Monday, December 12, 2016

All Roads Lead to Dighton

Dighton, Kansas  (population 1,023) is the county seat of Lane County, about three-quarters of the way heading west across Kansas on Hwy 96.  The district covers 619 square miles of Lane County. Since it is about 40 miles west of Bazine, where I started teaching, and about 60 miles east of Leoti, my first superintendency, I have been through Dighton many times.  The most memorable time was when I was with a busload of track athletes from Bazine and we stopped for gas at the Dighton Bowl/Quick Shop.  Those young Bazine kids had their tender sensibilities offended when a passing car mooned them.  Until recently, when I thought of Dighton, I thought moonings.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a legislative forum in Johnson County.  Newly-elected Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman introduced several dignitaries in attendance, including Majority Leader Don Hineman and Senator Jim Denning.  The Speaker pointed out that all three have roots in Western Kansas: Meade, Dighton and Great Bend.  From my seat in the back, I spotted District 23 Representative Linda Gallagher, Dighton; former Blue Valley Board Member Tony Thill, Ellinwood; Basehor-Linwood Superintendent David Howard, Fairfield; and Emporia Assistant Superintendent Rob Scheib, Dighton. Western Kansas was pretty well represented, especially Dighton.

I began to think that maybe all roads lead to Western Kansas, and more specifically, to Dighton.  Dighton is home to Majority Leader Don Hineman, a great friend of education.  His sister, Linda Gallagher, represents Johnson County District 23 in the House of Representatives and is also a supporter of public education.  That is pretty good representation for a town of just over 1,000 people.  

But that is just a start. Randy Weseman, longtime superintendent of the Lawrence public schools, current KASB staff member and a former Dighton Hornet himself, got his start as a guitarist with the “famed” band “The Stingers” at age 16.  Mike Cook, executive director of the ESSDACK service center in Hutchinson, is also proud Hornet. As was Mike’s dad Al, a standout member of the KASB Worker’s Compensation board of trustees for many years.  Rob Scheib, Emporia USD 253 assistant superintendent, is a Hornet who traces his roots to Lane County farmland.  And who can forget KSDE superstar CTE Director Jay Scott who once roamed the courts and fields of Hornet-land.  Last but not least, Angela Lawrence hails from Dighton and is now superintendent in Russell.  

Now you might be thinking, ‘well, good for Dighton, but why does this matter to me?’  Bear with me, I am getting there.  The good folks of Dighton, Kansas, have elected school boards, built schools, hired teachers and other staff, and paid the bills for hundreds of kids over the past 100 years or so.  Many of the folks who went through those schools are still in Dighton, contributing to the community. Many more have ventured farther afield. And based on the handful of folks I know, Kansas has benefited from the investment made by Dighton’s residents through the years.

  • Johnson County has benefited from Linda Gallagher’s representation in the House of Representatives.
  • Lawrence has benefited from the leadership of Randy Weseman.
  • Emporia has benefited from the knowledge and skills of Rob Scheib.
  • KASB has benefited from the wisdom and insights of Al Cook.
  • Central Kansas has benefited from the vision of Mike Cook.
  • Russell has benefited from the leadership of Angela Lawrence.
  • Kansas has benefited from the education direction set by Jay Scott.
  • Kansas will benefit from the wisdom, leadership and collaborative spirit of Don Hineman.

There are 286 school districts in Kansas.  Every one of them has similar stories.  Weave them together and you have Kansas, without internal boundaries, all living the American vision of E pluribus unum.  Johnson County educates kids who live all over Kansas.  The rest of Kansas educates kids who move to Johnson County.

Let’s remember this in the months to come.  Parochial interests are a strong pull, but our sense of pride in our state needs to be stronger.  To quote Speaker Ryckman: “The better Meade is, the better Johnson County is.”

Dighton, like all Kansas school districts, has produced contributing members to the whole state.  But the one thing I cannot help but wonder is if any of those Kansas dignitaries were the ones “pressing the ham” in the parking lot of the Dighton Bowl back in 1982?

