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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

School Is Closed By The Weather Outside, But We Must be Open To Our Climate Inside School

This post, authored on a day when snow and ice conspired to cancel school, emerges from an article that appeared in NPR Ed series, How Learning Happens, on November 1, 2016 and attaches itself to a message to our staff at Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont.

The thrust of this piece is certainly one which has long resonated with me, but the strict, externally imposed mandates that emphasize formal state-wide assessments seems to have unfortunately obscured the essence of the article throughout the nation's public schools. In other words, following that adage that we, "measure what we treasure," too many schools have subjugated concerns about school climate in favor of devoting resources of time and money toward increasing learner outcomes on the aforementioned state tests.   

Despite the integration of an array of technology and the flood of high stakes tests, schools are ultimately a human resource agency dependent on the dynamic relationships among and between the children and adults within the building. Success rests on people. 


Dear Colleagues,

I hope that you are all resting comfortably near a warm fire on this snow day, with a good book in one hand and a remote control monitoring a great movie (or your kids) in the other. However, if you want a break from that I came across a short, interesting article that speaks to the direction we are moving at Molly Stark. 

We have embarked on refining our instructional delivery system by effectively using data, and simultaneously embraced an important, more subtle, effort to enhance the climate of our learning community. The Ci3T comprehensive, multi-tiered response to learner social, behavioral, and academic needs is a prime vehicle in our improvement process. The combination of these two strategies will surprise many people outside our school and serve as a platform for future advances. 

Your commitment and collaboration have already revealed progress in increased attendance among learners (95%) and decreased discipline referrals (review weekly and monthly summaries). Every staff member contributes directly or indirectly to the atmosphere of the school by both words and deeds. Whether we decide to or not, we are influencing the shape and form of our environment at Molly Stark. Children will pick up on what we model and how we model. While we lack the ability to impact our salary, externally imposed policies from out state and nation's capital, the home situations of our learners, and so much more - we do have the capacity to influence a positive climate at school. Let's continue to promote a constructive environment and practice what we preach.

The primary substance of the article I referred to at the beginning of this message is excerpted below. Enjoy this day and be careful driving to school tomorrow.


"A study published in the Review of Educational Research today suggests that school climate is something educators and communities should prioritize — especially as a way to bridge the elusive achievement gap. The authors analyzed more than 15 years of research on schools worldwide, and found that positive school climate had a significant impact on academics
And here's the biggest takeaway: There's no link between school climate and socioeconomic status. In other words, there are plenty of happy schools in low-income neighborhoods, too.
"Obviously you need to have a great math teacher that can teach math, but those social and emotional connections really help in the academic area too," says Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the study. "That creates a lot of opportunities for the low-income schools," by giving reformers more tools to think about, he says.
When Pam Hogue took over as Weiner Elementary's principal three years ago, tardiness was a problem. Enrollment was down. The community was losing faith in its public schools.
Weiner is a rural town with a population of less than 700. A majority of the kids come from farming families — soybeans and rice, mostly — and more than 99 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch.
Hogue sat down with a faculty team to envision the school they wanted — a school with the tagline "A great place to be a kid."
Now, students are rarely late (no one wants to miss out on that assembly). Average attendance is 99.93 percent this year. And most importantly, Hogue says, people in the school — students and staff — are happy.
This idea of creating a good school culture isn't new, but 2016 has been a big year for urging schools to measure it.
For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include non-academic factors — like school climate — in how they gauge school success. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released an online toolbox to help administrators better measure and understand the school climate. One recent brief even linked a positive environment with improved teacher retention.
The potential payoffs are big, says Joaquin Tamayo, director of strategic initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education.
"Improving school climate is tough, it's tedious, it's incremental," he says. "But when folks can do it right, and when they really put not just their mind but their heart into it, it's just such a beautiful thing."
There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of defining, and measuring, a school's climate. A great school culture in the Bronx, for example, might require different resources than a school like the one Pam Hogue runs in northeast Arkansas.
But the new study's co-author, Ron Avi Astor, says the best schools transcend the culture of the community around them. They may differ in design, but they can feel very similar.
"They kind of see themselves as vehicles to change society — that these kids are going to go out and not just reflect where they came from and who they are, but change all that," he says. "And those are the most exciting schools."
Pam Hogue sees school climate as a launching point — a way to catapult kids toward opportunities outside their immediate environment.
"What we want to do is give our kids not only the skills but also the attitudes — things like confidence — to choose where they go in their life," Hogue says. "I want them to have the skills and the confidence to make that change

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mile Markers

I recently returned from a trip to Boston. It's a journey of about one hundred seventy miles. A little over three hours by car, after accounting for any potential construction and traffic. The experience is not unlike the path we take in school when improvement is our destination. There's often unexpected construction and traffic before we reach our goal.

Beyond the technology that allows us to gauge our progress and project a time of arrival, there are other benchmarks that offer a perspective along the route. Many people may not recognize the mile markers that flank the median side of the highway as they whiz by these posts at regular intervals. These markers preceded the electronic devices many that motorists employ as guides, and they provide a more frequent indication of our progress than the large signs that dot the roadway and state distances until the next city. The markers reference each mile with a simple number that reflects

School improvement is an ongoing process that requires an enduring vision and unwavering commitment. There is a Chinese proverb that asserts, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." One method of fueling progress on that path involves success by approximation - opportunities to identify and reward achievements that represent incremental steps toward the metrics defining the improvement goal. The leader must make genuine attempts to recognize and acknowledge performance, constructive changes in behavior, and persistence among engaged stakeholders. Small but meaningful ceremonies (pot-luck meals), notes (positive reinforcement), tokens (preferred parking for a week...) can serve to reinforce efforts and sustain the group's energy.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Shared Decision Making

Last Friday, January 13th, marked the initial meeting of the Molly Stark Shared Decision Making Team. The primary purpose of this group is to enrich our future by reflecting on the past and analyzing the present. Our goal remains to promote opportunities for the success of learners of all ages, at all stages.

There are two quotes that drive our pursuit - Winston Churchill's claim that, "Those who help build the house are least likely to destroy it." and "Power is the only thing that multiplies when it is divided." (author unknown)

Furthermore, Alex Pentland writes in his book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread - the Lesson from a New Science, "It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse." (page 29)

With this in mind, we embarked on our with a team comprised of representatives of the following stakeholder groups: parents, support staff, teachers from all roles (special education, special areas, interventionists, and classroom) and the principal.

Parameters were outlined, informative materials were provided, group norms were proposed, expectations were expressed, and we marched forward. The first tasks of the team pose challenges - 1. re-imagine a master schedule that optimizes learning opportunities, 2. create a space-use plan that promotes a effective and efficient learning environment.

We're off and running...