Thursday, December 21, 2017

Summary of our Youth Risk Behavior Survey results

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction has released a statement on our most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Schools complete this survey every other year. The most recent results are from this school year. Our high school students (9-12) took the survey this past fall and we recently received our results. The survey compares our school data to all other students in the state. This year approximately 10,000 students took the survey. The last time our school district surveyed our entire high school was during the 2009 school year. When I compared the 2017 YRBS to the 2009 YRBS positive results emerged, along with a few concerning areas.

Our students reported less school violence. For example in 2009, 9% of students said they carried a weapon such as a gun, knife, or club on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey. In 2017, we received Insufficient Cell Size (ICS) which means there were less than three students that reported that they carried a weapon. Students reported a decrease in physical violence on school property. In 2009, 8.1% of our students were involved in a physical altercation at school. In 2017, 4.2% of our students reported they were involved in a physical altercation at school. 

Tobacco use has declined in our schools. In 2009, 9.1% of our students reported using tobacco before the age of 13. In 2017, 8% of our students reported using tobacco before age 13. Students who smoked cigarettes regularly have decreased from 12.7% in 2009 to 11.1% in 2017. Students who use chewing tobacco have decreased from 15.4% in 2009 to 5.1% in 2017. Students report an increase in use of e-cigarettes. In 2009, 22% of our students had used e-cigarette products compared to 22.2% in 2017.

Our students report less alcohol use. In 2009, 76.5% of our students had at least one drink of alcohol at least 1 day during their life compared to 65.5% in 2017. Binge drinking has decreased since 2009. In 2017, 12.2% of students had five or more drinks in a span of a couple hours compared to 33.3% in 2009. It appears that students are getting less alcohol from those that are of legal age. In 2009, 31.4% of students reported that they received alcohol from an individual of legal age compared to 21.4% in 2017. 

Students appear to be engaging in less sexual behavior when we compare our recent results to 2009. The percentage of students that have had sexual intercourse has decreased from 34% to 26.2%. The percentage of students that consider themselves sexual active has decreased from 27.6% to 20.6%. The percentage of students who use birth control has increased from 25% to 27.3%. 

Drug use appears to be stagnant. Marijuana use has increased slightly from 2009 to 4.2% in 2017. Prescription drug abuse has decreased from 10.6% in 2009 to 8.5% in 2017. 

Students reported an increase in bullying and cyber bulling. In 2009, 19.5% of students reported bullying on school property compared to 22.9% in 2017. Electronic bullying increased from 4.9% in 2009 to 16.2% in 2017.

Students have reported an increase in depression and suicide ideation. In 2009, 17.7% of students reported that they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 or more weeks in a row compared to 33.1% in 2017. In 2009, 9.8% of students reported that they have seriously considered suicide compared to 15.3% in 2017. In 2009, 7.3% of students reported that they had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide compared to 11% in 2017. 

Overall, I am happy to see that alcohol, tobacco, sexual behavior, and drug use have declined, but I am concerned of the reported increase in bullying, depression, and suicide ideation. I hope that these findings will generate a conversation within your own home and within our community. Schools are reflections of the community in which they serve.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Congratulations Mr. Gullickson!

It is my pleasure to announce that Mr. Gullickson has been named Regional Principal of the Year! He will be receiving the award at the Elementary Principal's Mid Winter Conference in February.  He is now in the running for the North Dakota National Distinguished Principal Award. If he is chosen to receive this honor, he will be making a trip to Washington, DC next October to represent our state.

Mr. Gullickson is a modest person and will discredit himself in regard to this award. We appreciate his hard work and dedication to our school district! We are very fortunate to have someone of his caliber leading Ely Elementary. I personally feel very fortunate to have worked along side Jason the past six years. You won't find a more student centered and compassionate school leader. I have no doubt that he will represent our organization well at the regional and state level.

Thank you and good luck Jason. We believe you are worthy of the North Dakota National Distinguished Principal Award!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Grading Reform: Part 4

I am very proud of the work of our Grading and Reporting Committee over the past year. We have had some great debate about how to implement best practice in relation to grading and reporting. There has been a considerable amount of compromise on both sides of the debate. I believe we have created what I feel is a good mix of the research and our current practice.

We plan to pilot this for the second semester and gather feedback through student focus groups, surveys, and comments from teachers. We will use that data to further fine tune this document for board review and full implementation during the 2018-2019 school year.

Here is the latest draft:

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parent Advisory Committee

Dear Parents,

I need your help!

Four years ago we started a Parent Advisory Committee (PAC). We have had several parents take part in these PAC meetings. We typically organize four meetings each school year and try to target dates that do not conflict with other activities. These meetings usually last around an hour.

These meetings have opened communication between our school district and parents.  The topics you can expect at these meetings are insight on current initiatives, feedback from you on our school programs, and a book discussion (you don’t have to read the book to participate).

