Blue Valley school board candidates on the issues: Student achievement

Blue Valley is one of the highest performing public school districts in Kansas. Candidates vying for school board discuss their views on how the district can keep up that record of success while also potentially gaps in achievement. Above, a high school senior walks across the stage at 2020 graduation ceremony in Blue Valley. Image via Blue Valley School District Twitter account.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Blue Valley school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

The high performance of Blue Valley schools has in many ways been the catalyst for the growth of southern Johnson County for more than two decades. As the district continues to grow, how can the board ensure Blue Valley schools continue to produce excellent results? 

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

Member 5 Area

Gina Knapp

We are very fortunate to live in a community that so passionately supports our public schools and KNOWS it is a huge contributor to the future success of our community. The mission of our school district to Reimagine Learning and Change the World is a commitment that I take seriously.

The current review of high school learning experiences, elementary level specials, and the push to increase student performance on the Kansas Assessment Program by 10 percentage points across all levels are incredible goals that shows the administrators in this district and the Board are constantly pushing forward to ensure we remain not only excellent, but we are exceptional.

I would look to continue this push, by reviewing things like the Special Education program, looking for collaboration across districts, best practices from across the country in order to enhance the experiences for these students. I would love to see expanded arts and social emotional learning programming as we know these things produce more emotionally intelligent, workforce ready adults. Our administrators our world class and I look forward to working with them to hear how they believe we can achieve even MORE excellent results as well.

Christine White

Christine White’s name will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot, but she has said she is not actively campaigning and will not accept the office if elected.

Member 6 Area

Jim McMullen

For Blue Valley to remain a top performing school district in the state, we must embrace our mission to provide our children with broad, rich and rigorous liberal arts education. In the current social media age, that means we need to adopt what I call “language-focused teaching” from K through 12th grade.

This term “language-focused teaching” is one I developed to communicate what I believe is an urgent need to bring students’ literacy development into greater focus by creating an early intellectual infrastructure of advanced literacy, knowledge and personal development for all students. It needs to begin in elementary school. This is a call for our community to respond to the rapid society-wide changes that have occurred in the past 15 years — starting most significantly, in my view, with the release of the first iPhone in 2007 — and which have materially altered the way that we all consume and digest information.

We scroll and text a lot. We read and write a lot less. All the adults reading this grew up in a different literacy ecosystem than our children.

Blue Valley’s reading scores have fallen year-over-year since 2015. This isn’t a criticism of Blue Valley, per se. It is a statement about the reality of our changing culture. Every school in the state has seen a similar fall in reading scores. Because academic training is compartmentalized into disciplines, typically when one speaks of “literacy”, it is reserved for how and what we teach in English (or ELA) classes.

What I am addressing, however, is a true interdisciplinary approach to advanced reading, writing and public speaking that needs to incorporate every intellectual discipline. I have now experienced my fourth of five children to have gone through Blue Valley schools, and the level of training in long-form research and writing, as well as in public speaking, needs enhanced emphasis.

The complexity of the texts, the volume of writing assignments, the length of writing assignments and the extent of critical feedback needs to be materially enhanced for students of every level (whether AP, standard track or remedial).

To allow teachers the time and energy to do this, we need to really re-examine the quantity of courses for which our students and teachers are responsible in a semester. A middle school teacher can’t have 150 students in a semester and provide in-depth feedback to those students.

The process of writing is the true intellectual exercise, including, importantly, the writing of mathematical equations and scientific formulas with precision. It is that process that trains one to continue to learn well on his or her own after formal, structured education is done. That ability to keep learning well when nobody is watching or telling one to is the key to the universe.

Lindsay Weiss

This is exactly why the board creates and approves a 5-year strategic plan. It contains the pillars we fall back on as we face new challenges, new growth and new technology. It’s the litmus test we fall back on when making tough decisions. Does the proposed idea or change meet our guidelines? Is it the best thing for kids? Does it support the beliefs, mission and strategic objectives outlined in the plan?

One of the things I have always appreciated about Blue Valley is that the administration holds itself accountable. I have served six years on various Board advisory committees and, even through three different superintendents, have found our administrators and senior staff to be very transparent where we are doing well and where we need to improve.

This culture is key, I believe, to preserving our excellence. You can’t get better if you don’t acknowledge imperfections. We do have some work to do in several areas, especially academic catch-up from pandemic learning loss. Continuing the culture of honest assessment and accountability is also key to maintaining our excellence as the district grows.

Member 4 Area

Andrew Van Der Laan

When my wife and I relocated our family, a good education for our three kids was our primary concern. We moved into Johnson County and the Blue Valley School District specifically for the schools. And the growth in Johnson County hasn’t just been population growth — I believe our excellent public schools have also driven significant economic growth.

Take property values, for example. The current assessed tax base in the Blue Valley School District is about $3.5 billion, and some research indicates a third of property value can come from the quality of the local public schools. That means our Blue Valley schools have generated a billion dollars in property value alone.

To continue that trend, the district doesn’t need radical change. I think we need more of what’s been proven to work: great teachers and good facilities, an innovative approach to education and a focus on ALL students. Great teachers engage and motivate kids, and we have to also give them the physical resources to succeed.

Innovation in education is crucial. As the world changes, we need to change some of how we prepare students to succeed. And ultimately, all 22,000+ students in the district deserve a chance to reach their full potential, no matter what their plans are after graduation.

Kaety Bowers

Did not respond.

On Thursday, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the following question: 

What are your views about the role of technology in the classroom? Are you comfortable with the amount of time students spend on screens during the school day? Why or why not?