Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflections - Empowerment School Tour, October 2014

On Friday, I returned from a whirlwind tour with 26 others to four school districts in five days - Los Angeles Unified School District, Alliance College Ready Public Schools in LA (an alliance of 26 charter schools), Clark County School District in Las Vegas, and Edmonton School District in Alberta, Canada.  The visit was capped by a visit to Michael Strembitsy School in Edmonton. What an incredible learning and professional development opportunity for me!

The purpose of this trip was to learn more about school empowerment, defined as placing responsibility for decision-making in the hands of those who are most impacted - those at the school level. Empowerment is more than just being responsible for one's budget.  It means engaging the school community in meaningful discussions about how money is spent, staffing decisions, and curricular and instructional decisions to ensure quality teaching and learning at that particular school. It means that schools will be more accountable for their decisions especially those that focus on student achievement.

The larger issue of what school empowerment means and how it is implemented in our Department is being discussed  and must involve all of us who value education in Hawaii. We have elements of empowerment through our School Community Councils and the ability to create a Financial Plan to address the needs of our individual schools.  However, top-down mandates are still common and can be discouraging to the school especially when they are in direct conflict with the culture of the school.

As a school leader, I work with our school community to address the needs of our school, Every school is unique, and one size doesn't fit all. As the principal of Hale Kula Elementary School, I have the responsibility to ensure that our Academic and Financial Plan reflects the individuality of our school so that all students can be successful.

Sustainability in education is not as easy as it sounds. The Edmonton Public Schools had 22 years under Mr. Strembitsky's leadership as Superintendent. His tenure and strong core belief in school empowerment ensured its sustainability. Principals and leaders in the Edmonton system shared that a few years ago, when a Superintendent brought in an external provider to increase student achievement, that top-down mandate was a challenge for those who had been raised in an empowered system.  Today, school communities in Edmonton are once again empowered to create a strategic plan (modeled after the District plan) that is tailored for their school and are accountable for their results.

I do believe that one's experiences as a teacher define how one leads as an administrator. I was fortunate in that I started my career as a Head Start teacher, a program created as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty. We were expected to involve parents in their child's education; we worked hand-in-hand with a social worker and public health nurse to address individual needs of students and families. We had a nutritionist and dental hygienist on staff as well as others who provided services to individual students with special needs. Head Start provided students with a preschool experience so they would be more successful when they started kindergarten. I was empowered as a teacher; I knew the non-negotiables, but I could design my curriculum based on the needs of my students and use data to drive my instruction.

I believe that school leaders must empower our teachers if we want them to empower their students. As a school leader, it is my job to take mandates from the State or District and mold them so they make sense for our teachers. It is not easy to maintain empowerment in the face of top-down mandates, but we have done so by protecting our teachers and encouraging their continued growth as educators in areas they have personally identified for themselves. At Hale Kula, the Common Core State Standards guide our instruction, but teachers have flexibility in how they teach and what resources they use.  All grade levels have a matrix for the year and a pacing guide to keep them on-track.  Teachers meet to agree on assessment tasks, and they review data to determine next steps. As far as a school-wide focus, we are especially proud of how we are using technology as a tool for teaching and learning.  Check out a presentation our library media specialist created to demonstrate how we have empowered our teachers and students to use technology effectively to share their learnings.

Our school vision states "Hale Kula empowers learners to explore, discover, create, and share."  This applies to all of us - adults and children - so we can continue to learn and grow.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Learning from Other School Districts

The Education Institute of Hawaii was recently formed to discuss issues and impact policies related to improving our public education system.  I was asked to be part of a fact-finding traveling delegation to visit Los Angeles Unified School District, Alliance for College Ready Schools (Los Angeles), Clark County School District (Las Vegas), and Edmonton Public Schools.  The purpose is to learn more from school districts that successfully implement empowerment and transformative practices as well as to learn about what didn't work and why so we don't make the same mistakes.

The Legislature passed Act 51 back in 2004, and Hawaii schools now receive funding based on a weighted student formula. Schools have some authority over how to spend these funds although most of the allocation is spent on personnel. Each school has a School Community Council whose primary purpose is to assist with developing and monitoring the Academic Plan. Act 51 was supposed to "reinvent" education in Hawaii, but schools have not really changed much. 

This was not the case at the two Clark County Schools I visited.  One was an International School where students received instruction for half the day in English and for the other half in Spanish.  The goal was to have students fully fluent in both languages by the third grade.  Another Clark County School I visited is a charter school for Science. The school prides itself on the opportunities it provides for students in STEAM - science, technology, engineering, art, and math. I wonder if this could work in Hawaii, to have some schools specialize and to offer families choices, based on the interests or strengths of the child. 

At our pre-trip meeting today, we were asked to think about some of the questions we have.  In our delegation, we are a diverse group with different perspectives on education, so there will be a range of questions. Here are a few of the questions I'll be thinking about during our visitations:
  • What exactly does school empowerment mean?  
  • School choice appears to be an important part of these school districts. Can we offer choices in Hawaii? How would school choice work in our statewide system?
  • Are parents and the community more invested and involved in their child's education if they have a choice in which one would be the best fit for their child?
  • What special training do principals need to be effective administrators in an empowered school system?
  • Are there "specialty" schools in these districts (e.g. Gifted/Talented, Performing Arts, etc.)? If so, how are students selected for these schools?
  • The State presently is responsible for services such as transportation, food services, special education, and Title I. Who handles these services in an empowered school system?
  • And the most important question - Has school empowerment positively impacted student achievement? What does the data show?
This is a great opportunity to positively impact our public school system here in Hawaii, and I am honored to have been asked to participate.