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Kids Are Listening

My candidate loves hotdogs, apple pie, and baseball.  Your candidate is a: _______________.

(Please choose all that apply.)

Anyone who supports my candidate is a winner.  Anyone who supports your candidate is a _________. (Please choose from the previous list.)

See how quickly the leap is made? It is so easy to label and generalize. 

I have done it, and I am guessing you have, too.  This election stirred up a lot of emotion, but not a lot of thinking.  We seem to have forgotten how to think and act. 

It is time for leaders to start thinking, particularly school leaders.  Not about winners and losers and presidential elections, but about how we are allowing ourselves and others to make inappropriate leaps like the ones described above.

I felt very strongly about the presidential candidates and equally strongly about the outcome of the election. Last week I had lunch with a group of people, two who supported one candidate, the other two who supported the other.  I have known these people for years and respect them and their opinions. I believe two of them were dead wrong about who they supported, two were dead right. They are still my friends.  I still respect them and their opinions, I just don't agree with them.

I've thought a lot about that as I read the paper and social media posts, and heard about kids acting out what they hear from adults.  It is time for adults to show leadership by talking to kids about respecting people, even when we disagree.  It's time to remind them that our democracy is about ideas, dissent, discussion and respect for individual rights.

It's time for us to set an example that schools are a place where we encourage understanding and learning, a place where ideas are explored, discussed and debated. School is not a place where opinions are dictated, or harassment and oppression are tolerated.

Let's take advantage of this opportunity to teach, not tell. It's time for adults to lead. The kids are listening.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Life is a Highway, and We Need a New car

What was your first car? Whether it was an old beater or a new whip, everyone has a special place in their heart for that first ride.  It was 1974, I had just turned 16, and had been picking up dates in a 1954 DeSoto Coronado.  Sure, it had the big Hemi engine, but not exactly the sled that impresses teenage girls.

I had saved some money, and I think my parents felt sorry for me for moving to a new town the summer before my junior year.  The car shopping began in earnest.  There it was, a vision shining before me: a 1969 Chevelle SS convertible for sale!  396 cubic inches, 350 horsepower, stock. A little out of my price range, but I had saved most of the money, would do my homework and stay out of the principal's office- really!  In hindsight I think Max was on board- what a great car!  But alas, mom nixed it because it was a convertible. It’s a safety factor.  My mom the worrier.

The Volkswagen Karman Ghia is a beautiful car.  Most of the body is handmade by the Karman Coach Works in Germany.  But alas, it is a beautiful body on a VW chassis.  The 1971 that I bought was rated at 60 sad little horsepower.  In a drag race, my little Ghia would not keep pace with a three-legged wiener dog. Conklin Cars was the recipient of a check for $1,200 written on my account.  It was hard for a 16-year-old kid to fathom that much money all at once.

In the world of education, like the world of cars, it is not all about looks.  Our state has developed a beautiful vision.  It is based upon input from Kansans of all stripes and is inspires us to do what is best for our kids.  Unfortunately, without a strong engine, Kansans Can is a Karman Ghia, all show and no go.  Two things make an education vision go: the hard work of educators and the resources necessary to do the job.  We know Kansas educators are up to the hard work, so let’s focus on resources.

Historically, Kansas has rewritten its finance formula about every 12-13 years, or if you like coincidences, about every generation of students. The formula is the engine that makes the vision go, and we have an opportunity now to design an improved engine to drive our new vision. I will divert from the VW metaphor now because of their recent issues with the law, and turn to an iconic engine maker- Harley Davidson.

The HD V-twin through the ages.
As we build our new school finance formula, the Harley V-twin is a good model to follow.  It has been a V-twin since the early days of HD, maintaining its basic structure and design.  In our recent tour of the state, KASB gathered data on a school finance formula.  USA/KSSA have been working on a formula.  These efforts revolve around a basic design that has been tried and true, like Harley-Davidson.  But even the traditionalists at HD have made evolutionary and even revolutionary changes to their engines.  They may look similar, but the 2017’s are very different from the 1957’s. 

