Education Blackboard — March 25, 2010

School Beat

Are schools political or practical?

by RANDY SELLHORN, Trustee, Board of Education

I have been a school board trustee for many years now. I have come to expect certain things at certain times of the year as we move through the activities of a school year. Kindergarten roundup, graduation, budget development, purchasing buses to replace worn vehicles, spring break, all of these events happen at a similar time each school year. Let me share with you what I expect from an election year.

This being an election year and the start of spring drills for political football season is underway. Political football season comes every two years, when politicians select their “platform” to promote their election campaigns. I am certain at the top of the list of platform topics will be Michigan’s failing public schools and the cost of public school funding. They feel that bashing public schools is a winning play almost as certain to score votes as the wrap-around draw (a favorite play of Rockford football fans) is to score a touchdown. I would be foolish to claim that there are not public schools that deserve the reputation the politicians will describe, and equally foolish if I told you the current budget circumstances can be easily resolved.

The politicians will claim that public schools fail to graduate the majority of the students that start school in the ninth grade; that the schools will not accept accountability for student performance, that they are economically inefficient, that they are attempting to overtax the residents, and schools are unwilling to change to correct these shortcomings. I want to demonstrate to you that they are not talking about Rockford Public Schools when they make their accusations. I am here to proclaim that Rockford Public Schools is an example of what is right about public school education. We have high expectations for our students and ourselves. We get extraordinary results from both.

We graduate almost every student that starts the ninth grade in Rockford. Only 2.2% drop out; some of those are transfers to another school to complete their education. In addition, every graduate of Rockford High School since the class of 1995 is required to pass a reading and mathematics proficiency test to receive a diploma. We guarantee in writing that every graduate has the skills necessary to be employed by most businesses. It is only recently that the legislature has required all schools in Michigan to set type of  requirement. We test all our students starting in the first grade annually. We use a group of standardized tests and state mandated tests to assess student performance. The results of these tests are used to make changes to curriculum and teaching practices. We are fully accountable for our students’ academic performance, and when it does not meet our expectations we fix it.

The Michigan legislature contracted with Standard and Poors, the New York financial assessment organization, to evaluate school districts on a number of standardized measurements. We ranked consistently at the top of each of the financial categories evaluated. Rockford’s results for this report are much too lengthy to enumerate in this space. You can view the entire report at www.state.mi.us. The summary for Standard and Poors reads in part, “Relative to other K-12 school districts in Michigan, Rockford Public Schools achieves well above-average student results at a lower cost per student compared to statewide levels.” We have accomplished an Education Yes achievement score of A for all our schools consistently.

The politicians claim that schools are attempting to overtax the residents. A politician is campaigning that your vote for him will protect “his” tax cuts and Proposal A. The simple fact of the matter is that schools never have been able to increase the taxes of the residents without voter approval—never, ever, ever. When was the last time you had the opportunity to vote on changing the Michigan state income tax rate?

We are working the seventh Rockford Action Model for Success, RAMS VII. Each RAMS is a three-year strategic plan for change in our school district. We plan for and initiate change every year using the RAMS school improvement goals and objectives as our guide. Sometimes our financial resources limit us, but we have consistently improved educational opportunities for students and the community each year. We don’t work on a political agenda; we work from a long-term plan for school improvement.

You may have sensed my tolerance for the politics of schools has diminished over time. I can’t accept the political rhetoric when the representation maligns the accomplishments of our students and dedicated employees. I can only conclude that the politics of schools may be as much at fault for the results as the failing schools themselves. I am confident that I speak for the school board, the administrators, the faculty, and support staff when I say we have high expectations for students and ourselves. We assume and accept responsibility for the schools’ results. We will achieve higher results than expected by whatever standard is used for measurement.

As you watch politics of schools unfold on TV or read the platforms in the paper this fall, watch for politics of schools and be reminded that we don’t play politics with our children. Know that there are people at your school district who take responsibility for our students very seriously. We are guided by a practical set of principles—we play by the Rockford way, and that is: ALL children are important in Rockford Public Schools and they come first before everyone else. What is best for our students’ education is the first decision to make. We expect our personal best in everything we do, students, faculty, support personnel, administrators and board of education. We are accountable for the results and we expect high achievement. We will, regardless of resources, pursue continuous improvement annually.

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