Follow by Email

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!