Budget 101

There is an old African adage that says, “When the pond starts drying up, the animals begin looking differently at each other”. That adage applies to school budgets as well. The other saying that applies to school district’s is, “In absence of information, people make stuff up.” This blog, then, has a dual purpose: 1) to acknowledge that when budget gets tight, people may take it personally and blame someone else for “hogging all the water”; and 2) it is best that people have information so they can respond to both fact and fiction.

Here is some budget 101.

  1. The BPS has a budget of approximately 161 million, 83 percent of which goes to staff. Sometimes people are surprised by that percentage. They say, “83 percent of your budget is people!” However, in any service business (think school, hospital, or government) 83 percent is not atypical.
  2. The BPS projected an ending fund balance in the neighborhood of six percent. As a superintendent, I have always known by rule of thumb a good place to end the year is with a balance of ten to twelve percent. Six percent is on the low end, fifteen percent is, most years, higher than the BPS needs. Other school districts’ ending fund balance will differ from ours. Their fund balances makes sense for their context. In North Dakota, the context of a Class B school may be very, very different from a Class A school.
  3. The BPS student body is growing at about 2.3 percent a year or an average of 350 students. Growth is a good thing, at least when compared to the other choice of decline. Note that state aid for last year (2015-16) is being received this year, in 2016-17. In other words, expenses for educating students are incurred the year before the reimbursement in state aid is received. This is one reason we need an ending fund balance as costs to educate more kids are high. (As a side bar, if you look askance at the legislature for this pattern of aid, you are that animal at the pond. The legislature, I believe, instituted the current pattern of aid for good reason: at one time, most North Dakota schools faced declining enrollment. Not so long ago, North Dakota was the oldest state in the union, in terms of citizens’ age. Today, North Dakota may be the youngest state in the union. Whether the legislature should go back to funding in “real time” is a good question. Another good question is could the state could afford it, now. I suspect it could not, this session). However, a decade or more of reimbursement trailing a year after expenses at a time where each new school year brings hundreds of new students and thus, new huge expenses can and will erode ending fund balance unless cost containment / budget cuts outpace enhancements and inflation – difficult at best while maintaining quality education.
  4. Salaries of staff who provide services in new space (teachers in additions, teachers and support staff in new schools / additions) are a general fund expense and do impact the general fund. See #1, above, for the impact of such costs.
  5. The BPS has added teachers, support staff, professional support staff, and administrators in response to increased student numbers. People generally understand the need for additional employees of their category. Building understanding for additions to other categories may be harder to grapple with. Yet every person not at teacher, including myself serves in a support role to the classroom and acts as a liaison to families and the larger community. Teachers and students should see more administrators in classrooms, problem solving issues, and advancing the mission. Extra-curricular coaches and advisers should have more “go to” immediate help than before. Still it is hard to keep pace when there are so many needs, so many more students and families to serve, and limited dollars. We can only spend a dollar once and then that dollar is gone for good.
  6. Health insurance increased seven percent. Under the Affordable Care Act, more BPS employees qualify for health insurance benefits. This impact of both the increased rate and increased number of employees participating is projected to cost BPS four million dollars this year. That being said, the BPS health insurance increase is significantly lower than increases other school districts are facing.
  7. Growth in student numbers certainly provides challenges in terms of space. For secondary schools, HMS and SMS are over capacity and WMS will be shortly. CHS will not be big enough for the incoming enrollment. BHS and CHS are gorgeous high schools and yet need improvements to the physical plant. The BPS continues to be short on space in particular areas of the school district: for elementary schools, on the NE, the NW, the SW, and SE.
  8. The closing of Saxvik Elementary can be a “confounder” for some and a clash point for others. The Saxvik Building with its dirt crawl space on its very tight lot would need millions of dollars invested in it for adequacy reasons. That investment would have been wise for a building on a larger campus, with a better physical foundation, in a growing neighborhood. Students from Saxvik were routed to neighborhood schools, and nearly a million dollars in annual efficiencies resulted. Still, I recognize it is painful to say goodbye to a school that served so many;
  9. Construction of new schools does not impact the general fund positively or negatively. The BPS community has built three new schools, provided additions to several more, and made improvements to many “core city” schools (think office remodel, added air conditioning, safety improvements to the building access, science rooms, improved school kitchens, etc). Voter approved bonds pay construction costs for new schools and the building fund (not part of the general fund) pays for additions and improvements such as those at Highland Acres, Grimsrud, Prairie Rose, Moses, Murphy, and others. Controllable budget (or dollars line-itemed in our budgets) pay for remodels to classrooms such as science rooms and for new roofs and better heating and cooling. A state grant as well as controllable budget was used for safety improvements. The enhancement process was used to provide furniture, fixtures, and equipment in Legacy High School. These dollars impacted the general fund.
  10. In determining to build new or add on, the BPS has been guided by broad-based community tasks forces and the work is done via public Board meetings which invite and encourage public input.
  11. As we continue to grow, new space (new buildings, additions, or equity work) will likely require a bond. We have been studying how to get this work done without adding an additional tax burden much beyond what all taxpayers carry today.

