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First Session Overview

Blankstein Challenges Schools to Not Give Up on Children

"Kids don't leave school, they leave the lack of people" who are open and available to them at school, said Alan Blankstein of the HOPE Foundation as he challenged conference attendees to be courageous leaders.

Blankstein, who himself had problems at school and at home as a youth, addressed a large assemblage of school officials at the First General Session of the 2008 IASB/IASA/IASBO Joint Annual Conference.

Barbara Bolas, president of the National Association of School Boards (NSBA), preceded Blankstein and had her own story of a custodian named Joe who volunteered to take a student who had lost his parents into his home rather than have the boy lose his contact with his school.

"Each one of us has the opportunity to touch a child like that," Bolas said. "Each and every day we have the chance to change their lives."

Bolas also said the NSBA has been working closely with the Barack Obama transition team as the president-elect and former Illinois senator prepares to move into the White House. She thanked those who responded to NSBA's National Affiliate program for helping to fund additional advocacy efforts following the passage of the No Child Left Behind act.

Awards presented

Also at the first session, the Risk Management/David Binotti Award and the 2008 Invitational Exhibition of Educational Environments (EEE) awards were presented.

Southeastern CUSD 337 in Augusta, Illinois, received this year's Risk Management/David Binotti Award. The award was presented by Joanne Binotti, widow of David Binotti after whom the award is named, and honors a district that shows a commitment to risk management and loss control through the Workers' Compensation Self Insurance Trust.

A video showed how Southeastern's high school was destroyed by fire on March 3, 2006. In accepting the award, Don Daley, interim superintendent, said it may be rare nowadays, but within a few days, a team from the Illinois School District Agency (ISDA) and architects were working toward the common cause of seeing that the district could replace its building. Todd Fox, assistant superintendent, said the process turned a tragedy for the district into a dream within 27 months and with no additional cost to taxpayers.

Educational Environments Exhibit Awards of Distinction went to Healy, Bender & Associates Inc. of Naperville for construction of the new Crete–Monee High School in Crete-Monee CUSD 201-U and to OWP/P Architects of Chicago for renovation of Chicago International Charter School's Ralph Ellison Campus in Chicago Public Schools District 299. (For a complete list of this year's winners, please see "Healy, Bender and OWP/P take top design honors.")

Keynote challenge

Mark C. Metzger, president of IASB and the Indian Prairie CUSD 204 school board, opened the session with a riveting story of a young man's courage and four-year goal of walking the stage to receive his diploma at graduation following a car accident before he entered high school.

His fellow seniors had never seen the student walk, but all rose with thunderous applause as he crossed the stage, Metzger said, adding that the lesson those students learned that day went beyond anything they might have learned in school or that could be tested under No Child Left Behind.

Blankstein thanked both Metzger and Bolas for their stories that he said fit so well with his message of the afternoon. Remarking on the large "Lighting the Way" sign behind him on the stage, he said "this is the time to be thinking big and to be thinking of lighting the way" for students.

During the afternoon, Blankstein had his audience even dancing in the aisles as he linked that spontaneous activity to motivating students and keeping them engaged in their classrooms.

He praised his Grandma Sarah, a Polish immigrant and a high school dropout, who took him in from an abusive home situation and instilled the values in him that were the inspiration for the HOPE Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting educational leaders as they create school cultures where failure is not an option for any student. HOPE, stands for Harnessing Optimism and Potential through Education.

To make certain that students don't fail, Blankstein said, will take courageous leaders and sustainable learning communities. But, he added, schools are in competition with the for-profit prison enterprise, which gets many of those who fail at school.

Blanstein singled out three school systems that have been part of the HOPE Foundation, one of which is Mattoon CUSD 2 in east central Illinois.

"Mattoon is an example of sustained success," he said, adding that the district had made annual yearly progress (AYP) in all subgroups in 2008 and "closed the gap greater than most of the state."

In closing, Blankstein challenged the audience to look again at the mission statements they had written for their districts and ask themselves if it answers critical questions:

  • If it says all students can learn, do they really know what they should be learning?
  • How will the district ensure engaging and relevant teaching?
  • How will you know if the students are learning?
  • And what will you do if they don't?

"Don't give up on any of your kids," Blankstein admonished. "You don't know who you might be giving up on."

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