Bellevue Independent Schools: The obvious choice

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Despite my best attempts at remaining apolitical, too often the office of superintendent causes me join the fray.  My own internal dialogue forces me to address whether my efforts, actions, and words aim at my sole purpose of protecting and/or defending students and the teaching profession.  If yes, then I feel comfortable participating in the discussion.  If not, I take a partisan approach and focus on the job instead of the argument.  Unfortunately, the last few months have caused me to engage in ways that I never thought would be necessary, but the truth is that public education is in the crosshairs of damaging policy at the state and national level.

One piece of legislation currently under consideration at the state level is tax-credit scholarships.  Concisely, this means that corporations can pay the tuition for students to go to private schools and then receive tax credits on the back end.  The students targeted are typically from lower income families who attend public schools thereby eliminating the funding for those public schools one head at a time.  Proponents of these scholarships espouse the freedom of school choice and parental control over their children’s education.  Sounds appealing, does it not?  What they fail to mention is the shifting of public money to private entities.  In my opinion, that is not okay.  Tax-credit scholarships dilute funding for the most vulnerable among us, and those students who have significant academic needs are most often turned away at the private school door.

Our governor proclaimed the last week in January to be School Choice Week.  This is a yearly, premeditated week of advocacy from a national organization hoping to make inroads for private schools to access public tax money.  Of course, many people in our state who align with this agenda work diligently to push legislation that will allow tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, charter schools, and yes, even pension “reform.”  I’ve seen statistics that say 75% of school choice advocates have students who already attend private schools or charters.  Is it really a matter of choice, or is this one more piece of the attack on public education?  The evidence points to an attack.  For independent urban districts like Bellevue, it is more than an attack on our schools; it is an attack on our community.

School choice advocates love to label urban districts as failing.  What they base this opinion upon baffles me.  When faced with this criticism, however, I believe we have two choices.  We can assume the role of victim, or we can respond with the truth.  I choose the latter, so buckle up for the truth.  When I look around our district, I see the following:

  • Pre-K efforts such as Head Start, bornlearning, cradle school, and free book program.
  • A 5-Star preschool (the highest designation).
  • An instructional model, observed regularly by other districts, that emphasizes critical thinking.
  • A dedicated middle school to address developmental characteristics (a rarity in small districts).
  • Dual-credit partnerships with Gateway, Northern Kentucky University, and the University of Louisville.
  • 1/3 of upperclassmen taking college courses.
  • 595 college credits earned in 2016-17.
  • 18 seniors in the class of 2017 left BHS with at least 24 college hours.
  • One senior in the class of 2018 will leave with the equivalent of an associate’s degree.
  • Three National Board certified teachers and three more in process.
  • Three teachers enrolled in the NKU “Great 8” cohort – a master’s program designed for urban school districts.
  • A “Distinguished” high school rating according to the previous accountability system.

This is only a fraction of the positive in Bellevue Independent.  With the current legislative session underway, only time will reveal what constraints are placed upon us in the future.  Regardless, we will thrive.  Charter school laws are already a reality, and if tax-credit (voucher) legislation is passed, the buzzards will begin circling.  No worries.  There isn’t a strip mall academy in the future that can compete with the trajectory of Bellevue Independent Schools, or any of our other public schools friends in Northern Kentucky.  In my opinion, we are the obvious choice.

For more information on why you should CHOOSE BELLEVUE, go to www.choosebellevue.com

If you have an opinion on the tax-credit scholarship bill, or any other legislation affecting our school district, contact your representative or senator at 1-800-372-7181.

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A Different Type of Testing

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One year ago this month, the Bellevue Independent Schools Board of Education made the courageous and conscientious decision to support mandatory drug testing for student athletes and band participants.  These tests are administered to all participants at the beginning of the school year or season and then randomly throughout the year.  And while the district assumes the nominal cost of these tests, we can place no value on the positive impact it has on our families and community.

