk about a demanding gig! But she came well prepared as a former Sup of the Cleveland and New York City metropolitan districts.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett spoke to a Superintendents' meeting I attended recently, addressing our group on connecting health and achievement. She said that "We won't have children who are truly ready to learn and becoming college and career-ready and all those things that superintendents and school boards like to talk about unless we prioritize their health."

She added, "You can just go around saying your mission statement, but you must actually force the issue." Don't be afraid to ask: Are we doing what we profess to be doing for kids? Put another way, are we actualizing the mission?

Dr. Byrd-Bennett knows "People respect what you inspect." What is happening on a daily basis at the classroom level? Let's check and let's be visible leaders.

She insists that "Conversations must be coupled with measurable outcomes." Dr. Byrd-Bennett emphasized that monitoring performance and measuring outcomes are how we recognize when progress is being made and when we need to retool to get the desired results.

On measurability:

Some of the tools that CPS uses include KPIs or Key Performance Indicators. CPS also annually administers a culture, climate and student perceptions survey that elicits strident input. It is called My Voice, My School.

Every adult an educator: Dr. Byrd-Bennett also emphasized that we must value and leverage the capacity of every adult, very staff member. She specifically addressed the changing and expanding role of school nurses as well as other staff. She promotes the idea that we do the "culture shift" and help all adults in schools understand the power of being healthy role models for children.

Dr. Stephanie Whyte complemented Dr. Byrd-Bennett's comments and extended on these as she spoke about her work as the CPS Child Health Officer. Her job: "We remove health-related barriers to learning." She added, "This is mission-driven work for us." Under her team's leadership, Chicago Public Schools has re-instituted recess in schools and brought PE classes back to the 11th and 12th grade. She noted, "It enhances core achievement. Gym is not just a space. PE is a class."

Dr. Whyte emphasized that principals are the leaders of learning and "Mini-CEOs" of their buildings, so programs and support need to be capable of being tailored to their local building and neighborhood needs. "How 'Plug and Play' can we make it?" is a question that drives their process to make for ease of implementation of health initiatives.  "This then becomes something tangible and sets the guidance and tenets - so then the technical assistance can actually address the particular needs of the school," she explained.

Dr. Whyte commented on nutritional regs: "These Smart Snacks standards allow us to take a stance. We understand there may be a need to give a little or have a little wiggle room politically, but it may also be better to just stand strong and come out swinging."

AASA attendees were provided the tool kits as one of the technical resources distributed to registrants.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett addressed an AASA Total Child workshop which I was invited to that was hosted at the CPS offices on the 17th floor of their Clark Street building May 6th. The event was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Leadership for Healthy Communities. I felt the most profound message that Dr. Byrd-Bennett and her team exhibited is resilience. The Chicago system is enormous and faces immense challenges and myriad demands. But the CEO and her team are undaunted: "It's tough, but we're pretty tough," she said.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The New Commish Just Might Rock Our World

Nebraska Commissioner
of Education
Matt Blomstedt
I have heard the new Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt speak on three different occasions now.  He's been consistently on message and brings the right combination of compassionate idealism about education plus political savvy that just might help produce great results for Nebraska schools. 

Except for the sporadic committee meeting interaction, I really did not know Matt before he took over the state ed chief post.  But so much of what I've heard from Matt since he followed the stellar Roger Breed (props to a former fellow EMC Superintendent) has been memorable and meaningful. Unlike some folks who get into positions of policy leadership, Blomstedt is not interested in rehashing platitudes or appeasing those around him. He's clearly interested in pushing a change initiative through that is focused on:
  • Collaborative sharing of best practices: find what works in schools and work to replicate it.
  • Data-informed decision making: use data less as a blunt object with which to bludgeon schools and more as a tool to help inform instruction.
  • Provision of the resources to accomplish needed work, together.
Some memorable one-liners I've heard from Commissioner Blomstedt that I think divulge valuable insights into his leadership and where we're heading in Nebraska education:

  • "Accountability should be less about stressing out about where you are from a 'status' standpoint and more about documenting and delivering progress over time."
  • "Data can't make decisions for us.  It can only inform decisions. Let's be careful not to create a system where the data dictate and remove the human element."
  • "The focus needs to shift to less worrying about accountability and more on students continuing to do better and better over time."
  • "We can decide together to provide leadership in a different way, leadership that is not us vs. them, big vs. small, rural vs. urban, but an acknowledgment that we are all in this together, and we have a duty to all the students in the state of Nebraska."
  • "It's one thing to be bold in leadership, and another to just go around offending people.  There's got to be a balance as we go boldly forward."
One other note: when you talk with Matt, you'll notice he's not making this stuff up as he goes along. He's got a combination of erudition and experiential wisdom.  His pedigree includes a run at NRCSA and working with some pretty renowned ed leaders in Nebraska policymaking like Senator Ron Raikes.  Best of all, he speaks fluent Fullan and DuFour.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Questions to ponder for 2014: Can we resolve to be just a little bit better?

Incremental changes sustained over time can lead to monumental improvements. - The Kaizen Way

The problem with most goal-setting isn't that the ideas aren't ambitious enough, it's that we fail to acknowledge the steps towards improvement we've already taken. While sweeping and radical changes may capture the imagination, they tend to falter in the execution. And we lose our desire to stay the course when changes diverge too radically from our daily habits.

This year, let's resolve to sustain progress in a positive direction. Ask yourself the following and answer in the affirmative and I know you'll summon the courage to commit. These reflect some of what I'm committing myself to, and I hope I can enlist you likewise.

1. Personal: can I resolve to show more gratitude towards my colleagues by making sure that I make it a point to say "thank you" meaningfully once more daily?

2. Professional: can I resolve to communicate positively in a way that shows my awareness I am always an ambassador for my school, my district, and my profession?

3. Healthful: can I resolve to make one small positive change in my fitness regimen or nutrition routines that is something I'm confident I can do daily?

4. Analytical: can I find a way to use a new data set that illustrates something significant about student performance in a way I can convey vividly to others?

5. Adaptive: can I model for others how to respond to life's inevitable changes by embracing the unexpected where my first response is "Yes I can!" instead of "What now?"

Happy 2014! May all your best wishes for the new year find fulfillment through your efforts.