Q&A: Enrollment, student achievement among candidates’ concerns
1. What is the biggest issue facing the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District right now?
Joe Arness, District 3-Nikiski: On an ongoing basis, the biggest issue/threat to our programs is the continuing decline in overall enrollment in our schools.
Bill Holt, District 7-Central Peninsula: The banner that is displayed at our school board meetings says "Kids First". Finding ways for students to succeed is always the focus and biggest issue of our School District. Everything the school board does, including Budget development, Curriculum revisions and audits, Policy revisions, Assessments, School activities, Etc. Are all really about finding the best way to educate our kids. This does not just mean meeting the grade level expectation minimums but developing self directed students with the ability to critically think for themselves. The education they receive here has to be valuable.
It has been shown that the most important factor in determining a successful school experience is a good teacher. Many of our experienced KPBSD teachers are reaching retirement age and we need to assure that the newer teachers are receiving the support and professional development they will need to fill those shoes and even go beyond the good work that has been done in the past and that the experienced teachers still with us have the means to continually improve and re-assess their strengths and weaknesses.
Penny Vadla, District 4-Soldotna: Like educational institutions all across the country, many pressing issues face our school district: budgetary constraints, school safety, graduation rates, class size, academic and vocational class offerings, and early intervention to name just a few.
One of the issues facing the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is the continuous challenge to meet the needs of all of the students who attend school in the District. Geographically, we are a large district where one size does not fit all so we must continuously focus on the individual needs of students by offering a wide variety of educational options.
2. What is the Board doing to address that issue?
Arness: As the various sites adjust down to wherever those enrollments are going to stabilize we are actively making plans for that eventuality. While we cannot really create more children to consume our services, we can endeavor to make certain that what we are offering will appeal to the widest variety of students possible. The chief issues involved in enrollment declines are; money in that our funding is directly related to students and; facilities use in that as enrollment declines there may need to be decisions made to conserve dollars related to "underused" buildings.
In the short term, it is our intent to adopt a conservative stance insofar as expansion of program is concerned. We have adopted the concept of "the whole" referring to the current index of available services and we intend to protect that "whole" insofar as possible as our revenues decrease due to student declines.
Concurrent with that effort we have evaluated and instituted guidelines which would trigger building closures should that become necessary. That is a very divisive issue and a conversation which doesn't need to be held at this time as our buildings are well utilized and closure of any (with the possible exception of Cooper Landing) is not warranted at this time...nor in the forseeable future.
Holt: The board and the administration have been working on better ways to evaluate teacher performance that provides for meaningful input from the teachers and gives those teachers better techniques and opportunities for self-improvement. Instead of the old "top down" evaluation model it places administrators and teachers on the same team, looking for ways to improve teaching practices. This framework will lead to better collaboration between the teachers and administrators. Self directed teachers, like self-directed students, have greater confidence in their own education and are free to find many more creative channels to succeed.
Collaboration is the key component of this evaluation technique. Collaboration is also a key component in all aspects of professional development. It is important that teachers be provided the time and encouragement to collaborate with each other. The Board and administration can work together to assure that this extra time is not just tacked onto an already full work schedule.
Vadla: To address this issue, we support choice and provide a wide range of opportunities for students in our schools by offering programs to meet individual strengths, needs, and challenges.
3. Adequate Yearly Progress is one way to measure the district. What other means are there of measuring the district's performance?
Arness: The obvious answer is the plethora of standardized tests which our district uses to monitor the progress of the students in our care. Actually, within the AYP program there is an enormous amount of information which actually yields a vast amount of information...if not a large amount of headlines (for instance that by most measures we achieved AYP in both of the last two years). I've also been around long enough to realize that a significant measure of our District's performance can be found by simply taking a bit of a measure of the community's attitude. In my opinion, the community is more content with our District than they have been at times in the past, and that would indicate that we must be doing some things pretty well.
