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Schools retreat considers policy from a student’s point of view

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools teachers, staff and administrators spent Friday imagining what their schools would look like if the student, not the state Department of Public Instruction, were the prime motivator.

It was Day 2 of the Exploring True Accountability retreat for the school system. A teacher and principal from each school in the system took part as well as administrators and guests.

Most school board members made it for at least one day of the two-day retreat.

Building on Thursday’s discussion, consultant John Tanner presented the concept of the upside-down pyramid, in which the student is the driver and the state bureaucracy is at the bottom of the list.

“If you start with what the student needs, you will succeed every time,” Tanner said. “If you start with what to report to the state, you will not succeed.”

Small groups met several times during the day to identify just what the student does need.

Because participating teachers represented all disciplines, the talked about all kinds of students.

Under Tanner’s guidance, the teachers identified capacities the schools will need to have under the renewal district designation. Next, they identified what evidence would support those goals in order to identify success. Finally, they had to identify the decisions they’d need to make achieve the goals.

The room buzzed with enthusiasm as teachers discussed a new way of thinking.

Among the comments overheard:

• “How do we ensure rigor under this structure?”

• “So, all students complete an interest inventory in high school? No, make that middle school.”

• “Career exploration events, internships, high school visits…”

• “All of these things would demonstrate that the students have an understanding of the material.”

One group’s structure included this statement, which is characteristic of the work created during the day: “We are a school with a capacity to build reading confidence in our students.”

The evidence cited included:

• Choice/options.

• Students excited about reading.

• Becomes a reading buddy to others.

Tanner’s premise that evidence, not data, is used for accountability threatened many teachers’ comfort zones, particularly those who have grown up teaching under the No Child Left Behind model.

Evidence can include test scores, Tanner said, but must include other components like teacher assessment and mastery of other skills. When teachers expressed concern about change, Tanner observed, “We have a lot of unlearning to do.”

At the end of the day, the room was wallpapered with flip-chart paper and every group presented its ideas.

Superintendent Lynn Moody was again pleased with the outcome.

“I think it’s a sobering reminder of how much work we have to do,” Moody said. “There’s a great deal of concern of time to get all the work done. We must remember this is a journey that starts with this accountability engine and move forward from there. I’m very pleased about the conversations about how we make it transformational and not just tweaking around the edges. This kind of work takes deep thinking.”

“When Tanner said, ‘We have a lot of unlearning to do,’ that was profound,” Moody continued. “I’m excited about where we are headed, but I realize how much work lies ahead of us before we can present to the community.”

One of Tanner’s closing statements was, “We are addicted to a number of underlying philosophies, one being rank-ordering. If we drive by a school in a low-income neighborhood that’s kind of beat up, we might assume it’s a bad school. Bias is a trap you’ll fall into a lot. We have to constantly remind ourselves we are full of these biases and avoid them.”

Next steps

Moody told the group that RSS staff will compile all information developed during the retreat. Using a smaller group, they will “massage and condense” it, then bring it back to all the teachers for confirmation that it retains their input.

After that step is complete, she will talk with the Board of Education and look at taking the information to the community.

“As a result of all this, we’ll have to tweak our strategic plan,” Moody said. “But it’s a journey in time. Next year, we’ll look at some of the pieces on here about funding, hiring and incentives. It’s a two-year journey.”

The school board had a work session after the retreat to assess the progress. While members were in agreement that the enthusiasm was exciting, some are still having a hard time with the premise that test scores may not be the only indicator in the future.

“I need structure,” Chairman Josh Wagner said. “So it’s hard for me to wrap my head around where we are going. I have to have some way to measure, and it can’t be a feeling, or, ‘I think.’ It’s got to be the test. It’s got to be simple – I get it. You’re good, you’re bad, you’re in the middle. We have to have some foundational basics.”

Moody had the last word.

“This is going to take time – time to think; time to talk to thought partners,” she said. “Because this is a new journey. I think I underestimated how long it will take.”

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