Thursday, October 19, 2017

Upcoming Big Topics For Conversation

Good afternoon everyone!  What an incredible day here in Gorham!  Temperatures in the high 60's (not unlike most of this fall thus far), sun shining, beautiful color all around us, and lots of great fall school and community activities to keep us all apple picking, sock sorting (reference to our school's soctober work), pumpkin carving, and the like!  I just have to share a few photos of our awesome students and staff at work doing what they do best - LEARNING!
Recently community members in the Great Falls area came over to clean up our outdoor learning space - just look at it being used now!
GMS students working on their digital citizenry work!

One of our own GHS students helping other students to study for SAT's!  Nice job Alex!
Students at Great Falls (and our other Elem. Schools) are participating in Socktober to help our community!
GHS Juniors participated in several recent college trips to explore!  This group visited Bates with our very own Bates alumni, Dr. Record!

I could keep sharing pictures and great activities from all our schools, but that would take a lot more space and I could literally go on forever!  What I want this post to really be about is helping parents to become more aware of some of the big topics that our School Committee will be wrestling with this year and how you can access factual information about any or all of them!

In a nutshell - we are pretty busy right now!  A growing student population impacts everything we do - from our bus routes to our class sizes to our school nutrition programs to the daily schedules at our schools to capacity of our programs to handle additional workloads - and everything in between!  Trying to keep up with the changes needed to maintain and strengthen our already excellent school system is requiring us to think about some pretty big topics!  Here are just a few that are on the agenda for our school committee to discuss, starting this month and likely extending all the way through the end of this school year and beyond:

*  Proficiency Based Grading and Reporting Work
*  Strategic Planning Work
*  K-5 Configuration Study Group Work
*  School Day Study Group Work
*  Possible GHS Building Proposal Work
*  FY 19 Budget Development Processes & Preparing for the "unknowns" coming at us from the State.

I'm going to provide a BRIEF overview of each of these topics in the next few paragraphs.  I am also going to point out to you where you might find several online resources that you can use to dig more deeply to deepen your understanding of these conversations and their importance if you are interested, and finally, I will end with some specific information on how you can get more involved in the conversations!

Proficiency-Based Grading and Reporting Work

The work to create a Proficiency-Based System of Education has been ongoing for the past several years, and the topic of many, many previous blog posts that I will not attempt to re-hash here.  The piece I want to make sure you are all aware of for now is that coming up with the release of our first quarter grade reports (for grades 6-12) and our first trimester grade reports (for grades K-5), parents will be seeing some differences in these reports and as a result, should be prepared to have some questions about what these changes mean for your students.  

As a reminder, students in grades K-5 will have their learning reported out via our new standards-based grading software (known as Jumprope).  Scores will be similar in terms of the traditional 1,2,3,4 but how you view them and the standards they are attached to will look a little different than they have in the past.  Teachers in grades K-5 will be spending some significant time during Parent/Teacher Conferences helping to explain to parents what the new reports will look like, how to read them, and what all those colors mean!  Additionally, we have developed an online video to help parents interpret these new reports (CLICK HERE TO VIEW) and we have scheduled a follow-up face to face parent meeting for K-5 parents to attend who may still have questions on the evening of November 13th at 7:00 p.m. at Village Elementary School.  

Students in grades 6-8 are also in transition with their report cards.  Students in grade six will have their learning for all their courses reported out via our new standards-based grading software (known as Jumprope) for all classes that they take.  Students in this grade will continue to be scored using the 1,2,3,4 scale that they were used to in grades K-5.  Students in grades seven and eight will have their learning reported out via Jumprope for their science class and for allied arts classes, but will still use Infinite Campus (IC) to report out learning in all other areas using what we are lovingly referring to as our "Blended Scale"  Again, GMS teachers will be spending time during our upcoming Parent/Teacher Conferences to assist parents in better understanding how to interpret these new reports (both for Jumprope and for IC).  Additionally, we are working closely with all GMS students to make sure they know how to interpret their reports and can also help explain these new formats to parents.  Finally, we have developed an online video to help parents interpret these new reports (CLICK HERE TO VIEW) and have also scheduled a face to face parent meeting for 6-8 parents to attend who may still have questions on the evening of November 6th at 7:00 p.m. at GMS Library.