Kansans have said the basic “old Formula” was good.  Providing funding on a per student basis, providing additional resources for proven additional needs, equity, and local flexibility are all part of that basic V-twin.  During our tour, we asked our members how to improve on that old formula. What they said is that we need to align it with our new vision.

Here’s what our members said the “engine” needs to reward and emphasize:
1.     Kindergarten Readiness
2.     Individual Plans of Study
3.     High school graduation rates
4.     Post-secondary attendance and completion
5.     Social and Emotional Growth
6.     Civic engagement/Character education/Soft Skills
7.     Staff support

For those familiar with Kansans Can, many of those formula enhancements will look familiar.  The suggested improvements align with the following outcomes from the state vision:

Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.

·       Kindergarten readiness
·       Individual Plan of Study based on career interest
·       Graduation rates
·       Postsecondary attendance/attainment
·       Social/emotional growth measured locally

A successful Kansas high school graduate has the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation.

We have a great looking vision.  We are designing a new engine.  We should not be satisfied with putting the old engine back in the newly designed car; otherwise we end up with an all show and no go VW Karman Ghia.  This is our chance, our one chance for this generation of students, to build an improved engine, one that supports the vision, and helps Kansas education become the ultimate driving machine of world education.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lessons Learned on the School Playground

What kid doesn’t have fond memories of the playground? But who knew that so many life lessons were being learned while we were outside enjoying recess? As I sat in the Supreme Court hearing on school finance last week, several old playground lessons came to mind.

When is tattling not tattling? Nobody likes a tattletale, the incessant whiner who ran to the teacher whenever something didn’t go his or her way. But when it is a matter of someone getting hurt, always go to the adult in charge. It is a common refrain that we need to stop the endless litigation over school finance in Kansas. School districts are portrayed as whiners who are never satisfied. The fact is that when kids are getting hurt, the Supreme Court is the adult in charge. Sometimes schools are left with no choice but to appeal to the courts.

The merry-go-round keeps spinning after you stop pushing. The state’s attorney argued that since student achievement continued to improve in spite of decreasing operational funds, money must not matter. The education process is like the merry-go-round, it continues to advance student learning for a while even after the appropriate funding stops. But it will not continue to turn forever.

In fact, the “Kansas schools are fifth in the nation” quote that was offered more than once at the hearing is not longer accurate. According to KASB research, Kansas has dropped to 10th in the nation since the trial started. The merry-go-round has stopped turning and is now going the wrong direction. It will be even tougher to make up the difference needed to turn our system back in a positive direction.

Put me in coach… Another argument made by the defense was that if we just fire all of the bad principals and teachers, education will improve and it doesn’t cost anything. I remember being picked last for softball at every recess. I possess the eye-hand coordination of a two-month-old puppy. No doubt that when someone struck out or missed a fly ball, my peers would like to have replaced the errant player, but when they looked at the bench and saw me sitting there, well, maybe not so much.

Replacing poor teachers sounds good on paper, but at a time when there are around 300 unfilled teaching positions in Kansas, not so much. It will cost money to improve the profession so that we have a strong bench. Kansas teachers have to be paid based upon the strong production we get compared with other states, or fewer and fewer will choose to go into the profession. That takes a long-term investment in our most important profession.

The teeter-totter reveals that not all kids are the same. It will horrify my older (and taller) sister that she once weighed more than me. That ratio reversed about fourth grade, but until that time she enjoyed luring me onto the teeter totter only to strand me at the top and the leap off, causing me to bottom out quickly. Eventually, I learned to only get on if she agreed to slide forward on the board. This simple adjustment corrected an inequitable system.

The state argued for a similar adjustment to the finance system. They argued that if a third of the kids are not meeting standard, we could simply offer less to the higher-level kids- scoot them a little towards the middle. The example offered questioned whether we really need Advanced Placement courses. Teeter-totter economics are not what Kansans want from their finance system.

Soon the Supreme Court will make a decision about the adequacy of the school finance system. Whatever the decision, in poll after poll, Kansans say they want to provide more resources to their public schools. Kansans want their kids to have a world-class education. The way to end the lawsuits is to simply do what the public wants and our children deserve.