Spring break provides rare time for reflection

Spring break this week at Lincoln Public Schools is an ideal time to reflect on what lies ahead for our students and staff.  While snow and cold were still lingering at the beginning of the month, the warm weather managed to get here in time for outdoor activities and travel to be enjoyed.   I trust that all will return next week refreshed and energized for a strong finish to our school year.

In addition to preparing ourselves for the assessment season, we are also working diligently to develop plans to implement our technology initiative. We will launch the technology plan for the 2015-16 school year, beginning with curriculum content and devices for all sixth graders, then other grades phased in over a three-year cycle. The tech plan has been in development for several years and represents both the best practices that we have studied across the country as well as important lessons learned from our own pilot programs. We are excited to see the increased engagement our students will have with their learning as technology will augment the great teaching already occurring in our classrooms.

Meanwhile, boundary discussions necessary with construction of two new LPS schools – an elementary opening in 2016 and a middle school opening in 2017 – have been robust.   It is challenging but worthwhile work effectively managing the dramatic growth in student population while seeking equity in where our students attend school. Our Lincoln Board of Education has appreciated the concerns expressed by patrons, has listened closely and will continue to seek a fair resolution.

Finally, with the Legislature in session, school funding is of high concern.  As a rapidly growing school district with increased needs (ie, poverty, English Language Learners, mental health), we continue to make the case that funding must follow the kids. For instance, with more than 400 homeless children and 60 incarcerated, we have to seek ways to alter their trajectory – and that requires necessary funding.  The Board of Education’s goal of reaching a 90 percent on-time graduation rate in the next 5 years will require us to think about time and delivery differently for these special populations of children that historically struggle to succeed.

We look forward to the challenge.


LPS: A place where children want to be

As anticipated, we had a great start to the school year.   Staff and students returned with energy and enthusiasm, and that showed each time I visited a school.  Many thanks to all of our staff for their great work in making Lincoln Public Schools a place where children and parents want to be.

The technology pilots at Culler Middle School and Riley Elementary School are off and running.  Seeing the smiles on the faces of the Culler students has been heart warming.  For a large number of these kids, this was the first time they had daily access to a personal computing device.  Our goal, of course, is to use the pilot schools to determine strategy to move forward with technology implementation across our school district.  This goal will be a challenge due to our large and increasing student enrollment numbers.

The school bond construction projects are also moving aggressively forward.  The Career Academy is beginning to take shape on the campus of Southeast Community College, while our technology and security modifications are occurring in schools throughout the district.  Plans for the new elementary (slated to open in 2016) and middle school (2017) are also pushing forward.  We are excited about partnering with the YMCA on the middle school site.

Each day in LPS is a reminder of how fortunate we are to be entrusted with the most valuable commodity a community has: our children.  We look forward to a great academic year and appreciate our tremendous partnerships that ensure we have community help in nurturing and educating our students.


Awaiting return of magic

The nice thing about summer is it eventually gives way to the first day of school, my favorite time of year.  On Tuesday we will observe an anticipated 39,000 students interacting with about 8,000 Lincoln Public Schools employees – and the magic will start to happen once again.  I’m confident the 2014-15 school year will be another successful one for LPS and our community.

Student enrollment totals are only a guess right now until the fourth Friday of September when they become official on the day we report them to the State Department of Education. However, we do anticipate about 1,000 new students this year coming from all over our state and country.  Lincoln continues to attract families for jobs and quality of life.  


This summer I met several families from the east coast who were delighted to be here – families who had planned on enrolling their children in private schools, but who changed their minds when they discovered we have an outstanding public educational system that is focused on ALL students succeeding.


The Lincoln Board of Education held their annual retreat earlier this week and the emerging theme was “refine and align.”  With so many great programs designed to raise graduation rates and overall achievement, Board members felt that we needed to complete what we have already started.   They did agree that a 90 percent graduation goal within five years was a great target.  I know we can do it.


I want to close by thanking everyone with LPS for their commitment to learning.  We have a wonderful school district because of the people who work here.


Let’s have a great school year.


Dr. Joel – bring on the stethoscope!

I had a great experience the other day when the 4-year-old daughter of a colleague was introduced to me.  When she heard me referred to as “Dr.” – she immediately had a look of horror and emphatically told me that she wasn’t sick and didn’t need shots.  I tried to tell her that I had the Dr. degree in education and was a former teacher, not a physician. But she wouldn’t believe me. It was hilarious.

Meanwhile, business at Lincoln Public Schools goes on. With the Lincoln Board of Education approving the property known as the “Jensen Park site” for our new middle school (that will open in the fall of 2017), all bond projects are now officially in the planning phase.   As we strive to meet our schedules for technology, security and maintenance updates, we will see a great deal of activity around the school district. This is “Progress as Promised.”  Be sure to thank our maintenance and operations team members as they have done tremendous work and been very busy all summer.

