A San Diego Serenade, AASA Style

In an era when criticism of public education is constantly spewing from all corners of the nation, my message to the more than 3,400 school system leaders last week at the 2020 AASA National Conference on Education was simple: American education today is the best it has ever been.

Whether or not you were able to join us in San Diego, let me thank you for your hard work to make that possible.

This year, U.S. News & World Report ranks America No. 1 in the world in education. What’s more, high school graduation rates are higher today than ever before. According to the National Assessment Governing Board, student achievement for every major ethnic group is greater now than it was in the 1970s. The percentage of high school dropouts among 16-through-24-year-olds is lower today than a generation ago.

Despite these high marks, there is no time to rest on our laurels. No one can argue that a lot of work needs to be done to equalize academic outcomes among ALL students from ALL zip codes.

Sadly, more than 1.3 million U.S. public school students were homeless in 2017. Our policy leaders must address the high levels of poverty and meager support for impoverished families. We, as a nation, must add more public dollars into the mix if we’re serious about creating a quality education for all. Today, the U.S. ranks at the bottom in that category.

(Click here to view the slides I referred to during my welcoming remarks during the Feb. 13 opening general session at the conference.)

Switching gears, let me congratulate Gustavo Balderas, superintendent of Oregon’s Eugene School District, for being named the 2020 National Superintendent of the Year®. “This is a ‘we award,’ not a ‘me award,’” he told the audience following our announcement, as he paid tribute to the Eugene community, including his board and administrative team. I thank AIG Retirement Services and First Student for co-sponsoring the National Superintendent of the Year® program.

At a time when it’s absolutely critical to bring more women into the field of education administration, let me also congratulate the outstanding female educators recognized in our 2020 Women in School Leadership Awards. Honorees included Susan Enfield, superintendent, Highline Public (Wash.) Schools (superintendent category); Shelly Reggiani, executive director, equity and instruction, North Clackamas (Ore.) Schools (central office/principal category); and Lesley Bruinton, public relations coordinator, Tuscaloosa (Ala.) City Schools (school-based category). We thank Horace Mann for sponsoring our Women in School Leadership Awards program.

We’ve had many more award presentations and a host of honorees. I encourage you to learn all about them by accessing our conference e-newsletter, Conference Daily Online

I also thank our three general session keynote speakers. They included David Brooks, op-ed columnist with The New York Times, Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO, Learning Policy Institute; and Mawi Asgedom, founder, Mawi Learning and strategic advisor of social and emotional learning, ACT.

From start to finish, the synergy in San Diego throughout our conference was absolutely outstanding. As I went from room to room and from session to session at the San Diego Convention Center, I saw scores of champions for children—outstanding superintendents who are working tirelessly to build dynamic learning environments on behalf of the students they serve.

I’m pleased to see that many of these superintendents and other administrators are learning and sharing go-to strategies and winning ideas through AASA’s Leadership Network. The network is committed to developing school system leaders in order to transform our schools so that each child has access to equitable, rigorous and relevant educational opportunities.

This year, more than 2,000 participants are engaged in 35 different programs designed to prepare our aspiring leaders and certify our current leaders to create a pipeline to the superintendency. These initiatives are bolstering a transformational movement through the implementation of such issues as personalized learning, Redefining Ready!, social and emotional learning, digital learning, early learning, youth apprenticeship and much more.

It was a pleasure to see firsthand the scores of superintendents engaged in activity as much as two and three days prior to the official start of the conference, which has become commonplace in the last few years. Gone are the days when our conference was just a three-day meeting.

I hope you had a chance to stop by our sixth annual Social Media Lounge. Breakout sessions at the lounge covered such hot topics as social media during school emergencies and implementing social media to support a school district’s mission. Meanwhile, our conference hashtag—#NCE2020—generated a whopping 30 million impressions during a four-day period. I invite you to join the conversation if you hadn’t already.

Once again, thank you for joining us in San Diego. I look forward to seeing you at our 2021 National Conference on Education in New Orleans!

Daniel A. Domenech
Executive Director
AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Celebrating Public Education in San Diego

Our country soon kicks off a weeklong celebration on behalf of the more than 50 million students who are learning and growing in our nation’s public schools.

Throughout Public Schools Week 2020 (Feb. 24-28), school systems large and small will showcase the good news happening inside their classrooms. This annual recognition highlights the critical role public education plays in shaping our nation’s  future and underscores why it serves as the bedrock of our democracy.

Considering that nine out of 10 children attend public schools, there is no better time than now to speak out for our young learners.

This celebration will get a jump-start when hundreds of superintendents—the CEOs of our public school districts and America’s ambassadors of great learning—arrive in San Diego for the 2020 National Conference on Education (Feb. 13-15), hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Year in, year out, this annual gathering attracts some of the country’s foremost education thought leaders addressing the needs of every child, every day.

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Meeting the Social Emotional Needs of Our Students

My education career started as a 6th grade teacher in New York City, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. Both areas were noted for students from low income minority and immigrant families. Today we would refer to them as Title I schools.

I quickly perceived that my students were not coming to school ready to learn. They were distracted, lacked discipline and were not motivated. Many came to school hungry, sick and preoccupied with issues at home. I had the advantage of being a fluent Spanish speaker and young. Many of the students gravitated towards me as they felt that I was one of them.

Those were the days that preceded the No Child Left Behind era of accountability based on student test scores. My students were tested but the standardized test scores were unavailable for at least two years. By then most of the students were gone. Also, my principal was happy to have an adult in each classroom. Teacher turn-over was a major factor.

