By Betty Hernandez
The third Coffee and Conversation with representatives from the Kenosha Unified School District took place Wednesday evening, August 17, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Carolyn’s Coffee Connection. Attending from KUSD were Ms. Mary Snyder, Board President; Ms. Jo Ann Taube, Board Vice President; Mr. Carl Bryan, Board Treasurer; Mr. Robert Nuzzo, Board Member; Dr. Michele Hancock, School Superintendent; Assistant Superintendents Daniel Tenuta and Karen Davis, who oversee secondary and primary school programs; Ms. Tina Schmitz, Director of Finance; Gary Vaillancourt, Chief Communications Officer, and Mrs. Heather Connolly, Principal of Frank Elementary School. The atmosphere was lively and animated, and those who attended addressed their concerns and offered suggestions that were well received and addressed by school board members and superintendents.
Topics of discussion included school policies and procedures on hiring and the appropriate use of materials in classroom instruction, a new testing procedure to track student achievement, the restructuring of curriculum to meet new core curriculum standards, ways in which curriculum may be affected by budget reduction, school year extensions for two KUSD elementary schools, new ways that technology is assisting in the classroom, and special education.
School Board members and Dr. Hancock responded to a statement regarding a hiring decision that was made in which a qualified person was not employed. The school board and Dr. Hancock are not necessarily directly involved in hiring decisions. They trust the people who are in charge of hiring personnel for a particular position and, upon recommendation by hiring committees and personnel who are responsible for a particular position, will approve a candidate presented for hire. Situations where qualified people are not hired may be due to confidential circumstances that come to light that prohibit the hire. Confidential circumstances remain confidential and are not addressed with school board members or Dr. Hancock, who trust the judgments made by those committees.
A concerned parent raised the issue of materials, books, and movies that contain content unsuitable for students. Both KUSD School Board Members and Dr. Hancock agreed that movies that contain content unsuitable for a given age group should not be shown. Dr. Hancock stated, and the Board agreed, that the appropriateness of movies being show in the classrooms is important and has been recently addressed in new school policies. School policy requires that notices are to be sent home that announce when these materials will be used and a form is made available to parents who wish to opt out and request that their child be excluded from participation. Students who return these forms to school will be placed in another class that is teaching the same lesson without the extra material. Dr. Hancock stated that educators need to have the mindset that promotes the attitude that parents should be involved. “Film,” she said, “is one of the most effective tools to use to teach conceptual ideas because it teaches children to be reflective and use thought processes to learn the lesson. However, it needs to be used wisely and the message needs to be clear as to how it relates to what the student is being taught.” She also explained that technology allows teachers to slice and dice the films and edit out the inappropriate parts, which should not be shown in the classroom. It is apparent that some teachers may not be making wise choices and Dr. Hancock will address this issue with all school administrators and review the policy. When educators refuse to follow the protocol, action will be taken.
Changes in Testing – MAP®
A discussion was raised concerning students entering Parkside, who need remedial instruction to facilitate their ability to take college courses. It appears that children who don’t reach the levels of the state standards are missing out on their education because nothing is being done about it. The students then go to college and are unable to relate to the college courses because what they should have learned in K-12 has not been learned. An example was provided in which a student who is calculator dependant does not have adequate math skills.
Dr. Hancock said that the answer lies in educators stressing learning fundamentals. She said, “You don’t teach a class – you teach kids!” Measures are being put in place to address the individual needs of students rather than the collective needs of the classroom. A new testing system, Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®), is in place that will provide detailed information about individual achievement levels and where a child is in the learning process. Test results will help teachers identify what each student is ready to learn and the opportunity will be made available to each student. Assessments will be made in reading, mathematics and language, and science assessments will include concepts, processes, and general science. This type of testing will help educators identify gaps in learning and prevent the need for remedial courses at the college level.
Standards and Cutbacks in Curriculum
Wisconsin has adopted the Common Core Standards that were developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). These new standards will play a part in establishing new curriculum guidelines. The bigger thing being considered right now when revising curriculum is to include material that teaches students how to think about critical things in order to prepare them for life in the real world. The new standards require that these skills be included when planning curriculum.
