Friday, February 26, 2016

Inaugural Tier Two Meeting 2/29/16

Bringing readers up-to-date on the formation of the Special Board Committee on Facilities before Tier Two meets on Monday:

The Board approves the formation of a two-tiered Special Board Committee to provide recommendations on a long-term facility plan for Unit 4.

Tier One consists of faculty and staff from the District. The charge of this committee is to identify needs for capacity and programming at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Note that the work of this committee will focus largely on compiling information, data, and feedback gathered previously from the Unit 4 community.

The Board announces the members of the Tier Two Committee (Item 9A on the Meeting Agenda for 2/22/16), consisting of elected officials from local government bodies, the business community, and at-large community members (selected by the Board President from applications submitted by 2/12/16).

The charge of the Tier Two Committee is to review recommendations from Tier One, and based on this information provide recommendations to the Board of Education in the following areas: location of facilities, collaborations/partnerships with other public entities in the Champaign Unit #4 District, and finance/referendum schedule.

2/29/16 at 7:00pm (Mellon Building Board Room, 703 S. New St.)
First Meeting of Tier Two Committee

The agenda for this inaugural meeting is straightforward: organizational matters, and then a briefing from Tier One by Dr. Laura Taylor, Dr. Susan Zola, Ms. Angela Smith, and Ms. Arlene Vespa. Community members are invited to attend and provide public comment as part of the agenda. A schedule of future Tier Two meetings will be available following this one; if you are unable to attend in person, these meetings will be recorded and available on Unit 4's Vimeo Channel.

Information on the work of the committee will be made available on the Unit 4 website. Take special note of the Tier One documents currently linked on the left sidebar menu of the committee's webpage. [UPDATE 3/9/16: documents provided to Tier Two now located here.] These reports will go to the Tier Two members for their perusal before Monday's meeting.


I will be in the audience for Monday's meeting and I hope to see many of you there!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Preview of Board Meeting 2/22/16 and Social Justice Update

The Board is taking its show on the road again on February 22, 2016, to another location in the Unit 4 district.

We will meet at the Savoy Recreation Center (402 W. Graham Dr. in Savoy) at 5:00pm, with the Open Session beginning at our customary time of 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 the meeting agenda here. (Be sure to click on each agenda item to bring up additional information or description, including any attached documents.) As with all Board meetings, a video will be posted here afterwards.

Highlights of Monday's agenda include an update on planned growth in the Village of Savoy; the second installment of the administration's report on curriculum, instruction, and assessment (begun on 2/8/16), focusing this time on the middle school level; and an update on plans for a new Unit 4 Transportation Facility. Please join us!


Did you know that the nearly 10,000 students of Unit 4 were born in 78 different countries? And speak 59 languages at home? Or that 13% of our students speak 1 of the following 6 languages: Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese?

Thanks to Ms. Maria Alanis (Unit 4's Director of ESL/Bilingual Education) and the English Learners Immigrant Task Force, fellow board member Kathy Shannon and I were introduced to these facts at yesterday's Social Justice Seminar, titled "L3: Language, Learning & Living." We learned about the programs and heard from some of the staff here at Unit 4 who help students become a successful part of our multilingual and multicultural community. More importantly, we had the privilege of meeting some of the English-learning students and parents of Unit 4.

We heard from a parent who explained through an interpreter that his family had only been able to afford three years of formal schooling for him. He reminded us of our responsibility to educate children about education itself, not just provide translations.

We met students who come to Unit 4 from Central America speaking an indigenous Mayan language; they are busy learning Spanish to succeed culturally as well as English to succeed academically.

We spoke with a mother of five who was a judge in her African country of origin, and is now taking English classes at Parkland so she can study American criminal justice.

We heard from recent Unit 4 graduates who return to our schools as volunteers to help younger English-learning students navigate the confusing experience of American education.

All of these interactions helped us put faces to the 795 Unit 4 students who are currently classified as English Learners, whether they are transitioning to English instruction, receiving bilingual education, or catching up with formal education in any language.


The English Learners Immigrant Task Force is one of several topic-specific task forces that operate under the auspices of Unit 4's Social Justice Initiative. Other currently active groups center around topics such as Special Education, LGBTQ, Homelessness, Social Justice Educators, RISE (Racial Identity Student Experience), and Choose Kindness. These are all grass-roots groups that exist because of the drive and desire of current Unit 4 administrators, teachers, and students. The Social Justice Initiative provides professional development and project opportunities, but the topics and ideas come from anyone in Unit 4 with a particular interest in social justice and the energy to work for change.

