Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Power of the Hashtag

To open the 2015-2016 school year, I unveiled a hashtag for the purpose of documenting our district’s never ending adventure race.  This inspiration came from the work of Robyn Benincasa, and her presentation to school leaders at a Battelle for Kids event.  
Embedded in this hashtag is the belief that success comes from groups of ordinary people (teachers, students, bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, parents, food service, building aides, maintenance, and administrators) coming together to do extraordinary things.  

Those who spend enough time with me know that “I love it when a plan comes together”.  Yes, I did grow up wanting to be the newest member of the A-TEAM led by Hannibal Smith.  But I digress,  what I am trying to illustrate is how representative the hashtag has been since the halls filled with staff and students in late August.  Here are just a few ordinary yet extraordinary examples:  

  • The elementary, in conjunction with the PTO, hosted a Donuts with Dad and Muffins with Mom event.  During these two events, we welcomed over 700 people into the building to enjoy special time with those we cherish the most, the students!  The gathering of dads, uncles, moms, aunts, grandparents, and siblings was an extraordinary display of school spirit and support.  #OrdinaryisExtraordinary

  • The district recently suffered the loss of a student.  The outpouring of support for the family and the community was reassuring during a difficult time.   One ordinary team in particular exemplified what extraordinary acts can do for others.  One by one, the High School football team paid their respects to the family and then gathered together outside the funeral home.  The team prayed together before heading their separate ways.   In this moment, a bunch of ordinary HS students came together with their coaches to show strength and compassion to another in need.  #OrdinaryisExtraordinary

  • The district was honored to have Dr. Doug Reeves with us at the beginning of October.  During his time in the district, Dr. Reeves commented several times on how refreshing it was to be around educators that genuinely liked each other and liked what they did.  His research supports that strong teams, groups of ordinary people, coming together for the purposes of student learning, will have a positive impact on achievement and growth.  His observations only solidify that we have the team composition for what #OrdinaryisExtraordinary embraces.  

  • The Mechanicsburg HS Boys Golf Team made it to the state playoffs for the first time since 1991.  In order to make it there as a team, the number 3 -5 golfers had to post some of their personal best scores.  These boys, freshman up through seniors, had to come together as individual golfers to tackle one of the most difficult courses in Ohio.   As a collection of ordinary HS golfers, these young men did an extraordinary thing and made an appearance at the state tournament when few believed it was possible.  #OrdinaryisExtraordinary

Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools has created a compass that will no doubt lead to another successful adventure race.  We are a group of ordinary teachers, leaders, parents, students, and community members that are gathering together to do extraordinary things in the service of student learning.  I love it when a plan comes together!  

Monday, June 1, 2015

Time flies when you are having fun!

It is has been some time since I have sat down to craft a superintendent’s blog.  Not sure what has transpired between then and now, but I can tell you I have enjoyed every second of it.  I find it hard to believe that yesterday marked the first graduating class of my superintendency.  It seems like just last week I was stressing over my opening day remarks.  Fast forward 38 weeks, we are at the end of very successful school year.  

So what are some of the markers of success that we have seen this year?  Though we don’t have test scores in hand to judge the achievement and growth of our students, our hallways were filled with successes each and every day this year.  From artwork to student papers, data charts, trophies and awards, newspaper articles, and class constitutions, we can easily see the learning taking place within our walls.  

Our Vocational Agriculture “Department” opened a green house, repaired community tractors and other equipment, and saw many successes at the state level.  The Art Department hosted several community events, showcasing and selling framed works of art along with earning several awards at the OHC Fine Arts Festival.  Our newest addition to the course catalog, Zulama, has been a hit with students, and numbers indicate it is continuing to grow next year.  Our math classrooms explored deep learning through questioning and used TenMarks to prepare students for new online assessments.  “Google is a Go” in the district, with the Middle School Staff and Mr. Griffith leading the charge.  We have set ourselves apart from those around us with the infusion of technology in our classrooms.  Students read and wrote at a higher rate, with many of our grade levels writing research papers to end the school year.  4th grade students used the pen to gather a host of Ohio made products for another successful wax museum.  5th grade students spent the last day of school playing board games they designed around their most recent book studies.  And in the interest of my every long to do list, these are just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the learning I have witnessed this year.  Learning is Fun around here no doubt!

In addition to the successes of the 2014-15 school year, teams are already planning for additional fun in learning next year.  Our High School is embarking on a building wide book study, including all students and teaching staff.  What a great way to learn alongside each other!  Teachers have donated their summer hours to additional professional development in differentiation, Orton-Gillingham, technology, and gifted education to name just a few.  Already off to a great start for 2015-16 and it is only June 1!

