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Nielsen outlines strategic plan
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AYER – When talk turns to education in area communities these days, newspaper headlines tend to reflect the concerns of taxpayers who want to know how school districts are spending their money. School committees, administrators and educators, on the other hand, may frame the picture differently, with bottom lines based on educational criteria.

It is the School Committee’s job to come up with reasonable, workable budgets that balance educational goals with fiscal constraints. Meanwhile, educators must provide the kind of education students need to succeed, but still comply with state and federal mandates that are not necessarily funded.

In short, these are tough times for public schools and the people who run them.

The school system is ready to meet the challenges, said Superintendent of Schools Lore Nielsen.

She expanded on improvement objectives she talked about at a recent School Committee meeting. She explained how standards, outcomes and other terms she used at the board meeting fit in the context of a system-wide work in progress with a three-year timeframe.

The Ayer public schools’ Strategic Plan for 2004 to 2007 was developed by a team of administrators and teachers from all grade levels. With both visionary and doable objectives, the multi-page document is functional as well as educational, and intended to serve as a teaching guide and touchstone for parent expectations.

The strategic plan presents detailed descriptions of educational needs, responsibilities and resources in chart form. Items are listed under four main categories: curriculum and student services, professional development, communication, and resources and facilities. Since this superintendent’s specialty is curriculum instruction, it is not by coincidence that that area has been a focus since she took the job in July 2004.

The three-year initiative includes draft documents in English language arts and mathematics that state intended outcomes that align with the strategic plan, said Nielsen.

“It is standards-based,” she said.

The outcomes come from meetings between task force members, administrators and teachers, she said. The aim, in part, is to delineate boundaries, define destinations and determine directions. They establish, both in relative terms and for practical purposes, what is taught, how it is taught and how to assess data to find out if goals have been met.

“Teachers spend a lot of time making decisions like that,” she said. A common understanding of outcomes is necessary to see if students are progressing satisfactorily through grade levels.

The bottom line here is to create an effective curriculum flow for pre-kindergarten through grade 12, Nielsen said. It seems like a straightforward premise, but apparently things did not always work that way.

Previously, there was no pipeline for interschool communication, Nielsen said.

“It was a high priority for me (to start that flow),” she said.

Tracing the history of the initiative, she said the first step was to assess resources including teachers and administrators. The action plan kicked off with a professional workshop day for all teachers. The price tag was $29,000, the cost of teacher’s salary. The investment underscores the value of the work they had to do, Nielsen said.

Next, task forces were formed in language arts and mathematics, the two subjects most accountable in state standards such as the MCAS test and federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind. Two separate groups of teachers and administrators represented each grade level.

“They came up with broad-based goals,” Nielsen said.

Last year work included a half-day set aside to work out a rough draft of the outcomes: one for English language arts and one for mathematics. Over the summer, task force members and others representing the three schools – approximately six from each group – met to put the whole thing together, said Nielsen.

“We were in good shape by fall,” she said.

When documents were at the report stage, they were ready to go to all of the teachers with key outcomes for each grade level. When all of the teachers have had a chance for input, the draft outcome documents go to the school board.

“We will be asking the School Committee to vote on the finished product,” said Nielsen.

From there, outcomes Nielsen described as a series of can do/will do objectives and expectations will translate to curriculum guides for teachers to use in English and mathematics classes at each grade level. Outcomes will also be posted on the school Web site.

“Outcomes define the math and English curriculum,” she said.

A key difference that sets this initiative apart is that it codifies goals that align with state curriculum frameworks established by the Education Reform Act.

The outcomes and strategic plan also include assessment tools, Nielsen said, “to be sure we do it right.”

She stressed that changes were not dramatic, but were framed to validate what teachers do and structure ways and means to share what they do with each other.

To be continued

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