Nine educational professionals paid Spencer Community School District a three-day visit this week. The district's administrative team and two school board members, who eagerly awaited their exit interview presentation late Thursday morning, resembled students lying in wait for peeks of final grades on their report cards.
The district's last Iowa Department of Education site visit occurred in 2006. This year's delegation included two IDE consultants, an Area Education Agency official and administrators from Ruthven-Ayrshire, Spirit Lake, Fort Dodge, Carroll, Humboldt and Harris-Lake Park.
During their visit, team members scrutinized every aspect of the district's educational program.
"We have enjoyed our time here and we've learned a lot," said Cindy Butler, an IDE consultant who facilitated the review. "People have been very open and honest with us. The hospitality, the food and everything was great. Facilities are great. There was nothing that we could ask for above and beyond what we've already received."
Based on interviews conducted and documents reviewed during their three-day stay, the site visit representatives produced a draft report framing seven characteristics of improving schools. Highlights of strengths and weaknesses identified in each of the categories were presented. These covered the areas of district vision, mission and goals; leadership; collaborative relationships; learning environment; curriculum and instruction; professional development; monitoring and accountability.
"Our plan for right now is to share part of those strengths and recommendations," Butler said. "This is still a very rough draft and I've assured the team that since this is only my second site visit I will get better at writing these statements. But, right now, they're in a very rough draft."
Under the vision, mission and goal category, district representatives were complimented for working together with school board and community members on the district's future and ensuring that students have opportunities in their future lives.
"Not only does the board possess a vision for the school district, it provides the financial resources necessary to achieve the goals. Board members and the administrative team reported that the Lighthouse Project enables them to understand and keep alive their mission and vision and provide an ongoing connection with educators and the community," the first representative read. "My recommendation for improvement to ensure continued support of Spencer's vision, mission and goals: The site visit team recommends the board continue to reflect on the data that supports recent decisions, such as grade-alike, and determine if they are making the changes necessary to ensure equity and student progress."
Spencer administrators were commended for taking part in their own professional development. In the area of leadership, the district's implementation of learning teams, Authentic Intellectual Work and Cognitively Guided Instruction components were also recognized as strengths.
"One of the recommendations we have is the school board is encouraged to continue to communicate with stakeholders and to assess the district climate through a variety of survey techniques to get input from all stakeholders -- community, business, parents and educators -- to keep them informed and involved in the decision-making," a second site visit representative said.
In collaborative relationships, Spencer's School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) was applauded for providing additional opportunities for community input.
"They are included in relevant decision-making, including district financial stability, grade-alike discussions, harassment and bullying policies, setting district goals, review of current achievement data, common core standards and new construction," another site visit representative read. "One of the recommendations under collaborative relationships: Ongoing collaboration is recommended between middle school and high school at-risk guidance with parents, students, (general education) teachers and community resources on a frequent basis to ensure that timely assistance is provided to struggling students. Currently, there are periodic data reviews of attendance, passing grades and information from (Iowa Tests of Educational Development) and the Iowa Youth Survey. These periodic reviews are focused on failure, oftentimes not necessarily prevention. It is recommended that an at-risk checklist survey and referral system be utilized so that periodic information is available to a student assistance team which would meet weekly and ensure that there are supplemental opportunities for students needing additional support. This could include students with environmental, mental health and substance abuse issues who are struggling with school performance to ensure that they will graduate."
Student engagement in Spencer's career and technical education areas was hailed as a strength in the district's learning environment.
A well-developed written curriculum cycle which includes research, professional development and resource identification was an asset identified in the area of curriculum and instruction.
"Iowa Core is integrated into the plan and several teachers mentioned the use of the (Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit) to assist with alignment to the Iowa Core," a fifth site visit representative said. " ... A recommendation for improvement: Students and the SIAC committee felt the rigor of instruction should be consistent for all students at the high school - and that there should be differentiation, but still high expectations. More opportunities for teachers to utilize differentiation and understand how to modify requirements while maintaining rigor should also be pursued."
Efforts to improve teaching and learning through better instructional practices, accomplished through teacher observations and participation, were recognized as strengths in the district's professional development.
"Paraeducators expressed a need for more formalized and scheduled professional development opportunities. They said they desire training in crisis prevention, student behavior plans and would like more time to collaborate with educators regarding expectations for students," was cited as an area in need of improvement.
A recommendation offered in the monitoring and accountability category was for district representatives to create a systematic approach for identifying needs and tracking results of services to at-risk students and potential dropouts.
"Dropout data should be analyzed to determine trends. In other words, students who are in your high school versus students who are in the alternative program, what supports do these students need to be successful? And, what needs to be done to keep these kids in school," a final site visit representative asked.
The exit interview report took less than 25 minutes to present. District officials were told a final report will arrive within the next 45 days. In addition to more identified strengths and weaknesses, the report will include perceived noncompliance issues. Butler shared these privately with Superintendent Terry Hemann following the Thursday morning public presentation.
"The main reason for that delay is some of the issues need to be researched by her to determine if they actually are noncompliance issues or not," Hemann explained. "The noncompliance list is short and are all items that we will take action to remedy once the report becomes final. Overall, the site-visit information reflected very positively on the district. There were many positive comments regarding the district and also several recommendations that will be helpful as we move forward as a school district."