Audit not surprising

District embarking on multiyear plan to improve educational system

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An inadequate organizational structure, an inadequate staff development program, an inadequate student assessment database and an ineffective decision-making process -- hardly assessments one might expect of a top-performing Colorado school district.

But those findings and others are among the critiques of the Steamboat Springs School District in a 160-page curriculum management audit report conducted this spring.

To some district officials, the findings aren't revelations but rather affirmations of what they already thought to be true of the 1,900-student school system.

"I think it's good information," said Superintendent Donna Howell, who recommended the audit to the School Board and the Education Fund Board, which paid for the $23,000 examination. "I don't think anyone was very surprised with the findings."

Longtime Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis agreed, saying the results verified many of the flaws he's seen in the district during the years.

But to bring about some of the changes recommended in the audit, the district will have to reverse a trend of starting projects it never finishes -- another of the audit's findings.

"If it doesn't happen now, there will be a lot of frustration," DeVincentis said.

The curriculum management audit, performed by a two-member team from Indiana-based Phi Delta Kappa International, was intended to provide the district a professional and objective analysis of its systems, particularly as they relate to curriculum and instruction.

The audit measured the district against five standards that Howell said are respected within the education community.

Howell said district employees and community members needn't be concerned by the findings, and she said the staff has done an amazing job considering the limitations of the systems put in place by district leaders during the years.

Still, the audit's findings and recommendations signal a long road of system changes and new philosophies that will affect employees at all district levels. The end result, Howell said, will be improved education for students.

"It's really going to help us focus and do a better job in providing a better education for our students," she said.

First on the to-do list is the compilation of a comprehensive strategic plan, Howell said. That plan likely will include a communication plan, a curriculum management plan, a facilities master plan, revised organizational structure and a student support services plan.

"I see my task this summer as pulling that together," Howell said. "We're going to have a comprehensive plan that pulls all this together."

Some of the subplans are in place, such as the communication plan that resulted from a communications audit the district commissioned last year.

The administrative team has reviewed and discussed a revision of the district's leadership structure. It's likely that Content Standards Director Kelly Stanford and Finance Director Dale Mellor will be given oversight over other department leaders in an effort to create a more clearly defined administrative ladder.

Others plans, such as the curriculum management plan, will involve extensive work and planning during the coming months.

Curriculum design and planning was one of the targets of the audit. It determined the district lacks a plan to establish timelines and procedures for curriculum development, review and implementation.

The finding was hardly surprising to some district officials.

Teachers have been developing and designing curriculum for years. But their work is often fragmented and not aligned with work going on elsewhere in the district.

Howell and DeVincentis don't blame teachers and staff for curriculum inadequacies. Rather, the system is at fault.

"The people have done an excellent job within the constraints of the system," Howell said.

Curriculum work often has focused on every subject area every year, DeVincentis said. Teachers, as a result, feel overwhelmed, and accomplishments wane.

Also hurting curriculum progress has been the host of other projects teachers have worked on, such as Knowledge and Skills Based Pay, said DeVincentis and elementary school teacher Mike Johnson.

"I feel like the curriculum is what the district is all about," DeVincentis said. "We are not planners of a new salary schedule. Other people can do that. I feel some of the best people in the district have been sidetracked the last couple of years."

"This is about kids," Johnson said. "That other stuff isn't about kids. It would be good to see us focus more on curriculum than those other things."

Developing district curriculum and a plan to manage it could solve another district problem -- lack of building alignment and articulation.

Some feel the district operates as four separate schools, not one unified school system.

"They are separate schools because the district hasn't done anything to bring them together," DeVincentis said. "The bulk of the work has been done at the building level out of necessity. There has to be better system connection."

Bringing district schools together will depend on building principals' commitment to doing so, Howell said. Understandably, teachers and building administrators can struggle with the challenge of having to forego a need at their school for a greater need elsewhere in the district.

A proper balance will allow for some individual and building autonomy while maintaining a district focus, she said.

"It's amazing -- we've done very, very well with the lack of focus we've had," Steamboat Springs High School assistant principal Mike Knezevich said. "We haven't had any clear direction, and that's why we've had four different philosophies with curriculum."

Howell, who took over the district last summer, said she thinks the district is ready for the changes recommended in the audit. But she knows it's incumbent upon her and other district leaders to prove to the staff and community that progress will be made and that this isn't the next in a long line of ambitious but uncompleted goals.

"We have to make it happen," Howell said. "And we can't do it all at once. We need to prioritize. This is going to be a multiyear project."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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