Superintendent’s listening, learning process produces structure for strategies

By Marcy Stamper

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Tom Venable.

After six months of conversations with more than 300 students, staff, community members and business people—a process he calls “listening and learning”—Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable is preparing to share his initial conclusions with everyone in the Methow Valley.

Consistent themes from his conversations include a desire for world-class teaching and learning flexible enough to meet the needs of all students; fostering character attributes that will help young people become responsible citizens; and equal access to a free and appropriate education, including to after-school activities. The most frequently mentioned need was for district-wide counseling services, he said.

Venable is compiling a summary of what he’s learned from these talks, which focuses on six main areas. For each, he describes the existing strengths in the district, general observations from his conversations and research, and a list of suggested actions to achieve these goals. His conclusions will be sent to every address in the Methow Valley at the end of this month.

This is just the first phase in retooling the goals and desired outcomes for the Methow Valley School District, since Venable is asking people to respond to his initial report by answering two questions: what in the report resonates with them, and what do they think he has missed?

Those responses will be used to create what Venable is calling a “springboard” that will develop a set of core beliefs and goals and the strategies for how to realize them. He is working with the school board to distill all this information.

“Not one person expressed concern or highlighted test scores or student performance on state assessments,” said Venable. “Instead, there was a clear desire to support the district in developing students who graduate with options.” People want graduates to have a clear sense that they have the option to pursue further education or to seek employment—and to have the appropriate skills to support their choice, said Venable.

Venable said that many business owners he spoke with said young people do not always have the necessary skills to be effective workers, so he is proposing an expansion of career and technical education as well as an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. This would build on existing programs in robotics, welding, photography and video, and programming.

Another theme that emerged is a desire to help young people become multi-literate so that they can read, write and speak languages other than English and be prepared to contribute and succeed in an increasingly global economy. One suggestion in Venable’s report is to develop a world-language program from pre-kindergarten through high school.

Several of the goals in the report are not strictly educational but provide social and emotional support systems for children and their families so that students are prepared to learn.

Another important focus is on adequate nutrition. More than half of the district’s students receive a free or reduced-price lunch but, given the length of the school day, there is concern that students have do not enough healthy snacks to carry them through the day, said Venable. This point was driven home when he rode school buses as part of his information gathering and saw the long trips that many students make.

Other goals include programs in health and fitness and in visual and performing arts for all ages.

Venable emphasized the widespread support of the community and the potential for building on that support through mentoring and internship programs.

In the part of his report dealing with equity, Venable proposes a goal of eliminating fees for school supplies and classes, athletics and field trips.

The section on the importance of early-childhood education advocates expanding the district’s full-day kindergarten to a fifth day so that students no longer lose almost two months of instruction. It also sets a goal of providing affordable childcare and early-learning programs for all children younger than 5 years old.

The district started a similar effort to update its strategic plan about two years ago under former superintendent Mark Wenzel and released a new plan last March that highlighted some of the same themes—in particular, the emphasis on character development and on strengthening the curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. With the change in administration, that process was not completed, said Venable.

“We will be reshaping and refining that plan and building on the work from last year to develop clearly defined learner outcomes that are measurable,” he said.

In addition to asking for feedback on the strategies and goals set out in the report, the school district will be soliciting input on the budget so that resources can be tailored to the outcomes in the educational plan.

The district intends to complete the plan and strategic vision before the start of the 2014-15 school year, said Venable.

Venable’s report should arrive in people’s mailboxes during the week of Feb. 24. The school district will hold a community forum on Thursday, Feb. 27, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Methow Valley Elementary School library to get feedback on the report.

A version of the report and a survey where people can provide feedback, along with information and questions about the budget, will also be available on the district’s website at methow.org.

While Venable has already talked with hundreds of people, he is still open to more input. People are invited to call him at 996-9205 or email tvenable@methow.org.

“People appreciate being consulted and heard,” he said.