Monday, January 23, 2012

New site!

My blog got a makeover and made the move to Please update your bookmarks!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The view from my window today features a light snow falling, and wet streets.   I know that some of our students woke up thinking they would have a snow day.   My bet is that even with the flakes falling through Friday morning, we will not need  to interrupt scheduled classes.   By the way, we are offering text alerts for severe weather.  Did you sign up yet?   Go to our homepage and click on the Text Alerts graphic.  Entering your data will take barely a minute.

Over the past several weeks I have been growing more concerned with student safety.   I am talking about safety in all aspects of our students’ lives, including the hard reality of trouble on the streets.   We were jolted by the loss of three students recently.  Two of the students were victims of gun violence in their neighborhoods. We extended our sympathies to the families, and provided grief counseling at the schools the children attended.    

As a result of our concerns for the challenges in our students’ lives, and because of our concerns for the safety of all children, I convened a meeting of high-level city officials, including the Chief of Police and the County Sheriff, to discuss ways in which we can work together to keep kids safe.   It is unfortunate that we have a handful of students who are disruptive in school, on buses and in the community. Some of our children need placements in alternative settings where they can receive special support.  I am adding additional alternative school seats for this reason.    

Finally, a word on enrollment.   I am proud to say that our district debuted online registration this week.  Few districts in Wisconsin do enrollment electronically.  I am proud that our technicians, along with the staff of MPS Family Services, created a system that allows parents the ease of registering from home at any time of the day or night.  We still have walk-in service, but are seeing fewer parents in person this first week of enrollment, while hundreds are accessing the digital form.  

Parents, please take time this month to enroll your “top grade” children in MPS schools.  At the very least, spread the word to your neighbors and friends that it is time to choose – and that the choice should be MPS!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy New Year!

As we look ahead to 2012, I can’t help but think about some of the exciting things ahead for MPS. I would be disingenuous not to share we have a number of challenges as well. We greet 2012 with the commitment and energy to ensure our children are successful. Our entire team – bus drivers, skilled labor force, cafeteria workers, teachers and Central Services staff – has taken the attitude “Failure is not an option.” We continue to inspire learning and drive classroom achievement. In the coming year, we recommit to strong, consistent and constructive instruction that effectively uses technology and expands the knowledge our students need to compete in 2012.

MPS continues to focus on literacy. We are in year two of the Comprehensive Literacy Plan (CLP), introduced in September 2010. I believe literacy instruction that is consistent school-to-school and delivered by trained teachers will create better rates of reading proficiency in our kids. We look forward to monitoring the progress of the CLP in the coming year.

We also look to the ever-growing emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum with hands-on lessons and projects. Thanks to Rockwell Automation, students are now exploring and experimenting in a new Project Lead the Way learning lab. This year, we want to see all high school students graduate and pursue college or career options that showcase their talents, fuel our economy and shape the future.

Our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program highlights the good decisions and responsible behaviors of our students. Collaboratively, staff and students create guidelines for school environments that are conducive to learning and set behavioral expectations. One of my favorite examples of PBIS is this video from Victory School:

I encourage families to attend upcoming school conferences, performances and sporting events. You can find a listing of upcoming events on the District Events Calendar.

My relationship with our families and the community is important and critical to our success. Only by working together can we truly support the educational process, motivate children to learn and celebrate their accomplishments. I welcome your feedback and suggestions. If you had one wish for the new year in MPS, what would it be? Post your comments on our MPS Facebook page!

I look forward to a happy and safe 2012 for Milwaukee Public Schools. Students, enjoy the last few days of winter recess and come back to school rested and ready to learn. Happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Benefits and buildings

