Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Building Bridges

Janesville school leaders focused on opening
new world and opportunities to students

This article will appear in the Wisconsin School News Magazine (WASB Magazine)
May Edition

A district-wide effort in the Janesville School District is connecting students in Janesville to students across the globe. Since January, students in the district have been participating in a worldwide project with the goal of building bridges between schools all over the world and in their own community.

The district is running the Bridges Conference, which challenges students and educators to build bridges figuratively and literally not only between people but also between knowledge. While it is called a conference, it takes place over the course of about seven months beginning in January and ending with a festival in July.

The conference builds a global education community and includes participating schools from the U.S., China, Finland, Singapore and other countries. The Janesville School District website explains the basis of the project: “Its origin derives from within our inter-connectedness as people … we feel it’s essential to collaborate as an education collective to do studies about bridges and thus promote mutual understanding and communication between and among people (such as family members, educators, students, neighbors, and other education stakeholders) in this way we can provide improvement of educational policies, strategies, and practices. ”Karen Schulte, superintendent of the Janesville School District, said participating in the conference is about providing students another opportunity to engage in international education. “We want students here in Janesville to have a world-class education,” she said.

The conference aims to promote further communication and mutual appreciation among schools around the world as well as in the wider community. This means that projects within the Bridges Conference can work to connect students globally and connecting students to community members. Craig Bergum, a teacher at Janesville’s Edison Middle School, says he has been impressed with the projects that have come out of the Bridges Conference.

One project built bridges between Janesville middle school students and veterans. Students at Edison Middle School wrote letters to veterans thanking them for their service. This is where most school projects would end but projects in the Bridges Conference challenge teachers to take the learning a step farther. A veteran was invited to the classroom and talked to the students about what he had experienced. Bergum said it was a very powerful moment for the students and the veteran. After hearing the veteran’s first-hand, account students were challenged to write another letter to their veteran. Bergum said the first letters students wrote had been only a couple paragraphs but after hearing the veteran speak, some of the letters expanded to two pages.

Teacher Krista Twist said the activity not only connected her students to veterans but also allowed her to teach through a different lens. “It fits right in with the lessons I was teaching,” Twist said. “I was able to connect this very easily to how to write a letter, the structure of how to write that letter, and the components within the letter.” One student was compelled to write a letter to a grandparent who was a veteran. Bergum said the student didn’t know the grandparent all that well and received a long, thoughtful response. “It gave her a way to talk to her grandfather,” Bergum said. “These are the kinds of things that can come out of building these bridges.”

Students at Kennedy Elementary School connected visual and performing arts with science and social studies concepts. A visiting artist helped students communicate and explore these subject areas through art and a residency with a dance professor from the University of Wisconsin exposed students to dance interpretative. The project culminated in a performance by all of the elementary students as they performed their curriculum in a dance. “We embraced the idea that I think Bridges represents, which is pulling together the creativity and the innovation of our students,” said Leah Hellendbrand, a teacher at Kennedy Elementary School.

Another project is connecting high school students to engineers; a robotics team is being mentored by engineers from the community. A project at a middle school connects students to senior citizens.
Many of these projects were already taking place in the district,
Bergum said, the Bridges Conference challenged students and educators to take these projects a step further. “We’re looking at how are we going to make these learning experiences last longer? How can we go beyond that ‘normal’ school project?”

Multiple subject areas are engaged in these projects and, most importantly, they will be shared with students around the world via a website and also during a special festival. “Artifacts from these projects will be put together whether they’re films, picture, stories, construction of bridge models — these will all be portrayed in a culminating activity this summer,” Schulte said.  That activity is the Bridges Conference festival in July. At the festival, the student projects will be shared with other students and educators from around the world through the universal language of the arts. The festival coincides with the district’s Summer International Education Institute, which will provide international learning opportunities to students in the district. Students and their families will also have the opportunity to host an international student for three weeks during the Summer International Education Institute.

