School Board looks beyond buildings to design schools

How teachers assess their students’ progress, and how administrators assess the teachers as well as facility needs for the future, were the main topics of conversation at the Mercer Island School Board’s planning retreat held on Jan. 20 at the Community Center at Mercer View.

Although Mercer Island students lead the state in standardized test scores, the board would like to see the method of assessing students’ progress stretch beyond the typical tests, pop quizzes and end of chapter reviews, into rewarding students for project-oriented tasks.

What hamstrings the teachers, said superintendent Gary Plano, is that parents expect grades.

Indeed, one of the nine fundamentals of the board’s 2020 Vision is “creating a more personalized learning environment that is responsive to students’ strengths, needs, learning styles, interests, passions and affinities.”

Ideas brought forth included individualized spelling tests for elementary school students based on their own writing, rather than a stock spelling list for the whole class. Or, instead of a quiz, a “check-in” to see who did their homework or not, and what the student didn’t understand about it that kept them from doing the work.

Another of the board’s fundamentals is “delivering the best instructional practices based on authentic and formative assessments for learning.”

Board member Dave Myerson said assessments need to be formative to be useful, giving parents timely, useful feedback.

And for teachers, a focus on students’ diverse and individual needs defines a distinguished educator, Plano said.

It’s clear there is an understanding among the board members and Plano that the issue of how to assess student and teacher performance will be an ongoing discussion.

Based on current demographic data, it’s clear that a new school will be needed. At present, the next five year of enrollment growth is fairly predictable because those children are already born, but after that it’s anyone’s guess. With that uncertainty, the board wrestled with the question: how do you plan school buildings for the long term?

Dean Mack, the district’s executive director of business services and human resources, said there’s no way to add second stories to any of the existing buildings because the foundational underpinnings aren’t there. School buildings have been built as one-story designs over the past 20 or so years, but Mack said it’s actually cheaper to build a two-story, citing a smaller footprint, less roof space and the fact that a two-story is less expensive to heat.

With all the portables the district has added over the past 20 years to accommodate students, Plano remarked they could have had a whole new school.

The district needs to plan for preschool, too, while keeping ever-changing curriculum goals in the forefront.

With that in mind, Board member Janet Frohnmayer presented slides of brand-new 21st century schools in other states. The buildings are use more natural light in classrooms and corridors, blending art, technology and academics. Classrooms have changed from a “cells and bells” appearance to a more open concept where students can move easily between learning resources; for example, an open media area or library becomes the heart of the school.

A facility advisory committee made up of parents, staff and citizens has been formed to discuss these issues with the board. They are tackling a diverse set of ideas that would affect the design of a future school.

Should the board consider changing grade level distribution? This means, for example, grouping kindergarten through eighth grade, which has supporting data. What about school proximity? Should the high school be next to the middle school? Would the PEAK facility be a good place for overflow? Then what about property acquisition?

With no more ARRA money and a tight state budget, a bond will have to be floated. How much should that be? And, finally, what about School Board members? Will future boards carry forth this board’s vision?

The board and the advisory committee recognize that the economic situation and its effects on funding will likely represent the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

The Reporter will follow up on the meeting with the 21st Century Advisory Committee.

Key meetings for parents, kids entering MIHS

There are two important upcoming meetings for parents of students who are currently in the eighth grade and will be attending Mercer Island High School as freshmen in September.

On Monday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center, MIHS administrators and counselors will provide parents with information on the course registration process. The intent is to ensure that parents understand the process and the options available to their students. Representatives from each content area will also be available following the presentation to answer curriculum questions.

On Wednesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center, MIHS Principal John Harrison will present his view on raising and teaching healthy teens. Following the presentation, there will be a panel discussion when parents can ask current MIHS students and parents questions about the school.

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