We feel as though we are emerging from a tunnel this week, pushed by a strong wind into bright light!
This is because in just two weeks we have made significant gains in positioning the district for sustainability.  You could call these efforts “course corrections” or describe them as needed reforms.  I will leave the descriptions to others, and simply tell you what has been done.  The gains were made in facility planning and in employee benefits and compensation.
With the bold assistance of the Board of School Directors, we made wholesale changes in the benefit structure for active and retired employees.   We were driven to action because our responsibility for retiree benefits has become a massive liability for the district, a $2.2 billion liability.  For years, the OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) costs have been largely ignored. 
When labor agreements expire in July 2012 and July 2013, our employees will begin paying health insurance premiums based on their salary levels, with those employees making $25,000 or less paying 5% toward their premium (under the low-cost plan) and those at the highest end of the scale paying 14%.   There are higher deductibles, with the chance for workers to earn back the cost of the deductible with participation in wellness initiatives.   We increased the number of years of service needed to retire and adjusted the payouts for sick days.
The changes will position MPS for more than $170 million in savings over the next five years, significantly trimming (but not eliminating) projected budget deficits, helping us to avoid more teacher layoffs, and protecting benefits for future retirees.  Our benefits and compensation changes will place us in line with many other employers, and will protect resource for our students and our staff.
On the topic of facility planning in November, we provided to the Board our final Facilities Master Plan.  It’s more than an inventory of our 170 buildings.  It is a blueprint for our future physical footprint, and for our re-styling of the district programmatically.  The final plan is online here.  Go read it.  Within a week we will be before the Board to follow through on some of the recommendations the consulting team made.
So, we have been busy.  When I mentioned it felt as though we had been through a tunnel, I am telling you that since I began as Superintendent 18 months ago, I have felt the gloomy specter of the OPEB costs dogging us.  We could not move forward without addressing them.  Now things are brighter for all of us, though we will be back in a couple of years to discuss further adjustments. 
The work never ends.  But that is how it should be, when we are driving reforms for the sake of the children.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Glee Give-A-Note competition

Just a quick word about our Milwaukee High School of the Arts (MHSA).  It is in the running for a cash prize for arts programming in the national Glee Give-A-Note competition.  Here's a link to the page where you can see the school's video, and cast your virtual vote:  Vote MHSA. 
I recall visiting MHSA a few months ago to take in a production of Hairspray.  It was amazing.  More people in Milwaukee are being made aware of this school and its talented students.  Here’s a link to coverage MHSA received on Fox6’s Real Milwaukee show Wednesday morning.  I think you will agree with me that our students looked and sounded great: MHSA on Fox6.

Please show your support for our students by voting for our school in this competition.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Staying connected

When I was a boy, I always felt anxious as my Mother headed off to my school for her parent/teacher conference.  What would Mom and my teacher talk about?  I played back in my mind all my interactions with my teacher.  I tried to remember whether I had turned in all my work on time.

Parent/teacher conferences are scheduled in our schools this week.  We have been preparing for them by making certain our parents see student work displayed in hallways, and we are suggesting topics for conversations between teachers and parents, and between principals and parents.  I know that some of our teachers go out of their way, expending their own funds,  to place out a bowl of candy or have bottled water available to offer parents.  They draw up tip sheets for reinforcing reading and math skills in the home.  They take extra time to update all academic data.  They prepare notes about behavior or tardiness or how well a child pays attention in class.  Teachers often have high hopes for conference night, and they are sometimes disappointed when they do not see the parents they had hoped to see.

There are new tools out there to help out families be connected to teachers on a more frequent basis - daily, in fact.  The most important of these tools is Parent Assistant.  It's an online resource.  Parents establish their account with their child's school, and then with their individual secure login, can access their child's grades, course schedule and attendance record, any time of day or night.  Other tools that we use now to keep parents informed are email, text alerts and the district's automated dialing system.

While we do not believe these tools will replace the good old face-to-face parent/teacher conference, we think they give parents a better sense of how things are going in school, and on a timely basis. 

It's so different from the time when I was a boy.  If Mom had had access to the internet and electronic documents back then, she would have been up-to-date on my school records.  And that once-a-year visit to the teacher would have been less anxiety-producing for me!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good attendance means better grades

I am feeling good about attendance in our schools so far this year.   Overall, our district attendance is at 95%.  That 95% rate is exactly the goal for districtwide student attendance stated in our strategic plan, Working together, Achieving More.  
Families, the time spent talking with your children about their school attendance is an investment that will pay off.  Hey, I’ve been there!  It’s not always easy to get a child going in the morning.  In fact, sometimes it is hard to get adults going!  You can make the morning less stressful by insisting that homework be finished the night before, that all papers and supplies are organized before the child goes to bed – and that he goes to bed at an appropriate, consistent time.
Teachers, you are important mentors for the children you see daily.  Tell them that attendance makes a difference in grades.  Here’s a recent entry from the blog, SchoolBook, written by Robert Gebeloff about schools in New York City:
“With data from the city’s Independent Budget Office, the value of attendance can be measured more precisely. The passing rate in math for students that missed five or fewer days of school in 2009-10 was 69 percent.  Students that missed six to 10 days?  55 percent.  Chronically absent (21 or more days)?  28 percent.”  
Wow.  Those figures are important.  Good attendance in school leads to better grades and will create good habits for later in life.  Let’s keep them coming, on time, everyday!  I am confident we will beat our banner performance of last year.