Global learning will not end in Janesville when the Bridges Conference is completed this summer. The Bridges is part of a larger effort being undertaken at the district to connect Janesville students to people and knowledge all over the world. Schulte said she challenges her educators and administrators to think of new ways to engage students in real-world, relevant learning. “I tell staff to be risk takers,” Schulte said. “It’s ok if they fail, I just ask that they learn from it.”  One example of this kind of teaching is an experience recently had by students at Janesville Craig High School. Through the work of their teacher, journalism students at the high school teleconferenced with a journalist in Ukraine during the massive protests that rocked the country. Schulte said the students were powerfully affected by the time they spent talking with the Ukrainian journalist. “That is something that these kids will never forget,” Schulte said.

Kevin Leavy, Public Information Specialist for the district, said an important aspect of the Bridges Conference and the other international learning opportunities in the district are that they are available to all students. “We’re bringing all of this to our students in their classrooms,” Leavy said. “We trying to make it that much easier for international learning because it’s in their building.” In another instance, a middle school teacher connected with an anthropologist in Switzerland. The anthropologist spoke to 100 sixthgrade students via teleconferencing about his work, which included examining mummies. Schulte said the students were completely engaged, “You could have heard a pin drop.” “We have this ability in this day and age to connect anywhere,” Schulte said. “We are going to be sure that our students in Janesville aren’t left out.”

Shelby Anderson is editor of Wisconsin School News.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Severe weather reminder

On April 4 I announced that April 21-25 would be Wisconsin Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week. Today, as we begin the week, I would like to send out a reminder and awareness information from Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden. I’m also passing along a heads up on the statewide tornado drill coming up Thursday.

First some tornado facts:

Wisconsin averages 23 tornadoes annually.
• In 2013, 16 tornados touched down in Wisconsin. Six of these occurred during the night and early morning hours of August 6th and 7th when an EF2 tornado struck near New London in Waupaca and Outagamie counties. Two residents were injured and damage costs climbed into the millions.
• 38 tornados struck down in Wisconsin in 2011, the fourth highest number on record.
• The peak tornado season in Wisconsin is April to August, but a tornado can occur at any time of year, as occurred on January 7, 2008 near Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Here are details regarding Thursday’s drill:

1:00 pm – The National Weather Service will issue a statewide mock tornado watch. A tornado watch means that tornados are possible in your area. Citizens should remain alert for approaching storms.

1:45 pm – The National Weather Service will issue a statewide mock tornado warning. A tornado warning means a tornado has been sighted or indicated on weather radar. Citizens should move to a safe place immediately.

2:00 pm – Conclusion of mock tornado watch and warning drill

Important: The tornado drill will take place even if the sky is cloudy, dark and/or rainy. If actual severe storms are expected in the state on Thursday April 24, the tornado drill will be postponed until Friday, April 25 with the same times. If severe storms are possible Friday, the drill will be cancelled. Residents will be notified of any changes through local media as well as the Rock County Sheriff’s Office website and Facebook, and Ready Wisconsin.

What Citizens Can Expect

Rock County Outdoor Warning Siren System: The Outdoor Warning Siren System will be tested in Rock County at 1:45 pm. Citizens can expect to hear the outdoor sirens generate a tone as they do during the monthly siren tests that run between April and October. The test signal will be 1 -2 minutes in duration. Please tune in to your local radio stations or weather radios for all weather related information and instructions when the sirens are sounded. In the event of a tornado warning, the sirens would alert steadily for three to five minutes.

Listen, Act and Live Campaign:

This is an ideal opportunity for schools, businesses and families to practice safe procedures for severe weather. During storm season – follow this message: Listen, Act and Live. Don’t ignore watches and warnings. Listen and take action. Every second counts. Don’t wait… go to a safe place right away!

The School District of Janesville will be participating in the week’s activities. Please contact your building principal for details.

Friday, April 11, 2014


We Are Still #1!

I know it’s not polite to brag, but we’re No. 1. Once again we rank at the top of the 10 largest school districts in Wisconsin when it comes to reading and math proficiency.