Please go to the link below if you are interested in taking part in this opportunity.

Parent Advisory Membership Link:

We are looking at some time in January to have our first meeting of the year. If you are interested in taking part in a conversation to improve our schools please visit the link above by December 1st.

Parents play a key role in their child’s success in school.  I am looking forward to hearing feedback from you and building better relationships within our school community.      

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Disagree and Commit

Ideas Are Scary - General Electric

"You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety." - Abraham Maslow

Most leaders will agree that change is a complex process for everyone involved. Leaders have to gauge the readiness of their staff. We ask ourselves questions like: When is change needed? When do we push? When do we slow down? Is there ever a good time? In my experience 100% buy in on change is unrealistic. We have to gather input and have methods put into place that allow us to understand the readiness of our organization. I have found success by using a committee structure and pursuing many individual conversations.

I read a recent article from Lee Ann Jung. Dr. Jung shared the mantra of disagree and commit at Amazon. We all approach change differently. Some seek change regularly and are constantly reinventing themselves, some are finding success with their current methods and do not see reason to change, and others openly resist for the sake of resisting. Disagree and commit is the idea where we move forward, try it, and learn along the way. We let the idea marinade for a bit, we attempt it and we let it sit with us without immediately dismissing it. We disagree, but we are open to the idea of trying it. I may disagree right now, but hopefully over a period of time I may find value in the change.

I think it really comes down to how we approach something new. Do I immediately write it off and disagree or do I let it percolate and stay with me? I try to approach something new as an opportunity to grow. Now do I agree with every new idea, program, or bit of research? No, but I believe it is important as an educator that I think about how that new idea, program, or bit of research may help me grow in my profession. There have been several times where I have either listened to or read something that I didn't necessarily agree with, but over time I have found value. When we dig our heels in and resist we miss out on opportunities for growth.

It is important that we have dissent in an organization when it comes to implementing something new. Dissent allows us to see things that we may have never considered, because we have been busy drinking the Kool-Aid. Disagree and commit gives those that are unsure or opposed an opportunity to shape the change effort without halting progress.

How do you approach something new?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Grab N Go Breakfast is here!

Recent studies confirm that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Our breakfast is nutritious and will help prepare students to learn. Last year, Rugby Public School’s Wellness Committee set a goal to offer a breakfast alternative for students on the go. We also wanted to increase breakfast consumption by students. The committee sought out to implement a Grab N Go breakfast for all K-12 students.

Rugby Jr./Sr. High School recently received a $4800 grant from Midwest Dairy Council and Fuel Up to Play 60 to purchase a breakfast cart.  We were excited to be chosen as a recipient of the School Nutrition Equipment Grant.  This cart provides our students with quick access to healthy and easy to eat options. 

Rugby High School kicked off Grab N Go Breakfast on October 9th.  The Grab and Go breakfast program is intended to ensure that all kids who didn’t eat breakfast at home can access it at school.  School Breakfast has been shown to help students improve grades, perform problem-solving tasks and increase attention in school. It is hard to learn when hungry. In the past month since implementing Grab N Go we have seen a dramatic increase in breakfast sales.

Grab n Go Breakfast is available daily to all students at the Rugby Jr./ Sr. High School.   Students will be allowed to choose from a variety of healthy breakfast items, which includes milk, juice, fresh fruit, muffins, bagels, cereal, etc.  Breakfast is $1.90 or free to all students qualifying for free and reduced-priced meals.

Ely Elementary Grade School started offering Grab N Go Breakfast bags at the beginning of this school year also.  These breakfasts are conveniently packaged in bags so students can grab a bag from the cafeteria quickly when they get off the bus or arrive late at school. 

“Midwest Dairy Council is committed to child health and wellness through our collaborative program, Fuel Up to Play 60.  For more information, visit  

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Standards-based Grading and Reporting at the High School Level

Many schools across the country have been implementing standards-based grading and reporting within their schools for quite some time. In general, elementary schools have led the charge in this area. Currently at Ely Elementary, students in grades kindergarten through fourth grade have received a standards-based report card throughout their elementary experience. Next year, grade five and six will communicate progress through a standards-based report card. This has caused us to move the conversation on standards-based grading and reporting to the high school level. In many districts high schools have been slow to the process. This is largely due to concerns with college entrance and scholarships. College entrance and scholarships often require a class rank and an overall GPA to determine acceptance.

