Issaquah School Board tackles long to-do list

August 28, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Over the course of two days the Issaquah School Board and several of the district’s administrative members met Aug. 21-22 for the Board Cabinet Retreat.

Marnie Maraldo

With participants shuffling between the library at Issaquah Valley Elementary School and a meeting space in the administration building, it wasn’t as glamorous as the name would suggest. Nor was it held in the resort town of Leavenworth, as is the choice of other school districts.

What it was, though, was 14 hours of discussion regarding everything from the new teacher/principal evaluation pilot program to scheduling to the importance of science and math, and the consumption of a whole lot of M&Ms.

“It’s always super positive when we can get together … talk about the important issues that are before the district and also look out toward the future so we can continue to grow,” Superintendent Steve Rasmussen said. “We don’t always agree on everything, but at the end of the conversation we realize we all want the same thing — great opportunity for kids.”

Long ‘to-do’ list

The retreat’s “to-do” list was long, with items like a reflection of the last school year and expectations for the Liberty schedule committee. It included discussion of how to weave in a new half-credit civics class in the coming years to meet the state’s addition to graduation requirements, which won’t take effect until 2018.

Other conversations were more like brainstorming sessions, like thinking of ways to integrate more digital learning for untraditional students.

“We are absolutely open to this,” said Ron Thiele, associate superintendent. “I know that some of my students need me as a motivator … others soar on their own.”

Another item that got people brainstorming was how to put more of an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Many of the board members’ opinions were not new — like Brian Deagle’s idea that the bar should be raised and Marnie Maraldo’s reluctance to add to struggling students’ already full plate. But one solution was offered from an unlikely source. Originating from district CFO Jake Kuper and voiced by Thiele, was the suggestion that the district offer differentiated diplomas for students who want STEM or performing arts designations.

While those discussions didn’t nail anything down or result in action, they are topics that are likely to come up again in the future.

“We covered a lot of territory,” board member Chad Magendanz said. “But that is the point of the retreat.”

What to do about homework

During the two-day event, groundwork began to be laid for tackling the topic of homework.

“Homework and grading policy are two different animals, and they both need to be addressed,” Maraldo said. “Let’s establish what is good homework and how much do we really need.”

Rasmussen said there have been several good studies on the topic, including one that was published in 2004 by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory out of Portland, Ore. Its findings include: appropriate types and amounts of homework are beneficial for learning; teachers should coordinate with each other so as not to overload students; complex processes should be broken down and spread out; and that feedback on homework is key.

Rasmussen concluded that the ultimate goal is to come back in June with recommendations for tweaking the district’s existing homework policy as well as the individual policies of the different schools.

Communicating with the public

Leading up to the retreat, all five of the board members and the superintendent filled out a self-assessment by the Washington State School Directors Association. Going over the results, they noted board habits that worked and those that needed to be improved.

One thing that caught the board’s attention was the grade it gave itself for communicating with the public. The association’s assessment names “ensuring the board is accountable and open to the public” as a benchmark for success. When asked “To what extent does the board provide information to the public that supports board discussion and decisions?” two board members answered “always,” three answered “most of the time” and one answered “some of the time.”

“Pretty much the only way we broadcast is through the podcast,” Maraldo said. “I would be more interested in making sure we are providing plenty of opportunity for feedback.”

One of the problems they all agreed on is the lack of community members at the bimonthly public meetings. Indeed, the typical audience for a school board meeting is made up of staff, a few PTA members, the media and empty chairs. When the district rolled out the proposed $167.5 million budget for the upcoming school year Aug. 8 not a single member of the public showed up to comment on the topic.

Coming up with ways to better communicate with the public made the brainstorm list for possible future action items.

Evaluation pilot program

The retreat also provided the chance to get caught up on a major transition for the district that has already gotten off the ground — participation in the new teacher/principal evaluation pilot program.

The new system for grading educators got started in 2010 when the state Legislature created eight new criteria for evolution, including centering instruction on high expectations for student achievement, recognizing and addressing individual student needs, and communicating and collaborating with parents and school community. The change also places less importance on seniority and will use student evaluations as a measurement tool to rate teachers.

“As you read through the rubric you start to think, ‘OK, what are some examples of evidence that I need to show?’…you almost start to develop your portfolio in your head,” Thiele said. “That is exactly how we want people to start thinking … It’s not good enough to say that my students are learning, what evidence do you have?”

This year, 28 percent of Issaquah district educators will go through the new evaluations, which include all teachers that have been here for less than three years. Learning how to measure each new criteria is not something that will happen over night.

“All this work happens while school is still happening,” Thiele said. “I know our administrators are feeling a little bit like we are giving them a drink from a fire hose … The cabinet’s goal for our administrators is to reassure them that we have a plan for how to proceed with bringing this new culture shift in our organization.”

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, the new evaluation system will be in place statewide.

“We are already doing the work now … we are not waiting for the law to take effect, we are not waiting to be prodded and pushed, kicking and screaming,” Deagle said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, obviously, but we are out ahead.”

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