Straight Down the Middle – June, 2017

Dear ISG Staff:

This represents the last time I formally write to you as ISG Superintendent. I would like to personally thank you for all of you have given to ISG during my tenure, and to the Richards family. I have learned a tremendous amount from you all.

Scott

I want to recognize Mr. Scott Miller, a first-year teacher at DEMS, who passed away this weekend at his villa. This tragic event has reached beyond DEMS, and beyond even the ISG community. Scott, a gifted teacher, made a positive impact with many students and staff this year, and he will be missed.

 

Long-serving Leavers

Though the overall staff attrition rate is low this year, there are several staff leaving ISG after a long service to their school and to the district. I’m pleased to recognize and thank the following who have served fifteen years or more at ISG:

Laura and Ray Timm: Icons of the Jubail community for over three decades, Ray and Laura are known for their dedication to their students, and for their fitness and longevity (which would sometimes make its way into their lessons).

Sajida Ifikhar: Teacher of Urdu for twenty-six years. Steady, hardworking, and a solid contributor to life at Dammam.

Rima Abushaur: A stalwart teacher at DBGS in the Arabic and French language, also for twenty-six years, who will continue on as a supply teacher.

Linda L’esteve: Teacher in the Dammam preschool for twenty-four years. A big contributor to the youngest minds at the school.

Sue and John Chapman: Two stints at DBGS and then John moved to the district office as Asst. Supt. for Human Resources. Sue is a highly capable primary years teacher. Twenty-four years at ISG.

Nick Hardcastle: Long-time teacher of seventeen years and most recently Head of Seniors at DBGS, Nick is also an outdoor enthusiast, leading many expeditions within KSA and to Nepal.

 

Performance Report

I’m resending this link to the ISG Performance Report, which you received from Tara Waudby two weeks back, for it is a remarkable, first-of-its-kind-for-ISG production. It captures both quantitative and qualitative data from our four years of work together toward 21st century relevance in our educational programs. It includes short narratives. There is a lot of good to tell through this report, and plenty of data to examine more deeply. We hope this will be the first of an annual performance reporting mechanism on how we are doing toward realizing our Mission. (It’s your unofficial summer homework to read this document.)

 

Some Final Reflections

Four years ago, when I arrived (3 days after the start of school!), I knew my charge from the Board of Trustees: accelerate ISG’s journey toward 21st century relevance in the classrooms. Each of the seven schools had common challenges, but also needed its own path. The big question in my mind was whether ISG—its infrastructure, its teachers, its administrators—had the capacity for such a change. With some strategic investment, we took care of the easy things right away: internet connectivity and devices, literacy resources and consultants, more PD monies available from the district office. It was a tsunami of resources, and people took it in stride.

 

Fast forward to the present, with many new faces joining our experienced ISG staff, and I’m pleased with our progress. The Board asked me early on, “Are the teachers capable of all this?” I responded, “Yes, I believe so.” Now I can say that again with greater confidence. All the administration ever hoped for was that every ISG staff member would get on the path toward 21st century excellence.

 

It feels natural that we have kept the triumvirate of district goals—literacy, tech integration, and collaboration—but also added to and refined the work as a new regime takes over. Furthermore, our relationship with data has matured considerably, where we are now poised to intervene when students are not performing up to par. I truly believe, under the stewardship of Eddie Liptrot and his team, that the best days for ISG are yet to come.

 

There is no doubt that ISG has been good to us. We suffer from the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly that all workplaces experience. Politics are low. We are patient with the countercultural elements of our host country. We rightly put our focus on what is best for the students. It’s all about the learning, because these students, who did not choose to come to KSA, deserve our very best efforts. We can be as good as we choose to be. It is up to us!

 

Whether we were able to get to know each other or not, I hope you have found that I’ve lived up to ISG’s core values of respect, responsibility, integrity, acceptance, with the commitment to act. There were successes, and there were mistakes. We rarely get do-overs, but honestly, I did my very best, and I have no regrets.

 

Please stay in touch, even if it’s only on Linked-In.

 

Yours in service…

Signature Paul.png

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Straight Down the Middle – Unplugged 2016 edition

 

27 February 2016
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Dear ISG staff:

For the past few days, several staff have represented ISG at the biannual ASB Unplugged Conference, hosted by the American School of Bombay. I believe this is the most important gathering on the international school world’s calendar; I was pleased with the impact of ISG’s participation in 2014, and I feel the impact will be even greater from this experience.

