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Monday, December 17, 2012

Dealing with Tragedy

First Class Communication joins so many in the nation experiencing sadness, anger, confusion and hoplessness after last week's events. Needless to say, our thoughts and prayers are with all those whose lives have been shattered by the gunshots in Connecticutt.

That's the first thing. Second is to say thank you to the Little Rock School District. The district's administration worked over the weekend to assure parents that safety has always been a top concern there, and will especially be so this week.

I'm sure other districts are taking similar steps, but as an LRSD parent, these are the communications I've appreciated firsthand:
  • A very detailed phone message outlining all the steps school personnel take to guarantee safety and how those efforts will be ramped up this week.
  • Facebook posts assuring the same thing.
  • An article by a school counselor on the LRSD homepage with tips for parents to help their children deal with the tragedy and the scary feelings that can occur in its aftermath.
There may be more ways of communicating that I missed, but the point is that LRSD acted quickly, proactively and used a variety of communication channels to get the message to parents that they would take care of their kids.

Well done, and many thanks!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Adequacy and Equity, Up Close and Personal

In the summer of 1998, my family moved back to Little Rock from Silver Spring, Md., where my daughter had just completed kindergarten. When I took her to tour her new school, the principal showed us the building from top to bottom. Afterward, she asked my daughter if she had any questions.
Somewhat to my surprise, my daughter did. And they were good ones.
"Where's the science room?" Ahh, of course, her school in Maryland had an airy and wonderfully equipped science room for the K-4 students it served. Kids there loved science. The Little Rock principal sadly explained that her school couldn't offer one. The school was so crowded, she said, teachers had to lead science lessons in their own classrooms.
"Oh, well, where's the art room?" Same story. My daughter's old school in Maryland had a great one. This school in Little Rock didn't have one at all.
"Do you have a gym for P.E.?" Again, where physical education in Silver Spring occurred in a gym designed for running and playing, P.E. at this school happened outside or in the regular classroom.
So, about the same time Pulaski County Judge Kilgore was considering the school funding case that would become "Lake View," my 6-year-old daughter pointed out the relative inadequacies she found in the state's largest school district. It only took three simple questions.
***
A year or so later, I was writing free-lance and pitched a story about a kindergarten teacher who had lost and been reissued his teacher's license to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. To profile the gentleman, I drove to his school in the Lake View School District, which at that time meant no more to me than a small place on the eastern edge of the state.
But that visit left a vivid impression. The children were well behaved, looked precious in their white-top-black-bottom uniforms and seemed eager to learn. So I was horrified to discover that this teacher, who had overcome adversity to re-earn his license, had no materials with which to teach his  students. He had to travel to the Wal-Mart in Helena or West Memphis to purchase alphabet coloring books and math workbooks that he could copy and use as lessons for his 20-plus pupils. The school district simply couldn't afford books for these children.
So, at LakeView, I not only witnessed Arkansas's  inadequacy, the inequity within our state's schools stared me in the face as well.
 ***
Gov. Beebe and others say that the Arkansas Supreme Court got it wrong in their recent decision about school funding.  They are absolutely right.
The intent in creating the current funding formula was to provide an adequate foundation of funding that would allow every Arkansas student access to a quality education -- one that would allow them to learn on par with students, say, from Silver Spring.
By making sure every student had this same adequate foundation, equity would be addressed as well.
***
I worked at the Arkansas Department of Education during the very exciting post-Lake View years, when the Lake View reforms were being implemented and producing results. Here's how I would explain the funding formula to reporters and others:
School districts are funded through "mils," which are collected through local taxes. The worth of a mil is determined by the wealth of a community. For example, a mil in the Delta often is worth a lot less than a mil in Northwest Arkansas. To correct that inequality, and to make sure that every student in Arkansas was getting a fair shake at a good education, Arkansas created a huge pot into which every district poured the money collected through their first 25 mils. (Most districts collect more than 25 mils, so whatever money they collected from the 26th mil and beyond was theirs to keep and did not go into the state "pot.")
Once all districts' 25 mils were mixed together in the funding pot, it still didn't make a large enough sum to fund all Arkansas students at the level the legislature set to provide an adequate foundation.  Why? Because only a very few districts actually collected enough through 25 mils to fund their own students at an adequate level. Therefore the state kicked in the extra cash needed to fund adequacy from its general revenues.
The result was not perfect but it was much closer than Arkansas had ever been before in providing all students with a good education. In this formula, dollars to fund a more adequate education followed each child to where they were. No longer, as Bill Gates was fond of describing education nationally, did a child's chance for a good education depend on the zip code he or she lived in.
***
A few years ago, I was standing in line at the airport by a nice, chatty, recently retired couple who lived in the Fountain Lake area. Largely because of its well-off retirees, Fountain Lake is one of the few school districts in Arkansas for which 25 mils can provide the full foundation funding amount for all of its students and have some dollars left over. Learning that I worked for the state, they launched into the unfairness -- and illegality -- of having to send all the money raised from 25 mils to share with other students in the state (though that's not exactly how they phrased it).
I listened patiently, biting my lip so as not to point out their misconceptions. While I didn't, I would easily have bet them the Arkansas Supreme Court would never agree with them.
Never say never, I guess.
***
By the time my daughter left her Little Rock elementary school, it had a separate art room and science lab. In the years immediately after that, students all across the state benefited from the enormous impact of the Lake View reforms. Warm, safe and dry schools. More resources. Better educational programs. Better-paid teachers. The list goes on.
So whether it comes about through a rehearing by the Arkansas Supreme Court or a technical change in the law as suggested by the Attorney General's Office, Arkansas must reverse this decision. As a state, we can't afford to lose our school funding formula. We've simply come too far to risk going back.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Yea for School Board Members

Arkansas's 1,450-plus elected school board members will have their own special recognition month in 2013. The Arkansas State Board of Education voted to name January as School Board Recognition Month.

As Arkansas School Board Association executive director Dan Farley told the board, serving on the local school board can sometimes be a thankless job. That's why having a month designated to thanking board members is a great idea.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's true, but is it the whole story?

“No relationship exists between poverty and academic ability."

That astute observation was made recently to Economics Arkansas by no other than Ray Simon, former director of the Arkansas Department of Education and then Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education in the younger George Bush's administration.

It's a comment that makes me cheer. But, now, it also makes me think.

No doubt in my mind, poverty truly has nothing to do with ability. (Neither does the color of a child's skin, the language a child speaks or where a child is born.)

I can't begin to count the number of times -- both as a public school parent and as a former ADE employee -- I've cringed when I've heard educators try to explain away students' (and schools') poor performance because of the level of poverty in the home or the community.

As a public school system, we have to rise above the challenges and educate children hindered by the blows of poverty to the same level as their more affluent classmates. Case closed.

Until, for me, now.

Upon reading the broader context of Mr. Simon's talk -- good teachers matter and bad teachers aren't just unfortunate personnel, they're actually harmful to students -- I started feeling uncomfortable with my former certainties.

Don't get me wrong. I get that teachers are THE most important element in concocting a quality education. And, as a society, we still haven't realized that to get the best people in the classroom -- those who are more likely to graduate in the top-third of their college classes as opposed the bottom third -- we have to pay them more, both in terms of moolah and respect.

But I also fear that, in trying to right a simple wrong, we are being just as simplistic in placing so much of the responsibility on teachers.

After all, research shows that:
  • Children from poorer families are much more likely to start school knowing thousands of fewer words than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.
  • Children from poorer families lose much more of their learning over the summers because they don't have access to the same enrichment opportunities.
  • Children from poorer families are more likely to come to school hungry and/or to eat less nutritionally balanced meals. Hunger directly affects the ability to concentrate and learn.
These are just a few examples of how poverty walks right into the classroom with the students' whose young lives it claims.  By placing all these challenges at the feet of teachers alone, aren't we taking just as simplistic approach as educators who blame lack of achievement all on poverty?

