Student Engagement At Its Best

I recently had the opportunity to visit three high schools in High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Dave Schuler is the Superintendent there and he is about to finish his term as President of AASA The School Superintendents Association. During his tenure at AASA David has been a staunch advocate for redefining how we determine that students are ready for college, career, and life. He correctly postulates that a standardized test score does not always provide an accurate picture of a student’s potential nor an accurate reflection of a student’s readiness post high school. Consequently, he has developed multiple indicators that will assess a student’s readiness for college, career, and life.(

Practicing what he preaches, students in District 214 are offered a multitude of pathways, sixteen to be exact, and a focus on making high school relevant to all students. Beginning with the freshman year the students undergo a truly personalized experience as they are exposed to a multitude of opportunities and pathways and can select what interests them most, thus guaranteeing a level of student engagement in their own learning that we seldom see in schools. In a visit to Northwest Community Hospital I walked the hallways with a dozen students interested in the health sciences doing a semester internship and given access to the hospital’s facilities and permission to observe health care personnel performing  clinical and surgical procedures. All of the students in the program had garnered college acceptance in institutions where they would continue to pursue careers in nursing, research and medical practice.

At Buffalo Grove High School we were treated to a presentation on entrepreneurship by the “Hoodie Hoop” team, a group of four students that came up with an idea to more efficiently thread the cord that inevitably slips out of a hoodie, shorts or sweatpants. After researching the idea, coming up with a business plan and manufacturing the product, the Hoodie Hoop now sells for $7.99 a piece at

At Rolling Meadows High School we participated in the Educator Prep launch. Starting in their freshman year, students interested in the teaching profession are provided with an orientation to careers in education and are given opportunities to observe and teach in a variety of classroom environments and gain early college credit in courses related to education. As a matter of fact, all students in District 214 have the opportunity to earn college credits or gain certification in a number of areas.

In our visit to Wheeling High School Dr. Lazaro Lopez, Associate Superintendent, shared with us the need for high schools to be relevant and provide a career pathway informed by workplace learning experiences. The district has successfully engaged the business community and the institutions of higher education in the area and can thus provide the experiences while still in high school that most students would not have until after college graduation. Learn more about their programs at


Public Schools: America’s Promise

My good friend Lew Finch, Executive Director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa, sent me this wonderful piece he wrote that I believe applies to states around America:

Other than parenting, and perhaps the ministry, serving in America’s public schools is the highest calling to which a person can aspire. It is the public school system that most accurately reflects the Promise of America, where everyone is welcome, regardless of economic status, religious conviction, gender, race, political persuasion, language of origin, or mental or physical challenge.

Iowa public schools continue to perform well notwithstanding the continued failure of a segment of the General Assembly and Governor to support adequate, reliable and equitable funding of the system. As a result of the lack of support, public schools across the state are forced to consider staff reductions, increased class-sizes, and a reduction of programs and services for students.

It comes at a time when our public schools are serving the most diverse student population than at any time in the history of the state. This is accompanied by higher expectations and the ever increasing demands of our complex society. While diversity contributes to a rich educational environment, it also elevates challenges and consequently, costs. Even our best schools are simply not good enough, despite graduating over 90% of Iowa students statewide. We still have more to accomplish. And these changes and challenges are confronting districts of all sizes.

When confronted about why the failure to adequately and equitably fund Iowa public schools, those responsible have a litany of responses including:” school districts need to be more efficient”; “you can’t simply throw money at the problem”; “there is insufficient state revenue”; “public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector”; “increased revenue will simply be given to teachers”. Let’s take a look at these responses.

“Public school districts need to be more efficient.” Any independent audit and analysis of public school management of resources will clearly demonstrate that the typical system is extremely efficient. As a result of such an audit and analysis in one of our districts by an independent task force, in a final report the opening statement of the task force chairperson was, “There is no wanton waste in this school district.” Many private companies could take a lesson in efficient management from the public school in their community.

