As I embark upon my 26th year of public education, I would like to reflect on some changes I have witnessed over that time, as well as possible changes on the horizon that may have an effect on Fair Grove Public Schools. Through the years, I would submit that about the only thing that has not changed in our local schools is the great example of servant leadership displayed by public school educators and school staff members across this great country on a daily basis. As parents, educators and community members, we all play a role in the education of our children and I am proud to say that Fair Grove Schools and Community is blessed with an abundance of loving, caring adults who have dedicated their lives to the social, academic and civic growth of our children and therefore our community.
As an “old timer” I am often asked, by my children mostly, how did you run a school “back in the day” without the internet, email and cell phones? Well, let me tell you, we ran them successfully, just like we do now. The biggest difference was we actually had to talk with parents face to face or on their home phone. Then, would you believe, we actually had to write letters by hand and then type them on a typewriter, without spell check or grammar check? Oh the nasty smell of white out!
I find it remarkable that every child in our school has grown up in a world that does not know a time without cell phones or the internet, or, heaven forbid, social media. I would venture to say that most have not used a dictionary or phonebook and probably have never seen a record player. At times I wonder if these new tools are actually improving the level of education we offer or creating more of a distraction. Consequently, the opportunities that exist for our children because of these technological tools are unimaginable. Therefore, we will simply consider technology a necessary evil I suppose and continue to adjust our instruction to meet the needs of our children for today and the unforeseen future.
One of the biggest changes for Missouri Public Schools over the past decade has been school funding or the lack there of. What used to be a simple formula that would dictate the amount of funding your district would receive every year, has quickly become a shell game. When the state introduced the lottery to Missourians, it was touted as the answer to all of our educational funding concerns. We would have a new revenue source that would solve all issues relevant to public education. This was exciting! Unfortunately, nothing really ever works out like we hope. Therefore, as the new state gaming money went into the education funding formula, other general revenues came out to allow other state run programs to continue.
Furthermore, since the economic downturn in 2008, state and federal revenue reductions have cost the Fair Grove School District on average $370,000 (State/Federal) per year. That is a total reduction in appropriated funds of close to 1.8 million dollars over that time. If that is not bad enough, state funded transportation has also been cut $125,000 per year. I tell you this only to follow up with the fact that as funding levels have fallen, Fair Grove Schools has seen an overall increase in academic achievement. We are very proud of the fact that at the end of the day, we have a job to do and whether we have more money or less money, that responsibility remains a priority.
With school funding becoming a main topic of debate across the state, and mandatory curriculum and state mandated testing taking the forefront of most media and social media sources, Fair Grove Schools continues to excel academically while demonstrating sound financially stability. The statement; we do more with less takes on a new meaning when it comes to providing the quality of education guaranteed to our children. Over the past six years, the Fair Grove School District has cut, sliced, re-invented, and re-shaped the educational process to fit the local needs of our children and community. In the latest Annual Performance Report issued by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Fair Grove School District increased our composite score from 93.9% in 2013 to 95.4% in 2014. That in my opinion is an “A” or an “A+” on any formal grading system. All this has been accomplished as our school district has seen the amount of monies we spend per child, per year fall to 506th out of 524 school districts in the state of Missouri. Again I echo: “You can do more with less”, especially when you have a school staff, a school student body and a school community that believes in the importance of a quality education and expects and will settle for nothing less.
Finally I would like to share my thoughts on the future of Public Education. As most of you know, the public school system has been under attack for many years. Unfortunately, when it comes to assessing schools across the country, we are all placed into the same category. Although I would submit that a blanket statement denouncing public education across this country is a far cry from reality. One simply needs to visit a Southwest Missouri Public School to see the incredible achievements that are being attained on a daily basis. Can we find ways to improve the quality of education our children receive? Obviously the answer is yes. As a district and as an educational region, teachers and administrators are continuously working together, researching areas to improve upon, as well as seeking out advanced methods to enhance student learning and increase community participation in the educational process. Nevertheless, I contend that if you want to see enriched instruction and engaged student learning, you simply need to visit any school district in Southwest Missouri to witness true excellence in education.
That being said, as the November election rolls around, there is an issue on the ballot called Amendment 3 that I would like to bring to your attention. Although I would never try to convince you to vote one way or the other, I do feel it is my civic and professional responsibility to alert you to some concerns that could have a major bearing on the education system and especially the way we do educational business in Fair Grove. While you could argue that fragments of Amendment 3 might have a positive effect on education, it is critical to understand that this is a constitutional amendment. That being said, if approved, the only way to change or amend it is through a state-wide vote of the people. Therefore, it is imperative to understand this Amendment is all or nothing, designed without safeguards to refine or modify once acted upon. Therefore, allow me to address a few issues that may not be in the best interest of Fair Grove Schools.
Since relocating to Southwest Missouri in 1992, I quickly found that the culture of rural America, especially small rural communities such as Fair Grove, called for less outside influence and more locally driven educational policies and practices. Driven by strong family values and a common “Golden Rule” belief system, rural schools and communities have continued to flourish in light of undue outside attempts to diminish the local role of decision making in our society. Unfortunately, Amendment 3 seems to be yet another attempt to devalue the importance of our local value system. If passed it would:
- Take away local control from our local school board, parents and local school district in regard to teacher evaluations, teacher compensation and the amount of testing our students will be mandated to take
- Increase financial burden on local school districts and tax payers for development and implementation of said government-mandated tests
- Create a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education in the state of Missouri where educational decisions will be made by politicians and bureaucrats as opposed to locally-elected officials
Over the past eight years the Fair Grove School District has practiced the philosophy that we would not be a school district that designed instruction according to state-mandated curriculum or state-mandated testing. Our philosophy has been to design and implement a local curriculum guided by Missouri Standards that, once implemented, would develop well-rounded students that would succeed in life, as well as on any state or local assessment our children were required to endure. It is our belief that success in life is measured by more than how a child performs on a state-mandated, once a year assessment. It is our belief that academic success is fostered by meeting the educational, social and civic needs of all individual students. These are the characteristics that, we as a society, have seemed to overlook in this era of high-stakes testing and accountability. Although, if schools and communities are to continue to flourish professionally and economically, these are exactly the needs that must be embraced. Unfortunately, these are also the characteristics that will be long forgotten if we place more emphasis on state testing, as suggested by Amendment 3, and less emphasis on developing future-minded, critical thinkers and social and civic leaders, as proven by rural American principles.
Please do not misunderstand my rationale for this letter. We, as a school district, are open to and welcome accountability and performance expectations and evaluations. It is simply my suggestion that local communities can better decide, as has long been the process, what is expected and acceptable in our local schools. Rural and Urban schools should not, and cannot, be expected to thrive in a one-size-fits-all educational system. That being said, I would submit that it is time the politicians, bureaucrats, “billionaires” and self-proclaimed educational reform experts look beyond the boundaries of St. Louis and Kansas City and gain an understanding of what rural schools and rural communities around this great state accomplish on a daily, weekly and yearly basis. We might just find the reform our Missouri Public Schools need right in our own back yard.
Thank you for your support of our local public school.
Dr. John Link, Superintendent
Fair Grove Public Schools
*bolded text bolded by GoFairGrove for emphasis