As a community of educators, parents, businesspeople and students, we have to realize the negative effects poverty has on learning is a broad, systemic problem. So in addition to great teachers, we have to supply superb pre-school opportunities, offer quality summer enrichment programs, make sure children have access to food, provide job training for parents and find ways to combat myriad other ill-effects of poverty.

The reason Arkansas's education reforms of the last decade were so successful is they approached the whole spectrum of needs of the education system. All the more reason to keep those reforms in place, and, indeed, find meaningful policies that broaden their scope from the classroom and school building to the broader community.

Monday, November 19, 2012

3 Good News Items about AR Education

From more bikes to more college graduates, there've been some positive happenings for education in Arkansas of late. Here are three that caught our eye:
  • Bentonville School District, thanks to community support, is putting 30 top-quality mountain bikes at each of its schools. In addition to a bicycle mechanics program, younger students will spend part of their PE classes riding the many trails around the schools. Learning, fun execercise and exploring the treasures of home -- not a bad combo!
  • The Data Quality Center again recognized Arkansas for leading the nation with our  educational data tracking system. Only Delaware received similar kudos.  Data-driven instruction is the best way to ensure students are mastering their lessons. You can't do that without a trove of reliable, accurate and accessible data, though. It's good to know that Arkansas educators have such a trove literally at their fingertips.
  • The six-year graduation rate at the University of Arkansas topped 60 percent for the first time ever. That's good news for students and good news for our state. It's the result of efforts to retain more students by UA, of course, but it's also a positive testament to the state's policy efforts. Things like improving data-driven instruction (see above), attracting better teachers through better pay, and increasing rigor in the classroom better prepare K-12 students for college success.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Way to mix traditional, social media!

At Philander Smith College's Bless the Mic lecture last night, we witnessed a great blend of social and traditional media used to reinforce the institution's messaging.

As guests entered the auditorium, we received:
  • an attractive program, as you'd expect 
  • a notepad to jot thoughts and questions that advertising all six Bless the Mic events
  • a data card to leave behind with our contact information so we'd receive further news and info from the college
On the back of the program, the university printed a QR ("quick response") code (full disclosure: First Class Communication created the QR code for Philander).  Members of the audience were encouraged to use their smart phones to key in on the QR code, which took them to the college's online donation's page. Clever, right! We could donate right then and there.

The lecture -- a really fantastic talk by national journalist Eugene Robinson -- was preceded and followed by impressive pleas from articulate students. All three asked that we support the fine work of the college and its efforts to raise money for a new student center. The students incorporated these pleas into the traditional welcome to the campus, introduction of the speaker and closing of the programs. Again, anyone so moved could pull out his phone and give.

The college also provide hash tag information on the program needed for tweeting about the event. Again, we were encouraged to use our phones to tweet about the lecture, which would serve to keep the more fidgity of us engaged as we promoted the college and the Bless the Mic series.

So, word of mouth, printed pieces, an event, QR codes, Twitter ... a creative mix of social and traditional, indeed!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

3 things to cheer about in Dumas

Yesterday, First Class Communication had the opportunity to visit the Dumas School District and catch up with all the positive things happening for students there. Even in our short visit, we easily saw that this is a school district that's on the move.

While there's lots to be impressed with, here are three things that stood out:

Superintendent David Rainey takes photos.
1. Superintendent David Rainey. We were fans when Mr. Rainey championed progressive policies for public education while he was in the legislature, and it's just as terrific watching him put his passion into practice at the district level.

2. New Tech Network grant/STEM focus. Dumas was one of the Arkansas school districts that won a New Tech Network grant to implement a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focus in the high school, complete with problem- and project-based learning. The district has hit the ground running, putting the program in place this school year for its 10th-grade students. Enthusiastic leadership and creative faculty and staff are making this venture a success.

3. A focus on academics. We were privy to an elementary school awards program to recognize student performance. Not only were the teachers and students celebrating, but a good many parents filled the bleachers as a show of support for their children as well.

Leadership. Innovation. Parent and community support.  We enjoyed seeing those critical elements thriving in Dumas.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Don't Miss This Next Week

Here's a lecture at the Clinton School educators and those who care about education won't want to miss: "What We Must Do for Our Students and Public Schools” by Barnett Berry, who is founder and CEO of the North Carolina-based Center for Teaching Qaulity.
The lecture will be at 6 p.m. next Thursday, Nov. 8, in the Great Hall of the Clinton Center. It's sponsored both by the Clinton School and the Arkansas Education Association.
Berry, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a former high school teacher who also worked as a social scientist with the RAND Corporation.
His new book, “Teaching 2030,” has receieved rave reviews from respected leaders in education, including Linda Darling-Hammond, who said, "Teaching 2030 is a brilliant look at the future of teaching in America from the perspective of those who know most about what it is and should be.  Everyone who cares about teaching and learning should read this book.”
Or go hear him speak.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Common core changes testing landscape

No doubt, Common Core is changing the ways public schools operate. One of those changes is the approach many states take for testing, specifically for the exit exams students must pass to graduate.

Under federal rules, states adopting Common Core must use the accompanying tests for school, district and state-level accountability as well as for teacher evaluations. But the decision to use them as high-stakes tests for individual students remains with each state.

Twenty-five states have some form of exit exam, according to Education Week. That's more than 34 million students -- 69 percent of all students in the U.S. -- who take the tests in order to graduate high school.

In Arkansas right now, our students must pass a high-stakes end-of-course exam -- Algebra I -- before they can graduate. Starting in 2014-2015, the state will add a high-stakes English II (sophomore English) end-of-course exam to that requirement.

Some states, however, require students to pass a single exam that covers the basic subjects taught in high school.

With the Common Core, students are tested throughout the year in English and math courses as well as at the end of them. This allows teachers to ensure students are mastering material along the way (or to re-teach when necessary) as well as to measure final mastery.

That's why many states are considering dropping their own versions of exit exams. According to an article in Education Week earlier this month, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island already plan to do so.

In addition to reducing test loads for students, this approach should be good news for states' testing budgets. Common Core states are already aligned with one of two testing consortia, allowing for much greater efficiency in the development and grading of exams.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't let negative labels label you


From fiscal distress to school improvement, from former mismanagement to crisis situations – such labels and pesky perceptions can zap a school’s or school district’s reputation.

First Class Communication works with school personnel to identify and implement "rebranding strategies" that will best counteract negative messaging. We help you impress your communities with positive portrayals of your efforts and successes...and improve community involvement with you to boot.

First Class Communication recently won an International Association of Business Communicators' Award of Excellence for our recent rebranding work with the Osceola School District.

We'd love to work with your district as well!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 big differences in the candidates' education policy views

Only one presidential debate is left, and so far, the questions about education have been few.

Never fear. Here's a breakdown of the major differences between President Obama's and former Governor Romney's education stances. It's an abbreviated version of a terrific analysis in the Christian Science Monitor's DC Decoder: Politics, Unlocked and Explained... 5 Differences on Education. Go to the link and read the full article if you can.

The first four deal with K-12 policies, the fifth with higher education.


1. Spending. 
OBAMA: Obama’s 2013 budget proposal requested $69.8 billion in discretionary spending for the US Department of Education, a 2.5 percent increase.
ROMNEY: Romney's spending proposals include an immediate 5 percent cut to all non-security discretionary spending, and an eventual reduction of federal spending to below 20 percent of gross domestic product.