Students in grades 9-12 have also made a small transition towards PBL in the area of grading and reporting, but with fewer changes that will immediately impact their grading reports.  At this time, teachers are focusing on making sure students themselves understand what the new grading structure looks like so that they can help explain to parents.  Teachers will also be spending time during parent/teacher conferences talking with parents about these changes and what they mean.  Parents are encouraged to contact their student's teachers with further questions on grading practices.  Additionally, all parents might benefit from a review of our PBL Handbook which can be found by clicking on the link embedded here.

Strategic Planning Work

This committee has been working since the fall of 2016 to develop a strategic plan that will help move us towards the attainment of our new mission vision (CLICK HERE TO VIEW MISSION/VISION).  Committee members for this work are comprised of teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community members!  They are ready to present their draft plan to the Gorham School Committee for further discussion and eventual approval.  The first presentation to the School Committee of the draft Strategic Plan will be made next Wednesday (October 25) during the School Committee's Special Meeting planned for that evening.  Certainly members of the public who are interested may attend this meeting which will be held starting at 5:45 p.m. at the Central Office.  Others who want to learn more, but are not able to attend, can follow the work of the committee by visiting our district's website.  CLICK HERE to view the shared public folder for this work.  Our hope is to have a final, School Committee approved Strategic Plan in place by the end of December in order to help guide our budget work for the FY 19 budget development process!

K-5 Configuration Study Group Work

This committee grew out of concerns regarding the sustainability of our existing structures with increasing student populations that were brought to light during our FY 18 budget development process.

The purpose of this committee has been to study our existing K-5 elementary configurations in order to identify the strengths and challenges of this configuration and to brainstorm possible ways that the Gorham Schools MIGHT reconfigure the elementary schools to better address our increasing school populations in a more efficient manner moving forward.  This committee's charge was to develop a written recommendation to the Gorham School Committee outlining identified strengths and challenges of our existing K-5 configurations and to collect data to support a recommendation for how we MIGHT reconfigure to address increasing student populations over the longer term.

This committee is also getting close to wrapping up its work and presenting its findings to the Gorham School Committee on November 29, 2017 during their regularly scheduled workshop meeting.  This meeting will begin at 7:00 p.m. and will be held at the Central Office.

At this point, lots of data has been collected regarding scientific research, collection of how other school systems in Maine configure their schools, surveys results from staff and parents, enrollment projections, and the development of six different options to look at moving forward to include all supporting information associated with each scenario.

If you'd like to follow the work of this committee, you can access the shared public folder for this work from our website.  CLICK HERE to view.  Once the committee presents its recommendations to the School Committee, the school committee will then have to decide what action it would like to take.  This action can range from making a decision to change configurations for Fall, 2018 to making no change, including anything in between.  These discussions will hopefully occur during the month of December and January so that we are able to budget appropriately in our FY 19 budget process.

School Day Study Group Work

This study committee was created as a result of recent negotiations with teachers in the district who advocated for and were given additional planning time during the course of the regular school day in order to support them in doing all the work that we ask them to do for our children with continued excellence we have become accustomed to here in Gorham.  During these discussions, it was discovered that Gorham actually has the shortest instructional day of all schools in Cumberland County (we are 10 minutes shorter than our Cumberland County counterparts per day).  While we knew we needed to research this further to address the issue of the length of our instructional day, the issue of sleep science and optimal start times for schools also became a large talking point in our community because neighboring communities such as South Portland, Yarmouth, Biddeford, and others have recently made changes to their schedules to start school later.  We decided to combine these two related topics into one study committee whose task it is to conduct research on the possible pros and cons of lengthening our instructional day and moving our school start times and to develop a written recommendation to the Gorham School Committee for POSSIBLE changes.

This committee is also scheduled to report out to the School Committee on November 29, 2017 at their regularly scheduled workshop meeting.  Individuals who are intersted in following the work of this committee can access information from our shared public folder.  CLICK HERE to view.  Once again, the School Committee will then take this information and have to decide what action (if any) it would like to take.  These discussions will hopefully take place during the month of December and January so that we are able to budget appropriately for any potential changes in our FY 19 budget process.

