From Doug & Sheila George, Destination Imagination Volunteer Team Managers at Bel Air High School:
We are writing regarding the revised Club (06-0010-000) and Extracurricular Activity policies (06-0007-000) which were rejected by the Harford County Board of Education on October 28, 2013 and the specific impact of procedures that were implemented during the public review period of these policies on the Destination Imagination Program in Harford County.
Destination Imagination is a STEM based, hands-on creative problem solving program. Each year 7 different categories of challenges are presented ranging in focus from mechanical, to engineering, to scientific, to fine arts, to improvisational, to community outreach, to an early elementary introductory challenge. The students participating in these challenges gain experience in cooperative team work, in time management, in budgeting, in both informational or technical writing and creative writing, in public speaking, in math, in science, in research, and in problem solving-scientific method. The DI program represents the cross-curricular application of skills that is central to the common-core curriculum.
Students also have the opportunity to interact with students from other schools at regional, state, and international competitions. Over the past three years 34 teams from Harford County have advanced to the DI Global Finals. It is worth noting that 20 of those teams have finished in the top 20 of their challenge, including a Globals 1st place champion in 2011 and 2nd place champion in 2012. Of more importance than finishing scores, all of those teams had the opportunity to see other teams’ solutions, discuss the problem solving process, and build friendships with students of all ages and backgrounds.
On July 29, 2013, the Harford County Board of Education was presented with revised policies for Clubs and Extracurricular Activities. The proposed revised policies included language that prevented community volunteers from leading any club or extracurricular activity in a school. The proposed policies also prevented HCPS employees as well as community volunteers working with an employee from hosting any club or extracurricular meetings or events at a private residence. Due to public comment on the policy following its initial presentation, the language was changed to allow meetings at private residences of community volunteers provided the HCPS staff person was not involved. The language banning community volunteers remained in the revised policy. At the September 23rd meeting, the Board voted to extend the public comment period on the newly revised policies.
On September 6, HCPS central office staff sent a memo to all HCPS principals and a second memo to Team Managers regarding procedural changes that were being imposed on the Destination Imagination program for 2013-2014. The procedural changes that were implemented in this memo included the following:
• “Official school sponsored Dl team manager/s will be appointed by the school principal and must be employed by HCPS”
• “Team activities, (including practices, celebrations, and meetings), shall not take place at the private residence of any HCPS employee, team manager/coach, assistant team manager, and/or team member if planned, supervised or directed by the HCPS team sponsor. Meetings of the HCPS Dl team must take place at school only.”
• “Outside community groups may form their own DI team under the national DI organizations guidelines but these will not be considered HCPS school-sponsored extra-curricular activities or clubs. As such, Community group team managers are subject to the national DI organization guidelines. These non-HCPS community teams shall not use the school name in their team name.”
• “School sponsored DI Teams should choose challenges that can be successfully completed without the use of power tools.”
Clearly, these new procedures appear to be based on the proposed revised policies regarding clubs and extracurricular activities that had yet to be approved. In addition, the new procedures being implemented for DI contained the more stringent language on meetings at private residences of the proposed policy versions.
Unfortunately the DI community, for the most part, was blindsided by the new procedures and was very unsure of how to react. Parent volunteers, which have traditionally been the backbone of the DI program, were dismissed from schools if they did not have an HCPS sponsor, and volunteers that had hosted DI meetings at their houses were no longer permitted to meet in their own residence. A few HCPS teacher have maintained their DI leadership, a few volunteers have formed “community” teams, and other volunteers disbanded their teams, resulting in significantly reduced participation in DI this year. There were 68 DI teams in Harford County last year (51 of those teams were managed by volunteers). The MD DI Affiliate is hoping to reach 34 teams between the HCPS teams and the community teams. That is a 50% drop in one year, approximately 200 less students. If that trend continues, in 5 years Harford County will have 2 teams, in 7 years DI will no longer exist in Harford County.
A group of concerned parents and DI students spoke at the Board of Education meeting on October 28, 2013 to seek answers for the dramatic shift in procedures towards DI. The Board members praised the DI program and openly acknowledged the value of the program. Many of the Board members were genuinely concerned that the DI program is suffering and stated that they would like to know more about what has happened to cause such a dramatic loss of participation.
The students spoke on their experience in DI and emotionally expressed how important the program is to them. Other students spoke on the inequity that exists regarding the policy that bans power tools for DI students. One student expressed that she uses a variety of power tools for Electrathon club but can’t use the same tools for DI.
The parents spoke to the board regarding the language of the new policies that prevent community volunteers from leading any club or extracurricular activity in a school. It was pointed out to the Board that the proposed revised policies allow an athlete to coach a sports team, but do not allow an astronaut, engineer, or former teacher to coach DI, or lead any club or activity in a school. Mr. Spicer, school board legal counsel, confirmed this statement during the discussion period of the meeting.
The revised Club and Extracurricular Activity policies were rejected by the board, and the policies were returned to the Review Committee. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done to the DI program since procedures have already been implemeted. Even if the procedure changes are reversed and the management of the DI program is restored to the same as last year, the DI season has started, and many volunteers have already made other commitments that prevent them from participating in DI this year.
As part of the closing comments during the public input session at the board meeting, the speakers requested, that in the future, the school system refrain from implementing policy that is still under consideration so stakeholders can voice their concerns through the proper channels before changes are made.