Our Journey to "Success for All"
Over the past several months, I have been doing some reading about culture, causing me to reflect on my life experiences and how they have shaped the lens in which I view the world. More importantly, the reading has caused me to consider how these experiences and this acquired knowledge are reflected in my behavior and responses to situations and people.
Culture controls our behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside of our own awareness and beyond our conscious control. Regardless of our background, all of us bring a "cultural lens" or values, norms and traditions which affect how we, as individuals or as a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about our world. When I put this in the context of being an instructional leader in the Okemos Public Schools (OPS), I started to consider how this impacts our work . . .
Our diversity includes gender, race, cultures, ethnicity, socio-economic, sexual orientation, religion, limited English proficient learners, disabilities etc . . . As a culturally or diversity enhanced school district, OPS needs to ensure we are meeting the academic, social, emotional and behavioral needs of all of our students. As educators and as a school community, we need to examine and reflect on our relationships, curriculum, instructional strategies, policies and practices to promote the success of every child.
I truly believe that we all have good intentions to bring about the changes needed in an educational environment that desires to promote the success of all students. Good intentions and awareness are wonderful qualities. However, this "good will" must be accompanied by an enhanced understanding of cultural impacts, broadened instructional knowledge, the implementation of evidence based strategies, as well as the courage to embrace and commit to the belief that "we can do better!"
The concept of "promoting the success of every child" is multifaceted and continues to be our focus in 2013-14.
Culturally competent and responsive school environment (Strategic Plan: Diversity and Curriculum and Instruction) - We are committed to creating a culturally competent and responsive school environment where students, staff and community recognize, embrace, celebrate, appreciate and value the diverse attributes and identities of each other. The 2013-14 school year will involve foundational work to continue to create a safe environment to self reflect and to engage in open and honest conversations regarding this topic. Our focus will include identifying and defining our "current reality", understanding the issues, reflecting on our practices and identifying impactful strategies. We want to ensure that as individuals and as a system we are responding respectfully and effectively to children of all cultures, languages, socio economic backgrounds, races, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, religions, genders, sexual orientation and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms and values the worth of individuals, families and communities.
We need to gain an accurate understanding of "where we are" and to develop a vision for "where we need to go." We will build awareness and understanding through professional development, self reflection, data analysis, research review and surveys. A district level advisory committee comprised of members with diverse perspectives or cultural lenses will be established with the intent of informing meaningful and relevant action. It is through our conscious and deliberate focus on promoting a culturally responsive environment this year and beyond that we can continue our commitment to promoting the success of all of our students.
Substance Abuse and Our Youth (Strategic Goal: Social Issues) - Our commitment to addressing the issue of substance abuse and our youth remains strong. We recognize that alcohol and drugs are accessible by our students and that some are choosing to use these substances in a variety of settings, for a variety of reasons. As a school community, we are determined to make every effort to establish a culture that promotes healthy and informed choices. During the 2011-12 school year, the Okemos Substance Abuse Prevention (OSAP) committee was established to develop a strategic plan specifically for this issue. During the 2012-13 school year, the 2013-16 Strategic Plan was finalized and adopted by the Board of Education. A copy of the strategic plan can be found on the homepage of the district's website (http://www.okemosschools.net).
Very early in the process, we defined our mission: "Together. . .students, families, staff and community will sustain a focused effort to promote healthy, informed choices on the issues of alcohol and substance use." Our mission and vision are reflected in the goals and strategies that will focus the school community's work on the following critical issues: Communication, Education, Leadership, Partnership/Outreach and Policies/Practices/Procedures.
The OSAP committee identified their top priorities for the Okemos school community: (1) Communication - Create a school/community environment with on-going (re-current) discussions about alcohol and substance use and (2) Education - Align all prevention education to evidence based best practices - provide a K-12 curriculum that is both educational and interesting to students. This will be the focus of our work during the 2013-14 school year.
We are committed to sustaining our focus and engaging students, parents, staff and community through words and actions in our effort to "establish a culture that promotes healthy and informed choices".
Technology/Security/Transportation Bond (Strategic Goals: Technology and Finance) -
Last year, one focus for the district was to determine our technological needs now and in the future allowing us to deliver relevant and meaningful educational programming and efficient practices and services. Recognizing that we must prepare our students for the 21st century, a committee of school staff, parents and community members researched the topics of personal learning devices, Smarter Balanced Assessment, online learning, digital textbooks, and the Common Core State Standards. As a result of their work, a recommendation was made to the Board of Education that reflected our vision for technology, teaching and learning that will promote the continued excellence expected and embraced within the Okemos Public Schools.
Additionally, we engaged in a proactive process to analyze and evaluate our existing security processes and procedures. We identified both strengths and gaps or areas of focus that needed to be addressed to continue to promote the safety of our students. Finally, it's important that we maintain a safe and efficient bus fleet. Our aging fleet is experiencing more breakdowns and requiring more costly repairs.
After considering the technological, security and transportation needs of our district, as well as the funding required to address these critical needs, the Board of Education decided to pursue a $7.5 million bond. On the November 5, 2013 ballot, our community is being asked to consider this bond proposal. The proposed purchases will enhance our ability to promote the safety of our students, to deliver relevant and meaningful educational programming and to maintain a safe and efficient bus fleet.
Academic growth and performance (Strategic Goal: Curriculum and Instruction and Technology) - The newest accountability scorecards developed by the Michigan Department of Education that link a color code with a school or district are "troubling" on many levels. Based on a complicated, statistical representation of MEAP and MME results, a scale of green (high), lime green, yellow, orange, and red (low) was developed to "label" schools and districts. OPS was originally considered orange, but upon further review has recently been reclassified as yellow. As a highly respected school district within our state and known for our academic excellence, it's difficult to embrace this "judgment" and not just dismiss it as a "mathematical calculation skewed by a weighting system that fails the rational test." However, the positive component of MDE's accountability system is the depth of data that is available to help inform our work! We embrace the value that this adds to our commitment to educating with excellence.
We are able to access and sort the data in meaningful ways, enhancing our understanding of the academic proficiencies of every individual student. This will assist us in our ongoing efforts to review and analyze data from a variety of performance measures, then plan and implement focused strategies to help each child reach his/her potential, including our most at-risk learners. I believe this is truly the intended outcome at the State and certainly at the District level . . . to promote academic proficiency for all of our students, supporting the low performers and challenging the highest performers. To remain one of the top performing districts in the State of Michigan, we will continue to enhance our practices and respond to the identified needs of all of our students, on our journey to excellence... recognizing we have not yet arrived.
I have highlighted four initiatives or areas of focus that will positively impact the educational experience for all of our students: creating a culturally responsive environment, enhancing our technology, security and bus fleet, addressing substance abuse and our youth and promoting the academic achievement and growth of all of our students. The common theme is "success for all", based on understanding and addressing individual needs.
David Koyama, Principal at an elementary school outside of Seattle, truly captured my belief when he stated, "One of my most important functions as a school leader is to transform political jargon like 'no child left behind" into a moral imperative that inspires teachers to work toward justice, not mere compliance." I embrace that sentiment. However, I would change it slightly to more accurately reflect who we are in Okemos. One of OUR most important functions is to embrace the concept of "no child left behind" as a moral imperative that inspires not only teachers, but also staff, students, parents/guardians and our community! After all, we have established a culture of "Together . . . educating with excellence, inspiring learners for life." Our work together will be challenging, but exciting. Together, we will continue to make a difference.