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Guest opinion: Thoughts from the new guy

Anytime a person moves into a new community there is a period of reflection that is objective. One really has not learned the distinctive qualities of the place they now reside.

It is simultaneously a benefit and liability to not know the family trees that are common knowledge to long-time residents, to not have pre-conceived notions about people, events, or programs, or to believe that things can or cannot be done. That is the position I have found myself in for the last 11 months. So, allow me to share with you my observations:

The students in the Paris School District are easily some of the most respectful, dedicated, resourceful I have observed. The children in the elementary are friendly, look me in the eye, and say “yes sir” without prompting. Middle school students wash clothes for people once a month in the “Loads of Love” program. High school students attend school every day with a work ethic that many adults don’t have. They are one of the principal reasons that Paris High School was recently recognized as a Silver Medal School in US News and World Report.

Most of us have heard someone lament the future observing today’s youth. If all students in the United States were like those in Paris we would have nothing to worry about.

However, I can’t give all of the credit to the kids. Someone taught them the skills of respect, community and work ethic before they attended school. Parents are critical to any success that students or the school district may have. We are all aware that Paris is not immune to the societal issues common today. Paris is not considered an affluent community; we do have single parent and no parent homes, drug and alcohol problems in some families, physical and mental considerations, and unemployment. But, the vast majority of parents persevere and rise above those circumstances to support their children, knowing that education is the opportunity for them to have successful and productive lives.

The success of the Paris School District is critically tied to parent involvement.

The enrollment of the Paris School District is approximately 1,120 students in grades K-12. This is considered a medium to small school district in Arkansas. However, I can safely say that the quality of teachers in this district is far above the norm for a school district this size.

As I have visited buildings and classes (my goal is to double my visits next year) it has been my observation that the level of instruction is excellent. Teachers challenge students, assess progress, make adjustments and build on previous learning. They are really good at what they do and want to improve, not just for themselves but for their students.

There is also a tremendous support system in place for the teachers and students. The building principals are all dedicated, hard-working, intelligent professionals that want to improve student achievement and teacher skills. Instructional facilitators, counselors and librarians work collaboratively with teachers to meet the needs of the students. Athletic coaches, physical education, music, art, vocational, gifted and talented and special education teachers all provide instruction that complements the curriculum. Every person is important and committed to what they do.

Often an overlooked part of the school community is the support staff. Bus drivers are the first, and last, faces seen by many students every day: they set the tone for the day. A friendly greeting early in the morning may not seem that important but it represents the first opportunity for us.

Custodians strive to keep an environment clean, safe, and conducive to learning. How would you like to clean where 1,100 kids tread every day? They do it cheerfully and with purpose.

The cafeteria staff prepares and serves over 1,000 meals per day under increasingly strict nutritional guidelines. That translates to over 200,000 meals in a school year. They do this daily task with a smile and a dedication that no child will have to learn while hungry.

Our maintenance staff insures that the lighting, plumbing, heat and air and grounds are operational and well maintained. They take an extreme pride in the grounds, buildings and infrastructure so that teachers can teach and kids can learn.

And finally we have the benefit of a resource officer that takes school safety seriously. He is vigilant in protecting anyone associated with the Paris School District. Let me assure you that it is not that way in some districts that I have visited.

We are fortunate to have all of these people working for the Paris School District.

Easily the most thankless job associated with schools is that of board member. They serve with no pay, make weighty decisions every month, periodically endure a fair amount of criticism and give up many hours of their time all because they are committed to making the schools and community better places. All one has to do is read the state wide newspaper to see dysfunction, hidden agendas and personal vendettas being played out in school board meetings while supposedly doing what is best for the students in their district. Your board does not operate like that. To the person they have one goal: Make the Paris School District better. Their focus is on the students. Each decision is grounded in this belief, “do what is best for kids.”

Certainly the Paris School District is not perfect. Recently I gave the board a mid-year review of the district. I shared with them my analysis and began to establish a vision for the future.

The most critical improvement needed is in the area of technology. Not just to have computers to play with. We must put devices in the hands of students and utilize them in learning. That is now the new normal. Whether a student aspires to attend college, go directly to work, or the military, virtually every aspect of society requires technological skills that are ever changing and progressing. We have to use technology to teach students to learn how to learn. Many of today’s students will be in careers and occupations that are not even invented at this point.

This will require a paradigm shift in how we teach. Straight rows with a teacher behind a podium handing out work sheets has been proven many times to be a very unproductive way to teach. Come visit some of our classrooms. Watch students work collaboratively, produce results, assess, revise, etc. Watch our teachers guide, question, challenge and facilitate individual learning.

We have to increase our broadband capabilities, boost the number of wireless ports in our buildings and obtain more devices for student use with a goal of 1:1: one device for each student K-12. Today many students have cell phones that have greater capabilities than some of our oldest computers still in use in our schools. This is critical.

The Paris School District encompasses 233 square miles. We travel and put approximately 1,000 miles on our bus fleet each day. Our bus mechanics are geniuses at keeping them safe and operational. But, buses do wear out. If the district is to continue door-to-door service, we have to replace and buy buses. New buses cost on average $100,000. At those prices it doesn’t take long to spend a substantial amount of money.

We must increase the opportunities for students to advance beyond high school while still in high school. Concurrent college classes that allow students to receive credits toward graduation while simultaneously obtaining college hours is an immediate goal. Working with local colleges and universities, we will attempt to expand those offerings.

Additionally, expanding vocational opportunities giving students skills that are in immediate need is paramount to their and our success. If our local industries and businesses need employees with specific skills it is incumbent upon us to develop partnerships with them so that we can be the conduit for that work force.

Students graduating from Paris will not only compete and be prepared for jobs in Paris but globally. Schools and businesses MUST work together to prepare, improve, and sustain a workforce productive in primarily the U.S. economy but also secondarily in the global economy.

There are many other issues to be addressed and it is a mathematical certainty that when one problem is solved another appears. Many future issues will emerge that we can’t even fathom at this time. When Paris Middle School was built no one even knew what a wireless port was much less how to plan for it. It is a process. Thankfully many of the pieces to achieve success are already in place.

Paris has a very good school system.

I pledge to offer leadership to address the present and future of Paris Schools and I consider it an honor to be in this fortunate position. My door is open. If you have comments, suggestions, criticisms, or questions please always feel free to address those to me.

You are an important part of the Paris School District.

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