We always welcome your thoughts! Please feel free to comment on specific posts or send your comments to us at feedback@tamdistrict.org.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Excellence, Rigor & a Focus on Our Students' Futures

Over the course of the school year, I have written a variety of articles for this blog about the work underway at the Tamalpais Union High School District, and I sincerely appreciate that many of you have read them and have responded with ideas, questions, and comments.  This blog has been a venue for facts, ideas, and my own opinions as a mother of two high school students in our district, as well as an educator with over 25 years of experience.  Recently, there have been a series of biased and slanted articles and letters about the district; unfortunately, they have moved the dialog to a non-productive place.  Today, I would like to turn our conversation back to where it belongs:  the pursuit of excellence and rigor in our schools and for our children.
There are many reasons to live in Marin, but many of us chose to move here because of the reputation of the schools.  As parents, we quite appropriately expect that our children will experience rigorous and engaging instruction that challenges them to work at the very highest levels.  We expect that our schools will have structures in place and instruction that enables our children to grow both in the areas where they excel as well as the areas in which they struggle.  We willingly paid high prices for our homes knowing that the benefit was a school system that does right by our children.  The status quo isn't enough for us as parents, and so we choose to live in a place where the status quo isn't good enough for our schools either.  As parents and educators, we know that if we truly want world-class schools, we need to advocate and support continuous improvement, even when it is difficult.
I have previously written about the new "Common Core" standards, which call for building understanding of the ideas behind the concepts and application of content to real world problems.  In order to achieve the outcomes required by the common core, it will no longer be enough to cover material quickly, to focus on facts and figures, and to only provide practice that drills concepts without application.  Beginning in spring 2015, the new state tests will assess a student's ability to think critically and to solve unique, real world problems.  Our courses and instruction must adapt if we want our students to be ready to perform well.
However, our reason for continuous improvement goes well beyond test performance.  The Tamalpais Union High School District is dedicated to preparing our students for success in the globally competitive and collaborative world.  Many of the careers our students will have are ones that don't exist today because they will support products and services that have yet to be invented.  Even if our students don't experience a multitude of career changes, they need to be prepared for their own career evolution.  As new technology is created, the demands in even existing industries will change the face of almost every job.  In order to prepare our students, we must train them to be innovative and creative.  Moreover, upon graduation, our students should also be ready for active citizenship in the 21st century.  This means that our children need to read with a critical eye, look for evidence to support claims, and always consider the source.
Administrators and the Board of Trustees keep students at the forefront of decision-making.  Some decisions are very complex, difficult, and possibly contentious, yet the question continuously asked is, "Will this be in the best long-term interest of our students?"  Our communities expect and deserve that our schools will challenge students and push them to their highest levels of academic achievement while supporting their emotional growth.  This level of excellence requires that we hold the highest expectations for every individual in our organization and that we are willing to adjust our direction when it will benefit our students.
I am proud to work with an amazing group of trustees, administrators, teachers, and staff who care deeply about students and are willing to make tough calls when necessary.  As parents of TUHSD high school students, we should expect no less.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Beyond the Myths and Suburban Legends: College Readiness, Enrollment, and Completion