I hope we can all take a deep breath today as we start thinking about the weekend and enjoy a win – a success we can all share. Our students perform at a high level and they have been recognized via the WKCE results. This student achievement is the result of district employees in all areas who excel at what they do, and they excel every day, all day.

Our district’s top ranking comes against strong competition. We are alone at the top among the state’s 10 largest districts in math, and we share the top with Eau Claire in reading. Janesville, Eau Claire, Appleton and Waukesha are the only districts scoring above the state average in math, while Janesville, Eau Claire, Appleton and Madison outperform the state average in reading.

So please, let’s all pause for a moment and enjoy our success. Then, it’s back to work.

And we have a lot of work to do. For example, our high school 10th grade math scores are unacceptable. I see district math scores of 59 in third grade, 58 in fourth grade, 62 in fifth grade, 55 in sixth grade, 52 in seventh grade and 50 in eighth grade – all well above the statewide average. Then we get to high school and the numbers drop off. We average only 46 in 10th grade, which is only 1 point higher than the state average.

The bright side is we recognize these deficiencies, and we are addressing them. Project Redesign is in place in the high schools, and we are making major changes in our instruction and curriculum to increase our students’ ability to read and do math.

Overall, we continue to perform at the very top among the 10 largest districts in the state. I’m confident we will continue to perform at that level while we move along on our journey to academic excellence and fulfill our mission to serve our community by educating every child.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thank You

This is a follow-up from my previous blog regarding the Craig High School Spotlighters, who qualified to attend Nationals this year.    These students have devoted countless hours of rehearsing, traveling and fundraising to achieve this goal.  Their efforts are commendable and their commitment to the program and each other is outstanding.  

I would be remiss, if I did not recognize the parents and/guardians and countless volunteers that assist the Spotlighters.  These individuals truly give their heart and soul to the students and the program.   Thank you! Your time and dedication to this program is greatly appreciated.

A very special, “thank you,” to Karla Vriezen, who worked as co-director for the last eight years.  Karla spent countless hours rehearsing, traveling, fundraising and supporting the show choir.  

Test Scores

Test scores

I am pleased to learn that the Wisconsin Concepts and Knowledge Exam (WKCE) scores at the School District of Janesville exceed the statewide averages in both reading and math. I am particularly pleased to see that our scores have improved in many areas since last year.

This student performance is a key indicator in how far we have traveled on our journey toward academic excellence. We have not arrived, but we are traveling in the right direction.

These numbers represent so much more than just test scores. The numbers are the product of hours, days, months and years of our staff’s tireless efforts to overcome challenges. I am convinced our staff members’ work not only exceeds statewide averages, they are state leaders in achievement.

For example, the improvements we are seeing at Wilson Elementary School didn’t just happen. Wilson Principal, Kim Peerenboom and her staff have worked above and beyond to introduce and encourage learning for students at Wilson.

Wilson Elementary is often cited as a barometer of performance in our district, and I am proud to highlight that performance. Students at Wilson do not all come from the wealthiest families in our district. We don’t use that as an excuse.

Data such as free and reduced lunch participation does not mean students cannot learn. At Wilson we see that improvement in academic achievement is not reserved for the wealthy. Academic success is the product of great teachers and a productive curriculum designed to ensure that every students in our district receives an education that prepares them for success. We see that happening at Wilson.

I admit I was overcome with emotion when I saw the scores. They represent so much hard work by everyone in our district  - the teachers on the front lines, our award-winning food service and custodial staffs, our dedicated support staff and our principals and directors. This achievement is a district achievement and would not be possible without the dedication and hard work of everyone who works here.

As Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Kim Ehrhardt pointed out in the April 8 Janesville Gazette article, we have much work to do and plenty of opportunities for improvement. Those are issues we deal with everyday. They keep us up at night.

But, we should stop and enjoy our successes, if only for a brief time. It’s important to acknowledge improvement and achievement. So, please join me in congratulating our entire staff, the dedicated people who ensure our programs and our students remain well above average with an eye on improvement every day.

These dedicated people allow us to continue to fulfill our mission, which is to serve our community by educating every child.