The teen brain is in a constant state of development.  The portion responsible for decision-making, the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed until adulthood, leaving our students vulnerable to pressures of experimenting with drugs or alcohol.  In short, the impulse and reaction skills associated with the amygdala outmaneuver and outplay the logic and reasoning of the prefrontal cortex, thereby creating a void for our students.  This isn’t an excuse for behaviors – all students are different – but it does suggest that providing safeguards is necessary.

After one year, the district has given 331 tests to our students.  Of these 331, 328 have returned as negative, giving us a success rate of OVER 99%.  Per policy, if a student tests positive he/she enters another tier where testing is mandatory each time they are given.  To date, we have not had a student test positive a second time.  It is also important to note that a positive test engages a team of people who are working to assist the student.  In no way is this initiative meant to be a “gotcha” for our students but, rather, a tool for them to avoid the pressures of adolescence and young adulthood.

In 1995, and later in 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that schools have the right to institute mandatory drug testing policies.  As with most social issues, there are opinions in both support and opposition of mandatory drug testing, and research on the effectiveness of these policies reveals a mixed bag of results.  Fortunately, it seems to be widely successful for our students, our school district, and our community.  For this, I am thankful – to our students for making great choices, to our families for their support, and to the board for their stamp of approval.

What’s in a Name…or Label? A reflection on 2017 state assessment scores.

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Last October, in the article “Data Points and Perceptions,” I cautioned the Bellevue community about allowing standardized test scores to become the entire story of a school district.  They are not, and I still hold firmly to those beliefs.  Test scores are but one indicator among many that tell the true story.  With that said, and as was also stated in last year’s article, we take our scores seriously as opportunities to recognize continued growth.

Kentucky’s testing system is in the middle of a two-year transition period.  I’ll spare you many of the details, but the labels of “Distinguished,” “Proficient,” and “Needs Improvement” are giving way to a star system beginning with the 2018-19 school year.  Along with this change in labels comes many changes to the content areas and grade levels previously assessed.  More information will be forthcoming during implementation in the months ahead.

For this year (Spring 2017 testing), however, we were given scores that more closely resemble the old system.  In total, we have data on 12 measures.  We took this data and plugged it into the formula used in the past to determine what labels our schools and district would have earned under last year’s system.

Grandview Elementary students were assessed in achievement, gap, and growth.  There are complex formulas for all of these categories, so if you would like more information on the exact definition, please contact the district office.  Our achievement score was static but there was improvement in gap and growth.  This gave the school an overall rating right at the cutoff between Needs Improvement and Proficient.  Because we hand calculated these scores, we are reluctant to label either way.  Again, the state accountability system is in a transition period, so we did not receive official calculations.

Bellevue Middle School students were also assessed in achievement, gap, and growth.  These students showed improvement in all three areas.  This is exactly what we thought would happen when we formed the middle school two years ago.  When calculating the scores for grades 6-8, once again we arrived at the cusp of Needs Improvement and Proficient, so we did not assign a label.

Bellevue High School students were assessed in achievement and gap but also received a score for college/career readiness and graduation rate.  There was improvement in the achievement score, incredible improvement in the gap score, and although the graduation rate which was already the highest among Campbell County districts and 4th highest in Northern Kentucky, it went even higher.  Our graduation rate is now over 98%.  The readiness score remained static and will continue to be an area of growth for us moving forward.  Combining all of these measures into one score, and even using conservative rounding, Bellevue High School was far beyond the score for what was previously determined to be a Distinguished school.  And while this label is giving way to a star system in the future, our students earned it in 2016-17.  Bellevue High School IS a 2017 Distinguished School.

In addition to the scores, other indicators place our district on an upward trajectory.  Our ACT scores continue to climb, attendance rates are the highest they’ve been in five years, and our juniors and seniors are earning college credits at a rate that will essentially exempt them from college freshman courses. Last year alone, our 40 dual-credit students earned almost 500 credit hours.  500!

