Finding Our Balance

Since its October release, our community has been engaged in a conversation about Jeffco Generations, the district vision document. The discussions happened in person and electronically over social media. They happened inside and outside of our schools, and they happened in both one-on-one and in large group conversations.

Overall, my professional assessment is that the Generations vision was well-received in Jeffco. This is not particularly surprising (at least to me) as it was written after several months of listening and learning about Jeffco to understand the district’s past strategic direction and the community’s aspirations for our schools.

However, three important tensions did emerge in those conversations. In some ways, these tensions represent conflicts over values and philosophies when it comes to education and what our hopes are for our students. For us to move forward, as a community, it is important we find a resolution to these tensions and a clear direction for our schools.

The first tension was between those who favored a fact-based, teacher-directed, and content-focused (acquiring key facts and knowledge) form of learning versus those who favored hands-on experience and student-directed learning focused more on solving complex problems or completing projects. The problem with both these characterizations is that neither is entirely accurate. A content-focused (or core-knowledge) education can, and should, also entail rich student experiences. A student-centered and problem/project-based approach works best when students have important and key foundational knowledge.

In essence, we need both a clear academic curriculum aligned to high standards and an authentic, meaningful, and engaging student experience. So, the solution to this tension is balance and trying to find a way our students can have both.

The second tension that emerged was the appropriate place for educational technology in the learning experience. On one hand, we know it is possible to transform learning with technology – students can create, interact, publish, learn, and collaborate with devices in a way not possible in an entirely analog and paper-based world. We also know our students will need to live and compete in a technology-rich world and we need to prepare them for that. However, concerns were raised about our students losing the ability to have real (versus electronic) relationships, and that it was important that students be able to write things by hand. Some research even indicates that retention of information is increased when we write things down.

Again, the solution we need is a balance. We do need to embrace technology and how it can change the learning experience, teach students how to navigate the digital landscape, and better prepare our students for their future. We also want our students to form genuine and real in-person relationships and to be able to write things down by hand when needed. In short, our students need both.

The final tension that emerged related to pursuing innovations versus supporting our existing programs. In any organization, a tension between the new and innovative and the core existing functions exists, and there is danger in focusing too much on one or the other. Too much focus on innovation can lead to distraction by the latest shiny object and the investment of a great deal of time and energy into things that may not necessarily pan out. Alternatively, an over-focus on what you already have can lead to stagnation.

Again, our solution is balance. We must find ways to take calculated and empirically-based risks. We must also support and invest in our existing programs and services. Innovation moves us toward breakthroughs and greater efficiencies. Investment in our core services keeps us aligned with best practices and ensures our students are getting the best we have to offer.

Going forward, we will be releasing a strategic plan in March aligned with the Generations vision, which will set us on a multi-year journey to greatness. To get there, we will need to find balance.

Jeffco’s kids deserve all we can give them and for us to be all we can as a community and school system, we must work to see the world more in terms of “and,” and less in terms of “or.”

I’m excited about our schools, our community, and what the future holds for our kids. Please continue to stay engaged in this important work in the days and months ahead and, on behalf of all of us with Jeffco Public Schools, thank you for the opportunity to serve your family!

3 thoughts on “Finding Our Balance

  1. I can tell you this: the balance isn’t leaving four of ten third graders not able to read at the end of third grade, while spending a billion dollars a year. Every great leader knows they must first pay attention to the basics. Teach our children to read!

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    1. Thanks for engaging, Laura – your thinking is consistently consistent. Of course, teaching our kids to read is part of our work. But, as this piece notes, the “basics” are no longer enough – and they haven’t been for some time. Our kids needs foundational skills (on this we agree), and a set of important skills, and the inspiration to follow their motivations and dreams. Jeffco’s kids deserve all of this. A billion dollars sounds like (and is) a lot of money – but is it what we need given the importance of our mission and that most other districts our size spend almost double what Jeffco does? It’s an important question for our community if we wish to keep Jeffco a great place to raise a family and be a kid.

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  2. In the practice of yoga, balance is achieved by building strength and flexibility in both the body and the mind. There are several poses that demonstrate balance, one of the most popular for beginners is tree: a position for the human body with one leg rooted on the ground and hands up in the air simulating branches waving in the wind. In preparation for tree yoga teachers guide their students through a series of stretching and strengthening exercises. Wise yogis remind students that the practice of yoga is a celebration of what the body can do, and not to be critical of what it can’t do just yet, today or perhaps ever at all- that’s why there are modifications avaliable for most if not every pose. Yoga is not a competitive sport. A person’s individual practice is their own, not better than, not more than, just a time to test and see what the body and mind can do–today. Like many balance poses, tree requires concentration on a singular non-moving focal point located just ahead of the body. When a body is in tree the muscles may start to quiver, the eyes may be tempted to wander and sometimes bodies fall over. Tree is balance that requires stretching, flexibility and strength. Closing eyes in tree tests the balance even further, requiring one to breath deeply and stand strong amid uncertainty about what is coming next.

    To get to balance we as a Jeffco community should consider acquiring an understanding about students across Jeffco and the conditions for their growth and development- today. They are our trees. Can we stretch our minds, unlearn what we think we know about our students and our schools based on our own experiences and/or what we have read or heard from others? What is the reality of providing a free and adequate public education that prepares 86,000 preschool to high school students for the future yet to come?

    This is no easy task, when all means all. Some trees need more water and light than others, some are planted high in the mountains while others are on the front range, some are native to Colorado, others are transplanted here from states or countries far away. How can we make sure each tree grows to its full potential? What do we know about being a child in 2018? Why are some students and schools not achieving, not growing like they should or are expected to when compared against their peers? What can we do to cultivate environments that support student and school community development and growth? How different would this look from school to school, student to student? Sometimes a tree can look healthy on the outside but is dying from the inside out. How do we know what each tree, each individual student, needs and wants? How can we ensure that all the trees we plant have a fair chance at success?

    These are tough questions and challenging times. Stormy weather blasts wind through our branches, but we will not break. When the roots are deep, strong trees grow by bending with the wind.

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