2. Accountability
OBAMA: His revisions to No Child Left Behind laws put emphasis on improving lowest-performing schools. Obama also has granted waivers so states can design their own accountability plans as long as they meet criteria such as narrowing achievement gaps.
ROMNEY: Romney would replace NCLB's school-intervention aspects with a requirement that states provide more transparency. He wants school and district report cards to show scores both from state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (NOTE: Problem here is that only a sample of students in a sample of schools take NAEP. JJH)

3. School choice
OBAMA: Obama has been more supportive of charter schools than many Democrats. Case in point: states had to have charter laws with no charter caps to win part of the $4 billion Race to the Top. He also included support for charter schools in his budget proposals.
ROMNEY: Romney wants federal funding to follow low-income and disabled students to public schools outside their district, charter schools and private schools. This would necessitate an overhaul of Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

4. Teachers and unions
OBAMA: Obama has used competitive funding and other incentives to get states and school districts to reform teacher evaluation systems and to reward teachers for increasing student achievement. Both of these rely heavily on students' performance on standardized tests.
ROMNEY:  Romney's for:
  • consolidating federal teacher-quality programs
  • giving states flexible block grants if they eliminate or reform teacher tenure
  • establishing student-achievement focused evaluation systems
  • rewarding effective teachers
  • prohibiting seniority-based transfer and dismissal policies
  • removing “highly qualified” teacher certification requirements from NCLB. 
The latter, he says, deters many in other careers from making the switch to teaching.

5. Higher education
OBAMA: Obama has:
  • created a tax credit for college students worth up to $10,000 over four years
  • pushed for a law that make it easier to repay student loans by capping payments to 10 percent of their disposable income and granting loan forgiveness after 10-20 years of reliable payments
  • reformed the loan system so that all federal loans originate directly with the federal government, rather than through private banks. The change is expected to save about $60 billion over 10 years.
ROMNEY: Romney proposes to:
  • reverse the nationalizing of student loans and put it back in the hands of private institutions
  • work with the above-mentioned private partners to do a better job in making college cost and outcome data available to consumers
  • roll back Obama’s “gainful employment” rule, which ties federal aid eligibility to an institution’s ability to show that its graduates can earn sufficient income to repay loans


Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/01/4456551/obama-vs-romney-where-they-stand.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More teens need computer science, magazine says

Too few U.S. high schools offer Advance Placement Computer Science courses. That's the point of an article in the current U.S. News & World Report. It goes on to state that where computer science is offered, often the course does not count toward a student's graduation requirements.

Meanwhile, the need for STEM education in this country is great.

According the magazine, only nine states allow computer science to satisfy mathematics or science graduation obligations, :
  • Georgia
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
Actually, we're not sure that Arkansas doesn't fit somewhere on this list. While we haven't heard back from the Arkansas Department of Education, some poking around on the site found a 2004 document outlining the framework for a Computer Math class. It's designed as an option for the fourth year of math, so to follow Algebra II.  It's even listed by name as an option on the 2014 Smart Core requirements.

And while that course is not the AP Computer Science course mentioned above, there are codes for "ADE approved courses," so if a district wanted to offer AP Computer Science, that would probably count as well. (Let us know if there are any of you out there with that option in your high school.)

Still, the point of the article is well-taken. Interest in STEM fields need to be stimulated during high school (as 15 Arkansas school districts are doing with recenly awarded Project Lead the Way and New Tech grants). Here's why:

Just next year an estimated 120,000 new jobs will require a bachelor's degree in computer science. Right now, nearly 3.7 million jobs in STEM fields are sitting empty. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Good things happening

It's been longer than normal since we last posted, but there's lots of good public school news to share since then. Here are just a few of things that make us smile:
  • STEM teaching will get a boost in the Delta, thanks to a $1,118,063 National Science Foundation grant to Hendrix College. Students majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics will receive $15,000 if they commit to teach in a high-need Delta School.
  • Stuttgart and Vilonia school districts both won millage elections to fund exciting improvements.
  • More Arkansas kids -- 22,857 of them -- took Advanced Placement tests last year and, what's more, the number of tests with the desired scores of 3, 4 and 5 increased by 11.8 percent.
  • The U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith is holding a History Day Workshop for sixth- through 12th-grade students and teachers on Saturday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Algebra good for legislators, too

The Joint Education Committee heard testimony this week from Richard Wilson of the Bureau of Legislative Research about public school transportation costs. Adequacy study after adequacy study has seen the state trying to derive an equitable formula for funding school districts' ability to get students to school.

It's not easy. Some districts are compact; rural ones have students living miles apart. But, this year, the Bureau proposed a new formula it says is the most accurate prediction of school district needs thus far:
Transporation Costs = Miles Traveled + Number of Riders + Average Daily Membership

This was about the point when Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) thanked Wilson for his use of algebra in light of recent news items questioning algebra requirements. As Wilson showed, to be able to responsibly legislate issues such as transportation, people need to understand algebraic equations.

To Mr. Key's point, we say a resounding, "Exactly!"

A recent editorial in the New York Times, reprinted in our own Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, questioned the need for algebra for all students. The author, Andrew Hacker, is not alone in his criticism of algebra for the masses.

But that doesn't make him right.

In his article, he sites algebra as the cause for the drop-out rate of ninth-graders.

Not that he doesn't make some decent points, but there's ample evidence to show that he's wrong when he says that our students can't learn and don't need algebra.

Just look at statewide end-of-course scores for algebra over the last 10 years. During that decade, Arkansas has put in a number of concerted, systemic efforts to improve education for all students. What the data shows is that it's not the students who were not performing up to par -- it was the system. In 2003, 40 percent of Arkansas's algebra students scored proficient or advanced on the Algebra I End-of-Course exam. Ten years later, 80 percent did.

(Now, anticipating that some will say disparagingly that's because our schools are teaching to the test, please consider this.  The tests are based solely on Arkansas's student learning expectation, those concepts and skills we as a state have said our students need to master in each course. Good test scores show that teachers are teaching those lessons well, and our students are mastering them. Nothing wrong with that!)

As for ninth-graders dropping out of school, that indeed is a pivotal year. Look at enrollment numbers and you'll see that indeed it is when a lot of students do disappear from the public schools. But to lay  the blame at the feet of the algebra requirement? We have to say, hold on a minute, buster.

As we've seen, more students are mastering the course. Maybe that's why only 23 of the dropouts in 2011-2012 cited failing grades as the reason for leaving school. Meanwhile, 697 cited lack of interest ins school and another 324 were suspended or expelled.

Many school districts are successfully addressing the ninth-grade drop-out problem with strategies to help ninth graders have an easier transition to high school, none of which involve the exclusion of the algebra requirement.

These include ninth-grade academies, credit recovery programs, alternative learning education programs and, as a very specific example, Project Pride in Manila.

Several years ago, concerned about the loss of students in that important ninth-grade year, Manila Public Schools instituted a program to pair older students with ninth graders to serve as mentors. Since the inception of this program, Manila has witnessed a dramatic increase in its graduation rates.

And they still require Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II.

As the Education Trust-West said in response to California's efforts to dilute math requirements, “Indeed, research now tells us that young people need even higher-level courses to succeed; geometry is the benchmark for success in blue collar jobs, and Algebra II for success in college and the white collar workforce.”

So who needs algebra? Few, very few, people don't.
  • Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, to name a few, use it to calculate costs, materials needed and the actual how-to of projects. 
  • Obviously, engineers, physicist, nurses, doctors and others in the STEM fields. 
  • We know a photographer who would have lost money on the sale of her photos at a gallery show if she hadn't known the algebraic equation to calculate what she needed to charge to get her price plus the gallery's 40 percent. (Hint: Simply adding 40 percent to the original price as some of her colleagues did would have left her short-changed.) 
So, yeah, algebra comes in handy even for artsy types.


And, as Sen. Key pointed out, if you think you want to be a legislator, algebra would be a good thing to know for that, too.

Monday, September 10, 2012

New rules allow high school students a jump start on college

High school students will have more opportunities to obtain credit for college courses and to get remedial courses out of the way before freshman year. The changes come with new rules on concurrent education passed by the State Board of Education at its meeting today.

The only questions from the State Board came from Dr. Jay Barth, a college professor. He expressed concerns that the concurrent education courses would be truly voluntary for the student, and that he or she would receive adequate counseling to make the best choice.

Bearden School District Superintendent Denny Rozenberg instituted the pilot program that is the basis for the new rules. He explained that the idea for it came from the Governor's focus on education and economic development partnerships in each county. The need for it was reinforced by the academic requirements of the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship.

