Defining the school district"s goals - Meetings held to determine role of the School Board

By Mary L. Grady

Nearly 100 people attended a community workshop last Wednesday evening to help the Mercer Island School Board better define its job in leading the school district. At several meetings scheduled for the next few months, the board is seeking input from the community, as well as everyone from bus drivers to teachers to students, on what they want the schools on the Island to accomplish.

Attendees broke into groups to review draft policies on district and student performance. The discussions were lively.

In one group, eight people tossed about ideas that included: Working more closely with the growing number of private academies that offer course credit, making sure that average students are not left out and encouraging more integration with the community through service projects.

Members such as Lowell Ricklefs, Sue Reichert and Peter Bang-Knudsen spoke about what approach and what outcomes they wish to see for their children. They discussed their views of what priorities should be for academics versus personal development and citizenship. They talked about what makes people successful adults. They are aware of the constraints the school district faces.

The topic of offering foreign language for elementary students was used as a pertinent example.

``There are only so many dollars,'' Reichert said. ``And for the district, it has to be a matter of priority -- certain subjects get higher priority.

Ricklefs wants to make sure that his children and others have what they need to be successful in life and work. Others in his group agreed. Bang-Knudsen wants students to be taught how to work together and supported ways to integrate lessons with skills for the future. Others said they hoped that learning can be structured to help students learn to work together cooperatively pointing out that the ability to work with others is key to being successful.

The discussion turned to mentors, modeling values and good behavior and teaching students how to ``compete appropriately.'' But Nikki Niemisto said she wants the district to keep the focus on academics and leave the emphasis on values to families. Niemisto and others, felt the district needs data through national tests to compare Island student performance to national standards.

The School Board has been working for several months on adopting a new governance policy after it determined after the last election that they needed to change the way they did business. It narrows the focus of the board to direct district resources to what its constituency wants to accomplish.

The concept makes more sense to look at it in corporate terms.

The School Board is entrusted by voters to run the school district. It is responsible for ensuring the public gets a return on its investment -- and a good return for their tax dollars. But instead of looking for improved earnings or market share, the community is seeking educated and well-adjusted students from the school district.

Once the board can ascertain what outcomes or ``ends'' stakeholders wish to see in students graduating from Island schools, it can better prioritize and direct the use of resources.

But what do the stakeholders think makes up a good education or a well-educated student? How is it measured? Is it good grades or a favorable comparison to other high achieving schools? Is it a well adjusted young person who can contribute to the community or one equipped to pursue a higher education or vocation.

One parent summed it up.

``What we need is balance for students,'' said Ricklefs. ``A balance in joy for academics with the needs for performance.''

School Board members were pleased with the turnout and the input, and that the policies they drafted seemed fairly close to what they heard.

``I am glad our overall structure of `ends' comported with the community's views,'' said Board member Lisa Strauch Egger. ``I was pleased to get some fresh perspective and wonderful insights.''

``There appeared to be a full range of opinion represented and lots of great feedback,'' said board member John Fry. ``I have found it very gratifying that the input from community, students and staff has validated our initial effort to capture the Island community's broad educational values in the ends policies. While the board may make some modifications as a result of the input we have received, it appears that our first attempt landed pretty close.

The board plans to meet with members of the community on a regular basis throughout the year.

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