June 20, 2012 - Editor's Note: Recently, Staff Writer Lance Farrell sat down with Oxford Superintendent Dr. William Skilling for a Question & Answer session to discuss various issues facing the school district.
Leader: What Oxford school accomplishments are you most proud of from the 2011-2012 school year?
Skilling: I'm really excited about the achievements our students have accomplished this year academically, in the arts, and in athletics. There have been some very unique achievements as well this year, ones that you normally wouldn't experience. I think of some of the kids in athletics, in particular, Prescott Line, our first ever Parade All-American in football, that's pretty exciting. (And) when you go back to the first part of the year and you think about how well the football team did and our fall, winter and spring boys and girls athletic teams in general, they really have stepped up in being able to compete in the OAA.
I'm also very excited about our fine arts programs and their accomplishments. For instance, our band getting superior ratings [and] our choral program receiving three superior ratings for three choirs and an overall best choir in a national competition—this is also pretty exciting.
I (also) think our plays and musicals every year continue to get better. The kids did a wonderful job in the fall play as well as in the spring musical. Most recently, the elementary musical that was performed in the Oxford Fine Arts Center was outstanding. It's just amazing how talented (these young people) are and I've got to really credit the performing arts staff.
And the orchestra program: we're still birthing that program, just completing our fourth year and are pushing close to 400 students now participating in that program To see that year-end concert with ages from kindergarten all the way up through the senior year of high school performing in one venue was pretty exciting to see.
(I'm also happy to see) so many students do so well in terms of applying to colleges. (With) the scholarships that were handed out (to them) a couple of weeks ago, again, I'm always amazed at some of the very talented young people that we've been blessed with.
(Additionally), seeing the fruition of our engineering and technology academy get fully launched last year in our partnership with Lawrence Tech University and Kettering University, I thought that was a really exciting achievement, creating new opportunities for our kids.
The virtual school has attracted a whole new group of clients to our districts, new student population. I had the good fortune last week to be involved in some pictures with some kids who have graduated from our virtual school and to hear their stories was really truly moving because some of these kids had failed at getting their high school diploma and had given up. One particular lady got involved with our virtual school a year ago, and has now graduated . . . and is already enrolled at OCC. Things like that are just as exciting as somebody finishing in the top ten of the class. It's really neat to see that. And so the two kids I met last week already have plans; they're going on to college, and to see that for students who didn't think it could happen was truly rewarding to be part of.
Leader: What areas do you see still needing improvement? What can we expect from the coming school year?
Skilling: For the last five years, (we have) focused on redoing and revamping our whole curriculum, revamping our instructional approaches and providing new curriculum and program opportunities that didn't exist five years ago. However, when you're so focused on these things, you're not as laser-like in your focus on standardized testing, which we weren't.
Secondly, whenever you're dramatically changing your instructional approaches, which we have—we've gone from a content focus to a process focus in which we teach the content (and) standards, but process is the focus. That's a huge paradigm shift. That is a process focus; that's a much-higher level of learning. Unfortunately, none of that gets measured in terms of accountability goals. It doesn't get measured on a MEAP or MME, it doesn't get measured on the ACT, it doesn't get measured on a SAT, but we feel it's really vital.
Where do we need to focus as we look to the future? There are two things that we need to really focus on now. Now that we have all these initiatives in place or just about finalized, we have to focus on becoming really good at helping kids become proficient in the new National Core Standards for which we're going to be held accountable in two years. The second area (to focus on) is the Oxford competencies. As we go into a new phase of strategic planning, our focus is going to be on innovative interventions.
How do I delineate between the two? Core standards are things like core knowledge, things that everybody should know. This is foundational knowledge. For example in elementary early math, 1+1=2, that's core knowledge. Multiplication tables are core knowledge, knowing grammar, knowing when to apply an adverb versus an adjective, that's core knowledge. Being able to construct a complete sentence, a paragraph, (building) to a persuasive essay in high school, that's core knowledge. Students have to be proficient at that to be able to achieve, to a high level of success, the Oxford competencies.
So what are Oxford competencies? That's where you're doing complex problem solving, across multiple disciplines in unpredictable situations and areas with which you're unfamiliar—that's where you're able to ask the third order questions about things that don't exist or answers that have not been resolved or discovered yet. [Oxford competencies also mean] being able to work effectively as a member of a team.
And how do you create the conditions by which kids are learning those third order-type questions? How do you assess those appropriately? We don't have the answer, but that's what we're trying to discover and work towards. Do we have ideas? Absolutely, we've got ideas. But we believe these are going to be basic, twenty-first century global skills. Students, as global workers –I don't care what your occupation is—are going to have to be able to re-invent themselves, to recreate what their talents are, what expertise is (required) at that moment in time in order to be meaningfully employed and do work in a very competitive global world.