My hope is these info bites will provide you with facts so people do not have to make stuff up. And as North Dakota experiences a bit of a drying pond, having facts can help reduce your stress as we all adjust to a new business climate.

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Creativity is an Everyday Act

sawyer eating a peach in the sunshineI watched my Sawyer try lift a laundry basket full of beach toys off the deck to carry to the lake. He couldn’t do it. Knowing his learning is in his struggle, I forced myself to avoid doing his work for him and thus, cheating him of a chance to develop his thinking. I forced myself to not get up and carry his basket. Sawyer studied the basket, trying several times to lift it. He could lift it up but not walk with it.

He studied longer. Soon he ran across the yard to the dock and returned with a long yellow rope. I have no idea where he had it hidden the rope or why he remembered it.

Next Sawyer tried several times to tie the rope around the basket, eventually figuring out he needed to loop it through the handle. That done, he pulled the basket across the lawn, toys falling out in a steady stream with each bounce and tug. The basket was empty when he reached the beach. He studied his empty basket for a moment and then declared victory.

Sawyer ran with his basket up and down the beach and up and down the dock. When I 090116 evvie in basketbrought Everette to the lake, he studied her for a while and said, “Put her in here”.
Everette instantly had a redneck wading pool.
Sawyer tried to pull Evie in the basket with the rope. He couldn’t budge her. He threw his rope and ran down the dock, calling over his shoulder, “I will pull her with the boat”. At that point, I thought it wise to step in.

How did Sawyer become a creative problem solver? How do we ensure each student at BPS develops the same skill set? Our teachers, parents, students, and business leaders told us what they want in the 21st Century BPS graduate. Please note the ability to be creative while investigating and applying critical content.
Dewitt Jones advises that creativity isn’t magical or mystical or confined to art production. We are all artists, inventors, problem solvers with beautiful answers within us, provided we really care and we:

  1. Break the pattern. Creativity is a matter of perspective: Sawyer looked at a laundry basket and saw a sled and then a wading pool and then, heaven forbid, a water ski;
  2. Learn to be fearless about making mistakes. Every act can be a creative one: it took Sawyer multiple cycles of attempt-reflect-refine before he got his laundry sled moving;
  3. Reframe problems into opportunities, train our technique: Sawyer was unable to lift the basket on his own yet he has not learned to be dependent on adults. He knows his problem is his to solve, and he had discovered his yellow rope had multiple uses;
  4. And finally, every day, look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary. There’s always more than one right answer: Sawyer invented a sled, a wading pool, and was on his way to a baby-laundry-basket-water-ski before he was shut down.

Much of American education community has fallen victim to believing our work in education is to produce the best students in the world. Hear me clearly: I am a fan of bright kids, but I believe our work is to produce the best students for the world. And to be the best for the world, young people be continually immersed in that “radical balance” of content acquisition and collaborative application. By designing learning around that, we put BPS students in the place of most potential.

I send my best to each of you in the 2016-17 school year. Thank you for your service to the students and families of BPS.


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Back to School Checklist

I overhead my two oldest grandchildren (Emrie 6 and Romie 5) talking about school. Emrie was amazed to hear Romie say he would be going to kindergarten in four weeks. “Oh Womie,” she said, “you are going to love it”. After all, she just graduated kindergarten and without question, it was a joyful experience. Roman was glad to hear he would love it. He trusts Emrie’s insight and he is deeply impressed that she can read. (Upon watching her read Splat the Cat, he suggested Emrie be a guest reader at his day care, after the mayor and superintendent.)