Finally, the district as a whole used to receive a similar label to the schools.  Because we did the calculations on our own, and because of test change variables, I do not feel comfortable providing one.  I can say that in running the numbers multiple times, we could absolutely argue that we moved from Needs Improvement in 2016 to Proficient in 2017.  Regardless, there is much work to be done, and we will never rest despite our accomplishments.  Our kids deserve it.  Thank you for the support at home as we become a destination school district in Northern Kentucky.

An Open Letter to Governor Bevin

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Dear Governor Bevin,

As a 22-year veteran of Kentucky’s public education system, I have followed with earnest the increasingly dismal outlook provided by TRS forecasters.  Allow me to frame this letter with the acknowledgement that our pension system is flawed and/or broken.  I know it is.  We, the public educators in the state, know it is.

The underlying reasons for the decline in our system are many: legislative neglect, longer life spans, and a recession to name a few.  Regardless, the finger pointing need not overshadow the solutions.  I can tell you who is NOT at fault—those of us who, in trust and good faith, signed up for a retirement system at the onset of our careers.  Please turn your finger away from us.

My mother began her career in Kentucky public education in 1970 earning a salary of less than $4000.  She worked in our great Commonwealth for over 30 years.  She is now 68 with lots of life left.  She does not live in a gated community, does not drive a fancy car, and does not take lavish vacations.  At 21, she knew wealth would never be in her future.  She did it anyway.

Following my mother’s example, I signed my first contract in 1995 with a salary around $28,000.  This is much less than my friends earned, who graduated college with degrees in other areas, and barely enough to fashion a life of my own.  I tell you this not to play the martyr, because I am just one of thousands who agreed to these terms.  I tell you this because, like all educators, we knew of the modest life in front of us, and we did it anyway.

You may not know this, but our degrees and our certificates become worthless unless we complete graduate programs.  These are mandatory and are at OUR expense.  Full-time jobs, involvement in extra-curricular activities at minimal compensation, graduate classes, and trying to start families characterizes a teacher in his or her late 20s and early 30s.  Sounds fun, no?  We did it anyway.

Mr. Bevin, despite these flaws to public education, generations of Kentuckians have chosen teaching as a profession.  The compensation for spending our professional lives giving back to our communities has always been relative comfortability in retirement.  Most give over 30 years to the cause and only hope to get 30 more after it is over, albeit at a much lower rate.

There are no absolutes when dealing with humans, but I can confidently say 99% of the people with whom I have worked, and there are hundreds, are not the greed-fueled personalities you have referenced in your speeches.  The professionals in our schools are altruistic in motivation and pure in practice.  To characterize them as anything else is irresponsible and unjust.  To say they are anything but compassionate and dedicated is to distort the truth.

Politics aside, the future of democracy and the sanctity of the Commonwealth rests firmly in public education.  There is no tool in the history of humankind greater than our public schools.  The services we deliver to our communities ensure opportunities for equality and fairness.  You cannot put a price on this investment, Governor.

Behind the brick and mortar facades are schools full of the toughest, most resilient people I have ever known.  I am a better educator and person because of these people.  There are hundreds of thousands of students who are educated contributors to society because of these people.  Despite attacks on our achievement, our character, and our motivation, we persist.  Public education is an easy scapegoat.  We get it.  We knew this going in, but we did it anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Bevin, we know the retirement system needs work.  Why it needs work is much less important than the bi-partisan effort that it will take to fix it.  Let me emphasize that those of us working in public service are neither the problem nor the enemy.  If we have to give a little, fine.  We have been giving our entire careers.  I just ask that you honor the retirement terms we agreed to as beginning teachers and that you involve our organizations in discussions of any potential concessions.

As dire as the situation may be, I am optimistic that a viable solution exists.  You have an opportunity here, Governor, to show the nation the fortitude and resolve of the people of Kentucky.  I trust that you will take that responsibility seriously and work for the interests of the children and teachers in our public schools.

