Carson Schools: Envisioning a fresh, new approach
April 14, 2012
Superintendent Richard Stokes has a simple theory when it comes to explaining the unprecedented public participation in crafting the new strategic plan for the Carson City School District.
“I think it was probably the first time the school district had asked the public what they thought,” he said. “That invitation really brought people out, when they recognized the opportunity for their input to be received.”
But the truth is, it wasn’t quite that straightforward.
Ron Swirczek ran for the Carson City School Board on the platform that the district needed to establish a vision. The heart of the vision, he urged, should be community partnerships.
When he took office in January 2011, he began pushing for the board to develop a vision statement and to involve the public in doing so. But it wasn’t always clear to his colleagues what he wanted.
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During a meeting in February of that year, trustee Barbara Myers pointed out that in other regions where such programs had been successful, the impetus came from community leaders rather than the school board.
“Do we have that support in place?” she asked. “I don’t hear a clamor from civicleaders.”
Officials argued that such partnerships were already an integral part of the school district. Associate Superintendent Susan Keema read through a lengthy list of alliances – mentors for senior projects, partners in career and technical classes, and advisers in special programs.
What Swirczek envisioned, however, was a formal system for forming those partnerships. But he wasn’t sure what that would look like.
In retrospect, he said, he takes responsibility for the misunderstandings.
“There was definitely some hesitation from board members, but I think that’s because I wasn’t explaining it in a way they understood,” he said. “It was an educational process in itself.”
Although frustrated at times, Swirczek never considered giving up.
“I knew once the members of the board understood, it would take off,” he said. “I decided if I got slowed down or stopped, I would just take another approach.”
Part of that tactic included approaching new people. Swirczek hit the streets to get his message out, talking to community groups including a manufacturers’ forum. That’s where he met mechanical engineer Ray English, an Australian who has lived and worked in Carson City for 15 years. As he listened to Swirczek’s message, it resonated with him as a businessman – and as a model airplane enthusiast.
“We realized we had a huge problem,” he said of the airplane club. “It’s all old guys in our club. We didn’t have enough young kids. We needed to get kids interested in aviation.”
And it behooved local businesses, English said. Although the manufacturers’ cooperative had a longstanding relationship with Western Nevada College, members had begun to realize they needed to work with younger students to fill the workforce.
“This is not about unemployment,” he said. “This is about not having employable people for the jobs we have.”
So although English’s own children are in their 30s, he joined the cause.
“It’s not a personal thing for me. My own kids are grown,” he said. “It’s about bettering our community.”
Swirczek’s appeal to the community worked. At the first open meeting to collect ideas for the school district’s vision, more than 70 people showed up. They were teachers, parents, business and city leaders – all ready to share their ideas.
A shape to the vision
About the same number showed up to a second meeting the following month.
During the meetings, participants were broken up into teams to list the characteristics of a high-quality district, a high-quality school and a high-quality student. They brainstormed ways the district could achieve all three.
Although the public had been invited to the table before for school district planning meetings, this was the first time they would lead the discussion.
Notes were recorded on tablets, scribbled on scraps of paper and even jotted on napkins. It was a lot of information. To keep it from becoming senseless clutter, Stokes asked Carson High School math teacher Ben Contine to act as chairman.
Contine had committed early to the process. At that February school board meeting, he pleaded with school board members to support it, as well.
“I pledge my support to this,” he told them. “We need to figure out what we want from the school district and pursue it relentlessly every day. That’s our only chance.”
He assembled a team, which analyzed the hundreds of suggestions that had been made and assigned them into categories to match emerging themes: Community partnerships, engaged families, healthy students, rigorous curriculum, and exceptional faculty and staff.
Although it could have been overwhelming, Contine said he was motivated by the participation.
“Anybody could sit down and write a brilliant plan,” he said. “What gives it life is the energy and enthusiasm of teachers, parents and business leaders all coming together. I think it’s going to make a huge difference not just because of what it says – although it is significant – but because of the energy and enthusiasm it reflects.”
No one can say for sure why the public was so willing to participate, but Contine thinks there are a few reasons. The flailing economy could have played a role, as well.
“People realized the traditional economics of funding schools was not going to sustain us,” Contine said. “To give our kids the best opportunity for success, we had to really invest ourselves into our school system.”
For each of the themes, a subcommittee was formed to create a plan. English, who served on the community partnerships committee, said he easily invested 150 hours.
The final plan was presented March 13 to the school board, which unanimously approved it.
Now that the plan has been created, it has to be put into action. Stokes said the public can be assured that will happen.
“It’s our roadmap,” he said. “It’s very comforting in today’s world of shaky budgets and uncertainty that we have the community’s support.”
He said he is considering creating a job whose chief responsibility would be coordinating a program whereby businesses and schools would collaborate, perhaps extending into after-school services and apprenticeships.
English said committee members will continue to work to ensure that the plan remains in motion.
“We have a really solid business plan and a group of dedicated people,” he said. “We’re going to give students a reason to go to school. I don’t see any reason it will fail.”
Although the vision plan was his brainchild, Swirczek gives much of the credit for the plan’s success to Contine.
“I give him 90 percent of the credit for bringing the community together,” Swirczek said. “Sometimes you get involved in committees where there’s people who suck all of the air out of the room. Ben was able to keep everyone on task.”
Contine gives the credit back to Swirczek for having the foresight and commitment to keep going until people started listening. The community, he said, is better because of it.
“When my wife and I moved here, this is the type of community we hoped we had moved to,” Contine said. “To go through this process and find it is indeed that community is great.”
Five themes were culled as most important to improving the Carson City School District:
Community Partnership: Although businesses and schools often collaborate now, the plan calls for a formal program, along with a recruiting team to involve more organizations. It also calls for job-shadowing and internships to prepare students for college or the workforce.
Engaged Parents: Parents and schools sign a contract to outline expectations of each. Annual surveys would be used to assess home and school relationships, and schools would work to be more accessible to parents.
Healthy Students: Maintaining a student’s social, emotional and physical health is a top priority for schools. A major goal set forth by the committee is to establish a campus health clinic. In addition, students will be counseled about physical fitness and healthy food choices. The committee also requested that a health lesson be used daily.
Curriculum: A portfolio will be created for each fourth-grader to set goals, and progress will be monitored throughout that child’s education. More opportunities will be available for high-achieving students and pre-kindergarten programs.
Exceptional administrators, teachers and staff: Improving communication from the district office to individual schools will be key.
Professional development goals will be determined collaboratively, and teacher morale will be assessed annually.