Rozenberg said he wanted "to give our kids a jump start on college education."

The new rules passed with no opposition.



Thursday, September 6, 2012

Concurrent credit rules up for State Board vote

When the Arkansas State Board of Education meets Monday, it will vote on new concurrent credit rules that will enable high school students to earn both high school and college credits.

The program allows students in grades nine-12 to complete a three-hour college course for high school and college credit. Students may also enroll in remedial education course while still in high school. Three hours would be the equivalent of one Carnegie unit, which is generally a year-long course in high school.

The new rules were tested in a pilot over the last two year. The Arkansas Department of Education say the results showed the program to be successful.

Some of the concerns expressed during the public comment period came from public school personnel and included:
  • College freshman courses could be less rigorous than upper level high school courses.
  • College courses do not follow the same common curriculum that high school courses do.
  • Colleges do not have attendance policies.
  • Many freshman courses are led by graduate assistants.
The Department of Education's response to these and other concerns is that the program is voluntary and must be agreed to by the student, the student's parents (if under 18), the public school and the higher education institution.

Link here to see the full rule and all of the comments.  You'll need to drop down to "State Board" meetings and then link on the Sept. 10 agenda.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

El Dorado celebrates AP with the Gov

Governor Beebe will be in El Dorado today to help the school district celebrate successes with its Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The school was one of only seven in the state to meet its AP goals set through its involvement in the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science (Arkansas AIMS) program.

El Dorado High School administered 573 AP exams in the 2011-2012 school year – up 68% from just six years ago. In addition, the school has added two new AP courses -- Computer Science and Technology -- to bring the total number of AP offerings for students to 20.

Friday, August 31, 2012

2 School Systems, 2 Approaches to Distance Learning

Distance learning has its benefits. Two of the ones named in this week's “E-Learning in the Age of Choice” webinar aired by Education Week were:
  • Providing a consistent education for students no matter which school building they attend
  • Providing flexibility for such things as credit recovery and summer courses

Representatives from the Davis School District in Utah and the Memphis School District discussed the benefits and challenges of online learning in their systems. In Utah, distance learning options for students were mandated by state law. In Memphis, administrators saw distance learning as a valuable tool to address inequalities among the district's schools.

Under Utah's law, students are able to choose any two credits from any provider or program in the state. The state's education dollars follow students to those online providers. The Davis district, which was already providing online courses to its students, now works in a consortium to provide a wide array of courses for students. This allows them to use curricula the state already knows matches state standards and to keep state dollars in public schools.

In Memphis, administrators were concerned with providing the same quality of courses and course delivery throughout the school district. For instance, some high schools had too few students signing up for AP calculus to make it feasible to teach. Distance learning allowed them to provide all students access to the course, with the same level of teaching delivered to all.

In addition, the Memphis school system now requires all students to successfully complete one online course before they graduate The reasoning? Whether a student is going to career or college after school, they are likely to face online work training or online college courses as they pursue their futures.

Another surprising benefit -- both said that  the student-teacher connection often is stronger in online courses because emails, chat rooms and Skyping often provide for or even demand more one-to-one interactions between the two.

To view the entire webinare, link here: http://www.edweek.org/go/webinar/ELearningChoice

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Distance learning webinar today

Last week we wrote about businesses -- including First Class Communication -- moving into the digital world, a world that lets your office be wherever you are.

That same move is inevitable for education systems. And many are looking at ways to pursue it -- the University of Arkansas recently announced that it will offer distance learning especially for non-traditional students who would rather live with their families than on or near campus. And we have a friend at Arkansas Tech who is teaching one marketing class half-and-half: half in the classroom and half online. Another of his courses is totally through emails and online chats.

Still, most K-12 and higher education systems are operating largely with the same organization and calendars as they have for many, many years.  The school calendar, after all, remains great for kids to be able to help out on the family farm each summer ... or let's just say that for the majority of us, it's pretty darn outdated.

So, at noon today, we will be tuning into “E-Learning in the Age of Choice,” an Education Week webinar that will offer examples of how educators have stepped, if ever so gingerly, into the 21st century.

"Now that many students have the opportunity to take online courses, schools and districts are starting to offer more choices when it comes to providers and accessing virtual education," the webinar blurb says. "Some districts are adapting online courses so they can be accessed by smartphones. States are also making sure students have choices in how they use virtual education. Several states—including Florida, New Mexico, and Utah—have passed recent legislation requiring that districts allow students to choose their own online learning providers, whether that means state-run online schools, virtual charters, or private providers. This webinar will provide useful tips for school administrators and K-12 policymakers on how to navigate this choice-filled world of virtual options."


If you would like to join in, you can sign up for the hour long session at  www.edweek.org/go/webinar.

Also, we'll try to take good notes and write more about this later this week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

5 Likes Away from our Goal

I set a personal, arbitrary and almost achieved goal of having 100 likes on First Class Communication's Facebook page by Aug. 31. Today, we're a week out, with only 5 likes to go to meet that goal.

If you haven't liked us yet, Dauphne and I would really appreciate your linking to our Facebook page and giving us the thumbs up!

Thanks! And have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

So, where's your office?

It's funny.  Almost always, one of the first questions when you meet someone new is, what do you do?  When one of us explains that First Class Communication is our new business (where education and communication conspire!) the question that invariably follows is, so, where's your office?

At this point in the conversation, we've tried a number of answers, usually delivered in an apologetic tone -- "We work virtually, so out of our homes." "We have home offices, but we Skype every morning at 9 o'clock and are in contact throughout the day."

Here's the answer we've decided on -- and we're losing the apologetic tone. "Our office is wherever we are."

And though we're not alone, our virtual-not-physical workplace is on the cusp of a change occurring across the world today. The industrial age is giving way to the digital age, so the constructs of the industrial workplace (think 8-hour day, time clocks, set lunch breaks) are losing their relevance.

In many lines of work, it's not necessary for workers to gather at one location to get the job done. And that's a positive all the way around.

Consider these stats for businesses (pulled from IABC's Communication World magazine):
  • At IBM, 40 percent of the workforce operates without a dedicated space, saving the company more than $450 million a year.
  • Deloitte reduced its office space and energy costs by 30 percent through distributed workplace strategies.
And for workers,  the plusses are flexibility and the ability to work where you live (or travel). Younger workers (particularly Gen Y and younger) are coming to expect this, and research finds that all workers in this environment enjoy their work and tend to actually work more.

So, the next time you ask one of us where our office is, expect to hear, "It's wherever we are." No apologies.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

5 Reasons to Welcome Common Core

Public schools get underway this week, and with the new year comes an expansion of the Common Core curriculum into grades 3-8. Younger students got their first taste of the Common Core last year.

The Common Core State Standards is the college- and career-ready curriculum developed by national experts at the request of states via the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Forty-four states are using the Common Core.

The Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell wrote an excellent story for Sunday's paper about how the Common Core is being implemented in Arkansas. In it are at least five reasons identified by state education officials, school district administrators and teachers that the Common Core is a good thing for Arkansas:
  • The new standards will help ensure that Arkansas students are able to enter higher education without the need for remediation, according to Laura Bedner, assistant commissioner at the Arkansas Department of Education.  Pre-Common Core learning standards, both in Arkansas and across the country, have failed to do that.
  • The concepts and skills our students are mastering match the concepts and skills students in the other 43 Common Core states are learning at the same grade level. This will be a big advantage for students as they seek success after high school, and it will enhance Arkansas's ability to create a workforce that attracts well-paying jobs to the state.
  • The emphasis is on depth not breadth. As math teacher Stephanie Muckelburg told Howell: "We have so many Arkansas (curriculum) frameworks. It's kind of like we just skim the surface of them. With the Common Core, there are not as many standards and we can go deeper and teach students more about equations and how they are used in the real world and why they are going to need them."
  • Students will use technology a lot more in their lessons. "We will be expanding our classrooms into the technology world," literacy director Karen James said.  The value of that is obvious.
  • Students will master concepts through "doing."  As Linda Remele, a deputy superintendent for learning services put it, "This is all project-based learning. This is a differnt way. It is not stand and deliver and lecture -- not even in first grade."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legislators to superintendents: Spend your money

When Arkansas's House and Senate Education committees heard this week how school districts were spending -- or rather NOT spending -- categorical funds, they were not happy.

