(Seguin) -- The Seguin ISD is looking at the possibility of being designated as a District of Innovation for the 2018-2019 school year.
Jason Schmidt, Seguin ISD's assistant superintendent of learning and leadership services, recently brought forth the proposal to members of the Seguin ISD Board of Trustees. Schmidt says the 84th Texas Legislative Session helped to provide this opportunity for Texas public school districts. He says the designation in essence gives the local district more freedom and flexibility when implementing innovative learning experiences or educational strategies for its students.
"A little bit of background information, we do have a House Bill 1842 that allows for the designation Districts of Innovation and what this does is allow for our school district to create an innovation plan. There are potential exemptions for much of the Texas Education Code that really allows schools and school boards to work rather independently, collaboratively to meet the needs of our students. Before I continue, this has become rather popular. Of the 1,150 close to 1,200 school districts here in Texas, we are now approaching about 700 of them that have gone this route. Many of them will go for one or two reasons, some will go for more and we'll just kind of look a little bit at what we might be able to do within the next five years," said Schmidt.
The plan essentially is designed to improve student's educational outcomes with local input and less regulatory control from Austin. As one trustee stated, it is as if the state is "giving local control back to the community."
Much of the attraction in achieving this title has reportedly been with the flexibility that would be allowed with the school calendar -- a calendar that Schmidt says could help better align how the local district operates and how teaching and even testing is conducted.
"We will have additional flexibility with potentially some of the following items. You can see that school start date, that has become very popular. We've talked to a lot of citizens, a lot of campuses, a lot of individuals. We all know that the school start date piece basically says that we can't start school until the fourth Monday in August. With becoming a District of Innovation, we can do what a lot of the surrounding districts have done and districts across the state which basically -- we'll have some districts starting that third Monday in August, some even as early as that second but what that does is to allow for students to really get out earlier at the end of the year after testing towards the end of May. It also allows for us to be able to balance by starting earlier -- trying to make sure that we can get out prior to the winter break, have those semesters divided that way. When you looking at balancing instruction, there's quite a bit that we can do there. There's also a school end date. It has been in the past that, May 15 is the earliest day that you can stop or end school. That just gives us flexibility if we wanted to change that date," said Schmidt.
As mentioned in his presentation, Schmidt says districts will have the flexibility to implement practices similar to charter schools including exemptions from mandates such as class-size ratios and the 90 percent attendance rule.
"The 90 percent attendance rule as you see -- there's a ratio piece that looks at Kindergarten through four. Currently, we have that 22 to one ratio that we really try to keep as a best practice. We want to have that small class size to help our young primary students become successful. This gives you flexibility if there ever were an incident earlier in the school year or later in the school year where towards the end, there was a move in, there were some things that happened and you went above that 22 to one. Right now, we have to report that to TEA. TEA does really nothing with that. they keep it on file. This would allow us to basically look at moving an aide in. This would look at giving us the opportunity to not have to hire a brand new teacher towards the end of the school year which you want to always hire the best. You don't want to rush that process. You definitely want to try to go through that during hiring season and find somebody that's going to come in and give you the return investment, work with kids well. Site base decision making is a piece here. There's some discipline, flexibility, this deals a lot with alternative school when students get in trouble over there, it gives us some more options," said Schmidt.
Schmidt says there is currently a long list of benefits of being a District of Innovation. He says with this extra breathing room, it gives educators the ability to better focus on the classroom.
"Another one that's become popular is this teacher probationary contracts. Some districts are looking and saying -- right now there's a practice in Texas where if we were to hire somebody at Seguin ISD that came from outside of Seguin and if they had basically worked as an educator for five of the past eight years and everything was good on their evaluations, they would come in with a one year probationary contract. We'll we might want to extend that. We might want to have a two year probationary contract which will then allow us to really be able to assess to make sure that we had the best teacher possible as far as working with our students. Also, we can look at our CTE courses. We talked about this one before where we may have students that are interested in welding. We might not have a certified teacher. There might not be people that are available. We might be able to bring in an industry professional. We might be able to bring in somebody that has experience, doesn't have the teaching certification. We can work with them. We can pair up with them. Then, they can be working with our students to help them be successful as well," said Schmidt.
While there are plenty of benefits -- many of which were not even included in his presentation to the school board -- the innovation designation still comes with plenty of state enforcement such as curriculum, district governance, the state assessment system, the state accountability system and the many other vital requirements of the Texas Education Agency.
Superintendent Dr. Matthew Gutierrez says he has seen first hand how the designation can benefit a school district.
"I know that this is a big deal when districts move to a District of Innovation. It's usually something that does get media attention, local media attention. I know there can be a lot of anxiety with the very tight schedule. But just know that you can focus on just a few areas first and again in having gone through this in Plano, it was just a matter of looking at teacher certification, teacher appraisal, the earlier start date and the attendance. Those were the four. Then, you can come back as a committee and revisit if you want to look into other areas. It was just a sampling of things that we could look at, but it is certainly not going to (be) jump all in. We want to make sure to get feedback, of course there's already been feedback provided by the TCC. But get feedback from the DEIC and look at what will be priority and what will be presented to you all," said Dr. Gutierrez.
To first be eligible, a school district's state accountability must be acceptable. The process must also include a board resolution and public hearing. Again as Dr. Gutierrez mentioned, if the board decided to pursue this option, it must appoint a committee to develop a local innovation plan. The final version of the proposed plan must also be available on the district's Internet website for at least 30 days. The school board must also notify the commissioner of the board's intention to vote on the adoption of the proposed plan.