I was invited to speak on K-12 education issues and trends at the Goddard USD 265 Educational Retreat on July 31. I was honored and asked if I could sit in on the morning session: discussion on the district’s emerging strategic plan for the next five years.
It turned out to be one of the best days of the summer: inspirational as an advocate for public education; educational from what l learned from other participants; and validating a message of how new resources and school redesign can support measurable changes in student success for a stronger Kansas.
Let’s take each in turn.
Inspiration: all about students and community
Critics sometime characterize public education as mere “institutions,” driven by adults who put their own interests ahead of students. That’s never been my experience – and I spend a lot of time among the “adults” in the education community – and it certainly wasn’t in Goddard.
Goddard’s educational retreat is an annual activity for staff, parents and community members in a district of 6,000 students just west of Wichita. It drew 150 to 200 teachers, administrators, board members, city officials, law enforcement personnel, church leaders and business representatives who gave an entire day in late July to talk about what they want from their schools.
This year, strategic planning consultants presented results of 150 interviews, focus group discussions and a questionnaire sent to the entire community. Key results: what the consultants called “almost unheard of” levels of positive responses about the district, and widespread agreement on challenges it faces. The community clearly takes pride in its schools, wants to keep “small town” values in a rapidly growing district, is deeply concerned about student social, emotional and mental health issues, and worries about complacency – the need to continue to keep innovating and improving.
The overwhelming focus was about what children need to become successful adults – including giving student more opportunities to have a voice in their own education.
Among the best moments: a panel discussion featuring two teachers, a principal, district maintenance director and a school board member (Nicole Hawkins, who also serves on the KASB Legislative Committee) who talked about their own motivations – “Why I do, what I do” – and projected a palpable sense of service, a desire to give back to their community.
Education: What I learned from others
Despite being an interloper from Topeka, I was welcomed into a table discussion with district staff and a parent. Most were early childhood/elementary teachers, and they shared some serious concerns. One of the biggest was the delay in identifying preschool and kindergarten children who need special services.
The problem is not when students don’t know their numbers or letters, or colors or even as many words as other children: “We can teach them those things. That’s our job.” It’s when young children can’t get along with other kids, or are continually anxious, afraid or angry; making it impossible for them to begin learning and disrupting the classroom or frightening others. It can take weeks or months to go through the process of evaluating and referring these children for special education or other services.
“I think parents try to do their best,” said one teacher. “The problem is they don’t know what to do, or where to get help, or even know if they need help.” These still young educators were unsure why such problems seem to be getting worse. They suggest parents may simply be busier with demands of work or have less support or instruction from their parents or other family members than previous generations: “If you’re exhausted yourself, it may just be easier to give your child a screen (phone or other device) to amuse them, rather than play with them or give them activities that make time.”
That is why these teachers rank expanding early childhood programs so high among their priorities, to assist parents and other caregivers in the community and to identify students with social, emotional or developmental issues earlier.
Validation: New Resources, School Redesign, Student Success, Stronger Kansas
As previously posted, KASB has suggested a “formula for success” based on input from school leaders and legislators and on state educational goals.
New resources will support quality educators, equity in student achievement, safe and healthy students, preparation for postsecondary education and careers, and efficient organizations responsive to local needs. Redesigned schools will promote student success skills by partnering with families, business and community to provide more individualized and “real world” education. Student success will have multiple measures, and support state, community and individual prosperity.
Results of Goddard’s local strategic planning input matched very closely. High priorities are attracting and retaining outstanding teachers, expanding early childhood, improving special education, addressing social, mental health and behavior issues; strengthening relationships with area colleges, and working with business and community organizations. There was little concern about test scores, but great emphasis on students graduating with real world skills and living as happy, healthy, adults engaged in their community.
School board member Hawkins said it best on why she ran for the school board. “I know what I wanted for my children. I just want to give all children the same things. Really, what else can you ask for?”