Categorical funds, as opposed to the foundational funds discussed in the previous post, are state monies to help schools provide extra support for certain students:
  • Poverty (called "NSLA" funds in legislation) monies are distributed to schools based on the number of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program
  • Alternative Learning Environment funds target students with behavior, academic, health or similar issues who do not succeed in the regular school setting
  • English Language Learner funds are meant for students whose first language is not English
School districts receive those funds based on the number of students they have in each category.

The Legislative Bureau of Research reported the findings to the committees on Tuesday as they continued their discussions to set future education spending by the state.

On average, by the end of the 2011-2012 school year, school districts only spent:
  • 81% of their funds designated to help students in poverty
  • 92% of their funds to help English language learners
  • 82% of their funds to help students who require alternative education environments, largely due to behavioral issues. 

No doubt, school districts sometimes have good reasons for not spending all their funds in a certain category. Even so, as legislators pointed out, the legislation was designed to give school districts an extra pot of money to spend THAT year.

For instance, poverty funding is meant to pay for things like year-long tutoring, summer and after school programs and transportation to and from those programs -- all geared to help students' achieve higher.

No wonder legislators were appalled that the school districts with the highest amounts of poverty funds remaining at the end of the school year in 2010-2011 also had some of the highest percentages of low-performing students.

Legislators also were upset with the low spending on alternative learning environments.

Alternative schools are meant to be a place where students can learn in a more personalized environment and receive help for specific problems, be they family circumstances, substance abuse or something else. It's meant to keep kids from falling off the educational radar and produce productive citizens instead of potential criminals or deadbeats.

How those schools are set up, run and funded by school districts is very likely to be a topic legislators study in the next General Assembly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Education Adequacy: Funding it and paying for it 2 different things

Arkansas's Constitution promises an equitable and adequate education for the children in our state, and since the post-Lakeview ruling by the Supreme Court, our legislature has used a school funding formula that stems straight from those two goals.

But it can be more confusing than it sounds.

The important thing to get your head around when listening to school funding conversations is that the legislature outlines a set of expenditures for schools each year that represent the amount it takes to educate each student to an "adequate level." The state then distributes funds to school districts according to that formula.

That process is separate and apart from how school districts budget and spend that money.

For example, Arkansas's House and Senate Education Committees began considering the state's "foundation formula" for schools for the 2013-14 school year. You may hear legislators and educators refer to the "matrix" -- that's the chart that includes costs like average teachers' pay, technology needs, day-to-day maintenance, substitute teachers -- basically everything that goes into providing an education for a child.

The catch here is that those costs, for efficiencies' sake, are calculated for a student in an enrollment of 500. That's fine for schools and school districts of 500 or more, but, in 2010-2011, Arkansas had 36 schools with enrollments less than 500.  That means the money in those districts has to stretch farther.  It seems unfair, but there's a back story.

In the same 2004 special legislative session when the funding formula was developed (and taxes were raised to support school funding) Governor Huckabee and many legislators agreed that some efficiency of spending had to be guaranteed for the state's taxpayers. At that time, Arkansas had well over 300 school districts, many of them very small.

Because it's easier to spend money more efficiently in larger districts, Governor Huckabee proposed an enrollment base of 1,500 for school districts. Smaller ones would be consolidated to make larger ones. The outcry was deafening, with a good bit of it coming from superintendents who were facing the fact that they'd be out of a job.

The proposed 1,500 enrollment base dropped to 500, then to 350. But, remember, the funding formula was based on 500. To keep their small districts open, superintendents at that time promised legislators they could make do.

So that's one piece of confusion that has to be explained each year by legislators like Sen. Joyce Elliott and Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, who were around when all that happened.

The other piece of confusion occurs when the actual expenditures of schools are looked at and don't measure up to the matrix expectations.  For example, the matrix earmarks $209 per student for technology, and the average expense by districts in that category is only $129 per student. The thing to remember here is that the foundation money is given to schools to ensure they have enough funds to provide an adequate education to their students. School district administrators get to decide how they must spend the money to provide an adequate education.

That makes sense.  Just think about the $209 per student for technology.  A school district that has just used a lot of federal money to invest in technology -- Smart Boards and computers and such -- for its schools can use the bulk of those state technology dollars for something more needed, perhaps additional staff or a reading program.

One last point for this long blog posting that was made eloquently by Sen. Elliott yesterday.  The matrix funding is not based on what it takes to build an ideal school and education for Arkansas students, but an adequate one. So while our state can and should be very proud of the strides we've made over the last decade, we need to remember that there's a world of difference between ideal and adequate.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thank goodness for Smart Core

I don't hear Smart Core -- the state's high school graduation requirements -- being talked about as much as they were during the years I worked at the Arkansas Department of Education. I hope that's because everyone accepts the value of that curriculum whether students plan to immediately enter college or instead find a job.

Even just five years ago, though, it was difficult to convince some people that everyone really benefits from Smart Core. The story that most convinced me was a young man we interviewed who hadn't been encouraged to take challenging courses in high school, found work after leaving 12th grade and realized 10 year later that to have the kind of job that paid the level of income he needed to support his family meant he needed some sort of degree.  He got one, but wished he had done so earlier when it would have been easier.

My thought was why not prepare all students to be ready for higher education (we know the majority of jobs now require it) and let them decide to opt out of college on their own after they finish high school?

This all comes to mind because I'm on a college-visiting trip with my son.  At the first out-of-state public university we visited, I perked up (a little nervously) when the admissions staff started listing the core set of classes students must have on their transcripts to be admitted.

I was thrilled when they practically sang the old Smart Core 3-4-3-4 jingle -- three sciences, four maths, three social studies and four Englishes.  (Of course, this university also required two years of foreign language. Luckily many Arkansas high schools -- including my son's -- require that as well, even though Smart Core doesn't.)


Friday, August 3, 2012

Treating teachers in style

Here's a great event we just learned about that perfectly illustrates the kind of community support and partnership we've been writing about in the last few entries.  Lakeside School District (Chicot County) teachers will be celebrated with a reception sponsored by Simmons First Bank at the local country club.

What a great way to recognize the importance of teachers!

Let us know if your community has something special planned as the first day of school draws closer.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Smart ways for smart communities to help produce smart kids

Smart communities are involved in collaborative, supportive and needed efforts with their local school districts to improve student achievement. That only makes sense.

What are some ways communities can help their schools provide a great education for their students? According to former Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers, whose research we featured last week, Arkansas's data suggests the following:
  • Offer summer programs for children who are from disadvantaged homes. The gap in learning that occurs during the summer months when school is out is tremendous, she said. Children from families with more income tend to be enriched during the summer through camps, vacations and other experiences that keep their minds active. This disparity in summer learning leads to an increasingly larger achievement gap for students that grows with each grade. By providing quality summer enrichment experiences for youth, communities can help all children stay on grade level.
  • Provide books for kids to read. The number of books in the home is repeatedly shown to be a predictor of student success. Community groups could easily donate books or money for books (from teacher-approved reading lists) to children to enjoy at home during the summer or long breaks. Another idea is a mobile library that frequently visits those neighborhoods where students may have less access to the main library, especially during summer months.
  • Lengthen the school year. This is what some of the more successful charter schools in the state do. State Senator David Johnson has worked on legislation to get this concept kick-started for everyone else. A major hurdle is that it's such an expensive proposition. Powers said that even if school days are not added, altering the school year to include shorter breaks throughout would minimize the problem. There's be opposition from some segments, no doubt, but it shouldn't cost that much more.
  • Provide support for single-parent families. Powers' research shows this as a major risk factor for student acheivement. Childcare, transportation, having enough food -- all these are issues that single parents may face as they raise their children.
Obviously, there are so many ways communities can work with their school districts to improve the outcome for students. First Class Communication strongly believes that these efforts must be made in partnership with the school districts, and that they are most effective when they are planned and implemented in support of school district improvement goals.