One-fourth of America’s population who goes to school each day as preK-12 to post-graduate students, teachers, custodians, aides, cooks, administrators, or other support staff. Education plays a huge role in building communities today and in the future. At BPS, we are mission driven: all students, every single one, will be successful at college (any post-secondary education or training), career, and community life. Schools cannot deliver on this mission alone.

As the first day of school nears, parents and students plan for the year ahead: getting school supplies, registering for busing, replacing Z pass if needed, depositing money to provide food for children, and more. All of those tasks are important, yet I would offer the reminder that the single biggest gift parents can give their children is to get them to school consistently. Attendance matters more than new clothes, color crayons, more than the backpack and shoes, more than any other school gift. Students who attend school consistently feel better about themselves, build academic and age appropriate social skills, and are far more likely to graduate than those who have frequent absences. Those who miss as little as one day every two weeks are more likely to fall behind and stay behind, forever. There is a strong link between learning to attend school in elementary and graduating high school. Give your children the gift of an independent future by getting them to school consistently.

Life is stressful and busy. As a mom and grandmother, I know this is true. Yet purposeful planning makes the difference between a great idea (school attendance matters) and great action (my children are at school). Here are proven tips that help parents and students get to school: define a bed time and morning routine and stick to it for 21 days. On day 22, that routine has become habit and the struggle is over. Set out backpacks and clothes the night before. Follow a regular bedtime and wake time. Recognize the difference between sickness such as the flu and sickness caused by anxiety. Your child’s teacher and school counselor will help address anxiety issues. Even with the best plan, “life interrupts”. For days like that, have a back-up plan where a trusted family member, neighbor, friend, or another parent can assist. Plan medical appointments and extended family trips around the school calendar. Students who go to school are more likely to succeed academically, emotionally, financially, and internationally. In a world where much is uncertain, this is for certain: getting your children to school daily is offers to them a more secure future and that is one of best gifts you can give for it will impact your child forever.

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Bismarck is on the Grow!

Are you tall? Seriously, how would you answer that question: are you tall? I recall a conversation with my building principal who was considerably over six feet tall. He was telling me about his brother. I asked, “Is he tall, too?” My boss looked at me and said, “Nah…he’s maybe… six-three, six-four.” (Oh, a little person, then).

I found his reply kind of fascinating. From his benchmark, his little brother was indeed “little”, a mere six-foot-four. That seems rather tall from the perspective of someone who is not quite five-foot-three. Yet I am tall, compared with my 25 year old niece Hannah, who is four-foot-eleven. It seems everything is relative to the standard in mind.

Take for example people who lament that North Dakota is slowing down, maybe coming to a standstill regarding growth. What is the comparison? The good news is we are moving from a period of unsustainable and rapid growth of five percent to a time of consistent and steady growth of two percent. Is that a decline? Yup, two is indeed less than five. However, at two percent Bismarck is still growing much faster than in the recent past, before the boom, when it was growing at one percent. Bismarck was on the grow. Bismarck is on the grow. Our city is now growing at a manageable rate, and as a school district, it is incumbent upon us to manage and plan for that growth. This demands a different strategy than was used during the recent boom.

When I first came to BPS five years ago, we faced a tsunami of new students. In response, the community gave us permission to build three new schools, move the sixth grade to middle school, and the ninth grade to high school, draw new boundaries to both fill new schools and maximize efficiencies wherever we could find space, remodel some areas and provide equity all over the district. Because Bismarck is still on the grow – not so much a tsunami as a gradual and steady flood, we need to respond by managing growth. Providing space at middle schools, studying elementary schools for equity as well as knowing when a building has served its useful life as a school house, and providing equity at the high schools are our next jobs.

People are moving to Bismarck for a number of reasons: jobs in health care and the service industry, as well as retirees seeking senior housing and medical care. The mayor told Renae Hoffman Walker and me in a meeting recently there are plans for $100 million in commercial construction as well as 6,000 new housing starts.

Here is some snapshot data.