The first part of the summer has been great for conversations and planning retreats.   The Board of Education will soon meet to discuss 2014-15 goals after celebrating the accomplishments of 2013-14.  In a few short weeks we will greet new administrators and more than 350 new teachers.   That has to be a new record.

And, although it is still summer, it is always interesting to see how education is addressed in our state and nation – especially in light of November elections looming. For instance, the National Education Association is now calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  At the same time, Duncan is calling for states to create plans that will place the best teachers in the most struggling schools. The result: We can be assured there will be rich dialogue.

Personally, I believe our state and our local schools are performing well.  And we intend to continue improving.

Enjoy the remainder of the summer.


Looking back, looking forward

This last school year was another success.   The graduation of more than 2,300 Lincoln Public Schools seniors, just a few weeks ago, reminds us of the importance of K-12 in the life of a student, family and community.  Each of these young people is now equipped to take the next step on their journey and we wish them the best.  Many thanks to our staff and parents for their critical roles in making these successes happen.

The school year began with the opening of a new LPS District Office building, as well as a surprising enrollment of an additional 940 students. The LPS bond issue in February – approved by an incredible 68 percent approval vote – was a ringing endorsement underling the confidence our community has in its public educational system.

We pledge to continue earning your trust and confidence by developing, educating and producing successful young people.

Looking to next year, we are already looking at our estimates for next year’s enrollment. We see great growth occurring throughout our city, and note pre-enrollments that were quite strong this spring.   We will be aggressive in rolling out the pilot phase of our technology plan this coming school year – and intend to add more schools in the near future.   There will be a renewed emphasis on identifying and addressing the needs of students with mental health challenges as early as possible so that we can help increase their chances for success and graduation.  And, believe it or not, by the end of next summer The Career Academy will open.

The first couple of weeks after school ends is a great time to collect our thoughts, complete our paperwork and aggressively plan for another school year.  Lincoln is a very special place in so many ways and I am most appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of it.


LPS already starting bond projects

Although the recent $153 million Lincoln Public Schools bond issue was approved less than two months ago, the work has begun in earnest.   Dirt is being moved as we speak at Southeast Community College for the new high school Career Academy, while bids have been published to begin the major technology infrastructure projects in many of our schools.

We were beyond excited last week when the bonds sold at an average rate of 3.58 percent, which was significantly less than our estimate.   This translates into more bang for the buck on our bond issue projects – saving money for our taxpayers and our students.

Meanwhile, we regret the technology frustrations experienced by our staff and students over the last couple of weeks related to some of the state assessment testing.  I do need to stress:  This is not an LPS issue.  The Nebraska Department of Education has been working with the company that administers the tests to address the problem, so we hope the issues have been solved and that our students can move ahead to accurately demonstrate their knowledge and achievement.

As we move ahead into our fourth quarter at LPS, I would like to commend our Lincoln Board of Education members who recently attended the conference of the National School Boards Association. We appreciate their willingness to learn about national educational trends and to engage in conversations with school districts that share some of the same challenges and initiatives we are tackling here at LPS.  Much of the conference content centered on technology as a tool for learning and many new ideas were shared.   Another recurring theme was “standing up for public education,” which resonated with all of the 10,000 participants who work so hard to ensure all our students succeed. Despite the many political and financial challenges, there is great evidence that public education works and that we are getting better.

Board members and I left the conference encouraged about the future for our 38,000 LPS students.   We appreciate the trust the community has in us.   We pledge to work hard to maintain that.


Spring break: Catching up on superintendent tasks

This has sure been a different and difficult winter.   The extreme temperatures have undoubtedly led to more illness among students and staff.   The lack of snow (and subsequent student reference to “only” two snow days) may be a prelude to a dry spring and summer.   And with an economy so reliant on water, a drought will be very difficult to endure.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying this March week as it is the official spring break for Lincoln Public Schools. Like the first week in June, this week is a time for me to catch up on all those tasks that I put on the shelf to be worked on later.   Not a natural procrastinator, I still struggle with finding all the time necessary to be effective.  Timely breaks in the action do the trick and I pause to consider the most essential chores for the rest of the school year.

As we look ahead to the next few months, our district’s priority work will center on planning for the new High School Career Center.   Our first joint board meeting – between officials from Lincoln Public Schools and Southeast Community College – is March 20, and there is much that will need to be addressed.  Priority topics include:  Construction bids, naming of the facility and authorizing a search for a dynamic leader.  I will serve on this joint Career Center Board to represent LPS, along with Lincoln Board of Education member Richard Meginnis, and we look forward to ensuring we deliver on our promise that this facility will stand as a national model.

Another priority for the remaining school year is to welcome Wendy Van to our LPS District Office leadership team.   As the new president of the Foundation for LPS, Wendy brings incredible energy and passion to the position – and our school district will work with the Foundation to take the next progressive steps forward.  LPS needs a strong Foundation to support the kind of work that positively impacts student success yet cannot be funded with tax dollars.

The first day of this week’s break – Monday – was a great spring day.  Today, not so much.  I hope our students and staff have a restful week and come back ready to charge up the home stretch.


Gathering stories from the bond issue

The last month seemed and felt like three. I think we made every effort to ensure that our patrons had accurate information in giving over 110 informational bond presentations to interested groups throughout the community.  The response to the presentations was great and the more than 50K returned ballots demonstrated great participation.  THANK YOU LINCOLN for the great support and trust.  We won’t disappoint.

Having done a few of these school bond issues in my career, I am always listening for the best stories.   This week I was talking with a young lady who moved to Lincoln recently with her husband.  When he asked her (after the ballots arrived) which way to vote, she summed it up by asking how badly he wanted children.  He apparently got the message.

My other favorite was meeting an elderly man who initially appeared to be a “no” vote as he stared angrily at me and occasionally shook his head when I shared a few facts about the bond issue. At the completion of the presentation, he came up to talk with me and I braced for the worst.  Then, without so much as a smile, he related a story from 50 years ago when an elderly person had explained the reason why you vote for a school bond issue: because the community that has come before us has taken care of the children, and now we have that same responsibility. We shook hands, he grabbed a pack of flyers and said he was going to tell his neighbors the same story – and why the bond issue was a good plan.

Of course, there are many other stories that have inspired my work as superintendent.   I truly feel blessed to be a part of a great community and school district

Now, off to work and making sure these projects are under budget and on schedule.


‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

This winter song captures the feeling all of us had last week when I called the first cold-weather day of my career.  In fact, the call was an easy decision as the near 30-degree-below wind-chills were a scary proposition for our children to navigate. I have used the recent speaking circuit to personally apologize to parents for keeping their children home an additional day. And I am sure the longer than expected winter break had more than one parent more ready than ever to have school start up again.

As far as that speaking circuit, I have really enjoyed meeting with many of our stakeholder groups to present information concerning the Feb. 11 school bond issue. Our school district has set up more than 100 informational opportunities to present facts and answer questions about the bond issue, and as I attend these sessions I am reminded how much value is placed on education in our city.  The special election to vote on a $153 million LPS bond issue will be a mail-in election – ballots will be mailed to all registered voters in the school district – so there are many unknowns.  That makes it even more important for us to provide information to our community about this issue.  You can find a list of the remaining informational community presentations at http://www.lps.org/2014bond/ –  I  encourage anyone with questions/concerns to attend.

Meanwhile, I also love the part of my job that allows me to visit schools and interact with staff and students.  Today, I began my morning at Lincoln East High School to videotape a program about the upcoming Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, student march and rally.  When you view this video you will be captivated by two young ladies who exhibit tremendous passion for organizing an event that honors a man who has helped change the course of history.   I could have stayed and talked with them all day.

We are all looking forward to a great second semester that will have us continuing our work – including an emphasis on technology and addressing the growing needs of our students who struggle with mental health and behavioral issues.  But I sure hope 2014 doesn’t include any more cold weather days.


A new year of gratitude and action

Well, it is now official.  On February 11, the community will have an opportunity to express an opinion on the Lincoln Public Schools bond issue through a mail-in election.  While we believe the Lincoln Board of Education has crafted a great plan that truly touches each child and each school in each zip code, we also know that there are differing opinions. We welcome the discussion.

Just as the 2013 year was action-packed, 2014 will be the same. The bond issue will precede final planning for the high school Career Center.  Following several visits to 21st century school districts in Washington and Idaho, we are ready to take the next steps that continue our transformation of learning at LPS to the digital age.  And, finally, you will be hearing more about plans to address the burgeoning numbers of kids who struggle with behavioral and mental health issues.

The end of the year is a wonderful time to reflect and re-set.  I am incredibly thankful to work in a city that places such high value on children and exudes a willingness to help when needed. With more and more of our students and families facing challenging times, I find it comforting to know we can depend on community partners and citizens for help in access to supplies, coats and whatever is needed to ensure our children get a good education. Thank you, Lincoln.

I close with gratitude for all of our employees, parents, families and patrons who have contributed so much for our success.  May your holidays be filled with joy.