Robert W. Miller

1. What do you feel is the most important issue facing HCPSS at the current time? What steps should the BOE take to address this issue?

Many people probably feel that the most important issue facing HCPSS is how best to balance the budget. No doubt this is a very important issue, but about 85 percent of the operating budget pays for personnel and associated expenses, and the primary mission of our personnel involves student learning. Therefore, I feel that the most important of many important issues is how to best support student learning. The BOE can do much to address this challenge. Maximizing student learning time should be a priority, and changes regarding excessive standardized testing of students would be one step the Board could take; it could advocate for a reduction and restructuring of standardized testing at the state level as well as reduce or eliminate non-mandated testing and test preparation. The Board could also attempt to change the present poorly-conceived teacher evaluation process, thus providing teachers and administrators more time to devote to instruction-related matters. Additionally, the Board could move to reduce the amount of unproductive time-wasting activities expected from educators as well as avoid the propensity to implement programs without sufficient proof of effectiveness, thus further providing time for educators to focus on quality teaching, provide individual assistance to struggling students, and increase collaboration with parents. Meanwhile, reduction of budget-related inefficiencies would provide more funds for instruction. The Board should provide sufficient support for designing and implementing an optimum curriculum. Providing support for staff and training for the special education program should result in increased student learning. Improving procedures that deal with behavior management should also result in an increase in learning time and quality. Prioritization of hierarchical skills mastery, increased expectations of elementary school students regarding their organization skills, and use of natural opportunities to reinforce these as well as attributes like integrity, dependability, etc., would also serve to enhance academic as well as social and emotional learning. The Board should also make decisions regarding how technology can be better employed to more effectively and efficiently augment student learning. Efforts toward equity are vital so educational opportunities for students are not pre-determined by parents’ financial situations; among other considerations, the Board could initiate programs that would provide tutoring and enrichment programs for appropriate students from families who could not otherwise afford them. The Board should strive to ensure that matters of diversity are being considered when dealing with staffing and curriculum issues. Overcrowding must be addressed, likely with some redistricting as well as programatic initiatives such as JumpStart; here, too, reasonable efforts toward equalizing demographics in our schools should be made. Caring for students’ physical, mental, and emotional health should also obviously be top priorities. All of these considerations affect the support of student learning, which is what I believe to be the most important issue facing HCPSS; the extent to which we positively address them will have substantial implications for our students’ futures.

2. How do you think the BOE should implement Dr. Martirano’s Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion (ensures academic success and social-emotional well-being for each student in an inclusive and nurturing environment that closes opportunity gaps) across the levels?

