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What's your biggest challenge for 2008-09?

Budget cuts, dropouts, and Facebook mania: Administrators tell what hurdles they anticipate and how they plan to clear them.

By Lucinda Blumenfeld | August 2008

Abelardo Saavedra

• Superintendent, Houston Independent School District
Challenge: Tackling the nationwide dropout crisis
Response: “This crisis affects HISD as it does other urban school districts, and one of our greatest challenges has been to reverse the trend. Not only do we want to graduate more students, we want to graduate them ready for college and careers. We hope to build upon our successful Reach Out to Dropouts campaign, which includes sending administrators and community volunteers door to door to impress upon students who have dropped out that a high school diploma will greatly enhance their lives. With more students than ever passing college-level courses and tests while still in high school, HISD is making strong progress in its push to create a ‘college-bound culture’ in every school and neighborhood.”

Challenge: Coping with food and fuel prices
Response: “Just like businesses and families across the country, we too must budget creatively and conservatively. We want to avoid exacerbating increased costs for our students and their families, many of whom are already struggling financially.”

Alvin Wilbanks

• Superintendent, Gwinnett County (GA) Public Schools
Challenge: Confronting the expectation of “educating all and educating well”
Response: “Over the past 25 years, numerous reform efforts have been aimed at schools. The change, however, must happen at the district level. A districtwide improvement strategy is necessary, one which manages the school district for performance and implements a results-focused evaluation system, based on standardized assessments and staff and parental input. More prescriptive measures must be taken that offer ways to deliver support to schools. Schools will be given greater flexibility over staffing, budgeting, and resources based on their performance. We also plan to follow what we call a Managed Performance/Empowerment model, in which empowerment follows performance.”

Jack Dale

• Superintendent, Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools
Challenge: Fostering creativity in a standardized atmosphere
Response: “We plan to provide incentives in math, science, and technology programs for our students. With individualized learning plans, kids and families can develop their own goals and then work collectively to meet them. This strategy is currently piloting in some of our schools and will hopefully become a systemwide effort by next year.”

Challenge: Preparing kids to be global citizens
Response: “We want to work toward preparing our students for global society. The pressing question we must answer is: How do we work with education at a federal level? By forging a National Education Agenda with the new president that emphasizes arts, science, and math, schools can support and promote creativity in kids.”

Gwen Gross

• Superintendent, Irvine (CA) Unified School District
Challenge: Overcoming the budget deficit
Response: “Our most serious issue is to maintain dynamic, creative, and rigorous academic programs in the wake of the state’s massive budget deficit, which threatens to strip millions of dollars from our district. In response, we have accelerated and expanded communications to inform parents and community members about this crisis and its potential impacts. In addition to our regular newsletter, we have created an online publication that chronicles the state’s economic woes and the possible consequences for IUSD. Moreover, our Board of Education and our staff have candidly discussed the crisis at a number of meetings, and our PTA representatives, working in conjunction with a Legislative Action Committee and active student leaders, have done an incredible job of advocating against cuts at the state level.

This steady flow of information has greatly raised awareness of the state’s problem and what it means for Irvine schools. As a result, the City of Irvine recently pledged $900,000 in matching funds to preserve smaller class sizes, with the rest to be generated by our main fundraising partner, the Irvine Public Schools Foundation.

The state’s fiscal storm has challenged districts all across California, but I believe we have countered this crisis by casting a wide net of clear communication strategies to engage parents, staff, students, and the community. The result is that these stakeholders are working hand in hand with our district to advocate against state cuts and to find solutions at the local level.”

Fran Wills

• Superintendent, Briarcliff Manor (NY) School District
Challenge: Braving the Facebook generation
Response: “The entire issue of privacy for teens has become a huge concern, and educating parents about this problem is crucial. More recently, we’ve held information sessions for parents regarding the dangers of social-networking sites. We remind them that predators are lurking and teens are very vulnerable. An unsupervised computer in a child’s bedroom is not a good idea. Instead, having the computer in a family space means less likelihood for trouble.”

Challenge: Going green
Response: “One of our district initiatives last year was a No-Waste Day in celebration of Earth Day. Together, the staff, students, and members of the community raised awareness of how much waste we create in just a single day. In an effort to conserve, we gave up using disposables and brought containers for food storage instead. We used electronic correspondence and presentations in class rather than paper handouts. We made it educational and fun; during lunchtime the elementary school held a contest to see how little students could waste. There are also more serious initiatives to our plan: building vestibules to keep heat inside during the winter months and cool air in during the summer, changing lighting, and installing a more sophisticated heating system. Altering the temperature even by one degree can result in huge savings in large facilities, so we’ve turned the thermostats down to 68 and will encourage everyone to wear sweaters. We’re also reviewing traveling for field trips and athletic events to cut down on diesel usage. We will look to consolidate in any way we can.”

Herbert Fischer

• Superintendent, San Bernardino County (CA) Public Schools
Challenge: Closing the opportunity, access, and achievement gaps
Response: “There have been huge shifts in the composition of California’s student population over multiple generations. In just the last decade the number of students in San Bernardino County has increased by 23 percent. The Hispanic population has increased by 64 percent, African-American by 13, English learners by 71, and economically disadvantaged students by 31 percent. If we are to bridge the gap between this generation of diverse learners and California’s world-class academic standards, we must have the will and conviction to tackle systemic reform in public education. One of our greatest hindrances is the instability of California’s school funding.”

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