Holt: AYP is just one way to measure a district, but it can be somewhat misunderstood. The assessments used to measure AYP are standardized tests but the test results MUST show improvement each year for the district to meet AYP. The bar is raised every year until the year 2014 when the bar will reach the 100% proficiency level. The students in our district have generally improved scores in every tested subject area. However, the results have not shown great enough improvement in all the subgroups for the entire district to meet AYP for the second year. We did meet AYP this year in grades 3-8, which is an improvement over last year. Our average test scores are well above the state averages and we have demonstrated improvement every year.
Graduation, retention and attendance rates are another way to measure a districts performance. The Board is working hard to improve these. The school district is trying to find ways to keep students in school that might otherwise fall through the cracks. The Connections Home School program, performance based education model, the elementary charter schools and the review of the Career and Technical Education model are some of the ways the district is striving to improve our performance and assure that no child is left behind.
Last year we elected to have a Curriculum Audit look at our entire district to assess our performance. The district is now working on making improvements in the areas brought to light by this audit.
Vadla: The important issue to remember regarding AYP is that it is meaningless unless a school district uses the information to address strengths and weaknesses in educational programs in order to plan and strategize ways to improve educational practices in schools.
While AYP is one way to measure the success of the district's performance, other measures provide a broader perspective: HSQE scores that are among the highest in the state, Analytical Writing Assessment scores that continue to improve, SBA scores that are in the 80%, high SAT scores ranking in the state, and more. More importantly, other programs such as expanded distance education offerings, upper level classes, Jump Start college offerings, programmatic staffing changes within the schools, the Workforce Development programs, Gifted programs, and more provide another window by which to view the successful performance of the District.
4. What are some of your goals for the next term?
Arness: While I believe that our District ship is sailing fairly smoothly now, I am aware that we are going to encounter some rough sailing over the next few years. As our funding levels out and may even decline by some measures, we will be forced to determine how to continue to deliver "the whole" program with less resources. Our policies are in a constant state of review/rewrite and in doing that we will endeavor to deliver a better service to the community. This coming year the District will enter into negotiations with all of its organized employee groups and the direction of those discussions will have an enormous impact on future operations of the schools in our organization.
The interesting portion, however, of being on the Board in a District such as ours is that we never know what sort of issue will be next. Hence, I suppose my primary goal for the next term would simply be to appropriately respond to whatever crises come our way and to give a positive measure of support to the Administration in their direct operation of the District.
Holt: I am very excited about the focus being placed on Career and Technical Education. At a recent meeting with members of the community, school district, labor department, the university and other stakeholders to discuss ways to best utilize the increased state funding for career education we came up with some achievable goals for technical education. I think the most important goal is to align the curriculum for technical education with the core curriculum. This makes sense. If a student can see and apply the connection between a technical education and academics it will go a long way to graduating qualified young adults with the skills to go on to college or to pursue further training for a skilled career. This will make sense to the students who ask, "Why am I learning this stuff?"
Performance based education has proven itself successful for some students and several of our district schools are adopting this model to use, even in their traditional school settings. A performance based writing curriculum has been developed for elementary schools as well as math and technical curriculums for grades 7-12. I think this is exciting and the students I have spoken to like taking the lead in their own education and working at their own speed. This may not be something we should jump into with both feet as a district but as a Board member I am excited to continue working with this program and can see it evolving into a widely used educational model.
Vadla: My goals for the upcoming term are to achieve success in the goals that we, as a Board, have established for the 2011-2012 school year: review and revise Board Policy 0210 'Goals of Student Learning', implement the recommendations of the curriculum management audit, continue working with KPB Assembly to develop a long-term funding process to guide the local contribution to the school district, and to participate in the District Communication Strategic Plan.
Other personal goals I aspire to achieve include working on the budget process, working with the new Communications Director, working with the Administration on new collaborative efforts, and working with and visiting more schools in the District. I have already had the pleasure of visiting many schools in the District, and I am always pleasantly impressed with the quality of our schools, principals, teachers, programs, and students.