School district says it’s time to plan for an education of the future

Tomorrow evening an internationally known technology expert will visit Vashon to give a talk on preparing students for the job market of the future.

School officials hope the lecture by Mark Anderson, a consultant who has become known for predicting trends in technology and the economy, will get islanders thinking not only about what skills students will need to succeed in a changing world, but about how the Vashon School District might grow to better meet students’ needs.

The event, slated for 7 p.m. tomorrow at McMurray Middle School, will kick off what Superintendent Michael Soltman hopes will be a community-wide conversation culminating in a new strategic plan for the school district.

“This conversation is a catalyst to a discussion that will go beyond technology,” Soltman said. “What do we need to do to be as successful as we can for student achievement?”

Soltman, who joined the Vashon School District in 2009, said he believes Vashon’s schools have made great strides in the past several years. The district has met or is well on its way to meeting goals outlined in its 2007 strategic plan, including improving and aligning curriculum, boosting professional development for faculty and making capital upgrades to the campus. The district’s finances are in better order today, Soltman said, and the community has stepped up to subsidize school programs where state funding has fallen short.

“I think the community has greater confidence in the schools than it ever has,” Soltman said.

But as pleased as he is with the district’s successes, Soltman says there’s still room for growth. For instance, 10 to 15 percent of students drop out before graduation, while some high-achieving young people aren’t being challenged. And, along with national trends, thousands of technology-related jobs around the region go unfilled while many high school and college graduates struggle to find employment.

“We’ve been remarkably successful, but we’ve experienced as much success as we’re going to get,” Soltman said. “We’ll need to invent together, in a collaborative way that hasn’t been possible before, what the school district will offer, what the course of study and the course of experience will be for kids in order to get to the next level of success.”

To that end, Soltman said, the district is launching a $20,000 to $25,000 strategic planning process that will include multiple community forums, surveys of students, parents, faculty and staff and the creation of a strategic planning team that will include a cross-section of faculty, administrators, parents and community members.

The team will base its work and discussion largely on community feedback.

“What things are working really well and what additional things should we put in place so our kids can really thrive?” Soltman said.

This spring, the team will be charged with writing a new district mission statement and crafting several measurable strategies to meet that mission.

“Getting a direction and commitment for the next five to seven years is a powerful thing to do,” Soltman said.

To help guide the process, Soltman has hired islander Larry Huggins, an experienced facilitator who specializes in organizational development, to work with the district on communication and problem-solving.

While Soltman has praise for school faculty, administrators, board members and families, he also said that there has sometimes been a lack of communication between parties with the same goals of student success. Communication breakdowns can result in conflict, and to best plan for the future, Soltman said he wants to open doors of communication that haven’t been there before.

Indeed, the administration and teachers have sometimes locked horns. Last year, Soltman faced considerable discontent when a popular, retiring high school teacher charged that the administration was about to dismantle VHS’s celebrated social studies department — a misunderstanding, Soltman said at the time, that resulted from poor communication.

Huggins, who will work the district at a discounted rate of $10,000, has already done training with board members and faculty and will be on board throughout the strategic planning process.

“There are not a lot of examples of this learning community sitting down together as a learning community where those groups come together and can really have an open and safe and productive conversation,” Soltman said.

School board member Laura Wishik agreed and said she was happy with the direction Soltman was taking the district.

“We have to all come together with some openness and trust that hasn’t been there in the past,” she said.

Wishik said board members started thinking more seriously about the kind of education students need for the future as it considered what facilities would be included at the new Vashon High School building.

“Is woodworking the right skill for our students not only now, but in the near term and long term?” she asked. “How do we start prepping our students for the world as it changes so rapidly?”

The transition to the new high school building and the selection of a new high school principal make the timing ideal to reconsider the district’s mission and curriculum, Soltman said. Goals determined in the strategic planning process, he said, will undoubtedly shape what kind of candidate the district seeks to replace longtime VHS principal Susan Hanson, who recently announced her retirement at the end of this academic year.

As for tomorrow’s talk on technology, Soltman said he hopes Anderson, who is appearing for free, will get parents and faculty thinking about what the district should provide students in light of a changing world. Anderson, a San Juan Island resident who has worked for top-tier corporations and produces a newsletter on technology and the economy, also heads up Project Inkwell, an organization that creates technology standards for schools based on current market trends.

Soltman said Anderson will likely make several recommendations for the community to consider, such as the idea that each student should have a computer or computer-like device.

“I’m excited about it,” said Wishik of the planning process. “I think we’re in the perfect place to do this; we’ve got great leadership in Michael, and I think it’s going to be fun.”


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