Year Population Actual/Projected 10-Year Increase  
2000 55,392    
2010 61,272 +5,880 actual increase over 2000  
2020 79,370 +18,098 projected increase over 2010  
2030 96,865 +17,495 projected increase over 2020  
2040 114,361 +17,496 projected increase over 2030  
2000-2040 TOTAL +58,969 projected increase; more than double actual 2000 population.  
Source: U.S. Census Bureau & Community Development Dept., 2015.
Year Population Projected 10-Year Increase
2010 81,308  
2020 100,986 +11,595
2030 110,932 + 9,946
2040 113,937 + 3,005
2010-2040 TOTAL +24,546 projected increase
Source: 2016 ND Dept. of Commerce Census Office “Projected Migration Scenario”– assuming a higher rate of in-migration to the state in the earlier years and a gradual leveling off in future years; changing economic conditions can affect actual population change.


  • Bismarck-Mandan employment gained 2.2% in 2015 (compared to Fargo-Moorhead at 1.0%).
  • North Dakota’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 2.8% for December 2015, unchanged from December 2014. The national rate in December 2015 was 4.8% un-employment.

Source: ND Job Service Dec. 2015 report.

  • ND has highest Gallup Good Jobs employment rate of all 50 states at 51.5%.

Source: Gallup January 2016.

Year Owner Rental Total
• 2015-2020 1,754 1,250 3,004
• 2020-2025 1,668 1,215 2,883
• 2025-2030 1,884 1,306 3,190
TOTAL 5,306 3,771 9,077 additional housing units in 15 years (2015-2030)
Source: Hanna: Keelan Associates, P.C., 2015, ND Housing Demand Analysis through 2030.  
• Bismarck Public School first day fall enrollment (K-12) for 2011-12 through 2015-16 school years.
2011 11,008 +   233  
2012 11,417 +   409  
2013 11,776 +   359  
2014 12,049 +   273  
2015 12,410 +   361  
5-year increase: +1,635    
Grades 2015-16 2019-2020    
K-5 6,124 6,909 +  785 (1,152 students per K-5th grade by 2020)  
6-8 2,734 3,379 +  645  
9-12 3,546 3,955 +  391  
K-12 12,422 14,242 +1,820 (added to 1,635 in past 5 years is 3,455)  
Source: school demographer Rob Schwarz, RSP & Associates

As people talk about growth in North Dakota, remember Bismarck was on the grow at one per-cent, then was on the grow too fast at five percent, and is now on the grow at two percent. We need to respond to that growth in a manner that provides equitable schools for students and staff and protects academics, culture, and economics. Please stay in tune with plans to do just that.


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Birds, Blossoms & Budgets…

Springtime means birds chirping and flowers blooming. It’s also budget season. Do you know the five major budget categories in our district, what they fund, and why?

General Fund: this is the main fund for all financial resources and district expenditures EXCEPT those below. This fund provides for employees, books, materials, etc.

Capital Project Funds: these are used to acquire or construct major capital facilities. Some of the revenue in this fund comes from the sale of bonds, as well as building and special assessment levies allowed for school districts. For example, some of the money for the new district Athletic Complex will come from this account, as well as from private donors. With spring will come the first major use of that facility—a soccer game between CHS & St. Mary’s on April 9th!

Debt Service Funds: an account for the accumulation of resources for, and the payment of, general long-term debt, principal and interest.

Child Nutrition/Food Service Funds: for operations of lunch programs that are financed and operated in a manner similar to private busines The stated intent is that the costs (expenses, including depreciation and indirect costs) of providing food services to the students are financed or recovered primarily through user charges/meal fees.

Student Activity Funds: for activities supporting school related extracurricular activities. Under state law, school districts are required to deposit all receipts from extracurricular activities in this fund.

You will start to hear more about the 2016-17 budget on Monday, March 14. We are taking some positions to the School Board that we feel we need to post now to get the best candidates. There are other positions and program/school “enhancements” being proposed by administrators; we will roll those out as we get a better handle on how much we may be able to underspend at the end of this school year (2015-16). We anticipate it will be the kind of budget year where we have to do some “spring cleaning” by identifying what we are willing to forgo if we want to add something else.

