To offer some guidance, Craig Barrett, former president of Intel and co-chair of ACHIEVE, began his presentation to the Missoula Education Summit with a definition of the elements essential for a good school system: Excellent teachers, high expectations and a healthy amount of tension in the system.

As he explained, everything depends on dedicated teachers who thoroughly understand the content they teach; respect the crucial relationships among content, appropriate teaching methods and ways of learning; model excellent writing, oral and math skills; have high expectations of themselves and their students; exhibit enthusiasm for teaching and learning; and motivate students to engage in learning.

These characteristics of excellent teachers reflect the reality in hundreds if not thousands of schools around the country and in most of the classrooms in Missoula County. More important, when classrooms lack the pervasive influence of excellent teaching, tension escalates while expectations remain frustrated. On the other hand, unless the community has high expectations and insists upon realizing them, good teachers will seek better prospects elsewhere.

Finally, if a community provides lip service to high expectations only to lower the bar when too many students fail to meet them, insufficient tension exists to provide the feedback necessary for a good school system dedicated to assuring the highest quality of education for all learners.

The vision for the Missoula area schools postulates the presence of good teachers, high expectations and a healthy amount of tension as feedback in the system as the means to ensure 1) the appropriate and relevant education for every child, whatever that child’s abilities; 2) individual and community responsibility and engagement; 3) local economic vitality; 4) social equity and viability; and 5) an increasingly vibrant and inclusive culture.

Since the Summit occurred in November 2009, the organizers have mobilized to realize the vision, recognizing the need for action even as many details await further refinement. We have sustained the momentum, and fully intend to persevere, drawing confidence from the notion that the people of Missoula County have the gumption, commitment and intelligence to build and sustain an excellent school system that puts students first and in which every student matters.

To that end, in accordance with the first summit recommendation, we have established a steering committee of members drawn from the community at large and representative of the stakeholders. The committee will oversee the ongoing work of the summit and strive to involve the entire community, since we know that the work we have in mind requires community involvement and ownership to succeed.

We have focused our efforts on initiatives under the three rubrics of:

• Responsibility: Establishing the Steering Committee with the assigned charge of sustaining the momentum toward achieving the vision for Missoula area schools; launching “Graduation Matters Missoula” for the PreK-12 schools and “Partnering for Student Success” for the university to encourage and assist students to achieve their goals, emphasizing parent, teacher, administrator, community and student responsibilities.

• Rigor: Initiating the process to increase standards for high school graduation and align them with workplace expectations or admission criteria for the university – whether for two- or four-year programs – and implement meaningful assessments to assure progress; expanding dual-credit, advanced placement, special curricula – i.e., International Baccalaureate and Early College High School – programs; establishing a Professional Development Academy for mathematics education involving high school teachers and university professors, with another on science education and still another on the integration of information technology into the curriculum to follow.

• Relationships: Collaborating with businesses and employers to create opportunities for students and teachers in job shadowing, mentoring, internships, problem-based learning and service learning, assisting students and teachers to appreciate how education prepares them for the larger world and how they can make a difference, while also engaging the larger community in the schools.

While we take comfort in the progress to date, we remain acutely aware of the need for greater community engagement and we seek your support. We have established a Web link from the MCPS or the university to the steering committee. We eagerly anticipate your counsel and participation.

This opinion piece was signed by Alex Apostle, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools; George Dennison, president of the University of Montana; Dick King, president of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp.; Royce Engstrom, Provost at UM; UM executive vice president Jim Foley; Bobbie Evans, dean of the PJW College of Education and Human Sciences; Chris Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Barry Good, dean of the College of Technology.

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