I see Unit 4 as a business providing a service to their customers who are the tax payers and parents/guardians of our students. Our students are the product we produce. Any successful business must act as a team if they are going to be successful. Certainly, there can be many disagreements within a business but good companies will work through those issues with an open dialogue. Every member of the company is a valued part of the whole. Also, a good school board will ask questions and ask questions and ask questions. Did I say, ask questions? Take a look at this link describing the eight characteristics of effective school boards. “Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.” Also, “Embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.”
I have worked in the business world for over 36 years starting with my family’s small firm in St. Louis followed by thirteen years with W.W. Grainger and sixteen years with FedEx Services. While my positions were with the sales divisions for all, I have had training/classes in negotiation, finance, technology, cost analysis, internal culture, etc. My wife worked for almost 20 years as a teacher’s aide in a Unit 4 middle school. I am now retired and have the time to give back to the community by working on issues within Unit 4 that have continued for several years.
One of my “hot buttons” has always been how do we break the cycle of poverty? It is a big question that involves society, culture, and a lot more than school. The best way out of poverty is via education and what education leads to. Every study agrees that if a student is not at needed levels for English language arts (ELA) and math by the third grade that they generally stay behind throughout school. Students who do not read at grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. 54.1% of Unit 4 students are considered low income. Over the last four years the Unit 4 report card on third grade students for ELA and math has been declining. Per the ISBE report card, Unit 4 is underperforming compared to the state of Illinois for low income third graders. It has actually been getting worse from 2015 through 2018. In 2018 only 12% of low income 3rd graders were at required levels for ELA, and only 14 % for math. (Illinois Report Card)
Multiple studies show that class size, especially in K-3 grades, is key to improving scores. For grades K-4, and 6-7, Unit 4 average class sizes are above the Illinois state average. Grades 5 and 8 are the same as the state and grades 9-12 are below the state average for class size.
So how do you start? More pre-school. Too many kids are not ready for Kindergarten at age 5 and struggle in a structured classroom. Take a look at what Montgomery County did near Dayton, OH. (Strive Together) I would like to see a pilot program with a limited group of future students who are considered low income. Start with two years of pre-school prior Kindergarten. Then track the student performance on several levels including ELA and math; discipline issues; parent/guardian involvement; social interaction with other students, etc. Assess their progress yearly at every grade level until they take the PARCC testing in the 3rd grade. If there is a positive causal/effectual outcome then consider how to expand the program and to what degree.
Also, I would like to see more options and training for students who won’t get to college, specifically in the trades like electrical, plumbing, general construction, truck driving, etc. There is currently a nationwide shortage of truck drivers, electricians, welders, and plumbers. Create more partnerships with Parkland and local businesses to explore apprenticeships for students. (Center for Public Education) and (Center for Public Education)
Any new programs will have to be revenue neutral. After passing the 2016 Tax Referendum for brick and mortar construction the customers of Unit 4 would not stand for another tax increase. Create a cross section of parents, civic leaders, business, etc. to find any required revenue from existing channels and other options other than a tax increase. One possibility is to explore options for the 80 acres on Olympian Drive which cost the district $3.2M. Could they be sold to raise revenue?
There is too much “rubber stamping” with a lack of transparency by the current board. This is especially evident when discussing and voting on financial issues. The following is an example: During the school board meeting on 12/10/18, at the request of the director of operations and the director of transportation, the board unanimously approved a motion to move $500,000 from a contingency transportation fund into a transportation capital outlay fund. These funds would then be used to replace 17 of 78 school buses in the current fleet. Prior to the vote the board asked the following: Would some buses be leased considering the high cost to purchase? When would they be purchased? Would there be both “long and short” buses? What “bells and whistles” would be included? There will several comments which I will paraphrase: This will help to reduce the number of late school bus stops; The transportation department does a great job; Some of the school buses have hard frame backs on the seats and the seats smell bad. On 12/18/18 the director of accounting services issued a bid letter for 10 seventy-one passenger buses with delivery by 1/25/19. The bid was awarded in early January at a figure of $810,770 and was approved with a consent vote with no discussion during the 1/14/19 board meeting. While the safety of our students and personnel while on our buses is a major priority, if I was on the board in December, I counted a list of 15 questions I would have asked. A summary of those is as follows:
What line item in the 9/24/18 FY2019 budget shows the $500,000 contingency funds? (answer: page 2, line 18)
What line item in the 9/24/2018 FY2019 budget shows the capital outlay for transportation and how many dollars are currently there? (answer: page 3, line 91, and $122,000)
How much will you need to make these purchases?
Guessing that a new bus purchase is in the range of $70-$80,000 how many buses will you purchase and how many will be leased?
What are the financial implications, both short term and long term, for making a purchase versus a lease? Have you done an analysis on which path to ownership is best?
What is the average life expectancy of a bus? A yearly range would be fine.
What is the age range of the remaining 61 buses in the fleet?
Do you anticipate (best guess is fine) that you will need to make more replacements in FY2020 and/or FY2021?
Too often teachers are forced to deal with discipline issues resulting in a lack of teaching the students who want to learn. Stop the random application of discipline rules. Implement and enforce a rule that cell phones remain in lockers all day and are never allowed in classrooms. We need an open dialogue on how to deal with discipline issues. Hopefully discipline issues are a sporadic situation and exist in only one or two schools. However, they can’t be allowed to exist if we are going to be successful. See these comments from a former teacher. I have far more detail but will try to consolidate.
“Here are some behaviors that I experienced in my class DAILY. I had kids who would steal from me and their peers. I had kids who would attack me and other students both verbally and physically. I did not feel like a teacher. I felt like a guard that was trying to make sure that no one got into fights. I had students who would break things in the room, throw things across the room, slam the door, run out of the room and all around the school, hide in the bathroom, etc. I can't even count how many times my students got into fist fights. I once had a group of over 5 students hold down another student with a chair while other students pulled her hair and kicked her. I once had a student lash out at me and cuss me out and hit me…………I also had an extremely small group of kids who were none of these things. They were kind, respectful, and wanted to learn. I was most heartbroken for them because I wanted to give them the education they deserved, but it was impossible. Unfortunately, they were stuck in a room where they just had to sit quietly and forfeit their education because the majority of the kids made it absolutely impossible for me to teach or for anyone to learn……”
Lastly, remember one of the components of a good school board: “Embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.” Don’t be afraid to try something new. If it does not work, change it. If you win enough of the small battles, you will win the war.