A TIME TO LOOK BACK

In January of each year, we look towards the future, trying to envision the needs, the trends and the forecasts for education in the coming year. Since January is the month to look towards the future, then December should be the time to ask“what did we do this past year,” or in this case,“are we doing the right thing?”

The goal of our public education system has always been to provide a quality education, but we have finally come to the conclusion that doing “business as usual” is not working for us. This past year saw a renewed interest in reforming our public education system. Three areas of particular interest were school size, the use of technology and community involvement — each with the ability to influence reform and drive change.

School Size: A healthy debate is still taking place on the subject of school size. Most agree that smaller is better, but we still have not figured out what constitutes small. For some, small means a building that houses 500 students. For others, small means a “house” system with shared core facilities. Listening to the debates, the real issue at the center of “small” is not size, but how to improve our ability to form relationships — student-to-teacher, teacher-to-parent, student-to-student.

Technology: Technology has become pervasive in education. All schools now have access to computers and the Internet. More than one-third of our schools have students enrolled in distance education programs, expanding the range of courses available to them. Cyber/online charter schools are popping up across the county. Some states are even sponsoring virtual schools that offer state-centralized courses via Internet- or Web-based methods.

The Vail School District, in Arizona, has gone all the way when it comes to the use of technology in schools. They have built a wireless school where every student has a laptop and there is not a textbook in sight — paper or electronic. Students are taught to state standards, teachers deciding what resources they need for each group of students to help them learn. A class period may consist of a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the teacher, followed by independent Internet research and student projects. There is no question that technology can make education a lot more interesting for students, but it can also create a lot more work for the teaching staff.

Community: According to U.S. Department of Education, in its report Schools as Centers of Community, "The most successful schools of the future will be integrated learning communities, which accommodate the needs of all of the community's stakeholders. They will be schools that will be open later, longer and for more people in the community from senior citizens using the gym and health facilities during off-hours to immigrants taking evening English classes after work." There are also many side-benefits to increased community involvement. More public-private partnerships are being formed where spaces ranging from libraries to health and social services are being shared, eliminating duplication of efforts and reducing cost. More off-hour uses of the facilities are being planned, including rental agreements with for- and not-for-profit educational organizations that provide the district with “extra” revenue.

Engaging the community is tapping into a valuable asset. Increased community involvement may have been our number one accomplishment this past year. Increased involvement means an increased awareness that will help us keep education number one on the minds of parents, the public and politicians in 2006 and beyond.

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