Description


School District 197 Superintendent Blog
Welcome to my blog! The purpose of the blog is to provide an avenue for communication with parents and community members. I will be sharing our progress in implementing the District Strategic Framework. Periodically I will also post photos and share news of special events that I attend in our schools.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ensuring our Students are Prepared for the Future of Their Choice

On August 2nd, members of a newly formed Career and College Readiness Steering Committee in District 197 spent the day visiting four local businesses to learn more about the 21st century workplace.  In order to prepare students for the future of their choice, we need to understand the kinds of careers and jobs our students will be entering after they graduate from high school or college. We also need to be aware of the skills employers are counting on us to develop in our students.

Last year, we forged a partnership with the school districts in South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights to see how we could work together to create opportunities to ensure students graduate career or college ready.  All three districts have articulated this as a goal in their strategic plans. By working collaboratively, we believe we will be able to make it possible for more students to earn college credit or complete industry-standard certifications concurrently while earning a high school diploma.  We call it our TriDistrict Career and College Readiness Initiative, and you will be hearing more about it throughout the coming year.

The business tour was arranged by the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce along with the River Heights Chamber of Commerce.  These two chambers serve our three school districts and have actively supported our efforts to prepare students for careers and college.    

Throughout the day, we toured CHSWaterousThompson Reuters, and Fairview Ridges Hospital.  Each provided insight into their organization, the kinds of jobs they host, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to be successful working in their business or industry.  They also shared with us gaps in employee qualifications that they'd like to see improved.

What is it businesses are looking for?  The skills identified were common to all four stops on the tour: the ability to work collaboratively with others, solve problems, think critically, and communicate effectively topped the lists. Employers are also seeking individuals who are motivated and have a strong work ethic.

Thank you to our local businesses and the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce and River Heights Chamber of Commerce for a very productive day! 

 
District 197 Team at CHS

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197



Thursday, June 9, 2016

High Approval Ratings: A Sweet End to a Terrific School Year

Today is the last day of school for students in District 197.  As an educator, the last day of school always leaves me with mixed feelings.  I am sad to see the students leave.  They bring a purpose and an energy to our schools that is the sole reason we exist.  When they are gone, it feels empty around here.  Yet the end of the year also signals a time for renewal.  We are given a chance to re-energize, re-focus, and re-commit to our mission.  We spend the summer preparing for the coming year, and that, too, is exciting.

We made great strides as a school district this year.  A few highlights are listed below:
  • We opened our new Early Learning and Family Resource Center;
  • Through our EmPowerEd initiative, we successfully took 1:1 computing to scale in our secondary schools;
  • We implemented a new and improved K-8 gifted and talented instructional model;
  • We implemented a wildly successful new writing curriculum in our elementary schools;
  • We launched Naviance, a new career planning tool for students at the secondary level; and
  • More than 100 stakeholders participated in our series of strategy team meetings throughout the year.

At our June school board meeting, we heard the results of our 2016 stakeholder survey, which was conducted in April.  I am proud to say that our district received some of the highest stakeholder satisfaction ratings since beginning the annual survey over a decade ago.  When asked about the quality of our schools, an astounding 91% rated us as excellent or good, up from 78% in 2014. Within that figure, 53% rated us as excellent, up from just 37% in 2014.  

The question of quality is just one of many questions asked in the survey where we earned approval ratings of over 90%.  A second question was in regard to residents' pride in our district schools and if they would recommend them to others.  Here too, the number saying yes went from 77% in 2014 to 93% in 2016.  According to our consultant, the strong results in this survey puts us in the top five school districts in the entire suburban metro area.  If you'd like to hear more, you can view the presentation here (starting at 0:05:30) and download the presentation here.

What our survey callers heard over and over from respondents is that our public likes what they see as an increased emphasis on academic excellence in our district.  I couldn't agree more.  We have upped our game. Our Strategic Framework is providing us with this focus, and our commitment remains strong.  

On behalf of District 197, thank you for your support for our schools.  You are our most important partner, and we couldn't be successful without you.  Whatever your plans for the summer, have fun, be safe, and stay in touch. We look forward to seeing you again in the fall.  

Regards,

Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Friday, May 20, 2016

School Counselors Play an Important Role in Schools

School counselors play an important role in helping students be successful in school, all the way from teaching positive behaviors and bullying prevention to helping out when a student may need additional emotional support. Career guidance is also a critical part of their role, as is assisting other staff in meeting the wide-ranging needs of students. 

On Monday, May 16th, our school board approved administration’s request for a full-time counselor next year at each of our elementary schools, which are currently staffed at .50 FTE (full-time equivalent) per site.  They also approved an additional .50 FTE of counseling at each middle school.  This follows the addition of a full-time counselor at the high school last year.  Our investment in school counselors is in alignment with goals A through D in our Strategic Framework, which are aimed at academic preparedness and career and college readiness.

