By Steven Atwater
On behalf of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District I am pleased to welcome everyone to the 2012-2013 school year. At the end of May our students and most of our staff said goodbye to school and hello to their summer vacation. Although the break is designed to be a time to slow down and recharge, ironically, it is a time when most Alaskans speed up and do as much they can. Nevertheless, I am sure that our students’ and staff’s time away from school was refreshing.
At the district level we spent a lot of time this summer analyzing test scores, reviewing discipline data and the other indicators that affect student performance. The borough also made numerous upgrades to our facilities. We are pleased that our students made small gains on their scores on the state’s standardized tests. Our most exciting finding from last year however, is a sharp increase in our graduation rate. While it is not as high as we want it to be, the increase does suggest that our myriad of secondary offerings and interventions are helping more of our students finish high school in four years.
Looking ahead, our new strategic plan that will soon be before the board for adoption will guide much of our work in the coming five years. The plan that was written last spring has three focus areas (Academic Success, Organizational Excellence, and Community and Family Engagement) to ensure that we take a comprehensive approach toward our improvement efforts. Each of our schools has set goals to meet the plan. I will be presenting the school board an update on our progress toward meeting the plan at the end of each semester.
In the Homer area, we welcome back our teachers, secretaries, aides, nurses, custodians, bus drivers, and food service professionals—they are the backbone of our district’s success. Locally, I am pleased that long time KPBSD employee Nancy Kleine is our new principal at Nanwalek. Her experience of growing up on Kachemak Bay will be an asset as she transitions to her new job.
We invite parents and community members to join us by volunteering in the schools and becoming involved in partnerships to support students. Schools need the help of parents and community members to be successful with each student.
Please let your principal know of recommendations that you may have for improvement at your school or for the district; we are always receptive to hearing your thoughts. We anxiously await the return of our students and look forward to another outstanding school year!
Being introverted and collaboration
My recent blog about the difference in the performance of boys and girls in school prompted a fair amount of interest and comments. I received another comment along these lines that referenced a short talk on schools not meeting the needs of our students who are introverted. You can find it at: www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html.
The speaker makes the point that the current practice of schools arranging students in pods of desks that face one another and having the students work in groups is in fact, not the best arrangement for about a third of our students who are more introverted than their peers. This criticism of course flies in the face of our quest to have collaboration lead us to the promised land of education. Although there is a lot of good research to support collaboration both at the classroom and professional level, I know that there are some who abhor this style of learning and much prefer to go it alone. To be fair, the speaker does make the point that collaboration is necessary and important. She stresses however, that deep learning may not occur for all while working in groups.
Like most things in life, what this talk points out is that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for schools and student learning. In a few weeks our teachers will look at their new set of students and quickly recognize the differences among them. It is important that they respond to these differences by offering a variety of learning opportunities and activities. Creating the right conditions where the students are most at ease is a challenge, but is one that we must meet. A student working in a group is not a bad strategy, but for some, it is not that great.
Boys and Girls
I read an interesting article last week on the growing achievement gap in schools between girls and boys. This prompted me to check our test scores and sure enough, in reading and writing KPBSD girls outperform the boys by a significant margin. Last year in math there was no difference in the average scores of the two.
What was most striking to me is that this has been the case for several years. The article makes the familiar argument that schools are better designed for those who are nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, and studious. While there are plenty of boys who respond to this design, there are also plenty of boys who do not. What then, can schools do to better engage its boys?
The obvious thing is to do more to meet our students where they are at and not assume that with the right prompting all will move to a central location. While competition is shunned in some classes, it is likely that a portion of our boys will better respond to this sort of environment than they would to a collaborative one.
If we are to truly meet our district goal of increasing student engagement through effective instruction, then we will have to recognize that the strategies used to engage will need to vary depending on the student. Although separating boys from girls for instruction at school is being challenged as illegal, it would be interesting for one of our schools to do this for the teaching of writing, the subject area with the biggest score difference.
Boys dominate our discipline lists, there’s no reason why they can’t be neck and neck with the girls in all content areas.
Steven Atwater is the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula School District.
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