Monday, November 23, 2015

Summary of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

At the conclusion of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (11/14-11/22), I want to call attention to several excellent reports and news releases about how Unit 4 is working with its homeless students and families. The majority of students in our district (57.9% in 2014-15) are considered low-income, so no one should be surprised that some of these students will be affected by homelessness. However, because of the stigma associated with even the word "homeless," it has been all too easy for these students to shoulder this burden on their own.

From the sources listed below, I found two consistent themes. The first theme is that homelessness must be viewed as an educational issue. Just as public schools offer special education services to students who meet specific disability criteria, our district makes help available to students whose living situations meet specific criteria. These services all exist to help remove unfair educational obstacles.

The second theme is that everyone involved -- from our district's Homeless Liaison to its Homeless Action Committee, from our building social workers to our community partner agencies -- recognizes that students and families struggling with uncertain living situations deserve respect and sensitivity. Asking for help is hard, accepting help is hard; both steps require courage. All of these service efforts are based on the fundamental assumption that relationship building must come first.
  • 11/16/15 Stephanie Stuart, Unit 4 News and Announcements, "Unit 4 Shines a Light on Needs during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week"
  • 11/16/15 and 11/17/15 Anna Carrera, WCIA 3, "Helping families transition to more stable situations"
  • 11/18/15 Angélica Sanchez, FOXIllinois 55/27, "Homeless Champaign mother: 'Don't judge; have compassion'"
  • 11/20/15 Nicole Lafond, News-Gazette, "Mother in danger of homelessness: 'My son deserves more than this'"
As we enter Thanksgiving week, I know I am especially thankful for all the dedicated men and women in our community who are helpers. May we all be inspired to help others, however we are able.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Preview of Board Meeting 11/16/15

A note from Board President Chris Kloeppel about our upcoming Special Meeting* on 11/16/15:

Monday evening we will study and discuss the pros and cons of different high school configurations -- i.e. 1, 2, or 3 high schools -- for the Unit 4 School District. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Laura Taylor, Centennial High School Principal Greg Johnson, and Central High School Principal Joe Williams will give a short presentation, and the board will join an open dialogue on the topic.
 We will also discuss our interest in putting together a task force (technically, a Special Board Committee) to assist the BOE in this process of future facilities planning. The committee's mission and membership will be discussed but not necessarily determined.
We will have the usual opportunity for public comment at the beginning of the meeting, as well as another opportunity after our facilities discussion.
Please join us! 

*We meet in the Mellon Building, 703 S. New St. (next to South Side Elementary School) at 5:30pm, with the bulk of the Open Session beginning closer to 6:00pm. You can find the complete meeting agenda here. Other items on the relatively short agenda include funding for a technology strategic plan, multiple tax-related resolutions, and staff appointments.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Teachers and Diversity in Unit 4

Earlier this week, the News-Gazette published a lengthy article by Nicole Lafond about the lack of diversity among teachers in East Central Illinois, based on 2014-15 data from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). She points out what should come as no surprise to anyone involved in local public education: school districts in Champaign, Ford, Douglas, Piatt, and Vermilion counties employ a whole lot of white teachers.

Judy Wiegand reminded us in her annual State of the District presentation last March that Goal #3 of our 6 District Goals reads as follows: "The Superintendent will retain, hire, and support highly qualified faculty and staff that will best serve the District’s diverse student population." So do the ISBE numbers cited by Ms. Lafond reveal success or failure at meeting this goal?

In this post, I won't debate the value of having a diverse teaching staff. I stand with the rest of the Board and Administration of Unit 4 in wholehearted support of this goal. What I want to address here is the success *and* the failure represented in our numbers, providing some context and sharing how people in our district are working to improve them.

In fact, ISBE's statistics reveal that Champaign Unit 4 has one of the most diverse teaching cohorts in East Central Illinois, with 84 percent white teachers (second only to Urbana 116, with 81.5 percent white teachers). Compare these figures to Mahomet-Seymour (97.7 percent white teachers); to the six school districts in Vermilion County which employed entirely white teaching staffs in 2014-15 (Catlin, Hoopeston, Jamaica, Oakwood, Potomac and Westville); or to every district in Piatt County, which between all of them employed a single non-white teacher (in Monticello) last year.

Clearly East Central Illinois sets the bar for teacher diversity at a rather low level. Then consider that "the pool of K-12 educators across the country is largely white and largely female" (according to an ISU dean interviewed by Ms. Lafond), and also consider that "Illinois has one of the least diverse teacher pools" in that already homogeneous nationwide pool (according to Ken Kleber, Unit 4's Executive Director of Human Resources). Finally, take into account that Illinois's most qualified teacher candidates -- of all races -- gravitate toward employment in the suburbs of Chicago. When viewed in this light, a figure of 16% non-white teachers in Unit 4 starts to look more impactful... but we are committed to doing better.

Increasing the diversity of our teaching staff requires greater effort than simply hiring more candidates from underrepresented minority groups. We need to find more such candidates; and after hiring them, we need to retain them in our district. I will use the rest of this post to share some of the promising efforts underway in these two areas.

Officials from Unit 4 (including Dr. Wiegand and Mr. Kleber), along with State Representative Carol Ammons and State Senator Scott Bennett, were involved in Vision 20/20's successful lobbying in Springfield to change overly restrictive teacher licensure requirements. Until this summer, these requirements effectively prevented Unit 4 from hiring teachers (of any race) from other states. Thanks to HB2657, passed in July 2015, Mr. Kleber has already started to plan out-of-state recruiting. Will this be a game-changer for Unit 4's diversity numbers, to help us make up for the homogeneity and decreasing numbers of ed school graduates within Illinois? Stay tuned to see.