By the board approving our most recent request, our counselor-to-student ratio will be dramatically reduced from 1:814 at the elementary level to 1:408.  At the middle schools, the additional counselor reduces the ratio from 1:747 to 1:498, resulting in the K-8 ratios being just above the high school ratio of 1:308. This gives our district one of the lowest student-to-counselor ratios in the metro and statewide region, and it puts us below the national average of 1:471.  

From kindergarten to graduation, we want to ensure students' social and emotional development is tended to as much as their academic development.  Doing so makes it possible for them to develop academically and fulfill their potential. We strive to create healthy school cultures where all children feel cared for and experience a sense of belonging.  School counselors are central to this whole-child approach that is both proactive and positive. School counselors also help to ensure our students are provided with excellent career guidance in a day and age when planning for their future has never been more dynamic.

The addition of school counselors could not have come at a better time. This past year, our curriculum department has been working with our school counselors to review and update their classroom curriculum, and we look forward to its implementation next year. Our middle and high school departments also have a new career planning tool to use with students and their families called Naviance, which is a robust online platform for academic planning and career exploration.

If you'd like to find out more about what a school counselor does, visit the American School Counselor Association's website

Sincerely,

Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197


Friday, April 22, 2016

Career and College Readiness -

Career and college readiness is a hot topic these days, including here in District 197.  Our Strategic Framework has an emphasis on career and college readiness.  We define it as students possessing the knowledge and skills needed to successfully complete credit-bearing coursework at a two- or four-year college, technical school, or university or to secure employment in a career-track position, which is defined as one that pays a living wage, provides benefits, and offers opportunities for advancement through education and training. 

By 2020, three quarters of all jobs in Minnesota will require some form of post-secondary training beyond high school.  But are students ready, and are they prepared?  Not very, according to a survey conducted by the Youth Truth, a nonprofit organization.  There were three key findings in this survey: students want to go to college but feel unprepared; they feel even less prepared for a career, and they admit they are not taking advantage of support services to prepare them for their future.

I am also concerned that earning a degree or a certification is becoming more difficult due to finances alone.  The cost of a post-secondary education is rising, and as tuition and expenses go up, the number of students from moderate to low-income households who are able to afford to pay goes down.  This results in one of two things: they either don't go to college or they assume significant debt.  

The case is clear: what we do in schools to prepare students for their future matters.  In addition to ensuring strong academic preparation, we need to provide students with ongoing career exploration and planning opportunities.  And it needs to start early.  It's not just about what kids imagine they want to be when they grow up; it is also about developing a set of skills and abilities that we think of as soft skills.

We believe our future in this area lies in collaborating with other institutions to create depth and breadth in regard to what is available to our students.  Over the course of the coming year, you will hear us talk about ways we plan to partner with neighboring school districts, our business community, and several key post-secondary partners.  This process is just beginning to unfold, and I couldn't be more excited about the prospects.

There are many resources for educators, students, and parents that can help you explore this idea of career and college readiness.  Below are a few that I would recommend for those of you who'd like to read on.  I am sure your own online searches will take you even further.

 For now, enjoy this beautiful spring weather!

Sincerely,

Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Friday, March 18, 2016

Personalized Learning

In our Strategic Framework, we have six goals we've set for our district.  Each is designed to enable us to better meet the needs of our students.  One goal, however, has been on hold for a few years, knowing that certain things needed to be done first to lay the foundation for success.  I am pleased to say that the time has finally come for us to zero in on Goal C: Personalized Learning.  Done well, personalized learning holds the potential to transform the school experience from one in which some students are successful, to one where all students are successful when given the time, support, and resources that are tailored to their needs and interests.

Personalized learning is about focusing on students' needs and interests in a flexible, student-centered way. Competency-based progression is possible through the use of a variety of tools.  We think personalized learning should also include ample opportunity for project and problem-based learning. While there still is a common core curriculum that includes academic standards and learning targets that all students are expected to master, in a classroom where personalized learning is the drive wheel for student success, students have choice.  They have increased levels of responsibility for their learning, which builds their ability to become-self directed and independent learners.

The role of the teacher changes too. Instead of being the center of the classroom, they become the facilitator of learning.  This blog post explains how we can engage students through personalizing learning, moving them from simply being compliant in school to being in the flow of their learning. Think of your own school experience.  I would venture to guess you can name the times when you felt you were simply meeting the requirements for seat time, compared to those times when you were fully in the zone.  What do you want for your students?