These are all valid concerns and something that we will have to work through as implementation continues over the next few years. I have spoken with the North Dakota University System in regard to transcripts that may not have traditional grades. Their response was that they receive transcripts from across the world and are able to identify those who will be successful. I believe the benefits of standards-based grading and reporting far outweigh these concerns. Based on the research and our experiences I created a list of benefits below:
  • Students are more aware of teacher expectations.
  • Learning is more visible to the student. 
  • The grade is more accurate when nonacademic factors like effort, attitude, participation, and class behavior are removed from the grade.
  • Identifies breakdowns in learning to guide interventions. 
  • Identifies areas to enrich for students that already know the material. 
  • Allows opportunities for student self-reflection on a set of criteria.
  • Identifies gaps between and across grade levels. 
  • Provides diagnostic information helpful for instruction and future training.
  • Develops consistency across grade levels, classrooms and schools.
  • It makes teacher collaboration more valuable for teachers.
Our Grading and Reporting Committee recently developed a timeline for preparation and implementation of standards-based grading and reporting in grades 7-12. The next five years will certainly be a learning experience for our school district. 

Here are several research articles that detail the benefits of standards-based grading and reporting at the high school level:
  • The Association Between Standards-Based Grading and Standardized Test Scores in a High School Reform Model (2015)
  • Making High School Grades Meaningful (2006)
  • The Minimum Grading Controversy: Results of a Quantitative Study of Seven Years of Grading Data From and Urban High School (2012)
  • 7th – 12th Grade ELA Teachers and Their Classroom Grading Practices: Investigating the Use of Standards-based Grading in Nebraska’s Rural Classrooms (2010)
  • Standards-based grading: Educators’ perceptions of the effects on teaching, student motivation, and assessment at the high school level (2016)
Dr. Matt Townsley has compiled a nice list of research articles that share the benefits of standards-based learning. The full list can be found here: Comprehensive List of Standards Based Grading Articles

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Personalized Learning for Teachers

This is my presentation for the upcoming AdvancED Conference on September 21st. It details our district's work to provide a better professional learning experience for our teachers. The presentation includes practical examples we have developed to create a more personalized and meaningful approach to professional learning.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

RHS failure rate continues to be reduced.

I shared these two charts with our staff today. Our failure rate has decreased over time. This has been a combination of a change in the schedule and our teacher collaboration efforts. I am proud of our results!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcome back!

We are off and running! I walked the halls of both schools this morning and it is always great to see and feel the excitement of a new school year. We have a new group of 7th graders at the high school and a new crew of kindergartners at the elementary. Not to mention a few new students and staff members. The challenge for all of us will be to bottle this excitement for the next 175 days. Let's have a great year and continue our very important work!

Monday, July 31, 2017

The school year is right around the corner.

Dear Parents,

The upcoming school year is approaching quickly and we are excited to get all staff and students back into the building! I have two data points and one update that I would like to share with you.

We are now in year five of our teacher collaboration initiative. For the past five years school has started late every Wednesday to allow time for teachers to collaborate. This time is used to unpack standards, develop our own assessments, data analysis, and to create action plans for students who are performing below or above the standard. We are happy to see that the fruits of our labor are beginning to pay off. In the chart below you can see the past two years we have seen an increase in our overall ACT Composite Score. All juniors are required to take the ACT in North Dakota during the spring semester.

The chart below shows the percentage of the senior class that has qualified for the North Dakota Academic and Career Tech Scholarship. To qualify you need a minimum composite score of a 24 or three fives on the ACT WorkKeys Assessment. Students also need a high GPA and qualifying coursework.

As part of our teacher collaboration efforts we are continuing our gradual implementation of standards-based grading and reporting. You can expect that students in grades K-4 will receive a more detailed report card based on the standards in English and Language Arts. This method of reporting allows us to identify breakdowns in learning faster and provides more information to parents. We will continue implementation into future grades and subject areas in upcoming school years.

Please stop by the school to pick up your school registration packet. You will find information regarding our NEW school app. You can follow me on Twitter at @mdmcneff and visit my blog at for current school related articles or news.

I am looking forward to an excellent year!


Dr. Michael McNeff, Superintendent

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Study Abroad Program heading to Italy.

In the summer of 2015, I was lucky enough to take part in the first study abroad trip to the country of Peru. We took approximately 30 high school juniors and seniors on the Peru trip. We were able to take in all of the fantastic sights throughout our stay in Peru. Mr. Blikre and I may or may not have gotten lost... :) It was a wonderful experience for myself and the students that were able to attend. It is something that I will never forget. Fast forward to 2017, our next group to travel abroad has spent the last two years preparing for their trip to Italy. I have no doubt that our students and advisers will have another successful learning experience overseas.

If you would like you can follow their experiences here beginning on July 31st.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Download the NEW School App!

The Rugby Public Schools' mobile app is ready for launch!

The new RPS mobile app for both iPhone and Android smartphones is ready for launch! We are excited to bring this new technology to RPS and hope you will enjoy the convenience of it. Now you can stay connected while you’re on the go with this FREE mobile app! Our new mobile app will keep you better informed about the news and events in our district and schools and will help streamline communication with our stakeholders. The app will deliver real time school news to your smartphone for fast, up-to-date access, with convenient links to other school information.

