School officials begin envisioning future of Missouri schools

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Some of the state's top education leaders have kicked off an initiative to guide future trends in Missouri's schools.

A group of about 120 school superintendents and school board members, dubbed the Missouri Vision Task Force, will spend about a year meeting in internal focus groups and conversing with community members before producing a blueprint for Missouri's educational future.

The task force held its initial meeting Monday in Jefferson City.

"Our groups have all advocated on certain issues over the years, especially in the legislature, but we've never sat down and really had people's focus on what our vision is for public education, and where it should go," said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

MASA is working with the Missouri School Boards' Association in this project.

Kurtz said he felt that education organizations often work to stop initiatives in the legislature, but do not offer enough proactive alternatives.

As schools grapple with economic pressure and change, outlining clear priorities is important, said Arthur Mallory, a former Missouri education commissioner.

To characterize the changes the state already weathered, Mallory recalled that the number of school districts in Missouri declined from about 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century to slightly more than 500 today.

Mallory told the group to not forget education was about the individual child, and that no amount of change in technology could alter that fact.

He also lamented the demise of the Parents as Teachers program statewide, the victim of budget cuts during the last legislative session. It was under his leadership in 1985 that the legislature passed a bill allowing state funding of the fledgling program where he still serves as a board member.

"I hate to see us step back, because the research is irrefutable," Mallory said. "If that kid can do a good job up through three and four years of age, that child will be ready for school and will do a better job throughout the school program.

"In times of tough budgets, do you cut everyone, or do you have priorities, and what will those priorities be?"

Norman Ridder, superintendent of the Springfield School District, said in times of economic uncertainty he sees students and parents become more engaged with education.

"We may have larger class sizes and fewer administrators due to cutbacks," Ridder said. "But as long as you have an engaged learner, changes can work."

Changes may not be radical; sometimes, it may mean going back to basics, some said.

"We may not be trying to do new things, but we may be falling back on what we do, only doing it better," Kurtz said. "How can we fall back and make sure we have no tolerance for failure?"

Ridder said he's encouraged by what he's seeing in Springfield schools. Attendance is up, and with the advent of electronic communications tools and learning devices, the classroom is an exciting place to be, he said.

"Kids want to come to school," Ridder said. "Today's child has more information at his fingertips than ever before, so it's a matter of helping them with skills, problem solving, creative thinking. ... We need to help students with what is good learning."

The visionary group will hold four public discussions on the future of education around the state in November of this year.

"We need to get out in front on this and plan some ideas, but it's going to be the public that directs and drives this," Ridder said.

The task force will meet four more times before releasing a final report at the annual Missouri Schools Boards Association and Missouri Association of School Administrators conference in October 2011.

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