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Growth and the Wisdom of Crowds

Three truths often surface during problem solving sessions:

  1. In the absence of information, people make stuff up;
  2. There is some wisdom in crowds (when there is an organized way for all to be heard); and
  3. Having your say is not the same as getting your way (but your say still matters and might change the world – or at least the decision).

So join us at our Public Forums regarding BPS facility needs.

Here are the issues:

If not one more single student enrolled in BPS, the secondary schools would grow by over 500 students in three years. This is, of course, because the elementary enrollment has grown so large. Our three middle schools are at or beyond capacity right now. How should BPS respond to the need for space for 500 more?

Despite negative stories you may hear about ND’s economy, our enrollment this year grew by 361 students, the biggest leap it has taken since I have been here.

Elementary enrollment is still increasing, though the curve has flatted a bit. All indications show elementary enrollment will continue to grow. How should we problem solve both the growing need for school space on the north side, in Lincoln, and in areas on the south? What should we do about those few aging elementary schools? What about those that are not handicap accessible?

BPS has solved high school space into the foreseeable future. Yet we know CHS and BHS have equity needs in terms of arts facilities, collaboration space, and core areas. What shall we do about those needs?

How valuable is the feeder system? Can BPS repurpose some buildings to respond to needs more efficiently? What size middle school is the right size? What size is too big? How about for elementary?

These and other problems will be addressed at the Public Forums. If you can attend one, please do. That way, you will have information and can use it when people begin making stuff up. You will be able to hear some unique and perhaps wise solutions posed by groups of community members. And you will leave having had your say, all of which is important to the 75 member community task force who will make recommendations to the School Board.

Our goal, ultimately, is to increase academic achievement by providing valuable educational experiences for students while maintaining reasonable school and class sizes. We must present financially realistic options.

You are invited to provide input at one of two public forums:

  • Wednesday, Jan. 27 , 6:30-8 pm, Simle Middle School cafetorium, 1215 North 19th Street OR
  • Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30-8 pm, Horizon Middle School cafetorium, 500 Ash Coulee Drive.

Future steps:

  • The Facilities Committee will reconvene in February to use input to develop “plans” to present to the community at a final public forum set for Tuesday, March 1, 6:30-8 pm, at Wachter Middle School cafetorium, 1107 South 7th St. Please plan to attend.
  • RSP Associates, our planning consultant, will put together a plan and may conduct a community survey for broader input.
  • The School Board will then select a final course of action, which will be communicated to parents, students, school district employees, and the community later this spring.

We will work to keep you informed as this process unfolds. If you have any questions, please contact our Community relations Director Renae Walker, 701-323-4091, renae_walker@bismarckschools.org.

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The Wisdom of Crowds: Have Your Say

There is wisdom in crowds. I am asking you for yours, please.

The Bismarck Public School Board adopted goals this year, one of which is “to work with the community to develop a fiscally-responsible three-year facilities plan that meets the District’s future needs in ensuring a safe and optimal learning environment for BPS students and staff.”

To that end, the Board directed administration to create a task force of parents, school representatives, and business leaders to look at enrollment trends in Bismarck Public Schools, tour and study various buildings, and craft options for responding to facility needs due to continued growth and other educational issues.

Proposals will be presented at public forums set for 6:30-8 pm on Wednesday, January 27 at Simle Middle School, and Thursday, January 28 at Horizon Middle School. The presentations will be similar each night and the public is invited to give input.

In February, the 75-member Facility Planning Committee will refine the proposed solutions before presenting them to the Board. There may also be another public input session in March.

Planning documents are posted at www.bismarckschools.org under the green tab on the left; public forums are listed under Upcoming Events.

And if you are wondering what the other Board goals are for this 2015-2018, they are as follows:

  • Ensure the academic achievement and success skills of every single BPS student.
  • Empower BPS staff through professional development and focused initiatives to master the standard-based teaching, learning, assessing, and reporting cycle to positively impact growth in student learning.
  • Engage stakeholders through communication and collaboration to build understanding of and support for student achievement goals.


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Gun Safety: Ask

Concerned about Gun Violence in Schools?

Of course, we are all concerned about gun violence in schools. But did you know 80 percent of firearm deaths of children under 15 occur in a home, not in school? Stunningly 1.7 million children live in a home that has a loaded, unlocked firearm within reach of children. While this may not be your home, it may be the home your children are on their way to visit.

