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Goal setting sparks tense debate within Newton school board

The Newton Community School District Board of Education met with senior district administrators, including principals from each of the district’s campuses, Monday night in a special work session. Their objective — hashing out new goals for the district, as well as for the school board.

In a meeting stretching nearly two hours and growing contentious at times, board members attempted to shape the district’s future.

At issue — whether or not the district needs to update its primary goal, which seeks to define the percentage of students who are meeting expectations of the district’s core curriculum. That includes subjects like mathematics, writing and reading.

Goal No. 1

District goal number one spells out the district’s obligations, stating “Newton Community School District will ensure that 80-85 percent of students are meeting the core curriculum with core instruction at each grade level and within all sub-populations. On Monday, board members heard from principals, including Newton High School’s Bill Peters, who urged the board to leave the goal as is.

“That number is coming from the state. The first time you teach something in a Tier 1 classroom, you want 85 percent of the kids to get it the first time,” Peters said. “I don’t think we should change that number. It’s pretty solid across the board. That’s where you do 90 percent of your work.”

According to Peters, 80 to 85 percent of all students are able to meet the state’s goals for proficiency solely through classroom instruction alone. Students in this group are considered to be part of the district’s first tier, which accounts for the bulk of the district’s spending. The remaining 15-20 percent of students will require additional supports outside of the regular classroom to meet their goals, Peters said.

A report from the state department of education shows 84.2 percent of students at Newton High School were rated proficient in 2017.

Those students are divided into two separate subgroups — Tier 2, which accounts for the next 10-15 percent of students, and Tier 3, the remaining 5 percent of students who need the most help. Focusing the bulk of their attention on students in the first tier does not mean students in the remaining two groups are being ignored, Peters said.

“We’d like everybody to get there. Eighty percent are getting there every day in the classroom,” Peters said. “The rest are going to need some extra help.”

Board pushback

Board member Donna Cook said she does not feel the district is doing enough to reach its goals. She challenged Peters, asking him if he felt like the district’s focus was unfairly centered around the 80-85 percent of students who make up the first tier.

“So you’re going to count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. OK, you’re eight. We’ll make sure you make it. Nine, ten, well, you’re another goal,” Cook asked.

Both Peters and other principals pushed back against Cook, with Peters pointing out the 80 percent baseline used by the district is provided by the state of Iowa.

“Eighty percent is what the PLC books tell you,” Peters said. “It’s a good goal, I don’t see any reason to change it.”

As Peters and Cook continued their exchange, board member Graham Sullivan interjected to ask if the board was discussing goals for district or goals for the school board. Sullivan said she wanted the meeting’s focus to remain on developing and updating the school board’s goals. The exchange prompted Tina Ross, the district’s director of special programs, to make a second copy of the goals for all meeting attendees. Ross handed out a sheet to board members and principals that listed both the district and the board goals, rather than just the board goals, which were on the previous handout.

“I’m confused by it, and I’m sitting on the school board, so how’s the general population going to understand?” Sullivan said. “I guess I just want to make sure what we’re talking about is, in fact, school board goals.”

In fact, the goals of the board mirror the district’s goals. Once the district goals are developed, board members work to develop a set of goals for the board that allows the board to help the NCSD achieve its goals. Once that set of goals is developed, the process moves down the list as building principals work to incorporate the goals into the goals for their own buildings.

“Our building goals are going to be the same as this. We’re going to follow this all the way down into our Professional Learning Communities,” Peters said.

“That’s what we’re seeing, that 80 to 85 percent of kids are getting this?” Sullivan asked.

Referring to scores released by the Department of Education, Peter said, “I don’t know yet. The data’s going to show it, it takes about a year.”

Methods of
reaching goals

Jim Gilbert, Aurora Heights principal, said by focusing on core classroom instruction, teachers and principals can ensure students are meeting their benchmarks. Gilbert gave the example of a third-grade teacher who has 12 students who are doing poorly in a math class. Instead of referring the students to an interventionist, the first thing teachers look at is whether or not the instruction is effective.

“If I’m teaching third grade and I’ve got 12 kids who aren’t doing so well, well, that’s a lot,” Gilbert said. “Then we talk about what instructional methodologies and strategies did you use, we taught the same thing.”

West Academy Principal Bret Miller echoed Gilbert’s comments.

“We don’t want to be providing interventions for 50 percent of our kids. It’s not cost effective and its not sustainable,” Miller said. “Having top-notch classroom instruction is where we need to be.”

Is NCSD hitting
the mark?

Identifying goals for the district is only the first half of the challenge board members are facing. Board president Travis Padget said the board needs to have some way of determining whether or not the district is meeting its goals.

Determining goals and measuring those goals has been an issue for the board. In March, the board voted 4-3 against extending Callaghan’s contract with the district, with board president Travis Padget and board members Josh Cantu and Cody Muhs in the minority, voting to extend the contract. Without a standard one-year extension, Callaghan is currently operating under a two-year contract with the district, set to end after the 2019-20 school year.

Callaghan’s supporters, including Berg Middle School teacher Doug Smith, say the board hasn’t given Callaghan clearly defined goals to meet. Padget said he agreed with Smith’s claim, noting that while the district has identified district-specific goals, it is unclear how many of those goals Callaghan is directly able to influence. During Monday’s work session, Padget pressed the board to identify ways they could quantify success.

“I would like to at least think about how we can measure success,” Padget said.

Cook said she would like to see some numbers so board members can adequately measure progress.

“I think that’s what the board wants, is the administration figured out and measuring those things so they can report back to the board,” Cook said.

For Sullivan, defining success isn’t as simple as issuing letter grades to students. An increasing focus on letter grades and proficiency scores is going to disadvantage children who are not part of the 80-85 percent of students in Tier 1, Sullivan said.

“Our mission — we’ve changed our mission — is to talk about a lifetime of personal success,” Sullivan said. “I’m going to tell you right now, I was never a child that felt like I needed to get an A in every single thing I did.”

Sullivan said she is concerned the district is not providing enough support for students who don’t score well on proficiency tests.

“That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t getting it. I think we need to know that there are students out there that aren’t going to get that 80 percent, does that mean we’re not worried about that child, as well?” Sullivan asked.

Board member Anne Leonard said she could understand Sullivan’s point, but pushed for the board to move forward in its discussion.

“I see what you’re saying, but we’re going to be here until two in the morning if we keep doing this,” Leonard said.

While it may not be part of the goals the board has identified for the district, Callaghan said the district is committed to educating the “whole child.”

“There’s a lot of things that Graham (Sullivan) just referred to that have nothing to do with reading and writing, but it’s still important that we have that on a test,” Callaghan said. “It does match our mission, which is more than 80 percent, and the reading, writing and arithmetic, it’s the whole child.”

Cook said she supported the idea of the whole child and suggests the district needs to work toward finding ways to engage the children who aren’t part of the majority of students. Sullivan didn’t agree, leading to a pointed exchange.

“No, we don’t,” Sullivan said.

“We do if we want them to learn,” Cook said.

Ultimately, board members were able to reach a compromise by rewriting portions of the district’s second goal. Instead of stating the “Newton Community School District will engage parents and the community by providing a variety of opportunities designed to increase participation in the educational process,” board members opted to substitute “remove barriers and enhance the educational process.”

For Peters, the agreement was a welcome opportunity to move forward with the goal setting process.

“I think we’re going to talk for hours and come back and say (goal) number two is pretty darn good,” Peters said. “Because we’ve already talked for 45 minutes and come back to the same thing.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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