Possible GHS Building Proposal

This work has been ongoing since 2009 here in Gorham.  Our high school was built to hold 750 students.  We currently have 850 students and we are projected to grow to close to 1000 students in the next 9 years.  We have been out of space for a long time at GHS, with two portables being housed on site for 15+ years.  Just this past year we had to convert closet space into classroom space, and our overall square footage for classrooms are often times not large enough for the number of students we have to put in them.  We have a very small cafeteria with students often being forced to sit on the floors in the hallways during lunch, we have inadequate parking for students, staff, and our daily guests, we have safety concerns with our building's offices being located at the opposite end of the building from where most students enter, our athletic fields are in disrepair, and our mechanical systems are aging and in need of significant TLC.  Now, don't get me wrong. .. the sky is not falling!  As a community we have kept up our buildings pretty well, and lucky for us we have an incredible student body and staff who create a climate within our schools that is very positive and welcoming.  The bottom line is, however that as our population continues to increase, we will simply not be able to sustain positive learning environments for our students if we do not address the issues in some manner.  What that manner is, is most certainly up for discussion - which is the point of our ongoing work!

At this point, we have reformed a GHS building committee and created an Athletic Capital Campaign Committee.  These committees have worked over the course of the past year or more with our School Committee and with the Town Council to bring forward several options for how we might address the issues outlined above.   We completed a substantial feasibility study taking a close look at the three preferred options which were:

1.  Build a new high school off site.
2.  Renovate existing building and athletic fields on site.
3.  Look to "flip flop" the high school with the middle school.

The feasibility study demonstrated that the least expensive of those three options was to renovate the existing building and athletic fields on site.  This preference was discussed by the School Committee and the Town Council and was agreed to as our "preferred option" moving forward.  The School Committee is now in the process of engaging an architectural firm to work with us to complete the conceptual design phase of the work and to work alongside us as we complete the required information gathering, and design work to get us to a public referendum which would likely occur EITHER in the fall of 2018 or in the spring of 2019, depending on how long it takes  us to complete the required and necessary steps that would ensure a thoroughly vetted and well thought out proposal is presented to our voters.  Once we get to work with the architectural firm, we will be populating our shared folder with this information as well.  CLICK HERE to view the shared public folder.

 FY 19 Budget Development Processes & Preparing for the "unknowns" coming at us from the State.

This last section is really to intended to make you all aware of some issues that our schools will be facing this year once again in terms of funding for public education.   As you may recall, the legislature passed a budget that included additional money in General Purpose Aid (GPA) for schools across the state.  The state approved $48 million dollars to be added to the FY 18 budget and another $113 million to be added to the FY 19 budget.  This is all well and good, and certainly something public schools have been clamoring for for the past 10 years, however - it does not come without strings attached.  The largest "string" is the requirement that in the FY 19 fiscal year, public schools are supposed to use 50% of these new funds to offset taxpayer expense.  This is great!  We actually used 100% of our FY 18 new dollars from the state to offset taxpayer expenses here in Gorham this past year.  The problem for me is not in using these funds to reduce taxes (which is a goal for all us), it is in defining what that 50% is.  The Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funding formula is a complicated formula that is built to change each year depending upon number of students and local property values.  Both of these key factors are going up here in Gorham and at this point in time, we are unsure of how the state is going to determine this 50%.  Is it 50% of the total new monies or is it 50% of what we got through the EPS formula that we otherwise would not have received if these new funds were not provided.  I realize that may not make much sense but to those of us who know how the EPS funding formula works - the difference between those two calculations could be huge for a system whose student populations are increasing such as ours.  I share this just to make sure that everyone is clear - although the state is providing more money in GPA for the coming fiscal year - that does not necessarily mean that Gorham will receive a "windfall" of new funds to fund our public schools.

Finally, another "unknown" coming at us from the state is the issue of Child Development Services (CDS).  CDS has been the organization that has provided funding for special education-like programs for students ages birth - 5 before they come into our public schools.  CDS has not been performing these services effectively and efficiently for years and at this point, the Maine Department of Education is looking to move these services into our K-12 public school systems to oversee and operate.  Although wholistically, I think this is a great idea - I remain very concerned about how the state plans to fund this transition, and how we might be able to find the physical spaces needed to operate these programs.  Much is still up in the air here, and surely there will be financial implications to this move if it is indeed made to begin in the fall of 2019.

Well, I am sure I have completely overloaded all of you with information at this point, and for that I apologize.  I do hope that you at least feel comfortable checking out the links for information provided and at the very least - if you want to know more about any of these topics that you feel comfortable in calling/emailing me to ask questions and to learn more.  As always, I will do my best to keep you informed as we move through another awesome school year here in Gorham!  In closing, I did want to take just one moment to congratulate our two GHS students who are our newest members on the Gorham School Committee!  They offer us an ability to hear the most important voices possible in our decision-making processes - our students!  Great work Josephine and Kyren - two outstanding GHS students!