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School district reviews successes, looks to future

Superintendent Dr. William Skilling discusses tje Oxford school district’s successes during the April 24 Strategic Plan meeting. Photo by Trevor Keiser. (click for larger version)
May 08, 2013 - While many school districts have been in "decline and decay" the last five years, Oxford Community Schools have continued to thrive, said Superintendent Dr. William Skilling to a crowd of 50 at the April 24 Annual Strategic Planning Session.

The reason why? According to Skilling it's because they took risk.

"(Greek Philosopher) Plato centuries ago said, 'A crisis is the mother of invention,' I keep telling people that is absolutely not true. If that were true, then every district that touched our boundaries would have innovated like Oxford did," explained Skilling. "A crisis becomes the mother of invention if you do take risk. If you choose to do something different and not follow the crowd and that's exactly what we've done, we've chosen not to follow the group."

One of the biggest mistakes school districts in Michigan have made was taking on what Skilling calls a "Proposal A mentality," where vision is directed by how much revenue is given by the state.

"Revenue can never drive vision," he said. "There are two things always true about vision. One is, you never have enough money to make it reality and two is, you don't have the capacity to make it reality. If either one of those isn't true, you wouldn't have a vision."

Even though Oxford Schools has lost $500 per student in the last two and half years, which is equivalent to $2.75 million, Skilling said they've focused on educational goals and new opportunities for students, which have resulted in more revenue.

"In the last six years, we've grown our revenue by $10 million; we went from $37 million (in) revenue to $47 million," he added. "Even though we've had half a million students leave the state of Michigan we've grown our district to a record level in the last five years; (more) than any other school district in the entire state."

Last year Oxford grew by 500 students; 85 percent of that growth came from Oxford's Virtual Academy. Skilling said these things were made possible through strategic planning and not being afraid to "focus on failure."

"By creating an atmosphere where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity," he said. "Our kids will become innovators and creators. That's what we have demonstrated with this whole strategic planning process and with your support."

Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. James Schwarz said the strategic planning session was a "culminating experience" of looking back at the journey of the past five years as well as looking at what future directions should be.

The strategic plan over the past five years had seven goals. The first was "to graduate students who are prepared for ever-changing global opportunities and who embody our core values evidenced by the following Oxford Student/Profile/Exit outcomes."

Schwarz said they had a lot of philosophical discussions about what characteristics they wanted their graduates to embody.

"It was from this goal that IB (International Baccalaureate) stemmed from," he said.

The second goal was "to create a model global learning community that maximizes student achievement and promotes excellence."

"Looking at response to intervention, looking at differentiation in the classroom, looking at intervention programs for children, how do we reach all ability levels," Schwarz said. "(There) was really some study done in that goal."

Goal three was "to create an organizational structure that supports meaningful, effective and efficient changes in curriculum and changes in instructional practices."

"Looking at creations of many different committees, subcommittees and study groups that span the organization from levels of support staff to teachers, to administrators, to community and parents," added Schwarz. "What are some ways we've en-bridged our curriculums."

The fourth goal was "to implement research-based curriculum and instructional practices that includes authentic communication of student achievement."

"Looking at research-based practices, looking at not only what we're doing subsequently in terms of the content in the classroom, but we're also looking at what research there is to back our intervention programs," Schwarz said. "How are we working at and tweaking those types of things for our students so again we're meeting all ability levels."

Goal five was "to create facilities of excellence, incorporating the elements of being safe and secure, developmentally appropriate and instructionally sound."

"All of our buildings have dramatic changes made to them, primarily in terms of safe and secure entrances, wings of classrooms added on where more space is necessary (and) we see updated facilities technology wise," Schwarz said. "Technology was a huge part of the last bond issue passed in November 2009. You'll see that evidence in all of our classrooms."

The sixth goal was "to employ staff who model learner outcomes and exemplify our core values."

"Through our hiring practices, our evaluation practices, support staff, teachers, administrators, all of those processes have been advanced in the last five years," added Schwarz.

The final goal was "to embrace the community while working together to achieve common goals and plan future endeavors."

"Through community input through PTO events, district events and capturing and making that community a part of all that we're doing," Schwarz said. "Being a part of this group has really helped drive directions for the district."

After the presentation, Schwarz gave audience members 40 minutes to go through each of the goals and discuss strengths and areas that need improvement.

Areas of strength included: IB programs, interventions, core beliefs and values, staff, buildings and opportunities students have such as the robotics and engineering programs, as well as the biomedical programs. Areas that need improvement included: sustainable k-12 interventions, focusing in on some programs and letting others go, professional development, measuring non-measurables, and trying to reach all learners and disengaged students.

"Our focus moving forward is now, let's become really, really good at what we've done," Skilling said. "We're not looking for the next new program. We feel we have what we need," he said. "Now, we have to get really good at it."

Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.
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