I could not have asked for a more successful 1st year.  I feel very fortunate to have learned along a phenomenal administrative team and to have had the support of a tremendous board of education and staff.  Parents and the surrounding community have added to the quality of the school year and I only see that relationship growing in years to come.   Time to close the books on 2014-15 and gear up for the fun that awaits in 2015-16.  

Danielle Prohaska, Superintendent

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Still Feeling Like a Newbie!?!

Most new teacher training programs include a discussion around the phases of first year teaching.  Though this is a crucial conversation in the development and support of new teachers, it is applicable no matter how long you have been an educator.  Why am I making this connection?  If you are in education or follow educational changes through various media outlets, it is apparent that education is not stagnant.  Education policy, instructional programs, technology innovation, content, and clientele are changing at a rapid rate.   If you are doing the right work as an educator, you should ALWAYS feel like a new teacher.  

The phases of teaching include anticipation, survival, rejuvenation,  and reflection before repeating the phases again and again each year.   At this point in the year (March) we are leaving disillusionment and embarking on the rejuvenation phase of the school year.  It is important as lead learners in the district (administrators and principals) to take note of these phases and support the staff accordingly.    

What exactly do we mean when we say “disillusionment”?   Disillusionment occurs when the high expectations educators set for themselves this time of year are not fully met.  It occurs when student progress stalls or takes less than a straight path to success.  Disillusionment happens when the best planned instructional lessons don’t execute as hoped.  The work asked of educators is robust and as the novelty of the year wears off, principals may see more referrals to the office, increased absences, disorganization, missed timelines, and lack of engagement just to name a few.  As a superintendent or central office administrator, we see priority lists getting longer rather than shorter, communication breakdowns hamper progress, increased concerns elevate from the building level, missed opportunities to build relationships, and wavering in the implementation of monitoring of initiatives.  

These examples are just that, examples that can be applied to any district and building across the nation this time of year.  What will end up defining districts will be the individual responses of the lead learners in those institutions.  How we do this will define our school year, our building and our classrooms.  Our approaches can speed up or slow down the progression towards the last two phases.  This is not the time to place blame, show frustration, or run and hide.  This is the time for us as leaders to stand tall, continue to offer support, foster the engagement,  seek out and rely on our trusted colleagues, and walk together toward the times of rejuvenation and reflection.  

As an Ohio educator you have weathered the storm of a brutal winter, administered Next Generation Assessments for the first time, taught under new learning standards, worked with parents to understand the changes in Ohio’s education system, and supported students instructionally and socially.  Be proud of where you are at this point in time, embrace the rejuvenation that accompanies spring weather and build on the excitement that accompanies the anticipation of planning for another successful year of school.  Together we can accomplish so much for the students and community we serve!

Yours in Education,

Danielle Prohaska

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mechanicsburg Launches Online Testing

As Ohio begins their new state assessments this week, there are many things that we are anticipating to learn as educators.  Up to this point, we have made many assumptions as to what it will be like for our students to test online.  Intentionally, we have placed each testing unit on it’s own day to be sure we are not asking too much of students.  We have tried our best to test in the morning, to assign students to devices they have used all year, and to keep classroom locations stable.  We have taken the 20 day testing window and spread the units for all grades across that time frame.  From the outside looking in, 20 days seems like a long span to complete testing.  Unfortunately, multiple classes and units at each grade level have made this venture more difficult than anticipated.  After the first administration cycle is over, we will refine our schedules as needed to protect the conditions that will best help students show what they know.  However, we must first administer the assessments in order to make educated adjustments.  

It is important to remember that the new state assessments our children are about to take are not common core.  With the controversy surrounding the common core standards, the distinction that online assessments are just a measure of the curriculum is important to make clear.  Just because online assessments measure Ohio’s new learning standards, the assumption shouldn’t be made that online assessment practices are faulty (that is assuming you as a reader have concerns regarding common core).  Over the last several years, students and teachers have had more experience with online tools in the classroom and in everyday life, so the transition to online assessments is not out of line regardless of the content being measured.   We began online testing in Mechanicsburg 5 years ago, administering online ACT end of course assessments at the high school in English, Mathematics, and Science.  These online assessments are now second nature for our HS students, who adjusted to online assessments much quicker than we did as the adults monitoring the assessment periods.  They are also second nature for our teachers who would hate to give them up now.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are/were flaws in the “old” testing system as well.  Only now that “new” assessments are upon us, does the “old” Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) system seem more suited for education.   The OAAs were a one time snapshot of what students have learned over an entire year.  Each assessment was 2.5 hours long, rather than broken down into units of shorter length.  Assessments data was not available to districts until well into summer, also not optimal for planning for the next school year .  Not to mention that at some grade levels, students were proficient when earning only 40-50% of the total raw points on the assessment.  That is not anywhere close to the standard we set for everyday mastering of the curriculum in our classrooms.  It is often hard to look back to where we have been,  but over time, we adjusted, accommodated, and used the state data system as one measure of what we do for students.  We are more than qualified to use the same process again at this point time.

