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500-some school visits yield these take-aways

June 03, 2019

Happy summer! This season offers opportunities for reflection as educators shift from spending their days with students to spending time on their own professional learning. I set aside time at the end of each school year to reflect on the key takeaways from my weekly school visits.

Following each of the last two years, I shared five lessons learned in my school visits (2017 lessons and 2018 lessons). After now having visited more than 500 schools in over 200 school districts, here are my latest five reflections on the state of education in Iowa:

1. The most urgent challenge schools face is addressing student mental health needs. 

No issue comes up as frequently on my school visits as the growing number of children with significant mental health needs. I’m encouraged, though, by the proactive steps our state and local schools are taking to address this challenge.

Governor Reynolds recently signed legislation creating a children’s behavioral health system and the Iowa legislature appropriated $2.1 million in funding to Iowa’s area education agencies to provide training for educators and to create an online clearinghouse of mental health resources.

In addition, schools are taking proactive steps to address the issue. Muscatine Community School District (CSD) has created two new positions called family resource navigators to help students and families meet mental health needs. And in Cedar Rapids, Tanager Place partners with area school districts to provide critical services.

2. Clearly articulating a vision and what it looks like to achieve it is critical to success. 

There is something special about visiting a school with a vision that drives every action it takes. I visited several schools this year with a crystal-clear focus. For example, Okoboji Middle School’s vision of preparing each learner with the knowledge and skills necessary for life in a changing world was evident in its project-based approach to student learning.

In Spirit Lake, I was particularly impressed by the focus of the district's core values: Encourage Relationships, Display Integrity, and Embrace Growth.  And Van Meter’s focus on preparing college, career and life ready students was visible in the personalized learning environment that teachers created for each student.

3. Education and the workforce are becoming more tightly linked, which benefits students. 

School leaders, teachers and students on almost every visit are eager to tell me about their community and business partnerships. Schools that are creating opportunities for students to engage with the community and apply their content knowledge to real-world projects are better preparing them to be college and career ready.

On a recent visit to Washington CSD, FFA officers eagerly shared the learnings and outcomes from their work with local seed companies in farming school-owned land. Students from Johnston CSD’s school-to-work internship class shared the accounting and event planning projects they were leading for Living History Farms.

On a state level, the Governor’s Future Ready Iowa STEM Education + Workplace Partnerships Summit in April highlighted the many opportunities for building school and business partnerships. And on July 1, the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning will launch a project board with opportunities for schools to connect with business partners across the state to provide real-world learning for their students.

4. The shift from punitive accountability under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to support-based accountability through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is accelerating school improvement.

While NCLB’s focus on shining a light on the performance of all students was commendable, the top-down, inflexible approach limited state and local ownership of improvement. The transition to ESSA allowed Iowa the opportunity to build a plan for supporting school improvement focused on helping schools develop solutions that work in their local context.

This spring I visited elementary schools in Baxter CSD and Villisca CSD that were designated for comprehensive improvement. Instead of viewing this designation as a sanction, school leaders saw it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. They had already formed teams, analyzed data, and had started to chart an attainable path forward. The leaders were inspired and motivated rather than defeated and deflated.

5. A commitment to equity must drive all that we do.

One of the problems that keeps me up at night is the gap in student performance, on average, for students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, those who are English Learners, students from low-income backgrounds, and those who receive special education services. In order to improve, we must confront these challenges head-on.

I was heartened to see West Des Moines CSD incorporate students directly into this work through the Youth Equity Stewards program in which they take an active role in fostering inclusive learning environments for all students. As I say frequently, students are capable of transformative leadership when given the chance.

As a state, we’re embracing a commitment to equity through our academic standards. A great example of this is the work of the statewide mathematics leadership team’s “Access & Equity Drive,” co-led by Dr. Comfort Akwaji-Anderson from Waterloo CSD. Read more about this important work.

As always, thank you to all Iowa educators for supporting not only my learning but the learning of all Iowa students this year. Have a wonderful summer!

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 20, 2021 at 4:56pm.