“You can’t simply throw money at the problem.” I’ve served in public education for over fifty five years. Just once I’d like to see the decision makers “throw money” at the system. All financial resources directed to public schools will most likely be wisely and efficiently used on behalf of children. Historical endeavors, such as landing a man on the moon, have proven that large sums of money directed toward a specific public good, can accomplish what might previously been thought of as impossible. Let’s give it a try just once, i.e., “throw money at us”.

“There is insufficient state revenue.” This is the current favorite of those opposed to adequate, reliable and equitable funding. Guess what. The lack of revenue is self-imposed. A certain segment of the Iowa General Assembly and the Governor have determined that tax cuts for friends and supporters is a higher priority than investing in Iowa public schools. Don’t be fooled by the “insufficient revenue” excuse. It’s a question of values. The message to Iowans is clear, even our early pioneers knew better than to eat their seed corn! Continuing on the course of underfunding public schools is tantamount to mortgaging the future. This is unconscionable and must stop.

“Public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector.” How often have we heard this one? In an interview, the CEO of a very large manufacturing corporation was asked how they were able to produce a product of such high quality. The response was, “We start with the very best raw material, and if we get less than the best raw material, we throw it out and start over.” Thankfully, we in public schools do not select our raw material or “throw out” the less than perfect. Every child that enters the system is welcome, nurtured and entitled.

“Increased revenue will simply be given to teachers.” This comment often comes from some of the same people who admonish us to attract and retain the very best teachers and administrators possible. In all public schools, nearly eighty percent of the budget is invested in personnel because that is how we deliver the critical services. You can be assured very few people choose a profession in public school education to become rich. Too little invested in staff deprives students of meaningful attention and encourages the private sector to recruit low-paid talented teachers and administrators, scientists, mathematicians, and literate communicators from our ranks. Of course a good portion of revenue will, as it should, be invested in the employment and development of personnel.

Public schools continue to be America’s Promise. However, due to continued lack of adequate, reliable, and equitable funding coupled with unrealistic mandates, Iowa’s public schools, the very epitome of the American dream, are in serious jeopardy. Folks, this is no time for the timid or reticent. You and I must be willing to be visible, vocal advocates. Not just for school boards, administrators, teachers or even for the school system. We must be advocates for the thousands of children who arrive in Iowa’s public schools every day, and whose future well-being depends on what we do today.
Dr. Lew Finch, Executive Director
Urban Education Network of Iowa

Graduation Rates

A new Grad Nation Report is out that praises an all time high graduation rate of 82.3% while warning that we still have issues that need resolution. Although the numbers of high schools with low graduation rates has been declining (ESSA defines a low graduation rate high school as a school with one hundred or more students and a graduation rate of 67% or less) recent data shows that 52% of low graduation rate high schools are either charter, virtual or alternative schools.

Many of our superintendents have raised concerns over ineffective non-district managed charters and virtual schools that siphon both students and public dollars away from the public school systems only to have those students return to the system years later in need of significant remediation. The 52% statistic mentioned above is proof of that. In many states policy makers are persuaded by private entities to pass enabling legislature that allows parents to send their children to charter schools and virtual schools and have the tuition paid by public dollars coming from the school district’s tax base. Institutions that receive public dollars must be held to the same accountability measures as our public schools and when they fail they must be subject to the same penalties as the public institutions.

The Grad Nation Report also mentions differences in the graduation rates when additional years beyond the four come into play. At five years the graduation rate is 3% higher and at six years it goes up 4%. You have to wonder why we continue to be so enamored with framing achievement within rigid time frames, discounting the fact that we know that all children do not learn at the same rate at the same time. Why is it so important that a student graduate high school in four years as opposed to five or six, or three or two? There is an increasing number of students today that are graduating high school with an Associates Degree or a full year of college credits. Why must we insist on restricting students to unrealistic time frames?  Should not the goal be to have students graduate, period?

An increasing number of school systems are moving to personalize education and allow students to learn at their own pace, making achievement the goal, not time on task. Let’s begin to celebrate our students’ achievements regardless of how long it takes for them to get there.