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Schools: do more with less

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Change and transition are two words that aptly describe 2007 for the Mercer Island School District. Administrators said a quick goodbye to Superintendent Cyndy Simms, hello to new high school AP classes, and congratulations to educators Mary Lindquist and Mike Radow for their promotions to Washington Education Association president and Mercer Island Education Association president, respectively. The district also bid farewell to mid-winter break, welcomed a new School Board member and helped guide MIHS seniors through their first state-required culminating project. It has been a noteworthy year, indeed.

“2007 was a year that proved to us that change is definitely part of education,” said Mercer Island School Board President Pat Braman.

Change began early in 2007, following the record-breaking December wind storm and a flurry of snow days. School was cancelled for a total of eight days, leaving the district no choice but to ask Mercer Island High School seniors to return to class after their ‘07 graduation — a first in over a decade. Attendance was paltry during the three days of make-up, yet the school had an entire academic program ready for those seniors who showed, including a seminar on American film and outdoor barbecue. The rest of the Island’s students and teachers had to stick it out until June 26, when summer break finally started.

The tempestuous weather also brought the end of mid-winter break. In March, the School Board unanimously approved a modified 2007-08 school calendar without the week-long February holiday, allowing more flexibility for make-up school days. A parent survey was a big impetus in the decision as nearly three quarters of those who responded said they would appreciate a schedule allowing for “built-in snow days.” Teachers also supported the move to cancel mid-winter break, saying they would benefit from the extra instructional time before spring testing.

Other academic changes in ‘07 included the MIHS Bridges program, which was slimmed from two meetings per week to one. After a year-long pilot program, MIHS adopted Bridges as a permanent part of the school curriculum in 2005-2006. Students met in cross-grade level groups of 20 to 30 for a half hour on Mondays and Fridays, discussing topics as varied as racial tolerance and Homecoming. Yet a number of parents complained that Bridges had turned into a social hour and was taking up important instructional time.

In response to the criticism, MISD ran an online Bridges survey in April. Based on the results, the School Board decided to cut the Friday morning Bridges class and reduce the weekly meeting to 55 minutes on Monday. Administrators also developed a work plan to more clearly define the goals and expectations of the Bridges program. A number of new AP classes were also added to the high school curriculum this year, including AP psychology, AP U.S. history, AP English literature and honors math.

This year’s graduating class will make history by completing the first MIHS senior culminating project — a new state graduation requirement as of this year. Seniors were allowed to choose between a December or May deadline, and nearly half opted for the former. However, with the pressure of college applications, challenging classes and extracurricular activities, the majority of these “early-track” students asked for an extension.

“Early track was a great idea, but in reality, the timing wasn’t the best,” said Debora Boeck, a parent on the culminating project committee. “The adults are learning, and the kids are learning. The committee is reviewing the entire process, and it’s highly likely we may turn to one deadline at the end of the year.”

Students who completed the early-track projects will present their work on Jan. 11 in front of faculty and classmates.

MIHS seniors were not the only ones faced with entirely new responsibilities; a number of district administrators also stepped up to the challenge with the sudden resignation of Superintendent Cyndy Simms. After serving in the position for four years, Simms announced that she was moving to southern California to work as superintendent for the Walnut Valley Unified School District.

The School Board immediately selected Gary Plano, associate superintendent of instructional services, to take over as interim until a permanent superintendent could be found.

“Gary will do an excellent job,” Simms said at the time. “I have all the confidence in him.”

Plano, who holds a doctorate in education from Seton Hall University, had two years of experience with the district upon being elected to the post. Since Oct. 1, when Simms passed on her duties to Plano, the educator has continued smoothly where Simms left off. Just this month, the School Board announced plans to begin interviewing for a permanent superintendent. Plano is one of the top contenders.

Once Plano accepted the position of interim superintendent, administration began a game of musical chairs: Island Park Elementary Principal Kathy Morrison took on Plano’s job as interim associate superintendent of instructional services, and Dr. Nancy Loorem, who had worked for the Bellevue School District for 23 years, became interim Island Park Principal. Loorem included, there are now five interim positions being held within the MISD: Pat Blix serves as interim principal of West Mercer; Sharon Gillipsie, former principal of Islander Middle School, is now interim director of testing and evaluation; Morrison is interim associate superintendent; and Plano is interim superintendent.

There was also a change of hats at the union level: Former MIEA president, Mary Lindquist, was elected to head the Washington Education Association and officially began the job on July 1. Back on the Island, social studies teacher Mike Radow was elected to uphold Lindquist’s former responsibilities as MIEA president.

“As the new president, I am committed to listening to all voices with an open mind and encouraging kind and courageous communication,” Radow said after accepting the position.

Lindquist has already seen growth at the state-level, namely the success of Proposition 4204, which eliminated Washington’s 60 percent approval requirement for school levies, replacing it with a 50 percent plus-one simple majority vote. The constitutional amendment was not necessarily crucial for Mercer Island, which traditionally has seen strong voter support for school levies, but will greatly help Washington’s less affluent communities, Lindquist pointed out. Island voters supported 4204 by two-to-one, or 66 to 33 percent. The amendment was narrowly approved statewide, 50 to 49 percent.

In November, Mercer Island voters also supported their School Board candidates. This year’s election, however, was much quieter than previous terms as all three candidates were running unopposed. School Board incumbents Pat Braman (Pos. 1) and Lisa Strauch Eggers (Pos. 3) both ran for a second term, while newcomer Janet Frohnmayer ran for Position 5, replacing Leslie Ferrell, board president.

“We are actually in a position of such strength that we can think ahead. People look to districts like ours to be leaders,” Frohnmayer told The Reporter. And with the difficult task of overseeing the PEAK development agreement - amidst loud protest from much of the community - the School Board used their leadership skills to the fullest. After a years-long debate over PEAK, which was especially unpopular with North Mercer neighbors, the School Board boldly approved the draft lease and joint-use agreement on Aug. 23. The meeting was the year’s largest. Nearly 60 members of the community attended, half of whom voiced their opposition to the planned development.

But PEAK was not the School Board’s only contentious issue. Their October announcement that it had agreed with the MIEA to replace early-release Mondays with late-start Wednesdays for all Island schools sent a wave of indignation through the community. The change, which was unforeseen by many, was based on studies that adolescents benefited from more sleep. Elementary school parents and teachers, however, were quick to point out that the schedule change posed a significant problem for morning transportation, childcare and other issues. Not to mention conflicting surveys that show young children are more attentive early during the school day.

In response to community anxiety, the School Board posted a Late Start Impact Survey online. The results were clear: the majority of parents and students (approximately 78 percent and 75 percent, respectively) wanted to stick with an early-release Monday schedule. So during their Dec. 13 meeting, the board unanimously agreed to re-open negotiations with the MIEA on the schedule change.

As for 2008, the School Board is already knee-deep in work: finding a permanent superintendent by their self-established March deadline; designing a new “Big Idea” for the district alongside its new sub-committee, the MI Schools Foundation; determining budget expenditure for the upcoming capital facilities levy (set for the polls in March); and walking MIHS teachers and coaches through a complicated Title IX improvement plan. It will be a big year, but the School Board is up for the challenge.

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