Moving Ahead on District of Innovation
Moving Ahead on District of Innovation
Kuhrt: “We want our district to be great”
Shannon Cunningham, assistant principal at Barwise Middle School, made the initial presentation about District of Innovation perameters at the November 1 Public Hearing, held in the Education Center's board room at 6 p.m.
The District of Innovation designation appeals to Superintendent Mike Kuhrt and WFISD board members, so Tuesday’s decision to move ahead and investigate it further was an easy one.
The Texas legislature created the District of Innovation category for school districts that want to streamline and customize various parts of the education process, as many charter schools do.
Board members decided to move ahead with the next step in becoming a District of Innovation – to create a committee -- in a unanimous 5-0 vote in a special session Nov. 1. The meeting, held at the Education Center board room, engaged a full house of interested community members.
The vote followed an introductory public hearing that began at 6 p.m. to nearly a standing-room-only crowd.
Barwise Middle School assistant principal Shannon Cunningham outlined the basic facts in the project:
- WFISD is eligible to pursue a District of Innovation designation, since its Texas Education Agency accountability rating is “Met Standard.”
- Two weeks ago, the WFISD school board approved a public hearing, which was tonight’s event.
- If the board considered developing a plan, it would have 30 days to decide to pursue it or not.
- An appointed committee may consider a variety of elements in its District of Innovation plan, including details of curriculum, methods, campus governance, parental involvement, modification to start dates, and accountability assessment measures. It can also include changes to education certifications, teacher contracts, and the length of a school day.
- Any plan created must be posted on the website for 30 days, and notification (only) of the plan must be sent to the Commissioner of Education.
- Any plan must be passed by a two-thirds vote of the local school board.
So far, 37 districts of the more than 1,000 school districts in Texas have already created and adopted District of Innovation plans – starting with El Paso and including Spring Branch ISD. Ms. Cunningham said WFISD representatives had reviewed all 37 plans.
Three community viewpoints
Three community members spoke to board members in the public forum.
- Jefferson teacher Lisa Martischnig warned that adopting any policy that negated the state-mandated limit of 22 students per K-4 classroom would be detrimental to students and teachers. Teachers must meet the needs of all students, she said, and that is already difficult enough when any one classroom includes students who are English language learners, economically disadvantaged, ADD, ADHD, and slowed by other learning challenges. “Ask the 33 teachers who have more than 22 now,” she said, because the district recently sought waivers to make larger class sizes. “How is poor morale innovative?” she asked. “Do not buy into a fancy name.”
- McNiel Middle School teacher Michael Taynor, whose three children have been in WFISD schools for the past 24 years, said he hoped the District was seeking the District of Innovation designation purely to meet student needs and excel as a District. He urged the committee to study data, as teachers do, to find out if District of Innovation changes in other districts were closing the achievement gaps and bolstering achievement.
- Retired WFISD chemistry teacher Shelby Patrick reminded board members that a District of Innovation plan submitted to the state “must be very specific.” He worried that board members might choose to untether teachers from state-mandated perks, such as duty-free lunches, 45-minute planning periods, and 22-to-1 class sizes. He also reminded board members of specific requirements that its committee must meet.
During the follow-up board special session, Superintendent Mike Kuhrt addressed the audience, stressing vigorously that the district’s intent was to waive some state requirements, such as school start dates, that administration believed was holding it back.
“We personally don’t care what the plan says as long as we get the opportunity to improve,” he said. “Our goal is to meet and exceed the needs of students in everything we do.”
Don’t believe the rumors
He was amazed, he said, that rumors were circulating that the board would vote to take away teachers’ duty-free lunch periods.
“No one in WFISD ever said that, or ever thought about that,” he said. “Why would we take away a duty-free lunch? That’s kinda a given.”
Even if he wanted that, he won’t be on the committee and won’t attend committee meetings, and wouldn’t be able to get something like that past the 15 teachers who will serve on the committee, he said.
He forcefully denied any intent to do away with teachers’ 45-minute planning periods either. “I never, ever, ever said take that away,” he said. “That was never part of the conversation.”
“Not one thing said, written down, or decided”
At the moment, there is “not one thing said, written down or decided upon” regarding the District of Innovation plan, he said. “Twenty-five people have agreed to serve. We will turn it over to them, should the board so choose,” which it did in the 5-0 vote.
Any plan created will be posted for 30 days, he said. It is too early to worry about the community not yet knowing about the plan.
Mr. Kuhrt recommended that the board accept all 25 volunteers for the committee, a group that included 12 teachers, one counselor and community members from a variety of industries.