The situation was there that empowered me to take a step back from academics and focus on the needs of the students.

The Cambria Heights school I taught in was only two blocks away from the home I lived in with my parents. I began walking home for lunch and taking four or five students with me. My mother would make them sandwiches and afterwards we would shoot some hoops in the driveway.

Not a doable situation today.

The result was that I developed a rapport with my students so that they responded to the dignity I showed them with respect towards me. I quickly realized that they were willing to learn from me, that I could teach them and that my positive reaction to their improved performance in itself became a reward for them.

Today we refer to this process as social emotional learning. By addressing the needs of their students teachers earn their respect and conversely the students are more willing to learn. Fifty-two years after I started teaching, my daughter is also a sixth grade teacher working with a student population very similar to the students I taught. In conversations with her she shares with me her adventures in the classroom. Although she does not have the freedom I enjoyed, she treats her students with dignity and they in turn return her efforts with their respect. She has already won the accolades of her administrators by obtaining test scores that would not be expected for her students. Students that are not in her class gravitate towards her because her students talk to their friends.

I smile as she shares her stories with me. She shows me the notes she receives from her students showing great appreciation for what she does for them. I am incredibly proud of her and in my conceit I say that she takes after her dad.

I hope that American education has turned the corner and we are more concerned about the needs of our students than we are about their test scores. Suicide rates and drug usage is rampant. Students are being shot in their classrooms. Students are sick and hungry because we are denying them food and medical services. If we take care of them their scores will take care of themselves.

A Visit to the Rabat American School

Our last school visit in Morocco took us to the Rabat American School. Principal Sean Goudie was a most welcoming and gracious host. The school is brand new and located in a spacious campus by the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. They accommodate 450 pre-k to 12th grade students who come from 44 different countries. The majority, however, are American and Moroccan.

The AASA International Delegation with Rabat American School Principal Sean Goudie.
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Equity: A ‘Work in Progress’

This year’s AASA International Seminar is special. The delegation includes current AASA President Deb Kerr, President-elect Kristi Sandvik and Past-presidents Pat Neudecker, Amy Sichel and Gail Pletnick.

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech is in Morocco with five AASA Presidents. From left to right, Pat Neudecker, Amy Sichel, Kristi Sandvik, Deb Kerr and Gail Pletnick.
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Next Stop for the AASA International Delegation: Kchait Primary School

The Berberes are the oldest inhabitants of Morocco. Their language, along with Arabic, is the official language of the country.

We visited the Kchait Primary School in the outskirts of Ait-Ben-Haddou. We traveled across the High Atlas Mountains, the highest point in Morocco, to get there.

The AASA International Delegation at the Kchait Primary school in Morocco.
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We’re not in Kansas Anymore

Every year at this time, the AASA International Seminar takes superintendents and other interested parties to other parts of the world. The intent is to learn about the educational systems and cultures in the places we visit. These trips never fail to make an impression on the participants.

This year’s trip to Morocco is no exception. It’s an hour bus ride through arid, desolate land to our first school visit to a tribal school in the remote hills outside of Marrakech. A brown landscape is sprinkled with the occasional green of scrub vegetation.

We learn from our guide that the school is very excited about our visit and that they have been preparing for it for days. This will not be a typical school visit. We are in a remote area that is home to one of the many isolated tribes that have occupied the territory for hundreds of years.

AASA President Deb Kerr smiles for a selfie with school students.
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A Special Kind of Love for Children in Morocco

This year, the AASA International Seminar takes us to Morocco. The education system here provides free schooling that includes six years of a primary education, three years of middle and intermediate schooling and three years of secondary. School attendance is compulsory up to the age of 13. The system focuses on erasing illiteracy and the languages of instruction are Arabic and French. Pre-primary programs are also available to children of ages 4-6.

Students in class at Ecole Lhadchat, a tribal school outside the city of Merrakech.

This year’s  Delegation includes 22 participants. AASA President Deb Kerr and AASA President-elect Kristi Sandvik are part of the group along with three AASA Past-Presidents. Our first school visit was to the Ecole Lhadchat, a tribal school outside the city of Merrakech. It is a school of 110 students at the primary level. The school operates a daily split session with half of them attending in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

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Brown Deer Falcon Takes Helm as AASA President

On behalf of the AASA, let me congratulate Deb Kerr, who was sworn in earlier this month in Washington, D.C. as the 2019-20 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. A bona fide champion for children, the superintendent of The School District of Brown Deer in Brown Deer, Wis., brings a special dedication and commitment to her new role.

The first female superintendent to serve in that role at Brown Deer Schools, her district lies in the suburbs of Milwaukee with more than 1,600 students. Three out of every four are students of color and nearly half are living in poverty.

Deborah L. Kerr, superintendent, School District of Brown Deer, Wis., being sworn in on July 9, as the 2019-20 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
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Economic Reconsideration of the College Track

By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, June 2019

I RECENTLY HAD the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, Poland, where I gave a presentation titled “It’s Just Not About a College Degree” at the Council of Eastern European Schools Association. This is hardly a revolutionary idea to our colleagues abroad where apprenticeship programs have flourished for hundreds of years and where typically, from the 6th grade on, students either enter the “gymnasium,” or academic program, or follow a vocational track.

Those students on the academic track are the ones who in all probability will attend and graduate from a university while the students on the vocational track will learn a skill in an apprenticeship program coupled with schoolwork that will lead to certification and employment in a trade.

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