Post-high school planning, also known as the college search, is a topic that can strike fear in the hearts of even some of the most experienced parents.  We can spend countless hours wondering how to ensure that our children are well prepared, and of course, we try to point them in the "right" direction. 
As we all know, living in Marin also adds an element of pressure.  It seems like everyone is talking about where their children will be going to college, but do you ever wonder where the majority of our students actually end up?  Do you wonder how many TUHSD students attend the UCs, CSUs, and College of Marin?  How many students go directly from high school to a career?  There are so many post-high school choices with something to fit everyone's needs, and yet, the conversation doesn't always include the variety of options available.
At the Tamalpais Union High School District, we are quite interested in our data regarding post-high school preparation and college enrollment.  So that we could better understand the facts, we have acquired some previously unreleased data from the National College Clearinghouse that allows us to go beyond the anecdotal stories and student self-reported data that we have heard in the past.  Data from the clearinghouse reports the percentage of students who complete an undergraduate degree in six years; therefore, the most recent data available is for the class of 2007.  Here is the data in relation to some commonly asked questions:
How many TUHSD students enroll in college, and how many of them earn a degree?
  • 80% of our graduates enrolled in college in 2007.  Of those who entered college, 70% earned a degree in six years or less.
  • TUHSD students were much more likely than others to graduate within six years.  The national average of students who enrolled in college and earned a degree in six years or less is 54.2%.
How many TUHSD students either do not enroll in college or do not finish their degrees?
  • For the class of 2007, 391 students (out of 955), or 41.2%, either did not enroll in college or did not receive a degree within six years.
Where do TUHSD students enroll in college?
  • The top five colleges of enrollment for the classes of 2007-2013 are as follows: 
    • College of Marin - 832 students
    • University of California, Santa Cruz - 239 students
    • University of Oregon - 171 students
    • University of California, Santa Barbara - 163 students
    • California Polytechnic State University - 162 students
Both parents and school staff are also quite interested in how well we prepare our students for post-high school education.  The research is clear.  One of the best predictors of success in college and career is access to a rigorous curriculum in high school.  Thus, as a district, we regularly monitor many data points including, but not limited to, enrollment and success in Advanced Placement courses and numbers of students who take college entrance tests such as the SAT.  Here is what we know about recent trends regarding college readiness:
  • Over the past five years, we have had significant increases in the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes, taking the exams, and scoring "passing" grades or higher.  About 30% more students now take an AP course and the exam; at the same time, our passing rates have increased by about 30%.
  • Over the past five years, we have had a 100% increase in the numbers of low-income students who take Advanced Placement courses; their pass rates have increased by 147%.
  • Over the past five years, the numbers of students taking the SAT have increased by about 4%.  Even more significantly, the number of students of color who take the SAT has increased by 61%, and the number of low-income students taking the test has increased by 102%.
  • SAT scores for TUHSD students have increased .5%, and 3.5% for low-income students.
As you can see, the data above tells us a story about our schools.  Our students are well prepared for college and career, but we can and will continue to improve what we teach and how we teach it.  If we are truly preparing the leaders of the future, we need to ensure success for all students, not just for most students.  The data also tells us that we are improving preparation levels for ALL students, not just one or two small subgroups.
The clearinghouse data shows that, by far, the most popular college choice for our students is College of Marin.  In fact, more students attend COM than the next four popular choices combined.  It's important to remember that COM is a great option and that the staff there has worked to improve their services to our students over the past several years. 
In the end, there is no "one size fits all" for post-high school, and our best bet is to prepare our students so that they have a variety of options from which to choose.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Technology in the Classroom

Ah, the good old days--
Remember your excitement when the door of the classroom opened and someone from the AV crew wheeled in a cart with a film projector?  Can you also remember watching the complicated process as your teacher skillfully threaded a film through the projector? 
Film Projector - Early 1960s - Courtesy of Peter Parish/Redwood High School

As a student back in the day, I was grateful for the change of pace that "technology" provided, and I recall the disappointment when a film or projector broke mid-viewing.  It seemed so luxurious when we finally had TVs and VCRs in classrooms--it was less likely for the technology to malfunction, plus, we had a greater variety of videos to watch!  We may remember those days with nostalgia, but our own children cannot imagine a world where the extent of technology is a VHS player.
Although the types of technology available to teachers and students have changed rapidly over the past few decades, one fundamental question about schools remains the same.  How do we ensure that every student in every classroom receives high quality instruction, and how can the available technology support learning?  In other words, in our current world of gadgets and unlimited access to information, we must recognize that learning is still a function of teachers and students working together towards a shared outcome.  Technology enhances but does not replace great teaching and successful learning.
At the Tamalpais Union High School District, we have taken a very thoughtful approach to the roll-out of technology in classrooms.  For at least the last decade, our technology plans have been based on the premise that our first responsibility is to provide high quality instruction and that technology is a tool to support learning, rather than something we distribute and then hope for the best.  Two examples of our technology approach are the Classroom 2020 project and the Instructional Technology Teacher Collaborative.
Classroom 2020
During the process of modernizing our schools, we created innovative classrooms at Redwood, Tam, and Drake that are modeled after Wallenberg Hall at Stanford University.  These rooms are referred to as "2020 classrooms," and are outfitted with a variety of high tech teaching tools, such as interactive whiteboards, laptops, HDTVs, and large video screens.  2020 classrooms also have wheeled furniture that can be easily moved and can be converted into as many configurations as the teacher can imagine.  2020 classrooms are available for our teachers to use on a one-time basis or for a semester so that they can experiment with a variety of high- and low-tech tools to enhance their instruction.
Instructional Technology Teacher Collaborative
TUHSD has implemented a two-year professional development program for our experienced teachers to provide training and time to collaborate in order to create project-based instruction in alignment with the new Common Core standards as well as the district mission.  Teachers work together to create experiences where students will use skills and information to solve real world problems.  34 teachers are participating in this program during the 2013-2014 school year, and 38 more will begin the program this summer.  Participating teachers receive a classroom set of iPads after about six months of training.  In fact, over the past two weeks, 1,080 iPads have been delivered to participating teachers who are now ready to begin to use them to support their instruction.  This professional development program demonstrates our commitment to train teachers prior to the distribution of technology.