If you have examples of smart community-school partnerships, we'd love for you to share them with us. Either respond to this blog or email me at julie@firstclasscommunication.com.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

That's what we're talking about!

What do you know? We're in the midst of writing about the importance of community and parent partnerships with their local schools, and a letter in the newspaper nails the point.

Education is the key to succeess, Little Rock elemenary school teacher Beatriz Miyares Kimball wrote in the July 25 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Especially for children like those she works with, who are considered to be "at risk." She's obviously doing her part, but as 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers showed through Arkansas-based research, teachers alone can't make the difference that's needed.

Kimball pleads: "Our communities need to do all they can to support our schools, our teachers and our students. It doesn't take a lot. If you have an extra hour a week, come to a classroom and listen to children read. If your business can afford it, let your employees volunteer in a nearby school for an hour a week. You will be investing in the future and pointing a child along the road to success."

First Class Communication will take that latter bit of advice to heart. What about you?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Student Achievement: Risk factors, Protective factors and Non-factors

A while back, we mentioned the impressive research presentation by the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers to the Arkansas State Board of Education. The topic? School and community factors in Arkansas that could help or hurt student acheivement.

First Class Communication had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Kathy further about her research, which she performed with husband Ed, a sociology professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

We were even more impressed.

In looking at five years worth of county and school data for Arkansas and correlating that with Arkansas Benchmark literacy scores, here's what they found. Some of it confirms conventional wisdom and national research, some of it is more surprising. But it goes to show that the community-school link is tightly woven. Improving the community will improve the school, and vice versa.

  • The biggest county factors in Arkansas that are associated with lower test scores, what the Powers call risk factors, are:
    • The percent of female-headed households
    • A county's concentration of economically disadvantaged
    • Overall poverty of a county
    • Unemployment rate in a county
  • The biggest school risk factors are:
    •  Lack of student attendance (though she said the data on this seemed somewhat spotty; still attendance is sort of a no-brainer indicator for performance)
    • The percent of low-income students
    • If a school was more segregated than the community it was in
  • The biggest county factors in Arkansas that are associated with higher test scores, or what the Powers call protective factors, are:
    • Population growth in a county
    • Median income
    • The percent of residents with a high school diploma
    • The increase in Hispanics (this may be a by-product of the positive effect of the overall growth of a county
  • Protective school factors:
    • The more teachers with master's degrees, the better the students' Benchmark scores. This is surprising because it conflicts the findings of national research. Powers, however, says that it seems logical to her that teachers who are interested in learning are more likely to convey that appreciation for education to their students.
    • School size -- larger schools tended to produce higher test scores.
And as for non-factors, which were the most surprising:  whether the community was rural or urban, the percent with college degrees and the percent who didn't speak English in the home.
    Powers would love to see communities and schools work in closer partnership with each other to address the weaknesses that have such a significant impact on them both.

    We'll follow up with a later post on what some of her suggestions for doing so are, so stay tuned!

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Rethinking rural schools and distance learning

    As much as I at one time would have hated to say it, a lot of life can be lived digitally.  It's made me rethink the teaching and learning possibilities for students in our rural districts.

    In just the last two weeks:
    • I've had a wonderful visit with my daughter in her DC abode, via Skype.
    • I've had productive face-to-face meetings with my business partner at 9 o'clock each morning, each in our home offices, again via Skype
    • I've been contacted by a new client who found me through LinkedIn. Since then we've made our work arrangements via email and cell phone.
    So listening to superintendents' casual conversations at this week's Arkansas Rural Education Association persuaded me that the possibilities for providing quality teaching of all the required 38 courses -- not to mention some stimulating courses that aren't required -- through "distance learning," or the digital classroom are more easily achieved and, in many cases, make more sense than closing down a school. 

    My only qualification to that statement is that it must be done right.

    A visit to the Arkansas Department of Education's Distance Learning Center in Maumelle a few years ago, where I watched an intense Calculus class in action, convinced me then that good teaching can be delivered virtually.  This, obviously, is already being done. Quality high school courses already are provided by several centers around the state.

    Superintendents of small campuses say distance learning options help them because:
    • They can find quality teachers who will lead their classrooms though they live elsewhere.  
    • It saves them money because they aren't duplicating teachers for small classes at each of their campuses. 
    • Students can engage in learning in familiar settings without making the long bus rides that are becoming more and more the norm for this state. 

    Right now, Arkansas law mandates that school districts must be shut down after two consecutive years of enrollments below 350.  I was a strong supporter of that law, simply because students at larger districts often have so many more opportunities both in terms of classes and extracurriculars.  But the more digital this world becomes, the less sense I think that arbitrary number makes.

    The key is making sure this distance learning in small districts is the best thing for the students, not simply for the school staff or the community.  So, in addition to making sure the class is taught by a first-rate teacher who knows how to make lessons sing on the airwaves:
    • Teachers must have an appropriate teaching load so they can communicate individually and frequently with their students via email, Facebook, phone call, etc.,  in addition to the on-air class time.
    • Schools must provide facilitators who coordinate with the teacher so they can assist with the learning as well as the technology.
    • The technology has to be first class -- none of this "can you hear me now" stuff.
    • School facilities must be well-maintained (this does get tougher when enrollment numbers are low)
    • Teachers must make periodic personal visits to each of the classes. Life can't be totally digital!
    This last is important. While classes can and should be supplemented by lessons from say Harvard professors or Smithsonian Museums staff, I believe the full-time teacher must be someone familiar with the community.  Another recent experience illustrates this point:

    I was trying to make a reservation for a hotel on State Line Avenue in Texarkana. I couldn't remember if the hotel was on the Arkansas or Texas side, which totally baffled my overseas-based hotel representative. He never did get the concept of a street that could straddle two states. In fact, he insisted that it must be in Texas and tried to put me into the chain's hotel in Marshall, Texas, at which point I became irritated and ended the call.

    I can imagine a student getting just as frustrated with a teacher who didn't know the lay of the land. All learning could stop at that point.

    No doubt, there are other ways distance learning could fail to engage students as much as a warm body leading the classroom.

    But, in terms of policy, Arkansas could and should do more so the rural people of our state who value their way of life can maintain it without sacrificing the quality of education for their children or putting them on a school bus at dark-thirty in the morning for a too-long ride.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    We'll take it as good news ... but help's needed

    Read some sort-of-good news in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In 2010, 39.3 percent of U.S. citizens between the ages of 25 and 34 possessed associate's, bachelor's or graduate degrees. That was a half percentage point higher than the previous year.

    No doubt, a half percentage point gain in one year is a healthy jump.

    Unfortunately, our nation still lags way behind other countries when it comes to higher education degrees. We're ranked 16th, for goodness' sake!

    In Korea, 63 percent of that age group has earned college credentials. We're also behind Canada, Japan and Russia.

    In Arkansas, only 19.1 percent of the 25 and older crowd held bachelor's degrees in 2010 (compared with 27.9 percent nationally). Thankfully, Arkansas educators and policy-makers are hard at work trying to increase the number of young people who enter and graduate college.

    But it will take all of our efforts -- students, parents, community members, civic and business leaders -- if we want Arkansas to be a state where education is valued and a college degree is the norm, not the exception.

    So figure out what you can do to help, and, by all means, do it.

    Monday, July 9, 2012

    Where the heck are those scores?

    Last week First Class Communication gave a shout out to Arkansas students and educators for the gains made on this year's state Benchmark Exam scores. But when we we later went to look for those scores, we had a heck of a time finding them.

