School board candidates Q&A: week 2
What challenges currently impact overall student achievement and what would you propose the district do in order to addresses this issue?
The Thompson School District has very high-achieving students. The district produces millions in scholarships each year for athletics and academics. This district sends multiple Boettcher Scholars and National Merit finalists into the world. But this district also has a huge achievement gap to address. There are major issues facing Thompson School District. Administrators cite a mix of family mobility, curriculum changes, and teacher turn-over. Unfortunately, these challenges have the greatest impact on the students most at risk. These challenges impact each school in the district, but it is the schools on mandated improvement plans that continually struggle to overcome.
There may be a correlation between economic status and a child’s ability to learn, but not a child’s intelligence. We need to engage these children at risk. When a family needs to prioritize survival, it is difficult to put education first, but that is where schools can offer support. The Thompson School District can work to overcome this by making significant efforts to engage families. Families could learn to help students with literacy. They could participate in anti-bullying and suicide prevention exercises. If Thompson schools can foster a learning environment in the most challenged families, student achievement will improve.
Thompson offers such diverse education choices that family engagement may be fostered through our schools that act as cultural centers for local neighborhoods. This is an opportunity to build on the district’s strength. According to the latest TELL survey, teachers throughout the district agree they are empowered at the building level, and they credit their leadership with making solid decisions that benefit the school. It may be time to empower principals using student-centered budgeting. Successful Colorado districts like Cherry Creek and Poudre R1 are using this approach already, offering models to study and emulate. The concept is that principals have greater control over their building budgets and policies so they can take advantage of their intimate knowledge to prioritize efficiently and effectively.
1.) The district already understands the challenge of overall student achievement, and it is being addressed with a number of programs, including recently introduced math and reading programs. Each school is being asked to develop its own unique improvement program based on a particular school’s needs. It is still early with these programs, but indications show they’re starting to have a positive impact.
2.) Our teachers and administrators are the professionals and best qualified to answer this question. The BOE needs to do a better job of listening and asking for direction from these experts.
3.) Early intervention programs like preschool and at-risk programs have a huge impact on student achievement. Programs cost money, so the BOE needs to find a way to fund them. If additional money can’t be found, a close study needs to be made of other programs to see which programs make the most sense. A decision will then need to be made as to which programs take priority and which programs, if any, would have to be cut. Unfortunately, with limited funds, the school district can’t do everything.
4.) The district has done an excellent job with “Choice,” however it’s important the BOE remain vigilant and open minded to new ideas. As students become older and realize their goals, strengths and desires, it’s important they have options to choose from which will help them become successful in life. Not every student has a desire to go to college, and for those we need to create opportunities which will help them succeed.
5.) Finally, schools need to find ways to better engage parents and the community. Everybody is busy, but schools need input from parents on what will make their individual students successful. Unfortunately, there are many parents who will not or cannot be involved, and this is where the community can help. Many schools, especially elementary schools, have programs in place where the public can volunteer with reading and math programs, individual tutoring, coaching, science projects, etc.
Student achievement is often, but not always, linked to a child’s socioeconomic conditions. A child from a lower income home is less likely to have had trips to the library with their parents or had the benefit of preschool. Additionally, studies increasingly point to the fact that poor nutrition in early childhood has a detrimental effect on high achievement.
I don’t share these things to make excuses, but to point out we must always make allocating resources for the neediest children one of our priorities so all children have the best possible chance to succeed in school. Sadly, the parents from lower-income homes are not usually the ones contacting board members with concerns. Thus, we need board members who champion the needs of all children.
I worked at the Namaqua Center as an advocate for abused and neglected children and have raised 10s of thousands of dollars for early childhood education in this community. Just as I did the first four years, I will make advocating for the lower-income children a key component to what I do the next four years on the board of education. Not only is this the responsible thing to do but, from a practical perspective, children who have a solid educational foundation are less likely to become a drain on resources later.
Overall student achievement is a broad topic that is addressed in the many areas our district serves. It is difficult to select a single topic to discuss. That being said, in order to impact overall student achievement you must focus on individual student achievement. Individual attention was the main deciding factor in my being able to graduate. I would like to see programs introduced to provide more options for our students. Not every student intends to follow on to college or other further education. We need to listen to our teachers and students and provide the resources they need in order to help each individual succeed. Every child can succeed with the right education and every child deserves a great education. Focusing on the individual will return great results to the overall picture of student achievement.
