Last community forum addresses district ‘road map’
Concerned parents settled into the wooden chairs set up in the media center of Jeremy Ranch Elementary School on Monday, May 5, as Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley called everyone to attention. She was about to hold the last community forum for the 2013-14 school year, her first as superintendent.
The matter at hand: the District Learning Plan, which was first released to the public last month. After what some parents deemed empty promises from past administrations, Conley set the record straight about the implementation and goals for what she called a "road map for the next five years."
The District Learning Plan focuses on four guiding questions: What is it we expect students to learn? How will we know if students have learned? How will we respond when students do not learn? And how will we respond when students already know it?
"The main focus, our strategic plan, is to educate the whole child," Conley said. "That is the principle the District Learning Plan is built around."
Conley explained that in order to answer the four questions effectively and achieve the goal of the strategic plan, assessments would be needed. When she was interviewing for the job, she said, she asked for data to see how students were performing academically, and all that was available were grades and end-of-the-year test scores.
More in-depth assessments throughout the year are planned in order to shape a new professional development model. Teacher and administrator collaboration with thorough data, she said, would help teachers to see exactly where their students need help, where students are excelling and together come up with ways to remedy any problems.
Her job as superintendent, she said, is not only to make decisions in the best interest of the students but also to give her teachers the tools to be great teachers. Professional development will now include the collaboration that one parent in attendance at the forum said had been promised by previous administrations.
"How is this collaboration going to be any different from the plans we’ve heard before?" asked the mother. "From what I’m hearing, it sounds like the same thing."
Conley said the implementation would be more effective. One measure would be to change the time that Ecker Hill Middle School and Treasure Mountain Junior High School students were released at the end of the day in order to have collaborative meetings with both elementary school teachers and middle school teachers.
The goal sounded appealing to other mothers in attendance who were concerned about the science programs in the middle schools. One mother said her daughter, a junior in high school, was enthusiastic about science in elementary school. However, because of horrible experiences at the middle school level, she could not enjoy the successful science programs at the high school and would likely never take another science class in college.
Concerns about discrepancies in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or STEM programs at the middle school were a common thread among the parents in attendance, and a couple of mothers with fourth- and fifth-graders wondered if Conley’s plans would be followed through in time for their children to enjoy science in middle school.
"My leadership is no good if I’m driving the bus and no one is on it," Conley said. "It will take me at least three years of pure communication."
One mother, and former teacher, came to Conley’s defense and said the teachers needed time to be inspired and want to relearn how to be great teachers.
Another concern was the use of the district budget in order to implement the new "road map."
"I’m seeing all these programs for STEM in this district plan, and I know they are going to be expensive," said one mother. "Yet I’m not seeing numbers for the performing arts and sports programs. Are we going to be cutting other programs to pay for these STEM activities?"
Conley responded, saying that the performing arts programs and athletic programs were not listed, because they are in excellent shape and had not experienced cuts. Nevertheless, she added, if cuts are necessary, tough decisions will have to be made.
"The decisions I make may not always be the popular ones, but please trust that whatever I decide is in the absolute best interest of the students," she said.
Another parent suggested budgetary decisions become more transparent to the public. The mother said Conley and the Board of Education should let community members and parents know which projects are coming out of which two "buckets" of money are available in the district budget.
Transparency, in all aspects, was something most parents agreed the district needed to work on. Conley agreed and said her goal is to eventually have a family resource center where all questions can be answered. Until then, Conley is focusing on making the changes promised in the District Learning Plan and appreciated the input from parents.
"One of the first things I heard when I got hired here was, ‘Wait until you have to deal with our parents,’" she said, laughing. "You know what, I said, ‘Give me highly-involved parents any day of the week over parents in my previous districts that weren’t around to pick up their sick children from school.’"
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