Closer to home, our district has a Grow Your Own financial assistance program (GYO). According to Mr. Kleber, GYO "offers interested staff members an opportunity to enroll in a course of study toward completion of Elementary Teacher Licensure through the Millikin University School of Education’s PACE Program (at Parkland College). Applicants who successfully complete the program are guaranteed an elementary teaching position with Champaign Unit 4 Schools."

Finally, I checked in with some members of the district's Minority Teacher Recruiting & Retention Committee (MTRRC). As their name reflects, this committee's mission encompasses both finding and retaining. They aim to make current minority staff feel valued and to provide multiple venues throughout the year for interactions with colleagues and administrators.

For Tony Maltbia, Principal at Novak Academy, "The most useful thing that the MTRRC does is actively go out and recruit for minority teachers at fairs." Mr. Maltbia also mentioned MTRRC's role in providing point people in each building to support minority teachers, as well as assisting qualified minority candidates in our own community throughout the hiring process.

Renayee Westfield, Assistant Principal at Bottenfield, described MTRRC as "the soundboard for our minority staff members" -- administrators as well as teachers. She hopes to expand the committee's recruiting efforts closer to home by "going into high schools and surrounding community colleges to find future teachers that are knowledgeable about our community culture."

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to educate this white lady about the stories behind the numbers -- especially Mr. Maltbia, Ms. Westfield, and Mr. Kleber -- and to stress that this post only scratches the surface of the ongoing challenge of staffing our classrooms with the best teachers. Thanks to Ms. Lafond for assembling ISBE's most recent statistics for our area. And special thanks go to anyone who has read to the end of this post. As always, your comments/reactions/ideas are welcome.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Preview of Board Meeting 11/9/15

Looking ahead to tonight's regular meeting of the Board:

We meet in the Mellon Building, 703 S. New St. (next to South Side Elementary School) at 5:30pm, with the Open Session beginning closer to 6:00pm. Members of the public are welcome to observe, and to address the Board (for up to 3 minutes) during the designated public comment period. You can find tonight's agenda here.

Some highlights:
Come learn how Kenwood staff are helping to shape the future of computer science education in our district and nationwide, creating intentional connections between the Everyday Mathematics 4 curriculum and a computational thinking framework.
We will also hear from Director of Achievement and Student Services Mr. Orlando Thomas, Homeless Liaison Mr. Lekevie Johnson, and Social Justice Homeless Action Group Facilitator and South Side Principal Mr. Bill Taylor, who will present information about current programming designed to meet the needs of Unit 4 homeless students and families.

Please join us!


During this week I will be adding links to the Facilities page of Board Corner, for those of you interested in reviewing some of the most relevant materials for our ongoing dialogue about high school facilities. Remember that next week, on November 16, a Special Meeting of the Board will focus entirely on brainstorming ideas for high school facilities. We encourage your active participation -- either in person, remotely through electronic means (commenting on the blog, sending emails to the board), or in whatever way you would like to join the conversation.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Question for Readers

Upcoming dates of interest:

Nov. 7, 2015: CUSF Spelling Bee Fundraiser (City View Banquet Center, Illinois Terminal)
Enjoy dinner while watching some spelling shenanigans, all to benefit the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation. Spectator tickets still available here.

Nov. 9, 2015: Regular Board Meeting (Mellon Bldg)
Agenda will be available here.

Nov. 16, 2015: Special Board Meeting (Mellon Bldg)
Brainstorming about Unit 4 high school facilities
All problem-solvers in our community are welcome. Browse information available here, invite your friends, and stay tuned for more information.


Now it's your turn to help shape this Board Corner blog. What kinds of posts do you want to see here? We would like to hear from you in the comments.

If you are a new reader, feel free to browse through the past two months of posts (especially Announcing the Board Corner and About This Site) to familiarize yourself with the blog's beginnings. The audience for the blog is growing, but comments so far have been few. Don't be scared off because comments are moderated -- that is simply a precaution to weed out spam and anonymous attacks. I am strongly committed to keeping this space professional and constructive.

Please share your thoughts about the kinds of posts you would like to see on Board Corner. I've listed a few questions below to get you started:

  • Previewing upcoming board meetings: are those posts helpful? I've been using them to flesh out one or two agenda items that strike me as timely or underappreciated or needing more context. Do these posts add anything to simply viewing the agenda itself (which is posted on the Unit 4 website, in the Board section, usually by the Friday before a Monday meeting)?
  • Posts about board work that take place outside of the public meetings: more of these? For example, during the past few weeks I have participated in the work of the Curriculum Advisory committee, the Education Equity Excellence committee, the Social Justice seminar, the District Registration committee, the Choice committee... Some of these meetings are open to the public; some of these committees include members of the public; some are purely internal. Some deal with controversial topics and some, frankly, are only loved by policy nerds like me. Which ones, if any, should be discussed here?
  • Guest posts? From administrators? (Coming soon, for example, is a post from Matt Foster, Executive Director of Operations, explaining how the district allocates funds for facility maintenance.) From teachers or staff? 
  • What about posts that respond to specific questions... like a Tom's Mailbag of Board Corner?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts so that together we can make Board Corner a place for active and responsive community dialogue.