With the app you can:
 • Have school information accessible in one location on your smartphone
• Select the schools you want to follow
• Get push notifications about news, closures, weather, events, and more
• Quickly access the school calendar, lunch menus, school supply lists, etc.
• Tap to see administrator and staff contact information

 Download the new app in 3 easy steps:
1. On your smartphone, go to the iTunes App Store® or Google Play®
2. Search Rugby Public Schools. Look for our panther logo.  
3. Then select our Rugby Public Schools app.  Please click to "allow push notifications."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Individualized and meaningful professional learning

Our professional learning committee continues to revamp our professional learning in our school district. We believe in providing individualized and meaningful professional learning opportunities to our teachers. We think we have found the right combination to provide our teachers with the autonomy and accountability they need to learn and improve their practices. You can click on the images below to enlarge them. Here is a link to the full word document

Monday, May 15, 2017

Counting down or running out of time?

I think about this often as we near the end of another school year. As we get closer to the final day the excitement seems to boil over for both students and teachers. I don't know if the excitement is good or bad.  I do realize that the break is nice for families to reconnect and teachers to get rejuvenated after a year full of learning. I would like us all to think about how we communicate this excitement. Are we counting down the days? Are students aware that we cannot wait to start summer break through our words and body language? Or are we communicating that every day counts?

I like to think of it as we are running out of time and how do we make every day count? Summer break will be here before we know it and our students will be on break for three months. Some students will lose their only safe place, some may lose their access to a trusted adult, and others may lose the only nutritious meal that they receive in a day. I challenge all of us to think about about how we communicate the end of the year to each other, and to our students. Are you counting down the days or are you running out of time?

What message are you sending as we near the end of another school year?

Grading Reform: Part 3

I have written previously on our work to develop common beliefs about grading and reporting in our school district. I believe we are making some nice progress in designing a more consistent grading process. Our latest meeting focused on developing beliefs about creating second chances for learning and grade reduction/enhancement practices. As mentioned in previous blogs, we've read several journal articles about best practices in grading and reporting. You can find the articles here and here. We used these research articles to help inform our decision making.

Here is what we came up with:

Second Chance for Learning
  • Re-dos and re-takes are available to students
  • Students are responsible for asking for a second chance
  • Corrective instruction, additional practice, etc. must occur prior to the re-assessment
  • Full credit should be given for any re-assessment
  • The most recent/accurate score will be used for grading purposes
Grade Reduction and Enhancement
  • Zeroes should not be permanent (students should be given the opportunity to turn in missing work for full credit)
  • Deadlines prior to the end of each grading term are at the discretion of the teacher
  • Teachers may make use of incompletes at the end of grading terms under special circumstances (i.e. student illness or hardship)
  • Teachers are strongly encouraged to enter zeroes in a timely manner
  • Late work should be accepted in most circumstances and penalties shouldn’t significantly decrease the grade
  • Students who demonstrate habitual behavior in work habits may be given a “U” by the teacher
  • Grades will not be based on a curve
  • Bonus points or extra credit falsely inflate the grade and should not be used

The full document can be found here: RPSD Standards-based Learning Practices

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Rugby North Dakota Downtown Project

Mr. Leier organized a community forum tonight and showcased a student created documentary. The community forum also included a visit from Lieutenant Governor Brent Sanford. This culminating event is Project Based Learning at its finest. Mr. Leier's class researched our downtown business area and Governor Burgum's Main Street Initiative. 

Rugby North Dakota Downtown Project

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Grading Reform: Part 2

After we established our common beliefs about homework we moved on to our next challenge, should behavior be included in a grade? If we want accurate grades then shouldn't behaviors be removed from them? Based on our research review we found that there are several behaviors or academic enablers that have historically impacted a grade. Currently, academic enablers may impact a grade in a positive or a negative way. If we are going to have more accurate grades then we need to find a way to report these behaviors separately. I want to be clear that we believe that behaviors are important, but they shouldn't inflate or deflate a student's grade.

Some of our elementary teachers are already reporting behaviors separately:

Grade 2 example:
  • I am organized and responsible for my belongings
  • I can complete work neatly and carefully
  • I can listen and follow directions
  • I can use my time wisely
  • I can work independently
  • I can seek help when I need it
  • I participate in class discussions
  • I can work quietly without disrupting others
  • I can show self-control
  • I am respectful to others
The following two questions and the research articles below guided our discussions. What should go into a grade? What inhibits the accuracy of the grade? 

Here are some excellent research articles that helped us with this topic:

Effective Grading Practices in the Middle School and High School Environments - Hanover Research 

How Grading Reform Changed Our School - Jeffrey Erickson

A Century of Grading Research - Thomas Guskey


Here is what we came up with regarding separating behavior from the grade:

Reporting academics and behaviors separately

Grades are accurate when they include only the current or most recent performance on a skill or a standard or on multiple skills and standards.