Sometimes the gun is in plain view; often it is hidden, perhaps in a closet, as was the gun that killed three year old Markie. See her story here: www.askingsaveskids.org .

Each day, nine children and teens are shot in gun accidents. Talking is not enough. Writing blogs is not enough. Clearly hiding guns is not enough. Children, particularly boys but not only boys, will play with a firearm if they find one. And children somehow find them.

What do do? Markie’s mom shares this tip: before you allow your children in your own home or anyone else’s home, ask this question: “is there an unlocked gun in your house, anywhere?” Ask this question of daycare providers, friends hosting a party, your child’s grandparents, everyone. As awkward as it may feel, ask the question.

For those who own guns, the advice is simple: store them unloaded and locked away. Store the ammunition separately from the firearm.

Markie’s mom lives with profound regret. She didn’t know to ask the question. She urges you to find the courage to ask the question.

To date, 19 million households have been invited to join the ask. You can keep kids safe by becoming one of them.

Information taken from www.askingsaveskids.org



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A License to Learn

When I was about 16 years old, I made a deal with the state of Minnesota. I would travel at or below the speed limit and stop all at stop signs. In return, the judge who took my license and put it in his desk drawer would give it back to me in two weeks. I reflect often on both the state trooper who ticketed me in the Leaf River bottom as a group of friends and I sailed home from the drive-in theater and on the black robed judge who showed me how fast a privilege can disappear. Those two public servants may just have saved my life. It was a lesson I needed, bullet-proof, wild child that I was.

Before you give me the “tsk, tsk” for my teenage indiscretions, consider this: a staggering 49 percent of adults admit to texting and driving, even though 98 percent of adults say they know the practice is unsafe. Read that again. Half of us admit it.

Glance up and look around. Consider every other person presently in your line of sight. It takes only five seconds, on average, for a driver to send a text, yet two seconds is the length of time a person can safely glance away from the road while operating a motor vehicle. In other words, writing a text message distracts the driver two and a half times as long as is safe. And half of all drivers admit to doing it.

Here are some more reasons by the number why using a cell while driving is an unwise choice:

Nine: that’s the number of Americans killed every day from motor vehicle accidents that involved distracted driving, such as using a cellphone, texting, or eating.

1 in 4: the probability that a motor vehicle crash involved a cellphone.

341,000: the number of motor vehicle crashes in 2013 that involved texting.

40%: the percentage of teens who say they have been a passenger in a car whose driver used a cellphone in a way that put them in danger. Read that one again. Four in every ten kids report it. Our kids, the ones we teach, are in those cars and feeling unsafe. Talk about this with students!

33%: the percentage of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 64 who reported reading or writing text messages while driving in the previous month. Compare that to Spain where the percentage was 15 –still too high but half that of the USAs. Consider the modeling going on for the next generation who will become drivers.

Four times: how much more likely you are to crash if you are using a cellphone while driving.

46: the number of US states (plus Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) where texting is banned for all drivers, regardless of age. (It’s not a good idea anywhere).

I am not lecturing you, dear reader. I try teach myself first. My cell goes in my backpack and into the back seat. Putting temptation out of reach works for me. What works for you? It will take you around 21 days of consistent practice to break the bad habit of using a digital device while driving. But we can break a bad habit.

On Wednesday while I was walking home from work a young man drove down Washington on a small motorcycle. He was not wearing a helmet. He was talking on his cell, on Washington, at rush hour. I stood still and watched him roll past. He was oblivious to me and everything on his right and left. As I stood there, I said one more small prayer of thanks for my trooper and my judge.


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The Next Legacy

Legacy High School (LHS) opened officially, last week. After a few trips in the building the real intent behind the bricks and mortar settles in. LHS is really just a school where time (the school schedule), technology (ubiquitous use of inexpensive computers), and space (building design) interplay to create conditions where students can learn. Though LHS feels big on first encounter, it is not all that much bigger than BHS. And it is similar to both BHS and CHS in that the impact of the teacher far outweigh the mash up of time, tech, and building. In other words, it is the teacher and the teacher’s lesson design that has the greatest impact on student achievement. That is not particular to LHS but a fact shared across all of BPS.

There is discussion going on regarding educational changes. This video may help explain the discussion going on:


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