    Historically, they've been housed on the Arkansas Department of Education website. When we couldn't find them there, we called ADE's Communications Office and were told the scores had a new virtual home.

    Now you can find them at the Arkansas Research Center's Quick Look's page.

    The presentation is visually attractive, and offers a lot of added context to the scores.

    You'll have to look through charts one grade a time by school or district. Or you can use the nifty option that let's you compare two districts or schools at a time. You can also follow the progress of a cohort of students as they move up the grades over time.

    The site is definitely worth visiting, especially for parents or others interested in looking at student performance in schools where their children attend, or may attend in the future.

    The Arkansas Research Center was established in 2008 by an Institute for Education Statistics grant. It serves as collaborative effort for several Arkansas state agencies.

    Psstt...One thing I still haven't found is a chart showing the aggregate statewide scores, though it may be there somewhere. If it is, someone please let me know where.

    If not, that'd be a nice addition to a great site.

    Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Great addition made to State Board of Education

    Governor Beebe announced today that he has appointed Dr. Jay Barth as the newest member of the Arkansas State Board of Education.

    Jay is a well-known political science professor at Hendrix College who has a great grasp of education policy issues. He's also performed significant research regarding challenges and solutions for Arkansas public schools, and he has a sincere concern for our state and our students.

    No question ... he will be a wonderful addition to the State Board!

    Monday, July 2, 2012

    Create a Website that works and wows


    You know that your school district website has a big load to carry.

    But if you do your website right, you can inform, involve and invigorate your students, parents and community members to levels not reached before.

    A website that works keeps your patrons informed about the important news, events, policies and regulations that impact your everyday workings.

    A website that wows creates a sense of pride in your schools. What’s more, it provides venues for patrons to be a part of the school community.

    First Class Communication knows how to design, write for and organize a school district web site that will make it a regular go-to site for all of your patrons.

    When First Class Communication designs or re-designs website, we first work with you to pinpoint your communication and interaction needs.

    Once we’ve determined how best to meet those needs, we meticulously map out your website, taking into account such critical elements as intuitive navigation, writing style, page content, design consistency and cohesiveness, and frequency of updates.

    First Class Communication will guide you through the important planning phase and then provide Web design, content and template services. We also provide content management, on a regular or temporary basis. 

    Contact us at (501) 626-6960 or at info@firstclasscommunication.com. We'd love to put the WOW factor in your website.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012

    Aspiring Athletes and ACTs

    Yesterday I accompanied my son, a high school baseball player (second base and shortstop) to a showcase event put on by the American Legion and the Baseball Factory. The goal was to help promising Arkansas high school players make the move to the next baseball level. For most, that would be college ball.

    As I expected, the Baseball Factory guys put a lot of emphasis on developing baseball skills -- hitting, pitching, running, fielding and so forth. What I didn't expect, though, was the sharp focus on academics.

    The first thing a college scout will ask about a player they're interested in is his academic performance, according to these in-the-know guys at the Baseball Factory. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, good grades indicate that a player works hard for success in the classroom, and that's something that will carry over to the baseball diamond. Another is that, because baseball has a limited number of scholarships to entice players, college coaches know that if they can piece together a combination of academic and athletic scholarships, they will be better able to attract (and financially help) that player.

    So they encouraged the 75 or so baseball players attending yesterday's event from high schools all across Arkansas to work hard in the classroom, convince teachers that each subject is their favorite and to prepare well and give the ACT and/or SAT their best shot.

    Doing those things, they said, will greatly improve a player's chances for a college to woo him to their baseball program.

    That's great advice, I think, and not just for high school baseball players.

    Monday, June 25, 2012

    5 Reasons Arkansas's Educational Reforms Shouldn't Be Messed With

    The worst thing that could happen in 2013 is for the Arkansas General Assembly to reverse any of the remarkable strides that have been made for public education in our state over the last decade.

    What with all the new state legislators who will take their places at the Capitol in 2013, many fear they'll start tinkering with the progressive, systemic education policies so many have worked tirelessly to develop, pass and implement. Those concerns were discussed in a recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, and First Class Communication has to say, count us in as two more who share those fears.

    Having been a close observer of the Education Committees at the State Capitol for a good many of those reform-rich years, we saw how hard fought the bi-partison battle was, and, once it was won, how quickly legislators begin to try to chip away at individual reforms. Sometimes  a legislator wanted to dismantle what had been done, but, more often than not, they were truly unaware of the systemic policy effort that was made and of the great difference it made for students. The latter will pose the biggest threat in 2013.

    There are so many improvements that resulted from the reforms effort,  instigated, of course, by the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View ruling that found Arkansas students were in schools across the state without adequate funding and of wildly disparate quality. We can easily tic off five improvements we don't think the state education system can do without:

    1. Accountability to ensure schools educate every child. Modeled largely after the major tenets of No Child Left Behind, Arkansas's Act 35 demanded that schools teach to rigorous learning standards, test how well students learned that rigourous material and report results for the entire student body as well as for major subgroups of students. No longer could a school hide behind the performance of its top students as others languished between the cracks.

    2. Better pay for teachers. A decent mininum salary for teachers must now be paid in every district across the state. This hasn't solved the disparity-in-pay problem, because richer districts can still pay more, but at least there's a minimum. Why is this important? Putting excellent teachers in the classroom is the most important thing a school district can do for it's students, and excellence in teaching isn't free or even cheap (funny how this fact still surprises so many folks!)

    3.  Adequate funding for schools. Not only is this a plus for schools because it provides each district the money it needs to teach its kids, but having to go through the adequacy study every two years forces legislators to really pay attention to what's happening in school buildings from Alma to Arkansas City.

    4. Better school buildings. Arkansas was truly progressive with its state partnership for funding and maintaining school buildings, and what a difference this has made! Starting with the goal of simply ensuring that every child attend a school that is safe, warm and dry (that was NOT the case before this legislation) we've now moved on to putting more and more of our students in buildings equipped for an actual 21st-century education.

    5. A more rigorous curriculum. There was a time that graduation requirements varied from district to district, but now Arkansas has a common -- and rigorous -- set of minimum requirements for all students. Thank goodness some districts go above those, requiring two years of a foreign language.  In addition, all Arkansas high schools must offer an Advanced Placement class in each of the four main subjects -- math, English, science and social studies. And now, Arkansas, along with many other states, is in the process of incorporating the Common Core of learning standards, which will increase the rigor as well as the depth of learning for our students.

    So those are our five. Do you have something to add to the list? We'd love to hear from you.

    Thursday, June 21, 2012

    6 Crucial Components for Successful Parent Engagement Efforts

    No mystery here -- parent engagement with schools and the learning process plays a huge role in student achievement.  But knowing how to create a sustainable, systemic and comprehensive parent engagement program proves elusive for many school leaders.

    One reason for that, say Harvard's Karen Mapp and Johns Hopkins' Steven Sheldon, is that school leaders too seldom view parental involvement as part of the solution to academic problems. Instead, actively engaged parents are often perceived as a bother or, worse, as a hindrance to what principals and teachers are trying to accomplish.

    The scholars, leading an Education Week webinar, suggested that schools create "partnership teams" to work in tandem with school leadership teams on specific goals such as improved math or reading scores, behavior or attendance.

    Why enlist a team and not a single but capable and already active parent? Teams ensure a diversity of input as well as a better chance of a sustainable effort. How many times have you had a dynamic program end when a parent reached the burning-out point or followed her (sometimes his) child to another school?

    The responsibility for parental involvement shouldn't stop at the school building, either. District leadership has a vital role in creating strong parent and community engagement that is equally vibrant in all of the district's schools.

    Mapp and Sheldon list these six components as necessary for a comprehensive, ongoing and successful parent engagement program:

    1. Creating awareness of the need for engagement (don't forget to get buy-in from staff, too)
    2. Aligning programs and policies to support and encourage parental engagement
    3. Develop (with parent input) guidelines for engagement programs
    4. Share knowledge and training
    5. Celebrate milestones and successes
    6. Document progress and evaluate outcomes to plan program improvements

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    What's your plan for successful social media?