Why does this conference work? First, it’s the setting. The first day of the conference happens at the school, while it is in session. In fact, the day before the workshops start, a full day is devoted entirely to classroom visits. If one can’t get inspired seeing the joy students exude when engaged in their learning, and how a caring and competent teacher facilitates this, then one should not be in this profession.

Second, there is an esprit de corps that permeates the conference. It is in the ether. ASB Unplugged serves as a network that builds the social capital among all of us that choose to engage in self-improvement for the welfare of the students in our charge. Researcher Michael Fullan argues that by building social capital—which concerns the quality and quantity of interactions and relationships among people—we are able to tap into the expertise of others. A school can achieve an impact bigger than the sum of its individual parts.

Finally, the content of the conference is engaging, both in substance and relevancy, but also in challenging our oft-restricting assumptions toward teaching and learning. The following quotes were shared today over the ISG team’s WhatsApp group:

  • “If students are doing work for the world, they want it to be good. If students are doing work for you, they want it to be good enough.” (McLeod)
  • “All assessment interrupts the learning process.” (Stager)
  • “If a teacher explains the same concept to a child 100 times, it is not the child who is a slow learner.” (source not attributable)
  • “Data is the narcotic that lazy school administrators use in lieu of sitting next to students.” (source not attributable)

To simplify and clarify my own takeaways from Unplugged, I offer the following synthesis. We, meaning all of us dedicated to K-12 education worldwide, are still in the infancy of understanding and coming to grips with technology’s role in student learning (and student learning is what our daily work is all about!). Technology is both a skill to be developed, and also a tool to facilitate our desired outcomes. These skills and tools are inherently interdisciplinary—so it applies not necessarily in every instance, but it can apply everywhere. Technology integration is neither all good nor all bad. We know it can boost learning and growth (by fostering collaboration, or effecting communication, or creating something useful and elegant, for example). We also know the concerns about distractibility, about the erosion of authentic relationships, and about privacy are valid and need more study. The key is to continue our critical examination of what works in the learning process, piloting and prototyping new ideas (and sharing them broadly), giving voice to students by allowing them to influence and own their learning through choice, measuring the value-added to what we are doing, and being mindful of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

I am proud of the good work ISG teachers do everyday in this realm, as I am of the support administrators and other staff provide to the classrooms. I appreciate the open mindset and grit employed when tackling the vexations that present themselves. It may feel a far distance to go before technology clicks in our day-to-day practice, but we are trying, and we are making progress. Success is rarely linear, is it? (Citation: American School of Bombay)

Success

Unplugged has allowed the ISG participants to nurture our inherent curiosity, affirm the moral responsibility to do right by children, and return to Saudi Arabia to tap into and grow the organization’s social capital—all for the benefit of those we serve, our cherished students.

We’ll see you soon.

Dr. Paul

 

Straight Down the Middle – Early Winter Edition

Success

Dear ISG Staff:

As we brace ourselves to hold on for the December weeks leading up to winter break, it is worth pausing to reflect on what ISG considered a very special month of November. It began with a triumph for ISG, the two days devoted to our district goals of technology integration and literacy.

The GAFE Summit gave 200+ ISGers and another 100+ from around the Kingdom useful strategies (and mindsets) for technology integration. If you did not attend the event, see these photos, this resource-laden page from lead presenter James Sanders, and James’ keynotes (day 1) (day 2). ISG officially put itself on the international map for technology in schools. Thank you to Alexander van Iperen, Director of Digital Learning, his great team of technicians, and to Chris L’esteve who first envisioned this event.

Another PD event at ISG was just as important, but not as highly publicized: the Literacy Summit, hosted and coordinated by Tara Waudby, Assistant Superintendent for Learning. Again, 200+ ISGers participated. In the past, ISG would have brought in a pricy talking head from the field of education. This time around, however, we relied on the expertise that exists within ISG, to produce tangible outcomes such as learning the basic design of Workshop, using assessment data to influence lesson planning, and classroom tips and tricks to support the literacy initiative. Check out the two-day program here.

Now in my third year at the helm of ISG, I have never been so pleased and proud of the organization as I was during these few days in November.