Social Justice Seminars, the next of which is scheduled for May 4 at 5:00pm at the Mellon Building, occur several times per year and are open to anyone in the community. They represent a way to bring people together to learn from each other. In the words of those who launched these efforts during 2012-13:
Unit 4 understands social justice as a continual commitment to thoughtfully consider and actively challenge societal norms that privilege some and not others.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on Standardized Testing

I've got standardized testing on my mind this week -- as a citizen, as a parent, and as a school board member.

Along with facilities, discipline, schools of choice, and Pizza Friday, the topic of standardized testing frequently comes up when board members make small talk with the public. What tests does our District use? Who requires us to use them? What do we do with the results? And most importantly, do they ultimately serve our students?

Giving definitive answers to these questions is (unsurprisingly) beyond the scope of this blog post. However, I would like to share a few timely thoughts about standardized testing, because my musings might provide some context for the main agenda item at our upcoming Board meeting on Monday, February 8, 2016.

First, some observations as a citizen:

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, replacing No Child Left Behind as our federal education policy. This means the national conversation on standardized testing will also change, hopefully leading to more intentional and flexible implementation.

This past Tuesday, the non-profit group NPE (Network for Public Education) released a report card that graded all 50 states on 6 criteria, including "how aggressively [they] instituted a regime of high stakes testing that unfairly sorts, ranks and demoralizes students, educators and schools." (Spoiler alert: the founder of the NPE, Diane Ravitch, actively crusades against the misuse of standardized testing in public schools.) I was somewhat surprised to see that Illinois received a B in the "regime of unfair testing" category. As much as we might complain about our state's use of standarized testing, other states apparently fare significantly worse.

Second, my thoughts as a parent:

My 8th-grader's inaugural PARRC test results (from this past spring) finally arrived in the mail this week. As you probably already know, Illinois currently requires public school students to undergo the PARRC assessments starting in 3rd grade. According to the forms, his results will tell me if he's meeting "grade-level expectations" (in the two main areas of English Language Arts/Literacy Performance and Mathematics) and if he is "on track for the next grade level." (Another spoiler alert: he is. Whew!) If the report had ended there, I would have been unimpressed; after all, his teachers didn't need PARRC to tell me that.

However, the results also break down his performance in 5 English skill areas and 4 Math skill areas, and compare his score in each area to school average, District average, and state average. In other words, this sheet of paper in my hand -- with lots of numbers and colored squares -- also contains descriptions of actual academic skills, and how my son and his classmates were engaging with them on a few days this past March.

Principal Schoonover said in her accompanying letter to parents, "The results of these exams help to inform our practice and identify growth areas for your student as well as our District." By measuring student performance in specific skill areas, this particular assessment might actually work as advertised. But then comes the million (or billion) dollar question: once we have these numbers, how do we use them...?

Finally, returning to my role as a School Board member:

Looking at testing in American public education, or looking at testing as it measures my son's progress... neither of these two angles is particularly helpful in answering the question from our community: What is standardized testing and assessment doing to benefit students in Unit 4? Fortunately, Superintendent Judy Wiegand plans to address this very timely and important topic at the next three board meetings.

In Dr. Wiegand's words:
The most important area of focus for me, in my role as Superintendent, is student achievement. As I work with the Executive Team on this presentation there is a significant amount of information to cover and we plan to present this information in a series of Board of Education meetings between now and Spring Break. On February 8, we will highlight curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the high school level. Subsequent presentations will take place in the coming weeks, with a presentation on middle school taking place on February 22, and elementary school on March 14. As we discuss our work, we will also point out how the work we are doing directly correlates to the Superintendent's Goals and Indicators for 2015-16. I believe by breaking it up in this manner that the Board and community members will have an opportunity to better understand what is taking place in our schools, the challenges and successes we are experiencing, and have time to engage in a more meaningful dialogue.

We hope to see you at Monday's meeting, when we will also welcome our newest board member, Dr. Gianina Baker, and recognize our first Champaign Unit 4 School District Staff Spotlight winner, Mr. Noah Brown (Teacher Aide at Carrie Busey Elementary).


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 the meeting agenda here. (Be sure to click on each agenda item to bring up additional information or description, including any attached documents.)


UPDATED 2/10/16
Here is a link to the primary document used in Monday's presentation: Student Achievement and Superintendent Goals, 2015-2016: High School.