This implementation should have many facets. The BOE should promote a culture of diversity appreciation. It should encourage the development of a diverse work force, a curriculum that honors diversity, and diversity-based courses. It should also work toward equalizing demographics between schools. Furthermore, it should encourage activities, professional learning, and structures that will promote inclusivity. Involving the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion should be helpful, along with the Department of Cultural Proficiency. Use of restorative practices when dealing with disciplinary issues would help to produce a more nurturing environment, while also having other academic, social, and emotional benefits. Regarding the closing of opportunity gaps, the Board should consider what can be done during the school day as well as what can be done to provide tutoring and enrichment opportunities outside of the school day for students of families that cannot afford them. During the school day, providing more time for teachers as described in Question 1 could make possible one-on-one assistance for students struggling with basic skills, organization, and/or social and emotional challenges; this could then help to eliminate achievement gaps and other negative consequences that can accompany students who fall behind and/or have difficulties. Prioritization of hierarchical skills mastery would help insure that students who struggle with Chapter 3 don’t simply move on to Chapter 4, even if the student misses some information in order to receive one-on-one assistance to build skills so “bricks” are not missing from his/her foundation. Also, increased expectations of elementary school students regarding their organization skills should help many students be more successful at all levels. Meanwhile, many students have educational opportunities outside of school that are not available to those in economically-challenged families, for example, tutoring and enrichment classes. This is an area where the BOE could make significant headway by encouraging partnerships with those who provide tutoring and enrichment, which could result in scholarships being provided. HCPSS could also provide a scholarship program for students who need remediation or who demonstrate special aptitudes, talents, and interests, and could explore programs where, for example, high school students could provide remediation and/or enrichment instruction to younger or less experienced students and receive student service credit or even pay. Retirees and other volunteers could also assist. The members of the BOE should address inequities of opportunities outside of school as well as inside if they are serious about closing opportunity gaps.
3. What is your approach regarding school safety plans? 
We should differentiate between actual safety and an appearance of safety, and only invest in initiatives that have proven to provide an increase in actual safety. We should use our funds judiciously; sadly, the problem is complex and nothing can guarantee safety, and difficult choices must be made with limited funds. Data should be referenced. School security is different than home security. It is doubtful that many of the proposals that have recently been made would have prevented the tragedies that have recently occurred. As Tricia Bishop stated in her 3/1/18 column in the Baltimore Sun, “If someone is bent on doing damage at a school, there are myriad ways to go about it even with the tightest of access procedures in place and an armed guard posted at the main entrance. When Adam Lanza ran into a locked door at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, he shot his way in through a window.” From teaching in our school system for 34 years, I am aware of many ways and times that most of our schools could be entered and tragedies could occur inside or outside the building, due to the existence of portables, recess, fire drills, entrance and dismissal, deliveries, evening activities, etc. Some approaches could help to enhance safety, though. Preventative measures such as increasing police familiarity with HCPSS facilities would be worthwhile, though this could largely be accomplished outside of school hours. I would encourage increasing the number of school social workers and using restorative justice practices, as these could help prevent perpetrators from committing tragedies. Also, implementing some types of technology and equipment that have been found to be effective could be worthwhile. We should focus on keeping our students safe outside of school, too. Meanwhile, an examination of accurate relevant statistics would show that our schools are still relatively safe places. Our students should not have to attend school in a prison-like atmosphere.

 

4. What are your priorities regarding setting the school calendar?
I know of no perfect solution to our school calendar challenges. I think that HCPSS’s approach has been reasonably good considering the circumstances. When possible, I support aligning Professional Days with major cultural holidays. But educators must be provided with reasonable opportunities to carry out their non-flexible duties, such as grading. Professional development must be able to occur at appropriate times of the year for certain functions, such as end-of-year teacher articulation meetings, though some flexibility could sometimes be leveraged. I tend to favor a full-week spring break, and if the school year can be extended, putting most snow make-up days at the end of the school year, with a clear final make-up day so families, organizations running camps, etc., can make plans. As school systems can decide not to have school on days that pose major operational issues, such as is presently the case for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I think that putting a professional day on Take Your Child to Work Day should also be considered, since normally so many students are absent that instruction tends to be very limited. Also, I would favor school not to be in session on the teacher convention day in the fall, as the quality of instruction would likely be diluted by the number of absent teachers. In general, I support local control when it comes to setting school calendars.

5. How will you address redistricting and improving the balance of socioeconomic diversity across all schools?

 

To a certain extent, HCPSS needs to compensate for a lack of diversity brought on by issues related to housing and zoning. As a member of the Board, I would want to be a proponent of county regulations that would better enable a diverse population to live, work, and be educated together throughout the county. That said, given our current situation, the Board should do what it can to bring about more socio-economically diverse schools when redistricting. Though the decisions must be based on Policy 6010, the criteria in the policy were not assigned weights, so increasing diversity in schools can be more heavily weighted as long as the policy is reasonably followed and the criteria reasonably respected. We should base redistricting on long-term needs and then make adjustments if needed. Now that the location of High School #13 is known, we should redistrict so capacity is addressed for the long term; some of these adjustments should include movement toward where most of the capacity exists. While trying to minimize student movement, at least for students while attending a specific school, balancing socioeconomic diversity should be prioritized. For example, to adjust for capacity, if a community can be moved to School A which is slightly further away than School B but the socioeconomic balancing will be improved, the balancing should be more heavily weighted than the added distance and the move should be made. There would have to be reasonable limits to this and all of the policy criteria would have to be considered, but other than the elimination of overcrowding, socioeconomic balance is the criterion that should receive the most weight when determining which polygons of students will be moved, and what their destination schools will be.