November (and now December) sees the normal goings-on of an international school district such as ISG: contract renewals and recruitment, budget planning (and the excitement of new items and positions), and more mundane (but important!) initiatives such as safety and security planning. Each of our campuses will continue to receive significant investment in its infrastructure.

I want to leave you with five things to think about:

  1. Literacy (reading, writing, information, computational, etc.) is the single most important competency for the past, the present, and the future needs of our students. This should be at the core of every lesson plan and every effort we make on behalf of students.
  2. Once we admit a student, we must fight tooth and nail to ensure that the student will thrive (achieve and grow). That means multiple interventions (even before eval testing) before ever asking the question: “Does this student belong at our school?”
  3. Now that ISG is connected to the world through technology, work diligently to deemphasize the devices (see this article from ISTE about how technology is largely just an interchangeable tool).
  4. Connect with your peers and other members of the school community. The antidote to feeling overwhelmed is through connection (it’s counterintuitive).
  5. If you feel you are swimming in a sea of negativity or frustration, take refuge in the growth and happiness of our students. Take 15 minutes and visit a classroom that is not your own. Watch the early years students come back from lunch, or at recess. Instant therapy.
  6. Bonus proverb: If you are angry at someone, buy them a gift.

Take care, and have a good break. You deserve it!
Dr. Paul Richards
ISG Superintendent

 

Straight Down the Middle – Parent Edition – September, 2015

Dear Parents:

Though ISG is not a school, per se, each of the seven schools is part of a larger ISG community. In that spirit, I would like to pass along some items that are germane to the schools.

The start of the year was smooth across the five campuses, with Dammam opening a week late, but in a new school! Tragedy struck the Aramco and ISG communities a week later with the Radium fire. DHS lost one of its new tenth graders. Tragic.

Improvements for the new school year
ISG has embarked on an ambitious improvement agenda, which we call the 21st Century Initiative. Specifically, we aim to create technology rich classrooms, achieve alignment on literacy instruction (in particular, reading and writing), and promote a culture of collaboration. Increased attention has been given to homework, digital citizenship, and digital literacy.

Building on last year’s efforts, we have again doubled bandwidth in each school (to where connectivity is strong), and have been able to make devices readily available to students across the grades. Focus is now on ensuring the technology enhances learning, and does not distract.

Each school has achieved consistency and alignment in the reading and writing programs (there is a value to having the whole team using a similar program). You should be seeing this at home through your children’s work samples.

Leasehold improvements
ISG wants its learning spaces to match its modern and relevant curriculum, and have invested heavily to meet this goal. With either new or renovated classrooms, play equipment, community spaces, and even restrooms, we are providing the spaces students and staff deserve. See this link for some pictures. Much more is planned for the future!

Site School Councils
In an effort to promote site-based voice in improvement initiatives, ISG will establish a School Council at each school. The advisory group to the Principal/Headteacher will consist of up to seven elected parents, three (older) students, and three teachers. Meetings will take place quarterly, based on a pre-determined agenda. In October, you will hear from your respective school principal on how this group will launch, and how parents will be elected.

Child Safety & Security Update
Safety, both in the school setting, and on our campuses, remains paramount in importance. Staff are trained annually in child safeguarding, and additional supports have been put in place this year, including strengthening the school-based Student Support Teams (SST).

Last year, the district worked with a security firm (RMI) to do an audit. This year, the same consultant is guiding the implementation stage of the improvements. Additional infrastructure, personnel, and procedures/practices have been put in place. The standard for this is very high.

Climate Survey
Each year, the district facilitates a parent survey to gauge school climate, attitudes, and general satisfaction with the program. Summative data (but no specific comments) is shared with only the Principal, and it serves as discussion and potential action items for the administration. Looking at the seven schools as a whole, last winter’s data provided the following generalizations:

  • Strong satisfaction around programs and supports, with the exception of parents wanting more robust extra- and co-curricular programs
  • Some concerns about teacher quality
  • Positive ratings for leadership, communication, and representation of ISG’s core values
  • Poor ratings on the statement, “ISG provides value for the tuition”

While the schools focus on addressing these items, I have been pondering the “value for tuition” question. We’ll take this up a the Board level for a generative conversation. Stay tuned for the 2016 version of the survey this winter.

Enrollment Contract
Thank you for returning the enrollment contract, which simplifies the enrollment process and needs of the schools.

Have a restful break, which starts this Tuesday. Eid Mubarek!

Dr. Paul Richards, ISG Superintendent