All that being said, are there potential flaws in the timing or transition to common core, online assessments, and teacher/principal evaluation based on student data?  Yes there are flaws.  As mentioned earlier, the scheduling of multiple units across districts in a 20 day timeframe is more daunting than anticipated.  Linking teacher evaluation to new assessments/platforms, is not something we support at the district level.  We WANT our teachers to step outside the box and take risks in learning.  We KNOW that often times the failures teach us more in the long run.  However, I understand the anxiety that accompanies these “high stakes” tests.   With that being said, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 487 in the spring of 2014 that provides for a one year “safe harbor” for districts and teachers as Ohio transitions to new tests for the 2014-2015 school year.  This “safe harbor” will hopefully set some minds at ease as testing launches.  

There is other pending legislation that may reduce the amount of new assessments presented to our students, which may be contrary to our daily work depending on the final bill language.  Our instruction each day is preparing students for assessments, as our instruction is aligned to the content standards measured on state assessments.  Many districts, Mechanicsburg leading the way, have local practices in place to assess student learning on a regular basis in order to adjust instruction accordingly.  Why would the state want to limit our local district time engaging in practices that have moved the district from continuous improvement to high performing?  State assessments are just one lens of data that we consider when planning, adjusting, and delivering instruction to students.  Issues with the state testing system should tie our hands at the local level.

As we approach our first day of online testing, here are some things to remember:
  1. Each day students participate in aligned instruction, we are preparing them to be successful during online testing.
  2. Teachers have taken risks and taught outside of their comfort level in transition to the new learning standards.  Their efforts have not gone unnoticed.  
  3. Our excitement and comfort working in the new assessment system will transfer and support student learning.
  4. We are all in this together and just like the old proficiency and achievement systems, it will get “easier” over time.
  5. We get to choose how we respond to changes at the state level and how we advocate for our district.  While we wait to see how things shake out in legislation, we have chosen to practice, study, collaborate, and explore online assessment practices and aligned instruction.  Those choices are the ones to remember during testing as they do serve students well.  
  6. We are the “Best Small School in Ohio” for several reasons, believe in it!


Danielle Prohaska, Superintendent
Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools

Monday, January 5, 2015

It is just winter time in Ohio!

With the news of upcoming snow and cold temperatures, it is time to brace ourselves for another winter season in Ohio.  I have written previously about transparency in my thinking.  Winter decision making is just another area for transparency with students, families, staff and the Mechanicsburg community.  Student safety is ALWAYS our priority when making decisions about winter weather.  Staff safety, building operations, and proper functioning of equipment (i.e buses and heating) are also critical factors to consider when considering a delay or cancellation of school or a school sponsored event.  

Mechanicsburg collaborates with transportation, maintenance, and area school districts when considering a delay or cancellation.  We are very fortunate in Mechanicsburg to have close working relationships with Transportation Directors and other Administrators from Champaign, Clark, Union, and Madison Counties.  These relationships allow us to reach out and discuss conditions in surrounding areas that may impact our ability to safely transport students to school.  The more information we have, the more confident we can be in our decisions, especially when they involve the safety of students.  The roads are assessed daily when bad weather threatens.  A delay or cancellation should be called before the first bus route departs for the high school, but as conditions change, that timing is not set in stone.  

Snowy, icy, and drifting road conditions are one thing, but delays for temperature are more subjective.  The district considers actual temperature, wind speed, and total time outside in determining delays and closures.  Because of the number of student riders and those transported by parents, we are fortunate that the majority of our kids do not walk to school.  With that being said, we will be working with community and school organizations to provide extra hats and gloves for students that are without the proper winter gear throughout the season.  Our buses wait a little longer for students at each stop during extremely cold weather.  Students that arrive to school early are brought into the building to ensure their safety.  For these reasons, we think it is better to continue instruction for students and provide a warm, safe environment including breakfast and lunch for our students whenever possible.  

I appreciate the care and concern that both our staff and community take in an effort to put student safety first.  Wishing you all a memorable winter.  Dress warm, be safe, and enjoy the spectacular views that accompany the winter season!

Danielle Prohaska
Superintendent of Schools
Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools