A Plus Denver News

These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Denver.

Ramble Issue No. 7: On the Good Ship Stennis: A+ Goes to Sea

Monday, November 23, 2015

On the Good Ship Stennis: A+ Goes to Sea

By: Van Schoales

Last week, I had the of privilege being flown by a C-2 Greyhound from San Diego’s Naval Air Station to the USS John Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to spend 24 hours learning about the US Navy’s training and operations with a small group of educators and business leaders. The Stennis is one of ten Nimitz class carriers. It is longer than three football fields and houses about 5,000 sailors.  It’s a floating airport at the center of a carrier strike force composed of nearly a dozen ships, the most powerful unit ever built.    

Upon our abrupt landing (capture by the deck wire), we were welcomed on the Stennis by the ship’s XO, Captain Hakimzadeh. Interestingly, he immigrated to Mississippi from Iran right after the revolution as a kid.  Captain “Hak” studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon on a NROTC and went on to become a naval aviator with over 800 carrier landings.  I have no doubt that John Stennis who represented the great state of Mississippi for over 40 years in the US Senate (if alive today) would be proud to have such a remarkable fellow Mississippian in  command of the carrier named after him.  

I’ve been on a number of remarkable learning experiences all over the world but nothing compares to being given a physics lesson by a 22-year-old junior grade petty officer while we stood on the carrier deck watching a pilot take off in her F-18.  Even more impressive than watching an F-18 land on a moving ship in pitch black night, were the remarkable sailors on the ship.  The group is remarkably diverse with an average age of 21. All ethnicities, religions, and even many nations (first and second generation immigrants) are represented on the ship.  More than 20% of the sailors are women, a growing number of whom are piloting the impressive F-18’s.  All of the ship’s command officers talked of the benefit of this diversity to their mission, and of the need to have more women represented in every job on the carrier.

I often write (and advocate) for all sorts of quality schools and the need for all students, particularly low-income students to have access to college, but I (and many of my ed reform colleagues) do not spend enough time learning about other education pathways to a successful career. The military, and in particular the Navy, offer a number of pathways to college and a post-Navy career: through NROTC, through the GI Bill after sailors enlist and gain experience, or just through the extensive training provided by the Navy to develop skills that are relevant for both military and civilian life. There was a reason that senior HR people from FedEx were on the trip with me.

It was clear to me in dozens of conversations on my trip from junior enlisted, chiefs, all the way up to the admiral in charge of the strike force that education and training are paramount to the Navy’s readiness. They get it. According to RAND, the Navy invests about $245,000 in the average average sailor’s master’s degree. The technology on the carrier, while remarkable, is totally dependent upon thoughtful, well-trained people at every level who are able to make split second decisions.

In observing sailors at work (and talking to many), leadership and problem solving are at the core of their training. Yes, of course there are tons of technical things to master, but everyone seemed to be engaged in continuous learning with a focus on leadership. There were systems and habits in place where sailors received feedback, not just from their superiors but from those lower in rank. For example, the top gun pilots not only received feedback on every flight from their commander and other pilots, but also from the enlisted folks in charge of the landing logistics. I saw a number of junior enlisted men and women acting as chiefs in the flight control room or on the bridge as senior officers observed and gave feedback.   I would not have guessed that a recent high school graduate could be directing a dozen $80 million dollar fighter jets in the sky, a hundred miles off of San Diego in the middle of several international commercial flyways. It is a key component of their training, schools and school districts could learn much from them.

The much-too-long list of recent terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, Syria, Egypt, and Mali are a scary reminder that the men and women I met on aircraft carrier are likely going to be called upon to engage in the Middle East or North Africa.  We need our sailors to have not only the skills to operate an aircraft carrier but to have the knowledge to understand the complex history of the Middle East or other parts of the world.  A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations showed that more than 75% of our high school graduates are not qualified for the military (even fewer in Denver and Aurora are qualified). More than 60% of jobs in aerospace, life science, and defense face shortages of qualified applicants according to the same report.  Nuclear carriers are among the most complex machines ever devised by man, and I’d like to know we have a deep pool of educated American engineers to run them.

Whether you believe that a quality education is essential for our economy, democracy, or our national security, it requires us to have more effective schools. None of our institutions can be safe in an increasingly unstable world without more of the population pursuing higher levels of learning. This experience served as a reminder that there are multiple pathways to this learning, and we as an education community need to better understand and open opportunities for our children.  We also need to share practice across these pathways.  We need the Stennis sailors ready to do their job and protect us, while on the home front we do more to prepare our children for living in a complex and sometimes dangerous world.

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Ramble Issue No. 7: Northfield HS: The School Reform that Needs our Attention and Support

Monday, November 23, 2015

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Ramble Issue No. 7: My Holiday Wish List

Monday, November 23, 2015

My Holiday Wish List  Continue Reading...

Ramble Issue No. 7: A Socratic Thanksgiving

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Socratic Thanksgiving

By: Van Schoales

Thanksgiving couldn’t come at a better time this year. With conflict and violence on the rise around the globe, it provides a rare time to bring family, neighbors and friends together to cook, talk and hang out. And there are no gifts! It’s my favorite holiday.

We will gather part of our tribe in Los Angeles where we will share turkey, Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish, tahdig (Persian rice) and a dozen other dishes. Our Thanksgiving menu is reflective of our family and neighbors which includes recent immigrants from Iran, India, and others from Ireland and Greece several generations back. It’s a very American table, some traditional dishes made better with foods from distant lands.

While the food at Thanksgiving is critical, it’s the people and conversations that make for a great day. Catching up with those we have not seen for some time, welcoming new folks to the table, all combined with a few debates (maybe some heated over politics or family).  It’s about a series of engaging conversations that include lots of listening, questions, and making connections to culture, politics, and our lives.  And yes have an argument or two, maybe some angst with your brother and some good gossip.

For me, a great Thanksgiving is what a great school should be—a place where kids and adults of all ages gather to joyfully (most of the time) learn from one another through questions and reflection. I look forward to the discussions we will have on ecology with my birding father, and on the complex politics of Iran with my brother in-law's family.

Too often our schools are dingy prison-like buildings with industrial food where adults and kids march through uninspired classes with little or no time to go deeply into anything. We spend far too little time getting to know kids, teachers, or families, or have deeper conversations about those things that matter to kids and adults.

Maybe in addition to Common Core, PARCC, and “Teaching like a Champion,” we should apply some lessons from a great Thanksgiving to take time to know students and their families better, and to engage them in meaningful conversations which have consequence.  Have a great Thanksgiving, and may your conversation be as rich as the pecan pie (though I prefer pumpkin).  

In gratitude,

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Special Edition: Election Recap

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The five things this election taught us about education politics

Our congratulations go out to new and re-elected board members in Denver and Aurora: Lisa Flores (NW Denver), Happy Haynes (Denver At-Large), Anne Rowe (SE Denver), Monica Colbert (Aurora At-Large), Dan Jorgensen (Aurora At-Large), and Cathy Wildman (Aurora At-Large). We look forward to working with all of you in the coming years.  

Tuesday’s election provided an important snapshot on the state of voters’ perception of public education in Colorado. Here are our five key takeaways:

1.     Buy Local. While education politics is increasingly influenced by national organizations and trends, local politics, policy and practice matter more. Diane Ravitch, the Koch brothers, the national teachers unions, Democrats for Education Reform, and other national education players can influence local education elections, but they do not trump the local conditions. “Reformers” won in Denver while “reformers” (please see #2 for definition) lost in JeffCO and DougCO.  

2.     “Education Reform” is a Rorschach. While the term once referred to a fairly specific set of changes, it now means different things to different people. For some Republicans, it’s shorthand for vouchers. For lefty Democrats, it means destruction of traditional district-managed schools.    “Education Reform” has been so poorly defined and misused to further various agendas, we think it is time to retire the description altogether, and talk instead about specific changes to policy and practice and what they will mean for kids.

3.     Personal experiences matter. Voters care about what their neighbors, friends, and kids say about their school experiences. Policy conversations are too impersonal and parents typically don’t engage where they won’t see immediate changes. School improvement efforts must engage families in ways that allow direct benefits for their children, rather than focus on what can seem like nasty, politically-charged policy debates. We suspect that the pendulum swings in JeffCo, DougCo, and Thompson have more to do with the real or perceived impact on families, than whether voters support policy strategies like charters, vouchers, or pay-for-performance compensation systems.

4.     Money increasingly matters in school board races. More money from all sides and places-- locally, regionally, and nationally-- is playing a role in school board races. On the plus side, many school board races will no longer be sleepy affairs where candidates can just “care about kids.” On the negative side, regular folks unconnected to political machines are increasingly shut-out of running in these races, and it could mean that school board members become more beholden to their funders. All of this compounded by the fact that the role of school board members in big districts is similar to being a city council member with responsibility for overseeing even larger budgets and more employees than most cities.  Maybe it’s time to consider paying board members of large school districts as we do city council members to ensure that we have a larger pool of quality candidates and board members govern accordingly.  

5.     In good economic times when needs are well articulated, Colorado voters pass school bonds. Even in more conservative school districts, voters will support tax increases if convinced there is a need for them and that the money will be well spent. We were pleased to see communities support school bonds in places like the Roaring Fork Valley and Brighton that have not always voted in favor of such measures. This bodes well for districts like Aurora assuming the need for the bond and the benefit for kids is clearly defined.   

This election season proved once again that it is a challenge to have honest debates about the best means to improve educational outcomes for all our kids.  We hope that we can now refocus on understanding what works and does not in public education, so that we can pursue practices and policies which will improve student learning and outcomes.

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Rambles Issue No. 6: Are Students Ready to ACT?

Friday, September 25, 2015
Rambles Issue No. 6:   Continue Reading...

Rambles Issue No. 6: A Tale of 5 Reform Districts

Friday, September 25, 2015

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Rambles Issue No. 6: Talking About Race and Achievement

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rambles Issue No. 6: From Talk to Action on School Integration
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Another View on School Choice in Denver

Thursday, August 13, 2015

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Rambles Issue No. 5: $1.64 Billion: Where Will It Go?

Monday, June 22, 2015

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