    How many hours are you spending on social media for your organization?

    If it's only two or three per week, you might consider outsourcing. It'll be more efficient and, likely, much more effective.

    And if your social media effort is implemented willy-nilly (read not according to a strategy) you really might consider outsourcing.

    The owner of and head copy writer for social media firm Six Degrees Content recently blogged that "although you know your business best, there are many challenges that can keep in-house staff from getting social media writing just right." Business owners need to focus on their businesses, and others in the organization may not have the time or skills to plan and produce quality social media writing on a daily basis.

    No doubt, social media is becoming more and more important to all kinds of organizations, including education-related one. Delivering news to constituents, reinforcing reputation and branding, providing insight into who you are -- the right execution of a good social media strategy will hasten success in all of these goals.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    Branding issues? 3 steps to ensure your tagline works

    Branding -- it's as important for school districts as it is for higher ed institutions, non-profits and businesses. But, in public education, the effort to brand -- or rebrand -- often gets the short-shrift. And that's not good.
    If you want your community to identify the local school district with more than your sports mascot or benchmark scores, you should look at your branding efforts.
    While branding is really a comprehensive effort, one aspect where we've seen school districts and other organizations struggle is with their slogan, or what we call their taglines. Taglines should be short, memorable and capture the essence of the district. Think Nike and Just Do It.
    Take a look at yours. Is it catchy? Does it reveal the personality and mission of your organization? If so, you're off to a great start!
    Here are are some easy-to-fix tagline issues First Class Communication has come across during our work --
    1. It's the wrong tagline -- it's not catchy, it's too long, and/or it doesn't adequately capture what you're about or what you're trying to do. The best way to develop one? Spend some time researching what all your various stakeholders already think or know about your district. Think through and determine what you want them to think or know. Find the words to make a phrase that both sings and zings.
    3. It's hardly seen -- use your tagline lots and use it consistently. It should appear anytime your organization's name does, so put it proudly on your website, your letterhead, your business cards, newsletters. 
    2. It could be this one or it could be that one -- when you get a tagline you like, make sure it's the "official" one and that all old or competing ones are out of the picture. We've seen web sites that have two or three bombarding people at the same time or letterhead that still has an old tagline on it. Don't make your constituents work so hard to figure out what you are trying to tell them.
    Remember, after developing the right message, consistency in using your message is key, and that's especially true with taglines.

    Monday, June 11, 2012

    Public schools' 40/60 split

    Arkansas teachers and schools have direct control over 40 percent of the difference in student achievement levels. That's a lot,  outgoing Arkansas Teacher of the Year Kathy Powers told the Arkansas State Board of Education today, but it means that 60 percent is outside of their control.
    Powers urged communities to take more responsibility for how their students and schools fare -- and to react more aggressively -- because community influences can make a big difference in how well students perform in school.
    Powers and her husband performed original research using Arkansas Department of Education, US Census and Education Week data. Here are a few of her most interesting findings:
    1. Students in Arkansas schools that are more segregated than the community they are in do not achieve at as high of levels.
    2. Arkansas schools that have more master's-degree-holding teachers have students who perform better (especially interesting because this goes against the grain of some national research).
    3. Lower socio-economic students in Arkansas lose ground in the summer because they are not exposed to the same enriched, learning opportunities that their wealthier counterparts are. This is a void communities can work to fill, Power said, and it's extremely important because of the state's high number of children living in poverty.
    While Arkansas is moving in the right direction with many of its post-Lakeview-ruling policies, much, much more needs to be done. After all, as Powers reminded us, Arkansas still hovers near the bottom of too many educational rankings.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    2 Helpful Resources for Increasing Parental Involvement

    Most P-12 school folks we've talked with would love to have more parental involvement. It's a no-brainer that when parents are involved with their children's education, students perform better.

    We're going to tune in to a webinar Education Week is hosting on Thursday, June 21, from 1 to 3 p.m. Central Daylight Time called "Engaging Parents in Schools and Student Learning" that some of you may want to watch as well. Professors from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities will look at various innovative approaches such as setting flexible schedules to allow for more participation by adults who may work and offering opportunities for parents to strengthen their own academic skills.

    First Class Communication also knows that another key way to involve parents is to make sure they know what's going on and how they can be involved. Too often schools' means of communication -- newsletters sent home with students, school websites and such -- fail to catch parents' attention. Give us a call at 501-626-6960  if you'd like help finding better channels to reach parents of students in your area. We'd love to talk with you!

    Monday, May 21, 2012

    Hooray for Osceola School District's math scores

    Congratulations to our client, the Osceola School District, for having the most improved middle school math scores on the 2010-2011 Arkansas Benchmark Exams. The University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform recognized OSD for its achievement during last week's "Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement" conference. 

    Superintendent Michael Cox
    The award highlights a major turn-around that's been occurring in the school district over the past couple of years. Not too long ago, after all, Osceola School District was on the state's list of school districts in fiscal distress as well as recognized as one of Arkansas's school districts most in need of improvement. 

    New leadership and continued dedication by very committed teachers and parents are breathing fresh, new life into the Osceola schools as well as the entire Osceola community.

    After working with school district personnel for several months, we feel sure that Superintendent Michael Cox would be the first to say it's not the award but the much-improved performance of Osceola students that makes him happiest.


    But the recognition's not bad either!

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    President Clinton: College equals freedom

    College is not only an opportunity to better themselves, former President Bill Clinton told the senior class of El Dorado High School on Wednesday, but it's what allows them a level freedom not enjoyed by most people across the globe.

    President Clinton spoke to the seniors and a crowd about 2,000 people in "the best-looking basketball gym in America," referring to the school district's new state-of-the-art facility, during El Dorado High School's sixth annual Academic Signing Day and celebration of the El Dorado Promise Scholarships.  The scholarships are available to all qualifying El Dorado High School graduates to help meet college tuition costs at any institution of higher education in the country.
    Quoting unemployment statistics for various education-level groups during the recent economic downturn, President Clinton told students they can no longer be assured of making a decent living with only a high school education.
    "This scholarship is giving you the chance to do something you want to do. ... At least half the people on earth today don't have that choice to work where they want to work.  ... Most people work to stay alive, to feed themselves and to feed their families," he said. "You are being given freedom by going to college to get to choose  how you want to" earn a living, he said.

    President Clinton also lauded Murphy Oil Company, which committed $50 million in 2007 to create the El Dorado Scholarships. "As far as I can tell, there's not a company anywhere else in the United States" that has made this kind of commitment, he said.
    Also addressing the students during the event were El Dorado High School Principal Jim Tucker, El Dorado Mayor Frank Hash, El Dorado Promise Director Sylvia Thompson, Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrall and Murphy Oil Corp. Chairman of the Board Claiborne Deming.
    See more photos of the event on our Facebook page.

    Monday, April 2, 2012

    UPDATE: Tavis Smiley NOT at Bless the Mic in April

    Apparently airline connections would not work out for Tavis Smiley, so he will not be at the Philander Smith College Bless the Mic series. Reports have him coming in May. Even so, First Class Communication is excited about all the other authors and events planned for the Arkansas Literary Festival.

    Friday, March 30, 2012

    President Clinton's El Dorado Promise

    Former President Bill Clinton will give the keynote speech at the El Dorado School District's sixth annual Academic Signing Day, during which more than 300 graduating seniors will receive El Dorado Promise scholarships. The event is set for 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17, in the El Dorado High School Wildcat Arena.
    The El Dorado Promise is the $50 million scholarship program available to all qualifying El Dorado School District graduates that is funded by the Murphy Oil Corporation. Last year, 90 percent of the Promise-eligible students attended college -- far higher than either the state's or nation's college-going rates. Over the past five years, 997 El Dorado High School graduates have used the money to attend 57 colleges and universities throughout the U.S.