Curriculum revision during a time of financial cutbacks raises the question of what portions may be eliminated because of budget cuts. Upon being asked about cutbacks, Dr. Hancock said that the school superintendent in conjunction with the leadership council makes the ultimate decision concerning curriculum inclusion and cuts, and the School Board makes the final decision. She added that when cutbacks are necessary, we must keep in mind the values offered by education. When considering subjects such as art, music, drama, or sports, we must think about the value that these courses offer our students and the ways they help them develop into adults. Arts, music, drama and sports all require team work and creativity – elements that are important to learning about the things we need to know to participate in the adult world. If cutbacks must be made, they will be made across the board, taking small pieces from each group and not eliminating anything entirely. We may have less content, but the course material will still be taught in effective ways. Teamwork is important in sports. Teamwork and creativity are important in art, music, and drama – this is real world teaching. If we must make cuts, we will share the pain and make small cuts across the board. We have to keep thinking positively.
Dr. Hancock maintains that as things are restructured in the school district, students will be considered first within that structure, and opportunities presented by the current situation will be explored. “We have had some challenging moments, but we will continue to build toward total competence.”
Special Education (SPED)
Dr. Hancock mentioned that one way to cut budget costs is for teachers to stop referring children who do not need special education. Some children may need a special service, and that should be provided, but they don’t necessarily need special education. It is important for teachers to advocate for the child. Children who are considered to be subpar and labeled so, are “dummied down.” We don’t want to dummy down, we want to motivate them to excellence.
A teacher’s job is to open up the world for children. Regular classroom teachers can teach many of the children who are currently labeled as “Special Ed” and our teachers are being trained in ways to handle these situations. The goal is to help children get out of SPED and into regular classrooms. To accomplish this, KUSD is organizing support for teachers to handle special education situations in the classroom that will help to lower costs.
Technology in the classroom is opening up new opportunities for dealing with special needs in larger classrooms. Teachers are currently being trained to use Skype to help deliver lessons to the students in the classroom who are not struggling so that teachers can work in different ways with the students who need more help.
Extended School Years
Frank and Wilson Elementary Schools have started early. The school year will be longer, and there will be more and shorter breaks. The breaks are being spread out over the school year. Dr. Hancock explained that in order for schools to have an extended school year, all school administration, staff, and parents must be solidly behind the change from traditional school year. State law requires a waiver to adjust the school year for any school, and all requirements were satisfied for these changes to take place.
Dr. Hancock would like all to know that she regrets that pink slips had to be handed out due to budget cuts this year. She particularly admires and respects those teachers who stayed in the classroom and didn’t transform their personal problems into problems for their students. It is not professional to bring personal or political problems into the classrooms. She said she is extremely proud to be associated with that kind of teacher, and she will not forget who they are.
Coffee and Conversation with KUSD was an animated, lively, and informative meeting. School board members actively discussed policies, talked about ways in which to obtain funding, and showed themselves to be members of an entity at work in an active think tank, dedicated to the promotion of quality education in Kenosha. Dr. Hancock said that despite all the problems this year, she has enjoyed the challenges and sees them as opportunities to find new ways to teach students. She added that reducing costs can help students because it requires teachers to use quality instead of quantity. “As we restructure things in the school district, we will be putting the students first in the structure and looking at the opportunity that the current situation is presenting. We have had some challenging moments, but we will continue to build toward total competence.”
As the evening drew to a close, a concerned parent who is new to the state and will be enrolling her special needs child in elementary school came in to discuss her concerns. Karen Davis, Superintendent in charge of Elementary Education, sat down, obtained information necessary to determine what school the student will be place in, and discussed the details with the parent. She described the school, its specialty, who the teacher will be and how the student’s needs will be met, what the parents can expect, and other resources that are available to meet the need. This is a prime example of the advantages that can be gained when members of a school district opens up its doors and invite the public to come and work with them.
Coffee and Conversation with KUSD will take place again on September 21st at Carolyn’s Coffee Connection. We hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to join in the ongoing communication and collaboration with Kenosha’s educators as they redesign education to meet today’s need. In the meantime, you can follow current events on KUSD’s website at http://www.kusd.edu/ and its Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/kenoshaschools.