Incoming school Superintendent Mary Whitrock has a homework assignment for you: Tell her what you think of Ripon schools. ...

The Commonwealth will answer Whitrock’s questions below, but in so doing, encourages others to offer their own analyses.

,,, Here are Whitrock’s questions, followed by our answers:

1. What do you feel are the greatest strengths of the district?

A. Staff — The district’s greatest assets are its teachers, aides, administrators, guidance counselors, custodians, clerical staff, cafeteria workers and others. They’re professional and passionate.

B. Ripon College — The college stands as a reminder that this community values not only high school diplomas, but lifelong learning. Ripon College’s students and faculty stand as a testament to the wisdom of its founders, who believed in 1850 as we do today, in the importance of guiding people to become critical thinkers, view the world through an interdisciplinary lens and know that they have the talent and obligation to improve their world ...

C. Charter schools — By committing to establishing charter schools for all grades, the district has planted flags in each of its buildings declaring that the 1950s educational model embraced for decades no longer is sufficient for Ripon’s children.

D. Support for the fine arts — Thirty minutes in the high school gym in March is all one needs to “get it,” sonically. Visually, a city-wide art show in April reminds us of the crucial roles music and art play in improving scholarship while enriching the soul.

E. Technology — Ripon staff are remarkably adept at embracing new technology, be it SMART boards, net books, Skype, ceiling projectors, teacher amplification for the hearing-impaired, paperless school board meetings and on-line learning.

F. Extracurriculars — From fifth graders giving up recess for choir to the Ripon High School Academic Bowl team winning the conference championship for the 12th time in 15 years, Ripon understands that critical learning occurs outside the classroom.

G. Facilities — Buildings are well maintained, if not up-to-date. The two elementary schools each earn solid As. The high school gets a B. Built before America entered World War II, the middle school is a white elephant that needs replacement.

2. What are the top areas for improvement?

A. Charter schools — The district’s motto is “More choices. Better results.” While it has kept the first promise, the second claim risks being given short shrift....

The district’s challenge going forward will be to assess what the relatively new charter schools can teach their traditional counterparts about how children can learn better, while weeding out those methods and curricula that have proven inadequate or ineffective.

B. Maintain the emphasis on learning for life, not education for a career — Ripon Public Schools have been hosting technical-school representatives who decry college and university educations. This is heresy. ...

C. Debate — Ripon High School is worthy of a strong debate team that teaches students to be well read, think critically, welcome varied opinions and to communicate articulately and persuasively.

3. What would you like the district to be widely known and respect for five years from now?

Academic excellence.

This requires continued, systematic (not anecdotal) oversight of programs to gage effectiveness; grading systems that are meaningful for students and parents so motivation can begin at home; continued innovation based on research rather than intuition; measuring results and always fine tuning to achieve better outcomes.

Ripon schools should all “exceed expectations” on the DPI 2011-12 School Report Card. Instead, there’s a disparity between schools, with the gulf never wider than between same-aged children enrolled in Quest Elementary (score: 82.9, “exceeds” expectations and 1/10th of a point short of “significantly exceeds” them) and Murray Park Elementary (score: 68.7, “meets” expectations).

This finding adds credence to the concern that charter schools risk “creaming” kids, getting more who have actively engaged parents and fewer with behavior problems or special needs.

4. What one thing could I accomplish as superintendent that would have you believe I was off to a strong start?

You’ve already done it. You’ve invited the stakeholders to speak up and share with you their views on Ripon’s public schools. By involving them in your personal planning process early on, they will know that you have their interests in mind as you serve our School Board, taxpayers and students in the days ahead.

— Tim Lyke

To read the entire editorial, see the June 13, 2013 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.

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