Students at work in Ms. Tucker's classroom at Tam High
As I visit our classrooms and watch our teachers and students engage thoughtfully with technology, my nostalgia for the simple days of the movie projector wane, and I imagine the possibilities that technology will provide for our students of the future.  Whatever the future holds, and no matter the latest technology trend, it's great to live and work in a district where the first priority is learning, and where students have access to a variety of technology to enhance their experience.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

State Aid to TUHSD will not Increase with New State Funding Formula

For the past several years, about 96% of Tamalpais Union High School District revenue has been generated locally through property taxes, parcel taxes, and foundation fundraising.  Community members are sometimes surprised to find out that roughly 3% of our district revenue comes from state aid.  This very low percentage is the result of cuts from the state of California during the years of the recent recession.
It is important for our parents, staff, and community to understand that despite reports in the media about increases to school funding because of a new law known as "Local Control Funding Formula," or "LCFF," the Tamalpais Union High School District will not receive an increase in state funding.  The state revenue cuts we experienced during the recession will not be restored and our district will continue to rely almost exclusively on local funding.  About 90% of the school districts in California will experience increases in state aid over the coming years due to the rather complicated new formula, which increases the amount of funding for low-income and English Language Learner students.  However, TUHSD is one of about 10% of school districts in California that will not see an increase in state revenue as a result of the "Local Control Funding Formula."
One positive aspect of the new formula is that TUHSD will be "held harmless" at our 2012-2013 state aid level.  In other words, the state cannot cut our funding even lower than they already have.
Another very interesting aspect of the "Local Control Funding Formula" law is that all districts, including those who receive no additional money, will be held accountable to the state laws through the creation and submission of "Local Control Accountability Plans."  Although the State Board of Education has not yet released the specific template, TUHSD will need to create a written plan that will include details of how we are spending locally-generated money to increase the achievement of our low income and English Language Learner students.  Fortunately, our district strategic plan addresses issues of student achievement, and we already have plans in place to assist all students--including those from low-income families and English Language Learners.
As more information about the "Local Control Accountability Plan" becomes available from the State Board of Education, it will be posted on the TUHSD website at www.tamdistrict.org.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Exams + Holidays = STRESS!