While many students are successful in school, at present, too many students in our school district, our state, and our nation are failing.  Too many students are not fully engaged in school.  They don't see its relevance, and they don't always take responsibility for their learning in the way we'd really like to see.  We don't have a kid problem; we have a design problem.  If we want all students to be successful, then we need to change the way we do our business in schools.  We think personalized learning holds the key.

Personalized will require a new instructional model, one in which the role of the student and the teacher, will be transformed.  A recent article in the Star Tribune, written by two superintendents and a former commissioner of education in Minnesota, makes a strong case for changing how we deliver an education to 21st century students. I find their vision inspiring.  It leads me to ask, what might a redesign for learning look like in District 197?

We'd like you to help answer that question.  On April 7th, we will be holding the third and final community wide meeting to guide our work on our Strategic Framework.  This meeting will focus solely on the potential for personalized learning to take our educational program to the next level.  As we have done before, we will have both large and small group discussions.  The key questions will be as follows:
  • Why personalize learning?
  • How does personalized learning fit into our Strategic Implementation Plan?
  • What does personalized learning look like at the elementary, middle, or high school level?
  • How will personalized learning help us attain each of our strategic goals? 
All parents, staff, members of the community, and even students, are invited to attend.  The discussion runs from 4:30 - 7:30 p.m. in Warrior Hall at Henry Sibley High School.  We will serve a light supper, and child care will also be provided, as will translation.  To help us plan in advance, we ask that you register at this link.  If you have already registered for the April 7th discussion, you need not register again.

I hope you will join us.  This is your chance to help shape our future.

Sincerely,




Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197








Friday, January 29, 2016

Teachers are Learners Too!

Dear Staff, Families, and Friends of District 197,

There is no school for students on January 28 and 29. These are two days when we give our teachers time to do two important things:  one is to assess the progress of their students and prepare report cards; the other is to engage in their own learning through professional development.

A day in the life of a teacher is filled with an amazing set of demands and expectations.  Just ask any teacher. On the surface, everyone knows that they provide instruction to students.  But behind the scenes, they are busy planning lessons, collaborating with other teachers to analyze their instruction and examine their outcomes, and attending meetings.

They also engage in professional development.  Teachers are learners too, and the best ones make a commitment to continually refining their instruction, deepening their knowledge of teaching and learning, and ultimately expanding their repertoire of strategies so they can better meet the needs of their students.  In short, they are lifelong learners.

The best professional development is job-embedded -- training that pertains directly to what a teacher does every day.  Unfortunately, there are never enough hours in a day, and amidst the myriad demands within a traditional school calendar and a typical school schedule, there just isn't adequate time to devote to professional development.  So we try to build professional development into every nook and cranny.  This is a common problem across the country, but schools are getting increasingly creative in regard to how they do this.

We provide teachers four days prior to the start of the school year during which two are dedicated to professional development, and two are dedicated to preparing their classrooms.  Four times during the school year, we dedicate a full day to professional development.  As a result, sometimes students are not in school.  We also provide teachers with grading days four times each year.  I've been asked to tell a little about how we determine which of those days are grading, which are for professional development, and which are holidays for students.

When the annual school calendar is set, we use the following delimits in our selection of days:
  1. School must not begin before Labor Day. (This is a state law, of course.)
  2. We like school to end no later than the second week in June.  This enables students to start summer jobs and teachers to attend university training that is offered in the summer.
  3. We do not schedule school the third Thursday and Friday in October to enable our teachers to attend the statewide Minnesota Educator Academy hosted by Education Minnesota.
  4. We do not hold school on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President's Day, Memorial Day due to bargaining agreements with our employees.
  5. We provide students with a winter break in late December into early January.
  6. We schedule a full week for spring break sometime in March or April.  We do not want a break a week or two before the end of a quarter, which we feel would interrupt the learning cycle.
  7. We schedule the above dates so as to not conflict with state testing dates.
  8. We do not hold school on days that we refer to as "trade days," which are provided for teachers in exchange for working in the evening for parent teacher conferences.
  9. We schedule grading days at the end of each quarter.  We do as much as we possibly can to keep the length of each quarter relatively the same so there is a consistent number of days of instruction for each class.
  10. We try to limit the number of partial weeks.  (This, unfortunately, is unavoidable.)
  11. After all of these things, we try to see where a professional day best fits.
Now, that's probably way more than you want to know about school calendars.  But as you can see, we have a lengthy list of things to consider.  When all is said and done, it is no wonder the calendar looks relatively the same from one year to the next.  There really isn't much wiggle room.  

That said, one thing we did this year and plan to do again next year is to schedule a grading day and a professional development day back-to-back.  So instead of a four-day school week, we now have two more three-day weeks for students.  While we know that a shortened week has its cons, we also want to maximize our capacity to provide high-quality professional development for our teachers.  Let me explain.

