What Makes a Great School?

In October, we released a proposed vision statement for Jeffco Public Schools called Generations: A Learning-Centered Vision for our Community’s Schools. Since that time, we’ve had deep and engaging conversations across Jeffco about the ideas in that report to determine if they are the right “fit” for Jeffco going forward.

Generations focuses on three main areas. First (and rightly), “Learning!” More specifically, it asks us to consider how we can profoundly change the student learning experience to be authentic, meaningful, and connected to the world outside of school. Second, the Generations report discusses the “Conditions for Learning,” and that learning happens best with the facilitation of a professional educator and in an environment of high expectations. Finally, Generations discusses “Readiness for Learning,” and that our schools and community must work to get our children to school ready to learn and to remove barriers to learning that stand in their way.

As this work moves from the vetting of ideas and into implementation, we must also consider how to measure our current state, and how we will know if we are making progress in achieving our short, intermediate, and long-range goals.

Identifying the best educational measures is somewhat an exercise in convenience and comparability. That is, we frequently choose measures that are readily available (such as state test scores) and those that provide us a comparison by which to benchmark ourselves (such as four-year graduation rates, which are a common measure across systems).

But these are not the only considerations. More importantly, our measures should be based on our values, and what we want our schools to accomplish – and these concepts are sometimes more difficult to quantify.

For example, we want our students to achieve well academically (which we can use standardized tests to measures) and to successfully graduate (which we can measure with graduation rates), but we also want our students to be engaged and excited about learning. We want our parents and community engaged, as well. And, we want our schools to be safe and operationally well-managed. Few would argue these other concepts are unimportant, but their measurement becomes less obvious and we must get more creative in how we evaluate these areas.

This might all come down to how we, as a community, answer the question, “what makes a great school?” With this as the leading question, we can let our aspirations begin to define our measures, rather than letting our measures define our aspiration.

Looking ahead, Jeffco Public Schools will be publishing a strategic plan in the spring based on the Generations report and the conversations happening in our community right now. That plan will include a series of system-level measures designed to evaluate the current state of our schools, as well as more internal system measures designed to evaluate our progress on implementing our vision.

I encourage you to get involved in this conversation. One way is to visit with your local school principal and find out how they are hosting conversations on the Generations report in your neighborhood or area. Another is to join-in on the Jeffco Generations Conversation group on Facebook. Just search for “Jeffco Generations Conversation” and request to join.

But what do you think makes a great school, and how do we measure those concepts?

One thought on “What Makes a Great School?

  1. Just a great school!? What does it take to make a great school district?

    The biggest obstacle to having a great school for all students in all school districts in Colorado originates from actions within the Colorado legislature. Measures like TABOR and the Budget Stabilization Factor substantially limit and then reallocate funding away from school Districts to balance the state budget. Some say Jeffco is among the top on the food chain with the population and tax base to effectively mitigate this issue, take care of its own locally, and provide an adequate education to 86,000 students across 760 square miles in 155+ school communities. And therein lies the problem and the solution. To meet the vast needs of Jeffco from the bottom up, and out of fear of their own students not having what they need, local communities and individual donors gave more of their time, talents, and opened their wallets to help where they could, doing whatever they could to keep great schools great. Parent engagement was transformed forever into a cottage industry of fundraising that no longer supplements but supplants individual school budgets, further dividing school communities into the ones that have and the ones that have-not. Some schools have more than they want, some schools have a wish list of needs. There are great schools in Jeffco, there are not so great schools in Jeffco- but it is not their fault. It’s ours.

    Today, great schools in Jeffco are made and sustained within the individual communities they serve- and that is by no means equal or fair. With the Open Enrollment/Choice application period at hand the public sorting and defining of great and not-so-great goes on display. In addition to databases of student testing scores, school improvement plans, and more financial transparency than you can shake a stick at, a call will go out from parents looking for that one great school. A great school, a great preschool, with great teachers, great staff, a great Principal, a great special education team, great sports, great after school care, great extracurricular activities, great clubs, great IB/AP classes, great parent/community engagement and the list goes on and on and on and on. And it might make one wonder, why does a parent have to go looking for a great school? Why doesn’t the one in their community meet the needs of their student? Is it possible that school choice, created on the premise of enabling students to leave failing schools, inadvertently creates competition between schools that sometimes hurts communities? What impacted that student/family to leave or not enroll in their home school, or leave Jeffco altogether for a great school they found in another District? Perhaps the question here is more than just what makes a school great, but what is making some of our schools not so great.

    Nelson Mandela said, “Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely daydreaming, but vision with action can change the world.” Creating more great schools in Jeffco means we will have to talk about what is making some of our schools great, and what is making some of our schools not so great. This goes beyond working with individual schools and Principals, it’s a coordinated effort within entire articulation areas, communities, cities and right on up to our District offices- top down and bottom up. And how can we measure a great school district? When we see more of our community giving their time, talent and perhaps money to invest in our schools? When the voters of Colorado and/or Jeffco vote yes to a Mill levy override and a bond package? When the Colorado Legislature fixes school funding in a fair and sustainable way?. Schools are a community responsibility and a community investment, humans are our resources, successful students and productive members of society are our products. Regardless of what comes through local or national action or inaction, there is no more room for excuses, blame, shame and ignorance to the inequities all around us in our own backyards. We need to be great today and everyday- for everyone and everywhere in Jeffco

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