Photo courtesy of Adriana Perez

Every family feels the crunch this time of year.  Our students are busily trying to finish the semester with assignments, lab reports, and papers, while simultaneously studying for exams.  Meanwhile, many parents are engaged in all things holiday:  cards, shopping, decorating, planning outings and vacations, or preparing for visits with family and friends.  When you put it all together, the inevitable sum of exams and holidays is stress.  In fact, for some families, we can add a few more stressors to the equation:  seniors waiting for early college admission decisions, the start of the winter sports season, students returning home from college, and young children buzzing with holiday anticipation.  The list could go on and on.
Mid-December is almost certainly the season of stress for families with high school students.  As parents, we often wonder how we can help our students prepare both mentally and academically for exams when we are so busy ourselves.  To help answer this question, I turned to the experts on the subject, who, as it turns out, are nearby and easy to contact.  You guessed it!  I called the parents who have had a few students go through the exam process in previous years, and who always seem to have their acts together.  As it happens, they are eager to pass their ideas on to others.
The advice I received from fellow parents was simple, easy to follow, and really just a matter of common sense.  Here are some of the tips I received:
  •  Stay positive and try not to add stress by focusing on grades.  Avoid questions like, "How many points do you need to get an A?" and instead focus on the study process and learning with questions like, "What section will you review first?" or  "Which course outcomes will be included on your exam?"
  • Know your child and follow his or her cues.  Does he or she want help from you?  One parent talked about working quietly on her own project near her studying child so that she was easily available but not hovering.
  • This next tip is a classic but one that is especially important at exam time: have a comfortable study space away from the TV, computer, and family noise.  Make sure it's not too comfortable though--studying while lying in bed has obvious drawbacks!
  • Encourage regular breaks--studying for hours on end is not helpful.  Snacks during breaks can help too!  Another way to have an effective break is to add physical activity.  Even a little exercise will increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain and will reduce stress. 
  • Encourage study groups and studying with friends.  Many parents offer to host these study groups; others encourage "virtual" study groups via FaceTime.
  • Offer relief from regular household chores for a week or two.  This one will be popular in my house!
  • Ensure that your child is using the study guides that many teachers provide.
  • Encourage your child to contact his or her teacher for a little extra help.  Teachers go out of their way to help students all year, but this is especially true at exam time.  Help is available in person and sometimes via e-mail as well.
Above all, it's helpful to remind our teens that stress is a natural part of life and can actually be beneficial if managed well.  As parents, we can work to be models of effective stress management, and we can help our students to feel  confident and well prepared as they head into exam week. 
I'm going to take the advice of my fellow parents and try a few things on this list.  What will you try?  I would love to hear back from you with your tips and advice.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Strategic Plan Update

One of the primary responsibilities of a school board is to set a direction for the district.  In order to fulfill this responsibility, there are several specific jobs that effective boards must carry out: 
  1. Collaboratively develop a mission focused on learning and achievement of all students.  A mission describes a future toward which the district is moving.
  2. Establish priorities, which are the major areas that must be addressed in order to make progress toward the mission.
  3. Set strategic goals in each priority area.
Several years ago, the Tam District Board of Trustees worked through focus groups of parents, students, teachers, staff, and community members to set a mission for the district.  Strategic priorities and goals were then set with the intention of deliberately moving toward a future in which the mission is true for all students.  Because setting direction is not a one-time event, progress toward the strategic goals is reported to the board regularly, and goals are updated annually to reflect new data and changing circumstances.
To read the recently updated TUHSD mission, priorities, and strategic goals click here.
As you can see, this TUHSD direction-setting document is a visual reminder that all work in the district is in service to our mission.  This document, which is sometimes referred to as the, "mission map," allows us to have one foot in the present and one foot in the future.  As we focus on what is working, we can move from where we are toward an even better place through strategic thinking and supporting risk-taking and innovation.
You will also notice that our direction-setting document differs from other organizations in that it is self-contained on one page rather than a multi-paged booklet format.  To help you understand the format we have used, the diagram below points to where the essential elements of mission, priorities, and strategic goals can be located on the mission map.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Preparing Learners & Leaders for the 21st Century ~ Unveiling the Tam District Video

At the Tamalpais Union High School District, we are committed to providing our students with a myriad of educational opportunities to prepare them for life after high school.  We have been working diligently toward this goal for the last few years, and we recognize the importance of sharing our work with our stakeholders--because an informed community is an invaluable partner in the success of our students.  To this end, we have created a short video highlighting some of our work of the last three years.  
We chose the video format as a means to address several of the district's "Community Relations" strategic goals: 
  • Utilize most effective means of communication with the district's internal and external stakeholders
  • Develop an understanding of the school district by providing a flow of information about policies, programs, and progress of the schools
  • Bring about community understanding of the need for continuous improvement and what must be done to facilitate that improvement
The video features staff and students who volunteered for this opportunity.  They either spoke extemporaneously or developed their own script. 
The full-length video is about eight minutes long, but for your convenience, I have linked the three-minute "Sneak Peek" preview here

The short promotional video is featured on our website, and the full-length version will be used as a basis for discussion with staff, parents, and community members throughout the 2013-2014 school year. 
Tam District parents will have multiple opportunities to view the full-length video at meetings of the PTSA, Foundation, advisory councils, and the like.  If your school or community organization  is interested in delving further into the work of the Tam District, please contact me at feedback@tamdistrict.org to schedule a time for a trustee and I to share the video and discuss our efforts with your group.