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Coastal Voices: Conversation, education-style

In his Editor’s Note column last month, Triplicate editor Richard Wiens challenged readers to “start the conversation” to “find enough common ground to work together on the problems that face us.”

He noted that we are a polarized community. I have more than a suspicion that education in our county is one of the topics about which we are polarized! However, we want our children to be successful, and on that we all agree.

Last year within the school district we formally launched a conversation about how we can more efficiently and more effectively educate all of this community’s children. In 2011 we’re preparing to invite the community to join us in this important discussion. This conversation has been prompted by our own desire for efficacy, encouraged by national attention to student achievement and debate over the meaning of test scores, and supported by the interest of leaders throughout our community.

With support from the S.H. Cowell Foundation, we have funds to help us move this conversation forward, from identifying impediments to selecting strong responses. We’re searching within our own classrooms and across the nation for the most promising research-based options to help us pull up our struggling students, to enrich and sustain the students in the middle, and to improve supports for high achievers who are often slowed by our programs.

In true polarized fashion, many now call the traditional American public school system “broken” while others defend it as a “time honored system that works.” A deeper discussion is needed!

When the U.S. economy required a labor pool for jobs in resource extraction and manufacturing, graduation from high school was not expected for all students. In the 21st century, more jobs than ever require the ability to read, write and compute — increasingly in more than one language. Teachers are asked to prepare all children with skills to fill the new labor needs, and schools are held accountable for assuring every child will earn at least a high school diploma, with the skills to go further if they so choose

And so, we are in search of new models.

In local classrooms and nationwide, educators are experimenting with innovative approaches for teaching and learning. Some have found ways to help children no different from our own to persist and to make remarkable progress. For example, some have devised new ways to assure that each student masters material before moving forward without allowing the child to fall discouragingly and devastatingly behind peers.

Some have reinvented the process of grading so that end of course grades consistently communicate what students know and are able to do. Some assure mastery of the basic skills without leaving arts, electives, and social development goals behind; and some, by contrast, jettison the electives to assure mastery of the basics.

Some emphasize excellent daily attendance from a very early age (pre-school and kindergarten) as a proven key to reducing high school drop-outs. The best provide room for students gifted in (for example) math to advance in this area at top speed without losing access to the basics in subjects they find more challenging.

Just putting this conversation on the table could cause dissent. But we can’t afford to be polarized!

As we examine options, we want the community to join us in searching out better ways of educating children. With an S.H. Cowell Foundation grant, over the past six months teachers from each district school have read about, heard about, or visited places where new strategies appear to be working. Now it’s time for our community to join the conversation.

During planning sessions for the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative, our community members recognized that healthy youth require an educational system that both provides for high academic achievement and also supports the socio-emotional and vocational success of students.

The California Endowment’s local BHC action on this goal will be to support a community-led dialog about the future of education in Del Norte. Recommendations coming from both the internal and community-wide conversations will be heard by our School Board in the next few months for their review and action.

If you are interested in joining this conversation, please contact BHC staff at 707-465-1238 to provide contact information so you can be alerted to opportunities to participate.

As the editor has suggested, let’s “start the conversation!”

Jan Moorehouse is superintendent of the Del Norte Unified School District.

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