Sincerely,

Robb Smith

Superintendent

Bellevue Independent Schools

Data Points and Perceptions

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I have written this column no less than a half dozen times in the last week only to scratch the effort and begin again.  The release of state test scores tends to elicit a spectrum of emotion and, once again, I fell prey to the data.  Rationally, I understand that holistic scores mean very little in relation to individual students, but I also recognize how these scores, fairly or unfairly, can impact the climate of a community.  Therefore, what you read today is neither a dismissal nor a denial of the numbers.  We embrace the results and, like always, will continue to push our students to higher levels of achievement.

The most disappointing piece of state accountability is the notion that this is somehow a competition; that the students of Bellevue are locked in a battle of wits against districts all over the state.  Learning isn’t a contest, and it certainly doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Over the last few years, our district has been in cooperative learning situations with many surrounding districts.  Bellevue students have worked collaboratively with students from Dayton, Newport, Ludlow, Southgate, Ft. Thomas, and others.  We’re all trying to improve at the same time, which I believe makes us stronger.  The Bellevue goal is never to “beat” another district, especially if that means a lesser result for our neighbor.  These are all our kids.

The accountability system is intricate and not easily explained.  What once was a test has now become a parceled mix of measures meant to provide a comprehensive view of a district.  Whether or not the system accomplishes that goal is not the subject of this column, but I can tell you that our district does many things well.  Some show up in the report but many do not.  At the high school level, our graduation rate continues to exceed the state average, with over 96% of students earning a diploma.  In addition, our ACT scores continue to climb at a steady rate, providing our students with improved access, and the accompanying financial aid, to post-secondary institutions.

Due to the relentless work of many people, our district now provides opportunity for children from birth through pre-school.  Access to early childhood education (daycare, Head Start, and pre-school) strengthens families and communities.  Bellevue has scored very well on kindergarten readiness tests in the last couple of years, which is not recorded as part of our accountability score but will definitely show up in the near future as our kids matriculate through elementary school.  Our early childhood initiative, coupled with a strong focus on literacy/thinking from kindergarten through high school, is creating a strong foundation for deeper levels of learning–the type of learning that not only creates competent standardized test takers, but more importantly, productive citizens of the world.

Beginning in May of 2015, the entire district teaching staff was asked to critically examine its instructional practice.  What arose from those conversations was a transition to what we call The Bellevue Classroom.  In short, this is a K-12 articulated instructional delivery model that relies less on traditional demagoguery and more on student inquiry.  Irrespective of grade level or content area, the same tenets of community, thinking strategies, gradual release of responsibility, and student discourse are present.  Our students are growing toward independence in academic skill and in content knowledge.

If there is any indication that our focus on critical thinking is coming to fruition, it’s the success of our high school students in dual-credit college courses.  Once again this year, about one-third of our juniors and seniors are taking classes at Gateway Community and Technical College.  By the end of the year, our students will have amassed over 400 credit hours.  In addition, our formative assessments, MAP and CERT, given thrice yearly, are showing steady improvements in most areas.

I could go on about the great things happening in the Bellevue Independent Schools, but will end with this thought:  all schools and districts have strengths and areas of growth.  We know ours and own them.  Our central office team, administrative teams, and incredible teaching staff will analyze the information provided by the state in an effort to better understand each individual student, not to improve a ranking, and certainly not to stand taller than another district.  I realize there are proponents of competition who readily point out that the world is a competitive place.  I agree.  It is.  But third grade math doesn’t have to be.  Our classrooms will not become arenas, we will not create war rooms to plot strategy, and we will not eschew critical thinking, collaboration, or soft skills to better a test score.  At the same time, we won’t ignore the result.  We will take it along with the myriad of other information sources and continue to provide the best we can for each and every student.  Our accountability score is a data point, not a biography.

Changing the Conversation

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On August 15th, still 48 hours from the official start of the school year for most, approximately 40 Bellevue High School students began their academic year at Gateway Community and Technical College. Though these students are of high school age, the task before them is anything but. While every Bellevue student is challenged by coursework that will prepare him or her for life after high school, our Gateway students take on an added challenge of collegiate-level rigor even before receiving their Bellevue High diplomas.

