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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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Levies Are for Learning

In District 197, we are fortunate to have two 10-year operating levies that support learning.  One was passed in 2011; another was passed in 2007.  School District 197 depends on both levies to help pay for the basic learning needs of students, including academic programming, books and supplies, teacher and staff salaries, and other operating expenses.  On November 8th, we will be asking voters to renew the 2007 levy for another 10 years.   Renewing the levy will help us maintain current programs and services and ensure continued support for academic achievement and innovation.

The 2007 levy, which expires in 2017, provides $5.2M in funding above and beyond the basic per pupil aid funding from the state of Minnesota, which is eight percent of our annual general fund operating budget.  This is equivalent to the annual budget to run one of our middle schools.

With these levies, we have been able to invest in our education program in recent years.  We've expanded K-12 music and gifted and talented programming, and we've revamped the middle school schedule to better support fifth and sixth grade students.  We also added deans at the middle schools.  Recently we expanded the number of K-12 school counselors by staffing a full-time counselor at each elementary school and adding counselors at the secondary schools to increase support for career guidance and college planning.

We have also been able to invest in our co-curricular program. For example, in 2014 we joined forces with the cities of West St. Paul and Mendota Heights to renovate and upgrade the John V. Hoene Ice Arena in West St. Paul, extending the facility's life for another 20 years and ensuring home ice for our boys' and girls' hockey programs.

Our levies for learning have ensured a more stable revenue stream for District 197 schools by including an annual inflationary increase based on calculations determined by the Minnesota Department of Education.  The inflationary increase ensures the value of the levy amount remains constant over the duration of the levy period. The inflationary adjustment each year is critical, especially when considering that while the state legislature has increased funding for schools in Minnesota, the increases in the per pupil amount have not kept pace with inflation.  You can see this reflected in the chart below.


Local levies make up for shortages in state aid, plain and simple, because communities want more for their students than what state monies can provide.  Our community is no different.  We want the best for our students.

We also believe we operate our schools resourcefully.  Our community agrees.  In our 2016 annual stakeholder survey conducted by the Morris-Leatherman Company, 92% of respondents stated they feel the community receives a good value for its investment in its public schools.  We also know that the total tax impact on households in District 197 is lower than any of our neighboring districts and those whom we often compare ourselves to in terms of size.  You can see the comparisons in the chart below.


I hope this information is helpful.  I urge you to become further informed.  In addition to direct mailings, we have a variety of information meetings and webinars occurring between now and November.  You can access these dates and other important information on our district website at www.isd197.org/levy.  I hope to see you soon!

Sincerely,

Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197




Friday, September 2, 2016

Come talk with us!

It's back to school, and we're ready! Our buildings and grounds crew have our schools in tip top shape, and teachers returned this week to a full slate of professional development opportunities. It promises to be another outstanding year in District 197.

As the year gets underway, I would like to encourage you to get three important dates on your calendar. Each year, we provide opportunities for our parents and community members to engage in dialogue around our Strategic Framework and the six goals that have been identified by our school board as priorities for growth and development. We do this in a series of three discussions throughout the year that are open to all staff and members of the community.  Anywhere from 50 to 100 people have attended past discussions.

In these community-wide strategy team meetings, we discuss key aspects of select initiatives.  I would like to invite you to three conversations we have planned.  The three dates and related topics are as follows:

September 19, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
January 10, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
March 16, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Presentation:  Annual World’s Best Workforce Report
Breakout discussions:
  • K-12 math review
  • Parent academy
  • Adaptive curriculum resources
  • Elementary 1:1 rollout
  • TriDistrict Career and College Readiness Initiative
  • Universal preschool design

Topic:  E-12 Required and Elective Offerings
Breakout discussions:
  • What are the essential required courses all students should have in order to graduate career or college ready?
  • What elective courses should be offered to ensure students graduate career or college ready?
  • Designing flexible learning spaces
  • TriDistrict career pathway options
  • Preschool class offerings
Topic:  Personalized Learning Vision


Breakout discussions:


  • Emerging models in District 197
  • Strategic Framework:  Next Steps

As a token of our appreciation, we will provide you with a light supper at 5:00 p.m. prior to the meeting.  Child care and translation services are also provided upon request.  We just need you to sign up so we can plan accordingly for all who will be attending. Simply click here to register.  Although you are welcome to attend one or two meetings, we encourage attendance at all three if possible so that the conversation is ongoing.

I hope you will join us for this unique dialogue with our community.  Gathering a wide range of input into these topics help to ensure we are advancing programs in a way that meets our community’s needs and expectations.  Your presence and input will be greatly appreciated by all.


Sincerely,

Nancy Allen-Mastro
Superintendent


Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

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