Grades are inaccurate when they include the following:

  • Effort 
  • Work habits
  • Attention
  • Participation (unless participation is a part of the skill/standard being assessed)
  • Behavior infractions (e.g. removal from class; plagiarism; cheating; defiance)
  • Bonus points
  • Attendance
  • Averaging 
  • Other methods that include points/marks that are not directly tied to the performance on a skill or a standard or on multiple skills and standards.    

The above mentioned behaviors are important academic enablers and should be assessed and reported separately from the academic grade.

More to come.

Friday, March 17, 2017

3rd Annual STEM Camp this summer!

We are pleased to inform you about the third annual summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) camp offered in Rugby! The STEM camp is open to students enrolling in 3rd – 5th grades for the 2017 – 2018 school year in Rugby Public School. The camp will run Monday, July 31st  – Friday, August 4th from 8 AM to noon each day at the Rugby High School in the commons area. Enrollment will begin in May 2017. Stop by either the Ely Elementary office or the Rugby High School office to pick up a registration form. Enrollment is $40 per student and checks should be made to Rugby Public School. Payment needs to be submitted prior to Monday, July 31st.

Students will be grouped together and will work together with peers to complete investigations of various topics. Students should arrive promptly so they can have optimal educational opportunities. Students will be served a small snack mid-morning. Below you will find the schedule of events. We hope your students will be a part of this exciting summer program!

Monday, July 31
8:00 AM - Noon
Outer Space
Tuesday, August 1
8:00 AM - Noon
Under the Ocean
Wednesday, Aug. 2
8:00 AM - Noon
Rumbling Volcanoes
Thursday, Aug. 3
8:00 AM - Noon
Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter)
Friday, Aug. 4
8:00 AM - Noon
Engineering Challenge

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Grading Reform: Part 1

Like many school districts we have been talking about grading reform for many years. We recently created a committee that consists of stakeholders between both of our schools to develop common beliefs about grading and reporting. I believe strongly in the PLC model and I feel that our most effective PLCs report out on the standard (standard-based grading). We broke our work into four segments: Homework, Separating behaviors from the grade, Curricular alignment, and Multiple opportunities to show mastery. The goal of the committee for all of these areas will be to review research, have dialogue, compromise, and produce belief statements about grading and reporting in our district. I think it is important that we are informed by the research while embedding our own experiences and ideas into our shared beliefs. I think we can find a balance between best practice and what we are doing now.

We reviewed the following research in preparation of our first meeting: 


Books: (We read these books a few years ago)

Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades: By Ken O'Connor 

Rethinking Homework: By Cathy Vatterott 


We also surveyed our staff and parents to gather feedback to give us an idea on how far apart our grading practices were from the research. This was helpful and I think it gives us an idea of what areas we need to really pay attention to. 

This survey was sent out to all staff to start the process. This allowed us to identify our focus areas. 

This survey helped us understand what parents thought about our homework practices. I think we were most concerned about about the amount of time spent on homework per grade level. In the end we were fairly comfortable with the current amount of homework our teachers are providing. It seemed to match the suggestions from the research. 

We used this survey to gather input from the committee. We broke our homework discussion into three areas: 1) Develop a definition, 2) Develop a purpose, 3) Develop guidelines. 

We then developed our committee's definition of homework, purposes of homework, and guidelines from the survey data. We created a definition of homework, purpose of homework, and guidelines from the research. During our meeting we merged our current practices with best practices and created a definition, a purpose, and guidelines for homework.

Our next step is to bring this to our full faculty for further adjustment.


Here is what we came up with regarding our homework practices: 


Homework is meaningful work that may include practicing concepts, reinforcing or reviewing classroom instruction, and/or studying for tests.


The purpose of homework is to
  • Reinforce or practice what is taught. 
  • Give feedback.
  • Extend learning. 
  • Review material. 
  • Master specific skills and standards.
  • Promote high-level thinking.
  • Guide instruction.


Homework is:
  1. Intended to provide feedback.
  2. Used to communicate progress to students and parents.
  3. Differentiated or modified based upon an individual student’s needs and/or socioeconomic factors.
  4. Developmentally or age appropriate.
  5. Grade level appropriate (10 minutes per grade).
  6. Tied to standards or driven by standards.
Homework is not
  1. Intended to be a significant portion of the final grade.
  2. To be used as a punishment.
  3. Busywork.
Our next focus area will be on separating behavior from the grade. We plan on doing a similar process of gathering feedback from stakeholders and using research to inform our decisions.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Let's Put the Learning Back into PLCs

I'm pretty excited. This article will be published in the April 2017 edition of The Learning Professional (Bimonthly education magazine) from Learning Forward.

First, I would like to admit that I have arranged bad professional learning for teachers in the past. Unfortunately, school leaders often look for presenters and initiatives that fill the time allotted. Most school districts have set aside days that are assigned to professional learning. Many administrators struggle developing a professional learning program that is individualized and meaningful for all teachers.