Many of the challenges to student achievement are the same challenges our society as a whole faces. Our district averages 38 percent of students living in poverty, with this statistic reaching nearly 80 percent at individual schools. In addition, an increasing number of our students, currently just over 12 percent, are students with disabilities. Our English language learner numbers are also increasing. These students are capable of achieving just as much as their typical peers, but they need extra supports and resources to get them there. I would like to see us provide additional staffing, whether paraprofessionals or intervention teachers, to give these students an extra dose of instruction and support. Also, we should look at the research to find successful schools and districts with similar populations as ours and possibly adopt some of their practices. I have worked hard to bring back career centers to each high school, and the district is beginning that process this year in order to help our high school students find the best career path possible.
When talking with a teacher who had taught for many years in our district, I asked him a very similar question. I asked if he had seen decline in the school he had been teaching in during his time there. He responded in the affirmative, that he had noticed the culture in the school had changed. He noted that at one time there was such a striving for excellence and pride in that excellence, and he felt his school had come to accept mediocrity in so many areas. This may not be true for all schools in the district, but he felt that had happened in his school. How does something like that change? I really believe the most important element in any school is a great teacher. I believe great teachers instill in students a desire to achieve. I think the most important element in a child’s life is their parents. I think parents can inspire in their children a love of learning and a desire to excel.
Because of this, I think we need to recognize and fairly compensate great teaching. I think we need to have those teachers model and mentor great teaching so all teachers can reach their potential. I think we need to listen to parent voices and give them more choices in their children’s education. This allows parents a larger role than just serving in the PTO or bringing papers home to work on for teachers. I think we often do too much for parents rather than including them and listening to them, thereby missing one of our best resources for improving education.
A quality education is an absolute necessity in order for the upcoming generation to be successful. It will allow them to compete in the marketplace against the ever-increasing competition from overseas. It allows the upcoming generation to be good citizens of this great country of ours as well as good members of our community. And it allows our children as individuals to pursue their dreams and aspirations. Just as it is our responsibility as parents to provide our children with a good home and care for their needs, we as parents and as a community must provide our children with a quality education.
The Thompson School District provides a wide range of educational opportunities serving the diverse interests and needs of our students. Programs range from accreditation in the International Baccalaureate program, STEM and LISA programs (science and art respectively) to concurrent enrollment opportunities such as “hands-on” welding, auto mechanics and culinary classes offered in partnership with Front Range and Aims Community Colleges.
The school board represents the people to ensure all students receive a quality and cost-effective education. The board should meet with the superintendent and the community to establish both short-term (same school year) and long-term (two- to three-year) improvement plans for the full range of the district’s programs. Progress toward these goals can be measured by a combination of the test data (already produced in abundance), and other quantifiable metrics necessary to address the concerns of our community. The board should evaluate progress and issue a report on a quarterly basis, showing progress to date – a “district report card” for public review. In this manner the board, the district and the public will have a clear understanding of our school’s goals, performance and challenges.
Student achievement is one of the most important aspects of any school district, and there are many positive stories in Thompson. We have great teachers and students and our parents are very involved in the educational process. Still, there are many challenges. We have 10 schools that are on improvement plans. Our average ACT score is just above the state average and we are not seeing meaningful growth. Other test scores are trending up in some areas, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Our top students compare favorably with neighboring school districts, but overall we can do better. There are many reasons and there is no simple answer – this is a complex problem to solve and it will take the active involvement of parents, teachers, students, the administration, the community and the board. One thing is certain; we cannot point fingers or blame anyone for where we are. We need to join together and focus on the best ways to address student achievement. We need to create a culture of “continuous improvement” where we are always working together to get better. Global competition is increasing, and our students will face a marketplace that demands this type of culture. I have been a proven leader in the global marketplace and I know what it takes to be successful. We owe it to our children to give them the best opportunity to succeed in the new global economy, and you have my commitment that I will do everything possible to help make this a reality.
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