Now in its second year, our relationship with Gateway is flourishing and serves as a model for other school districts in the region. If you read enough literature from the world of education, you will undoubtedly see the terms “college ready” and “college-going culture” dominate the conversation as it pertains to high school purpose. The goal for our school district is much more than mere college-readiness, however, and this is where the conversation takes a turn.

The benefits of community college are well documented. In short, Bellevue students are benefitting in the following ways:

  • Exposure to college culture and responsibility
  • Completion of general education requirements prior to transfer
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Opportunities for online learning
  • Thousands of dollars in tuition saved

The state of Kentucky defines college readiness by achievement on a standardized assessment like the ACT. These numerical benchmarks purportedly determine a student’s fit in higher education. While that definition may work for some, we want to leave nothing to chance at Bellevue Independent Schools. We are working with young adults who possess a number of positive qualities, none of which should be distilled into a quantitative measure. Our definition of college readiness is actually DOING college prior to becoming a BHS graduate.

As superintendent, I certainly want a college-going culture in our school, but getting there isn’t enough. I want to see our students thrive. I want to see our students lead. I want our students to leave a legacy of not just college-going, but college-conquering. The dual-credit partnership with Gateway does just that. Our students are changing the conversation.

KDE District Spotlight – Bellevue ISD

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The Bellevue Independent School District was recently highlighted by Kentucky’s commissioner of education in his weekly newsletter.  What follows was transmitted to educators in all corners of the state.  While I have written about our vision in the past, this synopsis provides a nice overview for those who may not know our district.  Please share with your friends and family, or anyone who has yet to experience the Bellevue community and its connection to the school district.

Much like the vibrant, eclectic river town surrounding it, the Bellevue Independent Schools are undergoing a transformation, redefining the educational experiences of the students they serve.  This renaissance signifies Bellevue’s commitment to being a contributor to both academia and society, providing opportunities for intellectual pursuits and psychosocial connections to a hometown that serves as a launching point for a fulfilling life.  The synonymy of school and community makes Bellevue unique and extraordinary.

Bellevue Schools are guided by a set of core values that serve as the vision and mission for the district.  These core values were developed through conversation and collaboration with district staff, community members, and students.  The essential question preceding the development of the core values was, “How would you describe a Bellevue High School graduate?”  The qualities and characteristics that emerged as consistent themes provided the foundation for what guides the district today and in the future.

BISD values Honoring the Past.  Often heard is the phrase, “Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger.”  There is a soulful intimacy about Bellevue Schools that is difficult to define but is anchored by a fiercely protected environment of inclusion.  Once you don the black and gold, you become privy to a kinship that offers the safety of a forever home.  One of our goals is to connect our alumni with current students and staff to perpetuate the family environment that so characterizes our culture.

BISD values Embracing the Present.  “The Bellevue Classroom” is an articulated P-12 instructional blueprint and is illustrated by purposeful processes and life skill development dedicated to the whole child.  From pre-school through graduation, the mission is to guide students to deeper levels of understanding through the building of community and use of thinking strategies in a workshop setting.  Holding a strong belief that there is no ceiling, The Bellevue Classroom is aimed at dispelling any myth of limits on student achievement.  This movement is steeped in sound research, including elements of brain function, cognitive development, and social interaction.

BISD values Securing a Future.  College-going students from Bellevue High School are enrolled in a sequence of dual-credit courses in collaboration with Gateway Community and Technical College.  Over a period of two years, many students will earn enough college credit to entirely bypass the typical general education courses of a freshman year.  In the 15-16 school year, 40 high school students earned over 450 credit hours.  And thanks to a board of education committed to building a better Bellevue, all of this is completely funded by the school district, saving families thousands of dollars in future college tuition.  Other individualized opportunities for career-bound students include pathway partnerships with surrounding districts and internships through the NaviGo Scholars program.

If you would like to know more about Bellevue Independent Schools, please contact the district office at (859) 261-2108 or email me at robb.smith@bellevue.kyschools.us.