Given our capacity, it is less effective to provide professional development for over 400 teachers at a time. When we can split this size of group into elementary one day and secondary the next, it enables us to use our internal talent within our staff in the space we have for training.  This also saves time and money. Best of all, we think we provide a better experience for teachers.  How does this work?  We split elementary and secondary teachers into two groups when a grading and a professional development day are scheduled back-to-back.  One day, half of our teachers work on grades and half participate in professional development.  The reverse occurs on the second day.

I hope this summary is helpful.  Like you, we want the best learning experience for our students, which means ensuring we are supporting our teachers in being the best they can possibly be.  What may seem like a random set of dates in a calendar has really been given quite a lot of thought, all within some very tight parameters.  

Thank you for your continued support for District 197.  We are so glad to be your partner!

Sincerely,




Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197




Thursday, January 14, 2016

Parents as Partners

Dear Staff, Parents and Community Members:

I often wonder what school looks like from the perspective of a parent. Fortunately, every month I get a chance to find out when I meet with parents who are members of District 197's PAN - also known as our Parent Ambassador Network.

When I started as superintendent four years ago, I knew I wanted to have substantive conversations with parents on an ongoing basis. Because of the critical role parents play in educating their children, and because they are our most important partners, I wanted to ensure I was hearing their perspective. I wanted to learn from them. I also knew there would be times when I would need their advice.

A second goal to which I committed myself was to create cross-district dialogue among parents. We are a district of nine - now 10 schools - since opening our Early Learning and Family Resource Center. This number also includes our school at Branch Out, which includes transition programming for students age 18-21 with special cognitive needs. We serve our students best when we think and work together, and this includes enabling parents to work together.

I contacted our PTAs, PTOs, booster organizations, and advisory committees - whatever structure it was that had assumed the role of serving as the parent organization for the school, and I invited the president of each to be a member of the group that would meet monthly to create a meaningful forum for parent engagement. If the president didn't want to or couldn't participate, I asked them to select a designee. Membership is extended to one parent per elementary, a representative from the Early Learning Advisory Council, and two parents from each middle and high school. A school board representative attends, as do I, along with our Communications Director.

At our first meeting in 2012, the group was asked to agree on our purpose, develop a few simple operating principles, and give themselves a name. They knew the importance of representing their school's interests and taking our conversation back to their schools, thereby ensuring good two-way communication. They were also eager to work together to reach across school lines to support each other in creating opportunities for students and families. And they knew they had a role to play in promoting District 197 as a community of vibrant schools. They decided they would name themselves the Parent Ambassador Network, and thus PAN was born. It is one of my favorite mornings of every month.

What has evolved is a group of highly invested people who ask the right questions and offer advice I could not get any other way. They are proving to have a huge influence on how we plan our work and how we support children and families. I am deeply grateful for this incredible resource.

Each September they develop the topics they want to talk about over the course of the year, and these become the focus for our monthly agendas. Depending on the topic, guests are invited to provide expert knowledge and information. We meet at a different school each month, and the principal from the host school is also invited to attend.

After the meeting, an optional school tour is available so parents can learn about other schools. The meeting begins with the host school parent(s) sharing what their parent group is working on, and the networking begins! The school report is followed by an update or question for discussion from me, which varies each month, followed by an in-depth conversation around our selected topic.

To give you an idea of what we talk about, here is a list of this year's topics:
  • SchoolView/Parent Portals/Student Information System
  • Math Curriculum Review
  • Communicating with Families
  • EmPowerED update/Personalized Learning
  • Understanding the Achievement Gap
  • Parent Academy
  • School Facilities
  • Sharing of PTA/PTO Services or Resources

Again, no matter what we are discussing, we find that parents help us know what their questions are, as well as what's important to them. They help us know how we can do better, but they also affirm that which is going well.

I wish to express my gratitude to our PAN members. They do an outstanding job representing their school and giving voice to the hopes, dreams, and desires of parents. They show up every month - it is rare that anyone misses. This tells me they value the conversation and the learning that takes place, and that they are heavily invested in helping to ensure the success of every student in the district, not just their own. How fortunate we are to have them - and all parents - as our partners.

Next time you see a PAN member, ask them about PAN, and be sure to thank them. Here is a list of this year's roster:

  • Sarah Larsen - Mendota
  • Jennifer Kellogg - Somerset
  • Holly Farber - Henry Sibley
  • Kim Reisig - Garlough
  • Kris Klein - Heritage
  • Lisa Stevens - Heritage
  • Brenda Lawrence - Pilot Knob
  • Carlos Morales - Moreland
  • Liz Suchy - Early Learning
  • Terry Stamman - Friendly Hills
  • Magda Forouhari - Friendly Hills
  • John Chandler - School Board

Sincerely,





Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197