The easiest and least effective way to address professional development is to provide one-size-fits-all professional learning opportunities, which means only a portion of attendees finds it valuable. How many of us have sat through hours of professional development and, within the first five minutes, realized, “None of this applies to my subject area or grade level”?

This is the struggle for school leaders who plan professional learning opportunities for teachers. The goal of professional learning should be to change practice for the better. If the learning does not apply, then how will teachers change their practices for the better?

According to Jim Knight (2011), professional learning for teachers should provide opportunities to “explore, prod, stretch, and re-create whatever it is they are studying — to roll up their sleeves, really consider how they teach, really learn a new approach, and then reconsider their teacher practices and reshape the new approach, if necessary, until it can work in their classroom” (p. 43).

I doubt that we can meet the recommendations from Knight through a one-size-fits-all approach. Professional learning needs to occur throughout the school week and school year. There is a disconnect for the teacher when the learning is not part of the school day. Traditional “sit-and-get” professional development days are often held outside a school calendar. This structure rarely impacts instruction because it is not connected to a classroom and is not occurring throughout a school year.

Learning Forward has recommended that professional learning occur “several times per week among established teams of teachers, principals, and other instructional staff members where the teams of educators engage in a continuous cycle of improvement” (NSDC, 2009, p. 2).

Providing time for teacher collaboration and learning is one of the most powerful things schools can do to improve learning, but collaboration that lacks a focus will do nothing to improve schools (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006). We should start by critically examining the structure of a school day.

There is some belief that the school day needs to be lengthened to improve student achievement. We seem to think that if we have more time in front of kids, they will learn more. What if we reduce the amount of instructional time and build in teacher collaboration that is focused on improving instruction? Instead of focusing on quantity of instruction, we focus on quality of instruction.

We cannot expect collaboration to occur during teacher prep time, after school, during lunch, before school, etc. I believe we must embed a specific time for collaboration consistently across a district. This will help administrators support each professional learning community (PLC). This will also help with vertical meetings that will need to occur to address gaps and overlaps with curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Meetings should occur at minimum once a week. If we aren’t meeting weekly, we forget about our focus, and it’s harder to get back on track and use time efficiently. We need to ensure that collaboration time is protected and considered sacred. People will try to consume this newly found collaboration time with meetings that do not matter. Administrators need to protect this time. That means no practices, activity meetings, or advisor meetings during collaboration. The only activities that occur during collaboration are those associated with a PLC.

We have targeted Wednesday morning for the day to implement PLCs. Wednesdays work well because there are typically fewer events and vacation days on Wednesday. We start school late on Wednesdays to avoid scheduled extracurricular and co-curricular activities. This allows coaches and advisors to take part in collaboration.

Starting school late has not been an issue for students and parents. We still allow students to be dropped off at their regular times. In elementary school, we have about 100 students that go to the library to read silently, read with a friend, or be read to. This has positively affected kids. Paraprofessionals supervise the remainder of our students.

During this time, our collaborative efforts focus on these key areas: unpacking standards, developing formative and summative assessments, defining mastery, scope, and sequence, intervention and enrichment, and a focus on data. One key area that is often overlooked is embedding learning within a PLC model. How are teachers seeking out best practices to support key areas mentioned above?

Put Learning Back into PLCs
Over the past three years, our professional learning committee has revamped our professional learning practices. It has been trial and error. Our professional learning committee meets monthly to discuss the following goals: How do we make professional learning more individualized? How do we make professional learning more meaningful for all?

Before these discussions, our learning was separate from our PLC work. We began to realize that our professional learning goals should be part of our PLC work. We believe high-quality professional learning practices merge our goals together.
During our work session in June 2014, our committee had a collective epiphany. To make professional learning more individualized and more meaningful, we needed to turn learning over to our teachers. Teachers needed to plan their learning for each year. This was an exciting breakthrough for us.

We decided to use our traditional professional development days in the following ways: Each individual PLC would develop its professional learning plan focused on improving student engagement. The professional learning plan consists of four parts: goal setting, research, observation and integrating of learning, and reflection.

Goal Setting
The PLC meets during its collaboration time early in the year to establish a learning goal for the school. One of our school improvement goals focuses on improving student engagement. So the PLC learning goal is centered on improving student engagement.

All PLCs are required to select at least one research-based book to study or at least three peer-reviewed recent research articles from academic journals. Journal articles are subject to approval by a professional development committee. We need to interweave research exploration into the daily practices of our teachers.

There are times when our own anecdotes override effective research-based practices because the research did not involve “my school” or “my kids,” or the teacher was not aware that there was a better, more proven way to do things. Analyzing effective research-based practices is one key to effective instruction.

Observation and Integration of Learning
The best professional development is focused, timely, and job-embedded. We wanted to make sure these ideas were entrenched throughout our plan. We provided two options for teachers to choose from: They could decide between a school visitation or take part in our peer observation program.
For a school visitation, teachers select a school within our state they would like to visit based on what they learned from research. We provide teacher substitutes, and the teachers travel as a team to a school and observe a teacher for a day using an instructional technique.

