Saturday, March 14, 2015

What I've Learned in Leaving the FNSBSD

Prior to this school year, I spent 9 years as a teacher in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. A district that in recent weeks is again (2 years running) in the local paper with stories about budget shortfalls, HR problems, and more teacher pink slips (no more music or arts classes is what I hear). I left the district in what is now clear to me as the lowest point in the district's history. And I now find myself in a district that is thriving. A district that shows no budgetary concerns, is hiring teachers, and has a history of student success through graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, and state test scores. Everyday, I look around in awe at the complete shift in experiences, and ask myself, "How can there be such a drastic difference between these 2 districts?"

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on this question, trying to find meaning to all of it. I've listed what I see as the primary reasons behind how FNSBSD is falling behind compared to my new district.

1) Money: I'm not going to lie. My new district has it. A decent amount of it. We live in a community with a higher median income, and one that isn't afraid to share with the school district. Most of the families that move here do so because of the schools and our reputation. The people have money and they are more then willing to put that toward the education of their kids.

The truth, however, is that there is money in the state of Alaska. I believe the budget short falls have been created by the decisions of state officials to defund education. As I see it, there is a lack of trust in what the districts are doing with the money, how it's being spent, and the overall educational results. And to a certain degree, I agree with them. 

In Fairbanks, there is quite a bit of money spent on "things." When I was at North Pole high school, there were 4 complete sets of TI-Navigator systems that were simply purchased. Most just sat there, and my guess is that they still mostly just sit there. Much like the many classroom sets of iPads, iPods, SmartBoards, and other fun technology. Now, these items are not the reason for the budget shortfalls, but more a picture of the spending that happens. 

In my new district, all purchases for classroom learning items (like the ones listed above) are gained through grants. Teachers write for district grant funds by explaining how the technology they would like will be used to enhance learning. These are then read and approved by the board. The money is spent with a direct intention. Teachers and administration communicate to make purchases based on student need. The teachers are trusted to help make those decisions, and the board and admin team proudly support those needs. For a new teacher like me, it means that I don't immediately have the access to the items I had in Fairbanks, but I know that I can write for a grant to get the items that I know will enhance my teaching practice. 

This is obviously just one little picture. However, I'm amazed at how morale within the school can be so strong simply in how the community supports us educators. And I don't mean just through the money, although that helps. I mean in the everyday things. When I'm meeting new people, and I mention that I teach at the high school, they talk with pride about how great our district is. And that's from young parents to grandparents. There is pride in being here, and supporting the schools. It's amazing. So as we continue to show results, we are in fact earning the finical support of the community. This is something I hardly ever felt while teaching in Fairbanks. 

2) Leadership: During my 9 years of teaching in the FNSBSD, I can remember 3 maybe 4 different superintendents. That's a lot. How can a district get a sense of where it's going if the "captain of the ship" is constantly changing? I moved to a place where the current superintendent has been a part of the district for 19 years. 19 years! Our principal has been in his position for 9 years. Together, they are the backbone of what is nothing but support to the teachers and staff in the district. Their student centered message is unified and clear. It is also clear that they work only to enhance our efforts for the kids. There isn't an us verse them vibe. They know we are working for the kids, and they support that. 

They ask us (the teachers) what we need from professional development (PD). They don't hire whatever outside speaker they can to preach at us. They instead encourage us to step into teacher-leader roles. Or to come up with ideas for PD throughout the year that we can get paid to teach to our peers. If I'm doing something awesome in my class, I can hold an after school class/workshop to show other teachers about it. The PD moneys then stay in-house, and are put towards what the teachers want/need. We are encouraged to use our voice to make positive changes. 

This has been hard for me. I wanted desperately to have a voice in FNSBSD. I frequently felt as though I wasn't being heard, and that we were constantly being talked to by the untouchable admin. It was "them" making decisions, and the teachers just dealing with it. The input they received was controlled in that those that were part of teacher committees, were often selected by the admin. And I say often and not always, because occasionally we were given an opportunity to speak our minds. It just wasn't always acknowledged. 

The strength of the leadership and the relationships they've created with all of the district staff is so noticeably different between the two districts. It is even different in how each has dealt with implementing the new Common Core based state standards (CCSS) as well as a new teacher evaluations. From day one, I've heard nothing but positive support from our educational leaders. Encouragement that we can handle the new expectations even with a change in teacher evaluations. Every week we're reminded that the CCSS don't define our students, and that we, the teachers, will work each day to help our students grow within the standards. And that it's not about them meeting these idilic standards, but that we can demonstrat that our efforts show student growth within the standards. There isn't a sense of fear trickling down each day like I remember from last year when CC was looming over us. We are supported, and valued for what they know we can do. 

3) District Size: I can't be too hard on the leadership in Fairbanks, because in all honesty, how many former educators can truly handle managing a district the size of FNSBSD? It's huge! Thirty-three schools in all when you count the elementary, secondary, and each of the schools of choice. That's insane! It has to be near impossible to oversee anything with a single superintendent, and two assistant-superintendents. Throw-in the number of employees needed, and it's no wonder the HR department is having a hard time keeping up. I wonder how long it takes a new superintendent to remember the names of all the principals! 

I went from that, to a district with a total 10 schools. Six elementary, 2 middle, and 2 high schools (1 main campus and 1 school of choice). I've grown to truly believe that the size of a school district matters. As in anything, the larger in number a group grows the harder it is to manage. Especially, when the message from the leader isn't clear or leadership is constantly changing. 

I find it hard to see FBNSBSD ever trying to restructure. But if I could, I would break that district up as fast as possible. Separate North Pole and Salcha into one district, maybe? I don't know. It would be great to see one day. 

Overall, I loved being in Fairbanks. My wife was a student of FNSBSD. She was the 4th generation of her family to be born in Fairbanks. We moved there, believing we were going to stay and raise our family. It was so hard to say goodbye to the people we love. But, as I see more problems for the district, I realize that my hand was in many ways forced to make a change. And while some days it hurts, the majority of my days are looking around feeling so fortunate to having been hired in my new district. In a district that encourages me each day to take an active role in leading my students and peers into the common core era.

I wish nothing but better days for the teachers of the amazing students in FNSBSD. I hope that budget shortfalls don't do further damage to the district, and I hope beyond hope, that the new superintendent has the courage to lead the district with pride, strength, and an ability to give voice to many who've been without it for too many years.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please feel free to leave comments, thoughts, or feelings below. 

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