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, 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!


Nancy Allen-Mastro

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


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197