That's why we're not just going to focus on the National Core Standards because to do so I believe is to set students up to be functionally unemployable in this fast paced global economy that's constantly evolving and changing.
Whatever job you're in, it's going to evolve and evolve and evolve. It could evolve to the point that that job no longer exists anywhere in the world. Or it could evolve so differently that the skill set and knowledge you had when you entered are nowhere near what you need to know today in order to function in the same sort of environment.
A good example would be an auto mechanic prior to the early 1980s when an engine was mechanically based; today it's computer-based. Well, that takes a whole different set of skills, diagnostic abilities, and talents to be able to be a mechanic today than it was, say, prior to 1983.
Leader: How is it that your district has been able to escape all the cutbacks that have beset the surrounding districts? You're doing actually the opposite: you're hiring people.
Skilling: The irony of why we're able to do that and the others are not is because we continued to invest more in education and create new opportunities even though the times were not good. It's probably the worst recession in my lifetime. I'm sure nothing compares to it. But we invested, and we talked five years ago that we'd leverage this economy to our advantage. I knew that districts would cut and try to hold on and wait until the state financially bailed them out, (aid) which I knew wasn't going to come, so we decided to focus on the things we could control and that is the quality of education (and) the opportunities we create for kids. If you do a great job even in the worst of times, families, even though they may have (fewer) resources to do so, will invest in education for their young people because they'll see a higher importance for it.
When I came out of high school, I could have gone right into GM, and as a matter of fact I worked for them for one summer because my neighbor was a general foreman so he had the ability to have certain people hired. I could have had a high paying job, much higher than teaching (laughs) if I'd have just said yes, but I didn't.
Well, kids don't have those options today; those options are long gone. 95% of those students that graduate from high school today who don't go on for further education are going to live in poverty. And that's the new reality. It didn't exist when I graduated from high school.
With that in mind, that's why we invested in education because, in essence, five years ago, I felt this district, along with most districts in the US, were preparing students for a world that no longer existed. And so we started focusing on preparing our kids for the world that does exist. And that's been our success. That's what's brought so many people here.
(I always say) if the magnetism of your vision for your school district is not greater than your current assets, then your school district is in a state of decline, heading toward mediocrity and possible extinction. The last part of that, people think, 'oh no, we're not heading toward extinction.' Oh yes, you are. In fact there will not be as many districts five years from now as there are today in this state. There are 550-plus districts. We've already lost some districts in the last five years and that's going to continue. So you better have something prepared as a district that students and parents want, or you're not going to stay in this business. You are going out of business. I don't care who you are or how well you've done in the past.
What is the evidence for that? Look at the number of charter schools. We've (seen) the cap lifted on charter schools and cyber schools, and people who haven't been preparing for this have now been caught off guard. They're backpedaling, they don't know what to do, I think. They're scared to death, they're waiting for the state to bail them out, and we didn't do that. We got on top of it starting five years ago. And so we've been doing virtual education for a while. We launched (Oxford Virtual Academy) OVA just last year, but we were delivering virtual education prior to last year.
So as a district we have never been caught off guard yet by anything that the state was going to do and that's not because we're prophets, it's just that if you just pay attention, you know it's coming, you know it's all coming. This is (the outcome of) a dialogue and discussion that's been going on in Lansing for a long time. This just didn't happen in the last year or two. There's been this push going back three governors ago discussing it. But once you start laying that groundwork and discussing the idea of virtual education and more charter schools, and so on and so forth, you better pay attention, because eventually it's going to happen. You may have defeated it with a lobby group for a year or two, but that doesn't mean it's going away. It's coming.
In fact, you could earn a high school diploma virtually back in the 90s. The University of Utah, BYU were pioneers back in the 90s and that's when I got involved with virtual education back in '93; you could see it coming back then. So a lot of people they are focusing on the here and now and what can I do to survive today? Well if you're focusing on what you need to survive today, you will not survive tomorrow. You'll be extinct; you're going out of business.
That's why the focus is not on the state tests right now, we're going to focus on these initiatives first, that's going to be our primary focus, where we're going to be laser-like. Once we get all these implemented, then we want to be good at what we've implemented. Any time you implement any new program you'll have what they call "the dip" because there's such a learning curve, not only for the students but for the teachers. You're not going to be the same teacher five years ago when you're doing all these new instructional approaches, and you're teaching all these new curriculums that you haven't taught before and are teaching it in a very different way. Every change brings a learning curve, so now that we've done this, our focus will be to get really good at it. And that's where we're going.
So it was our strength and our weakness at the same time: Strength in implementing, weak in that we're not proficient at it yet.