It is important to note that a research-based book or journal article needs to be aligned with a school visit. We want our teachers to see effective strategies live and bring those strategies back to our school for implementation. After a school visit is complete and research-based practices are implemented, teachers record themselves for a minimum of 15 minutes using the new strategy.

We added the peer observation program for those who didn’t want to do a school visitation. Instructional coaches lead the program. When PLC teams select this option, they work with an instructional coach to identify a problem of practice. The problem of practice should tie back to the team’s selected research-based book or journal articles. The instructional coach figures out the logistics to make sure that each teacher receives and gives feedback. The feedback needs to be descriptive and related to what teachers are implementing and cannot be ego-building feedback.

Reflective Practice
Learning requires reflection. We felt that we needed teachers to reflect on their new learning near the end of the year. Last year, we added an opportunity for all teachers to receive a credit through one of our research institutions in North Dakota when they completed their professional learning plan. I believe strongly in written reflection. When we write down our thoughts, it deepens our understanding.

Freedom plus accountability
Teachers need autonomy and personalized learning to grow. We believe we have found the right combination of freedom and accountability within our professional learning plan. The plan makes professional learning more individualized and meaningful for a teacher.

When teams of teachers are given time to research best practices, observe other teachers, and reflect on what they’ve learned, they grow professionally. Changes we have made impacted our school culture in a very positive way. Our teachers feel empowered and trusted to do this very difficult work.

Dufour, R., Dufour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable impact: A partnership approach for dramatically improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
National Staff Development Council. (2009, April). Ensure great teaching for every student. NSDC Policy Points, 1(2), 1.

Michael McNeff ( is superintendent of Rugby Public Schools in North Dakota.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Different Approach to Story Time

I have four children under the age of 9 and both my wife and I work full time. I understand the “busyness” associated with raising children. There are only so many remaining hours left in the day to spend time with our children after work and school. These limited hours are often consumed by making dinner, helping our school-aged children with homework, and completing other odds and ends to prepare for the next day. Most parents like me hastily try to get through books like Pinkalicious or Llama Llama Misses Mama before we get our preschooler into bed. By the end of the night we are exhausted. The research is clear, I know it is important to read to my children, but I often wonder if my focus on “getting it done” due to lack of time actually develops a love of reading within them.

I read a recent research article from the Peabody Reflector at Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that if parents used a simple technique called dialogic questioning while reading, they would improve their children’s developing language and literacy skills at a much higher rate. Instead of reading the story straight through, the parent paused occasionally to ask their children open ended questions. Here are some examples provided by the researchers, “What’s going to happen next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” When we pause and ask them these types of questions we encourage a deeper understanding and mastery of language that may not have happened if we read straight through. This research has shifted how I read to my children and I feel like they appreciate the conversations that we have while we read. The researchers suggest that the primary goal is not to get to the end of the book, it is the about the engagement between the parent and the child. It’s not just about exposing children to a number of words, it’s more about engaging with them. Asking what happens next, and listening to their answers – that’s what brings about language development.

The researchers also studied the effects of shows like Baby Einstein, Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues, on preschoolers’ learning and found that parents were an important part to their success as well. Each of the above mentioned shows have an element of dialogic questioning embedded within the program. Characters within each of these shows pause and ask children questions like, “where is the blue house?” During the study, children rarely engaged with the question being asked on the television unless a parent helped them. The researchers explained, “For preschoolers, it isn’t natural or easy for them to learn from screens. They’re going to learn a lot more if an adult is there with them, engaging them, just like you would with a book. A TV character or avatar may engage a child, but for learning purposes, nothing is as effective as a parent or caregiver.” When parents watched the show with them, their child’s vocabulary and comprehension were significantly higher than those who watched the show by themselves. Dialogic questioning is effective in developing early language and literacy skills in both reading and educational programming on television. It really comes down to engagement, how engaged are we in developing our child’s early literacy skills?

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rugby Early Learning Center is now accepting applications.

This preschool program is for everyone. We plan to provide 40 preschool slots for ages 3-5 beginning next school year.  There will be free slots for families that qualify and a small fee for families that exceed that income level.  We will have a screening process for all students in case we exceed the slots that are available.

Applications can be picked up at Rugby High School, Ely Elementary, and Headstart.  They also can be found online at our district’s website.  The deadline for applications for the 2017-2018 school year is on April 7, 2017. The preschool will consist of four full days Monday through Thursday.  The hours of operation will be 8:30AM to 3:00PM and the duration of the program will be from September to May.  Please call Mike McNeff at (701) 776-5201 for more information.  We are excited to provide this excellent opportunity for preschool age children and parents!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

You should read: Fierce Conversations

I am reading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This is an excellent read even for those that are able to have crucial conversations with ease. The ability to have quality conversations plays a large part in being an effective leader. Without positive conversations we cannot get our points across and move the organization forward. A fierce conversation seems like it would involve a lot of yelling and quite uncomfortable. According to Susan Scott, “a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real." How often do we have real conversations? I always feel better about our direction when I can get in and talk about what really matters. Many of our conversations only scratch the surface.

