A year under its belt - Despite differences, School Board working together to accomplish district business

By Mary L. Grady

In 2004, the Mercer Island School District weathered some of the worst days that anyone could imagine -- the kidnapping of an elementary school student from her bus stop and a three-day shutdown of Islander Middle School last spring after a student brought a weapon to the school.

Two principals at the high school resigned. A teacher wrote a book detailing encounters with demanding parents and unyielding administrators. The arrests of several students for drug trafficking just before graduation last June was another blow.

But much was done. There is a long list of items that have been accomplished by the Mercer Island School Board during 2004. It appears that at long last, the district is moving on from the conflicts of the recent past.

The district levies passed. New curriculum and programs were implemented. The board approved the cross-grade advisory program called Bridges for the high school. The board voted to adopt a new mathematics curriculum, an academically gifted program and the new Autism Spectrum program at Lakeridge Elementary. Board members and administrators held listening sessions at schools throughout the year to present the new programs and answer questions. The board is working on establishing governance principals for itself to define how it operates to accomplish the goals set for the school district.

Behind the scenes, district teachers and administrators worked to implement the policies and directives of the School Board. A new bullying and discipline policy was approved, an updated technology plan was completed, a new Web site set up and an expanded communication system for parents implemented. Administrative staff and teachers continue to evaluate and refine curriculum. The district continues to research and evaluate data from multiple tests and surveys to measure everything from student learning to school climate. The district has also embarked on a new five-year strategic planning cycle.

However, these initiatives and others, such as work to define new graduation requirements and a senior project, are just two examples of extra work expected from district teachers. The Mercer Island Education Association and the School Board agreed last spring to reduce and better define the work load for teachers.

The board also joined the special education lawsuit brought by 10 school districts against the Legislature to force lawmakers to adequately fund special education services.

There are, however, a couple of important pieces left undone. The district has yet to find permanent replacements for two principals at the high school. The advisory program at the high school will need further review and refinement. The resolution and controversy surrounding access to advanced placement and honors classes has been deferred.

Perhaps a more subtle, but important, accomplishment is how well the board seems to work together since the community elected three new members in 2003. During the election, many called for the board to revamp how it conducts its business. The work began in earnest last March when the board and Simms invited community members, parents and district employees to a conflict resolution seminar.

``I understand and respect the relationship challenges that were facing the School Board members when I was hired at the beginning of the 2003-04 school year. Serving on a School Board can be difficult under the best of circumstances,'' Simms said.

``The board determined shortly after the election that they wanted to work toward a climate of mutual respect and shared responsibility among themselves and with our staff, students and community,'' she continued. ``They have stayed this course even when individual board members have strongly held differing beliefs. Their respectful relationship with each other has made a significant difference in the work occurring in our school district.''

``Civil discourse does not mean that we all agree on all issues,'' said board member Lisa Strauch Eggers. ``Rather, we share a respect for one another and for the process of governing civilly. We listen to each other. We are stronger because of our differences. Most vital is the common goal we share -- to provide a wonderful education for our community's children and to care for everyone involved in that education.''

The board and Simms have continued that work in the individual schools to reach out to parents and teachers and set mutual guidelines of respect and communications. In particular with the district's emphasis on helping students establish healthy relationships, the board is determined to set an example.

Board member John Fry said that the board keeps their individual beliefs in perspective.

``This board has been much more successful in working together, in large part I believe, because each member understood the importance and benefit to the district of doing so,'' he said. ``This is not to say that there is not a full range of opinions and perceptions among the board members and we often find ourselves disagreeing on issues both large and small. It is our ability and willingness to turn this energy into an productive outcome, recognizing the compromise that this sometimes requires that sets this board apart from the previous board and has produced the modest success that we have enjoyed to date.''

Former School Board member Ken Glass agrees: ``I'm delighted to see the School Board working so well together in the interest of students, teachers and parents.''

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