Reporting on a Harford Education Leadership Conference held in April, co-host Harford Business Roundtable for Education summarizes the results from stakeholder work groups below. The groups outlined issues in education that were non-negotiable and negotiable; identified challenges and priorities, and concluded with a number of specific requests. Stakeholders called for increased flexibility in school programs, funding sources and facility utilization; improved communication and collaboration between the schools and business and community partners; and an increase in data-based decision making in Harford County Public Schools.
This is the fourth in a series of reports on the education conference published in The Dagger.
Non-Negotiables: The groups were asked to identify issues that cannot be ignored or given lesser importance. These are the minimum expectations of community stakeholders.
– There must be safe, clean learning environments and quality education for all!
– There is no substitute for professional teachers. They must be talented and accountable. It is the responsibility of HCPS to provide high caliber professional development programs. By comparison to some neighboring counties, HCPS has not made enough investment in this area.
– It is imperative that closer working relationships among schools, government and the broader stakeholder community be the normal way of doing business. When our children future is at stake, everyone must put aside politics, concerns with power and control as well as local or personal interest and focus on student achievement across the entire county.
– Real student success requires that students “own” their education. They must be challenged with high self-expectations and realistic but inspiring goals for their own future. Accomplishing this is the responsibility of parents as well as the school system.
Negotiables: Participants also recognized that there are some issues that, because of practical constraints will require either compromise or common sense decisions. These may be hard for some stakeholders to accept but hard decision may need to be made for the greater good.
– We may not always be able to implement the “latest and greatest” technology. Practical decisions must be made based on the return any investment will generate. Moreover, more care must be taken in ensuring that implementation plans take into consideration the training and other support to users.
– There was a general acceptance that small class size is not a pre-requisite for success and that pursuing it might result in impractical expectations for additional teachers, more classrooms, etc. Moreover there is contradictory data regarding the correlation between class size and student achievement. Participants however did feel that HCPS must explore ways to ensure that larger class sizes still allow for effective learning.
– Participants felt that the school system needed latitude in starting and ending times for school days in order to address logistical considerations or class scheduling in secondary schools. Additionally some participants expressed interest in exploring “year round schooling”.
– In order to make the most effective use of our schools, the stakeholders generally agreed that HCPS must have the flexibility to adjust boundary lines for schools and while being sensitive to neighborhood schools, redistricting must be carried out when necessary.
– Employee benefits package must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that our educators are offered a fair and competitive compensation package these benefits must conform to economic realties.
Challenges: Stakeholders identified issues that they felt could present obstacles to improving student achievement.
– Even in better economic times, participants recognized that there is competition for limited resources. Our political leadership often must make hard decisions. It was believed that improved communication as defined above could help to “ease the pain” of this process.
– While having flexibility in changes to starting and ending times as well as the structure of the school day will allow for better use of resources and perhaps the effectiveness of programs, there may be resistance from teachers, parents and students to these changes. Here again, improved communication and stakeholder involvement is seen as the solution.
– Unfunded mandates and requirements imposed by state and federal agencies can often disrupt the plans, goals and budgets established locally. It must be the role of school officials as well as our state and federal legislators to be more proactive in these matters.
– One major obstacle to improving efficiency through the use of technology, not just for HCPS but also for other county agencies, is a county wide plan for improving band width. This needs to be made a higher priority for elected officials.
– A major logistical challenge for the school system is the transportation of students across a large county with significant variations in weather, geography and infrastructure. HCPS is generally seen as doing well here but given the nature of the problem transportation must continue to be prioritized and support from other agencies should be sought.
– There will always be neighborhood and individual family preferences that conflict with the needs and benefits of the larger community. This challenge is made larger when it involves our children. While some sacrifice will occasionally be required, communication is again the key!
Priorities: The workgroups were also requested to identify the priorities they wished to communicate to the Leadership.
– There is a crucial need for school system and elected leadership to be headed in the same direction. Many participants were encouraged by indications that there would be more consideration of the school system in the Master Plan process and that the outcomes from this conference would be used in the HCPS Strategic Plan. We need more of this!
– It is not good enough for our leadership to merely agree to talk more frequently and make informal agreements. Decision must take a more public form and the decision makers held accountable for acting on agreements.
– Stakeholders were interested in advisory boards across curricular/discipline areas and HCPS must a) publicize the advisory groups that are in place more effectively and b) consider revising/adding to these groups to ensure priority areas are considered.
– Harford County is the home of a wide array of professional resources that are eager to support education in their area of expertise. While teaching is profession with its own skill set, there should be a role for subject matter experts (non HCPS educators) in classrooms.
– There must be a shared expectation for greater student achievement with all students reaching their own full potential.
– While school facilities are already used extensively outside of normal school hours by the larger community, there is both more demand and more capacity to fill. Efforts should be made to find a way to make schools available without placing even more burden on administrative staff or additional cost to HCPS.
– Data confirms that early intervention is crucial and, for example, students who’s reading level is behind at the end of 3rd grade will “never” catch up. An investment in more early identification and remediation for students who are behind would be an investment that would give a payback in the reduction of ongoing academic support and result in higher levels of student achievement.
Requests: The stakeholders made specific requests at the conclusion of the workshops.
– There needs to be more flexibility in programs, funding sources for public education and improvements in facility utilization.
– Create more meaningful partnerships with businesses and the community at large.
– Enhance advisory boards by adding both internal and external subject matter experts.
– Improve communication!!!
– Increase objective, data based decision making but ensure that the community understands how these decisions are made.
– Continue the dialogue with the community with regular conferences like this one.