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.
"Are my truths in the way?"
Scott suggests that we need the courage to interrogate reality. This reminds me of Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins used the analogy of looking under the rocks for squiggly things which is similar to what Scott suggests. We cannot be afraid of what we uncover and we have to actively seek out reality. Reality is constantly changing and is often different from person to person. If we have a better idea of our reality it is much easier to make decisions that will move the organization forward.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.
"What are we pretending not to know?"
How do we get the unfiltered story? I think the challenge for me is finding the time and the space to have these types of conversations. In my role I find this difficult, because I am often only getting to surface conversations due to the busyness of the school day. I have found that I have to schedule these types of conversations to make them happen. I also believe being visible in both of my schools is extremely important. If I am out of the office I am more approachable, which may provide an opportunity to have a fierce conversation.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.
"While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life – Any single conversation can."
"The conversation is the relationship. One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships."
It is flat out easier to connect with certain people. How do we connect with those that are wrapped in Teflon and carrying a shield? Connecting with all employees is difficult and takes constant work. We need to have a quality relationship with all coworkers and employees. Obviously it is much easier to connect with those that share the same views, but that will only take your school or organization so far.

Scott recommends the following:

  • Start with this question, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?”
  • Listen and don’t do most of the talking. 
  • Don’t take the problem from them. 
  • Inquire about feelings. 
  • Be clear.
  • No cancellations, unless someone dies. 
  • Don’t allow interruptions (eye contact and disconnect from technology). 
  • Don’t run out of time, establish next steps.
  • Don’t assume the conversation went well. 

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today.
"Make it your job as a leader to give up mole whacking and take up grub hunting." 
I have a quote taped to my monitor that reads, “no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no blaming others, no I’ll do tomorrows, and no excuses.” Time is of the essence when issues arise. I find that I am less stressed when I have a fierce conversation as soon as possible. The conversation never goes as bad as you think it will go.

Common errors according to Scott:

  • Avoid starting with “So, How’s it going” this is an age-old lead-in to bad news. Get to the point quickly. 
  • Don’t use praise as a lead-in to a confrontation. 
  • Don’t put too many pillows around a message. Be clear and concise.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts
"All conversations are with myself and sometimes I involve others."
"The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said."
"A careful conversation is a failed conversation."
Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake
"Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative."  
"Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us in the organization. It’s the story that’s told when we’re not in the room."
Hard feelings often remain after difficult conversations. It really comes down to how clear and compassionate we are in the moment. We all have to gauge the emotional wake that we have left behind, because that will impact our relationships down the road.
"The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship." 
Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting.
"Silence makes us nervous. So do innovation, change, and genius."
"The more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required."
It is difficult to include silence into conversations. We often want to fill that space between our words with talk, because silence is often uncomfortable. Silence is often one of the best techniques when having a difficult conversation. It allows both people to slow the conversation down and think about what needs to be said. 

Any insight on how you handle difficult conversations? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Quality professional learning comes in all shapes and sizes.

For the past four years we have used late-start Wednesdays, early outs, and full days for professional development. These various formats of professional development may be inconvenient for working families, but these days are imperative to the success of our teachers. During this time our teachers have worked hard to develop their craft within their subject areas and grade levels.

Teaching is a profession. All professionals need time and opportunities to update, to train, to interact with other professionals, to hone their craft, to reflect on their work, to get better. Effective professional development is distributed over time and not jammed into a single day. We offer a variety of learning opportunities for teachers. These opportunities range from full days, to early outs, and to our weekly late starts. These various structures provide opportunities to differentiate our professional development for teachers.

Professionals need opportunities to: become aware of best practices, observe others modeling new or different practices, have opportunities to practice, receive feedback, reflect and interact with others. Professional learning communities which meet on late-start Wednesday and at other times are opportunities for teachers to engage with one another to focus on each of these questions:

What do our students need to know and be able to do?

How will we know if they can do it? (How will we evaluate student work to measure their mastery?)

What we will we do for students who already can do what is expected?

What will we do to support and help students who have not achieved the standards?

When teachers are able to meet regularly to reflect on practice, examine student work, agree on
common outcomes, research best practice, observe others, share effective practices, everyone benefits. The traditional structure of the school day has not allowed for this type of practice. At RPS we have intentionally built time for teachers to improve their craft. Sometimes the lumberjack has to stop sawing to sharpen his blade to improve production. This is no different than the teaching profession, sometimes we need time away from teaching to improve teaching.

We are proud of the work of our teachers at Rugby Public School District!