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Tiger Talk: Superintendent responds to recent PR-B issues

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Pine River-Backus Schools has received a lot of media coverage in the last few weeks – most regarding controversial and complex issues. As Tim Walker noted at the end of the Oct. 21 meeting, regardless of your position, passion for education and children is good.

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In order to ensure a fair analysis of the topics, I felt compelled to share some additional information.

MCA III – l’ve attached several documents to the district webpage that can be helpful: MCA Parent Fact Sheet and the Interpretive Guide for 2012-2013 Minnesota Assessment Reports.

It’s important to remember that these were new tests and they can’t be compared to past tests. The new MCAs were designed to assess more challenging and rigorous reading and math standards. And, the former “three attempts and take the best score option” was no longer available in math.

Dips were to be expected and the 2012-13 data is a new starting point. The Minnesota Department of Education tells us that “these tests are just one piece of the overall picture of how students and schools are doing. Nothing can replace talking to your child’s teacher, reviewing their daily work and visiting your child’s school.”

I do not believe it’s a fair comparison to look at our neighboring districts and say we should have done better. Not only does the demographic data matter, the statistical analysis becomes less and less reliable the smaller the population – our overall population is small by statistical standards.

In addition, given the state’s student reporting system, we include Pequot Lakes alternative students' scores with ours – nothing can be done to change that.

Parents should look at their child’s scores and talk with their child’s teachers to make decisions about proficiency and goal setting. Parent conferences are scheduled for Nov. 7 (high school and elementary) and Nov. 14 (elementary only). Make sure you take the opportunity to meet with your child’s teachers.

There is no doubt in my mind that students are working hard and doing their best and that our teachers were on target with instruction.

iPads – The district’s adoption of iPads as tools for learning was recommended by a team of teachers who studied options, looked at costs and benefits, and piloted a test program. The iPads were never intended to replace teachers, but only to enhance instruction and give students today’s tools to do today’s work.

Everyone knew there would be a learning curve and that the implementation would not only take time, but change as the technology advanced. The district has provided multiple training opportunities and the technology coordinator is always on hand to provide student and staff support.

The iPads are a small part of a big package and while some may question the iPads, many more are excited for the opportunity provided to their students.

Teacher leadership – The district has honored teacher leadership teams for many years. All decisions regarding curriculum and instruction are filtered through these teams, which include 18 of our teachers.

We have two teams – the Elementary Leadership Team (ELT) and the High School Leadership Team (HSLT). The teams actually meet together four times each year. Separately, the ELT and HSLT meet every other week and discuss and recommend solutions to educational, instructional and curricular issues.

Teachers also work in PLCs where they choose topics and work collaboratively to refine instruction based on data. We have several local assessments beyond the MCAs that we use to keep a pulse on student progress. Teachers are compensated – as they should be — for the extended time needed to do this critical work and usually self-select to fulfill ELT or HSLT obligation.

Communications and Transparency – All PR-B staff members receive my weekly Board Notes, which are extensive and include coverage of board committee meetings, administrative meetings, state department directed initiatives, federal directives and much more!

Items that are on the horizon usually make the notes as soon as I know about them and there is a regular report on items being processed. Teachers and support staff can respond to me at any time – and they often do offer insight and suggestions – for which I am grateful.

Scheduling and Resources – Scheduling is hard given contractual obligations — teachers must have prep time to do their work – and student groupings. We do our best and we make it work at both the high school and elementary school.

If resources allowed for more teachers and smaller classes, we would certainly embrace those options, but we are limited in what we can spend annually.

Contracts – I do not believe there is a set rule for how or in what order contracts are negotiated in our district. It seems every year it’s a little different.

This year, the Affordable Care Act certainly pushed us to get the job done, as our employees have to make decisions regarding their health care choices and it is only fair for them to fully understand the options.

With regard to my contract, it is standard for superintendents to begin negotiations at the beginning of the last year of the contract. Superintendents do not have continuing contract rights and should the contracts not be renewed, they need time to make decisions about their future employment. There has been no budging – only intentional getting the work done as timely as possible.

Specials – It would be a sad day to see the arts, extracurriculars, field trips or celebrations curtailed. These are the events that build our school and community pride. These are the opportunities that change a child and build dreams.

Reducing education to core curriculum delivered only in a classroom would be a huge step backwards. I was talking with a science teacher this week. We were discussing the meaning and reason for understanding “Moles” in Chemistry. I suspect most adults – with the exception of chemists – don’t really remember all the details … they know where to look it up should they need to, but why do we need to standardize the measurement of atoms? (I guess I don’t remember why and my father was a chemist!)

And yet, we always remember those class trips or the homecoming dance or the ROAR rally when we ALL danced to "Eye of the Tiger."

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