Monday, August 15, 2016

Why we come to work every day at OPS!

The theme of our Opening Day Convocation at the Owensboro Public Schools was “why do I go to work every day?” The answer to this question given by many OPS teachers is found in a very touching video tribute. You can watch the video on our district You Tube channel or at this link. The answers in the video are a testament to the great people associated with our district.    

For me, as superintendent, there are two primary motivators as I come to work every day. First, I come to work to support the outstanding staff of this school district.  I hope to serve our staff by providing resources and removing barriers so that they can better do their job of serving the students that we just saw in the video.  I appreciate that they come to work every day to change the lives of our students.

I believe in the core values of our school system- educating the whole child.  Our tradition of excellence regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status and family background.  These values shine through everything we do as a learning organization.  

The second reason I come to work every day is to better affect change in addressing the magnitude of the challenges we face as a school system and a society-- chief among these is poverty.

Nearly 80 percent of our students live in conditions with few educational resources in their homes.  Only one-third of the students that start kindergarten with us are ready to learn.  Their parents face unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, lack of stable housing and many other obstacles that seriously undermine their children’s opportunity to learn.  
Nationally many of the students that live in the circumstances of our students  do not have the advocates and the support that the student of OPS have-- and for that I am  thankful.
Compelling research from the Centers for Disease Control on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACES provide a way to chronicle and even score incidents of toxic stress and adverse experiences.  Students struggling with this toxic stress are often ill-suited to learn in a traditional educational environment.  As educators we are constantly looking to embrace trauma-informed education practices to help better reach all students considered at risk.
I don't have to tell you the number of students in our schools that fall into this category.  They pose a great challenge to teachers and our district overall.  We play an important role in  providing hope for these students.  It is imperative that we do not give up on them or lower our expectations of them just because of the difficulties they have faced in their young lives.  

Today I am going to focus on three powerful practices as a plan of work that we adults can commit to daily in service of the children of OPS.  Relentless pursuit of these are critical for our school district to take our tradition of excellence to a new level.   

The number one thing we can do for all students in our district is demand a high level of expectations.  By keeping the expectations high, you reinforce to the students that you believe in their abilities.  You give them the chance to show off what they can do.  You also allow them the opportunity to soar high above the expectation society has for them.  High expectations are the greatest gift we can give our students!
A cornerstone of  our high expectations is in the area of literacy. Teaching children to read is a fundamental part of our mission and is a direct route out of poverty.  But the root of the problem is not our children’s poverty-- it is the poverty of ideas.  Think of it like compound interest: if one kindergartner comes to us having heard 30 million more words than her less fortunate peers, the “interest” on her knowledge and vocabulary allows her to grow far richer compared to less fortunate students.  The gap that is created is the opportunity-to-learn gap.    The most powerful strategy to close this gap is to promote the enjoyment and life long process of reading from a content and knowledge-rich curriculum from the earliest possible moment.  The expectation that ALL students read by the end of primary school is the greatest gift we can give our youngest students!
Literacy is certainly foundational for our students to be successful In our secondary schools.   As students move through middle and toward high school our expectations begin to focus on their readiness to succeed at the next level-- high school and Postsecondary education.   Just like we have the expectation that nearly all students should be able to read as they exit the primary grades, we should also frame our expectations that all graduates be prepared and expected to pursue some form of postsecondary education.  The pursuit of this expectation-- that all of our students advance their education after high school-- is the greatest gift we can give our middle and high school students!

The second powerful practice is to provide all students with rich experiences in and out of the classroom.  The student that comes to us with 30 million more words, also comes to us with the benefit of having traveled, visited museums, attending regular summer camps, and music and dance lessons from an early age.  We do a great job as a district in this area from providing our high school students regular trips to New York and Washington D.C. to the incredible power of the arts that is a hallmark of our district giving our kids the benefit of music and dance lessons through OPS.  It is part of what we mean when we say educate the whole child.  For some of our students it is the experience of having their very own computer, visiting the River Park Center or Rupp Arena, a trip to a bigger city like Louisville, or simply crossing the Ohio River for the very first time.  This all matters a great deal to our students.  They will learn more through this part of their education that will never be captured on a standardized test.  That is why we will continue to place a high priority on exposing all of our students to such experiences.
The third powerful practice focuses on engagement-- of students, families and the community.  One of the most important measures of engagement is attendance of students and staff.  This is an area where we need to improve.  Our student and staff attendance reached a 10-year low.  It is hugely important to have our students in class with their teachers on a regular basis.

Finally, the most powerful and effective way to engage students and families is to offer them love and kindness.  My very first opening day, I focused on the fact that a core strength of our district is our emphasis on loving our students regardless of their background.  All children deserve to feel valued, loved, and safe.  They will not engage with us  in the classroom or through their families until they trust that we love and value them.  This is not as easy as it sounds. I have seen the effects of love delivered by teachers and staff of OPS transform many children we serve.  You form relationships with students and families.  Children who live in generational poverty come to us with their own set of issues and bad experiences, but it our job as educators to make their school experience a positive one.  You can still have a consistent grasp of discipline and high expectations, but make sure that love is a factor when you are trying to help any student who walks through your door.

Outside of the safe and wonderful cocoon that is the Owensboro Public Schools, we have seen many elements of our world turn upside down this summer.  We have seen the antithesis of love.  We cannot help but see the effects of the divisiveness and intolerance creep into our world.  

Part of our message today is to show the world how with a mixture of hard work, a relentless focus on our core values combined with a little love and kindness we can rise above the negative elements gripping our world.  We can do our part to promote the simplicity of these ideas to our community and the families we serve for the sake of unity and understanding.  

We want to celebrate our community, our school system, our police, the leadership of groups like human relations commission, the NAACP,  Girls, Inc. and Neblett Center that help us celebrate our diversity.  At OPS we see diversity as a core strength.   It is who we are, just like our tradition, our nationally recognized arts programs, and our many state championships.  It is embodied in the phrase “We are Owensboro.”