The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
January is a great time to look back over the past year and set goals for the year ahead. A year ago, I had a lot of goals but little experience as a County Superintendent of Schools. Now, I have both experience and goals—and a great team who knows how to transform ideas into action.
My campaign promises were these: 1) confront chronic absenteeism by forming countywide attendance boards and teen courts; 2) decentralize services to overcome Mendocino’s geographic challenges; 3) assist local school boards in developing effective governance structures; and 4) inspire a culture of innovation.
Here’s where we are now.
Reducing Chronic Absenteeism
Having a countywide attendance board and teen court may be helpful, but the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office is focused on addressing violent crimes and I do not want to pull resources away from that. Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing at least 10 percent of the school year, which equates to missing only a couple of days a month. Statistically, students who are chronically absent are less likely to graduate from high school, and it usually starts as early as kindergarten (when students are learning the fundamentals). Although chronic absenteeism continues to challenge local schools, I’ve learned that many districts are using creative approaches to help students improve their attendance.
Locally, in Point Arena, there are signs all over town educating students, parents and visitors about the importance of regular attendance. In Mendocino, they’ve hired a social worker to help identify and overcome barriers to attendance for individual families. In Round Valley, they are bringing more Native culture into the schools, making the schools more welcoming for many of their students. In Ukiah, one of their school resource officers is focused primarily on attendance, doing home visits and helping families get their students to school even under difficult circumstances.
My second goal, decentralizing operations, was for the Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE) to work more effectively and efficiently. We are now better utilizing our resources by reducing unnecessary travel through video conferencing. This allows everyone access to the same information at the same time. When we do travel, we make sure it is as worthwhile as possible. For example, rather than having school district employees travel to MCOE, our employees are more often traveling onsite to schools so we can see the challenges districts face firsthand.
We have also redesigned our operations to improve communication and break down silos. We hold regular “huddles” where all the MCOE employees working with a given school district come together to share activities and ideas. We know who will be at school sites, what activities and events are planned, who might need extra support, and how we can work together to provide the best possible support.
My third goal was to improve governance. In 2020, I’ll join county school board members as they attend district school board meetings. I’ll also provide professional development opportunities so county and district school board members can gain a fuller understanding of their roles and responsibilities.
Another way we’re enhancing governance is at the administrative leadership level. MCOE is working with the Studer Group to create a strategic plan and improve operations. We are also supporting districts through a Principals’ Network in collaboration with UC Davis and Ukiah Unified School District. Both the Studer Group and UC Davis’ Professional Learning Communities use similar approaches to problem solving—review a problem, develop a solution, implement small incremental changes with real-time analysis, then make adjustments and try it again until the problem is solved.
My final goal was to create a culture of innovation. Innovation takes vision and courage. The good news for Mendocino County is that we have a new Educational Services assistant superintendent who is well versed in this work, having done it in Marin and Sonoma Counties. Kim Kern joined MCOE a few months ago and she is leading the way. She recommends “going slow to go fast.” She says having clear goals and an unwavering commitment can lead to real and lasting change.
We’ve started a few pilot projects and they are truly exciting, such as fifth graders coding at Blosser Lane Elementary in Willits and students presenting solutions to local education challenges in Anderson Valley. As these projects grow, I’ll share more about them in future columns.