Charter Schools and School Boards…more guest speakers!

This is the reflection I wrote after my School Policy and Governance class a couple weeks ago…I’m posting them here, in part to keep track of them, but also to put ideas out there and generate discussion after the fact among my classmates…

An important aspect of any good leader is his or her ability to understand their personal  strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who are able to delegate tasks  to experts, while contributing their knowledge and experience to the task at hand are ones who understand the true definition of leadership.  Bringing in speakers to explain aspects of school policy and current trends in education is an excellent demonstration of practical pedagogy.  The speakers that shared their expertise with us on October 18th were well versed and obviously passionate about  their contribution to the educational system.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. North Star Academy is leading us up the staircase towards a new version of schools in the 21st century.  It is apparent that the ability to think differently, to be open to progressive trends and to see students first, is the driving force behind this school.  Battling the stigma of the “alternative school” mentality is a challenge, especially in a community that is so deeply rooted in traditional schooling.  I was excited to hear about their policies and programs.  I think they are getting it right.  They understand that we teach children, not subjects; that people are our business, not curriculum, discipline and policy.  Not that the latter three are not important–in fact, they understand that they are crucial to providing the structure through which the school is able to put the student needs’ first–they just seem to understand that the kids need to come first. They understand that how kids learn, the environment in which success is most possible, is number one on the list.  If we don’t understand and respect that, the rest is all just a bunch of binders, detention slips and rhetoric.  One of my favorite quotes from a podcast I recently listened to comes from Kevin Honeycutt.  He says the most important thing to remember when teaching–is that no matter how difficult it is–whether it be designing a lesson, creating an activity, assessing progress–it isn’t about us (as teachers), it is about them (the students).  This simple statement–It’s not about us: it’s about them–is one I have posted above my computer on a simple little sticky note.  It should be the mantra for each and every teacher.  Sure–creating and designing engaging lessons takes extra time, planning and hard work–but that is why we are teachers–to teach, not to take the easiest path.  As professionals we are obligated to continue to learn about best practices in teaching, no matter what the length of our prep period.  I think the core philosophies of North Star Academy are in alignment with this ideal.  It was refreshing (and inspiring) to hear about the opportunities they are providing for our community.

Sean O’Donnell was able to give us some insight and a behind the scenes glimpse into charter schools in Michigan.  Misunderstandings abound with anything new and different.  He provided us with good, clear information that is going to allow me to better communicate exactly how charter schools work.  It is such an interesting concept that has evolved in education and one that I think (and hope) will continue to evolve as it challenges all schools to step up and create successful learning environments for every student.  Understanding the differences between programs that are run by larger businesses versus those that are run from local boards and state funding helped me understand the opportunities that charter schools are able to provide.  Our local residents are soon going to  look for alternatives to public schools if they aren’t able to individulize instruction for students to a greater degree.  I think that a school like the Wilson Academy in Pontiac that attracts students from failing schools is a model for other charter schools to follow.  Schools like North Star Academy provide residents with options.

Within urban areas there are many options for our children.  Magnet schools that focus on specific interest areas are becoming more popular.  Education is moving so rapidly and children are exposed to greater amounts of content at earlier ages.  Why shouldn’t students at the age of fourteen or fifteen be able to learn and study at schools that are more intently focused on their area of interest?  This isn’t to say a well rounded education isn’t important, but in today’s world and the age of Google, how students interact and utilize information is becoming a necessary skill, one that supercedes the rote memorization of facts and information.  Charter schools are able to zero in on this skill and rebuild schools, the structure and inner workings, from the ground up.  If we are to see a true change in education, we must disrupt the current system and find new ways to see the big picture.  We must help people (parents, school board members, teachers, citizens) see schools in a different light.  It is not simply enough to have been “good enough for me” anymore.  We must be excellent learning spaces for the students of today, while always looking at tomorrow.

I’ve always been interested in the historical perspective when considering the role of school boards in education.  Understanding that schools were started by communities to provide education to the children of their members is important to keep in mind when considering the role of school board members today.  I have concerns with the fact that there are no educational requirements to be a school board member.  Medical boards, law review boards and even boards in the state certified plumbing and heating industry all have educational requirements for their board members.  As teaching has grown into a professional occupation, one that requires sound demonstration of good pedagogy and deep understanding of the science of learning, it seems as though school board members should, at the very least, hold some sort of post-secondary degree.  Their ability to understand policy, school law, sound educational practices and the foundations of educational curriculum seems, at minimum, critical to making good decisions as a member of the school board.  I was pleased to listen as Shelley Ovink and Paula Saari both indicated that they felt that school board members need to be educated on the current issues in education.  The information they shared with us in regards to the school board associations and the services they provide to local districts was helpful and enlightening.  It was interesting to hear them convey their passion and concern for issues that impact our local districts.

Reinforcing Fowler’s stance on policy and it’s importance it plays in schools, Saari and Ovink shared concrete examples of how policy effects procedures and overall operations within schools.  Their insight left me with many questions for our own school board.  I am curious as to how often they participate in the educational opportunities offered by the Michigan Association of School Boards. I am wondering just how well the flow of information is between the teachers, administration and school board members in the Negaunee district.  Often I seek Jim’s opinions and thoughts on issues.  After class on Saturday, I am thinking that the development of a communication system between teachers and the school board to share information would be a positive implementation into our current system.  Too often the only dialogue between teachers and the board is in regards to contractual issues and negotiations.  This isn’t always a positive interaction.  It would be nice if we could open up the lines of communication to encompass a discussion that allowed for a more positive relationship in order to improve student learning.  After all, once again, it’s not about us–it’s about them.

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