April 2018

Archived Messages to Staff / Blog

  • The Learning Journey

    Posted by Cyndi Skellie on 9/19/2019 2:40:00 PM

    Six hundred Shelby County kids learn to drive every year. Since parents use school parking lots as training grounds, I get to watch the learning happen. One particular dad persisted for weeks last summer. He would stand at the corner of the lot while his child parked, merged, stopped, backed up, started and drove under his guidance. He, the master, was not satisfied until she proved her competence by doing the task independently. I happened to be driving by one August evening when she “got it”. Her performance was flawless. Her dad knew it. She knew it. I couldn’t hear their chatter, but I saw it in their grins. They both knew. She was ready. 


    Like that dad, teacher leaders in our district agree that mastery of any skill or concept is best proved by doing a task that requires the learner to use a new skill or concept to do something. Nobody understands this better than the parents who teach kids to drive.  Just studying the manual will not make a teenager a competent driver. Whether driving on the roadway or in a classroom, learning requires doing. 

    That’s why I look for purposeful learning in our classrooms. 

    Learning is purposeful when it is personal to the learner. In decades past, teachers stood at the front of the class for each lesson, expecting all students to learn in the same way and at the same pace. This is becoming a thing of the past across our district and across America. Now we expect to see learning systems and lesson plans designed to give students the freedom to design their learning based upon how they want to showcase their learning by doing.  Abundant research exists; when treated as co-designers of purposeful learning outcomes, learners take pride in their success and find meaning in their work. 

    Transference is the "Holy Grail" of learning. If a learner can transfer what was learned to a unique and different application, then the skill is mastered. We have kids right now who still don't see relevance between their own desires and our curriculum. They do not yet see how transference could ever occur and haven't really thought about it. To exacerbate the situation, their parents are not likely to push for transference either since their parents likely skirted through school in a similar fashion. Yet when we get real transference, these same parents light up! They love it. They inevitably say things like - I wish school had been like this when I was a kid!

    Learning is a journey for all of us - students and teachers. When I’m asked about our journey and how education practices are changing, I begin by acknowledging we are on a journey but we are not "experimenting" on kids. Even though we’re on a journey because we always want to improve, the core of our work is rooted in long-standing best practice. Yet at the same time, I remind adults in our community that our kids were "born at a different time" and deserve timely educational opportunities. That’s why we stay on the journey. 

    Comments (-1)
  • A Vision and A Mission: Opening Day Remarks to Staff

    Posted by Cyndi Skellie on 8/6/2018 11:55:00 AM
    On Opening Day, four of our teachers told student success stories to an audience of nearly one thousand fellow employees of Shelby County Public Schools. The stories focused on four principles cited in Ted Dintersmith's book, What Schools Could Be. Ted chronicles his year-long journey  to schools across all fifty states to visit schools where leaders are shifting from a subject-centered school structure to a student-centered structure. In this fascinating commentary, Ted identified four principles among these schools. He calls them the PEAK principles. Ted believes students thrive in environments where they develop:


    • Purpose - Students attack challenges they know are important, that make the world better.
    • Essentials - Students acquire the skill sets and mind-sets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
    • Agency - Students own their own learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
    • Knowledge - What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, to make, to teach others.

     Ms. Denise McElroy from East Middle School shared an inspiring true tale of empowering a student's purpose for deeply understanding Newton's Laws through building rockets after inviting a NASA engineer to visit the class. Ms. Katie Strange from Simpsonville Elementary told the story of a student who blossomed as a leader of her own learning as she developed the essential skill-sets and mindsets to present a robust public exhibition about the horse industry. SCHS math teacher, Ms. Eva Bentley, brought along a student who told the story of his own journey from class clown to controlling his own path, place, pace and time of learning - student agency. Ms. Ashley Warren from Painted Stone Elementary shared a heartwarming story of the blossoming of an English language learner who demonstrated deep knowledge understandings by sharing her deep thinking aloud to influence the thinking of her peers in a reading workshop. 

    This year we begin a four year strategic plan designed to achieve the outcomes of our community Profile of a Graduate (link here). This strategic plan (link here) is designed specifically to transform our teaching from a subject-centered structure to a student-centered structure. I'm excited to work with our students, parents, community leaders and educators as we prepare wise students who master standards, lead by example and embrace social responsibility.
    (To access Dr. Neihof's Opening Day Speech to teachers, staff and board members, click here.)
    Comments (-1)
  • Staff Updates

    Posted by Ryan Allan on 4/20/2018
    Comments (-1)
  • Deep Learning

    Posted by James Neihof on 2/12/2018

    KNow-Do-Reflect Triangle I’m reading a book by Bob Lenz called Transforming Schools. While challenging me, it strengthens my conviction regarding deep learning. Bob Lenz says it this way, “Deep learning outcomes come by design, not by osmosis.”  As I read (and re-read, and re-read…), my mind bounces back and forth from the book to our newly approved strategic plan through which we will continue transforming the learning experience over the next four years.

    Like many educators of our time, I’m convinced that knowledge of academic standards is only part of the life-readiness puzzle. It is hard to put it better than Chris Lehman, an educator at Columbia’s Teachers College when he says, “ True ‘college and career readiness’ is more than a particular knowledge base, more than how many hours of non-fiction one has read, more than how much evidence one has used to develop ideas. Being ready for college and career also has something to do with self-belief, care for others, taking risks, falling down and getting back up.”

    Recent student exhibitions at both of our middle schools showed all four of the factors Chris mentions:

    • Self-belief – Parents stood wide-eyed and swelled with pride as they watched their confident kids defend their thinking through facts they had researched and, in many cases, memorized.
    • Care for others – Students at both schools shared projects depicting personal involvement in care for classmates, community members, and family members.
    • Taking risks – I was struck, particularly at East Middle, by the number of kids who, after years of timidity in elementary school, spoke with passion and clarity while giving extended eye contact to listeners.
    • Falling down and getting back up – A student at West explained to me that she wasn’t ready to talk to me and needed some more time. She grinned and, ignoring me, went to work. I’m not sure what had just gone wrong but there was no doubt that she was feverishly working to “get back up” right then and there.

    No matter what these skills are called, they must be taught if our kids are going to be truly ready for what adult life has to throw at them. Teaching them means embedding them in instructional pedagogy: introducing these skills from the earliest years, creating challenges around them, coaching them explicitly, teaching learners to reflect on them, assessing them (with rubrics or even, eventually, with mastery scales), and practicing, practicing, practicing until these skills are second nature to our kids.

    While our teachers develop the capacity to educate students in this deep learning manner, principals and I are reminding teachers, students and parents of the balance we seek as we prepare to exhibit learning. Our learners must have academic learning (KNOW) to defend (DO) when giving exhibitions of their learning (REFLECT) as they transition from elementary to middle to high school and to graduation.

    Over the next few years, this triangle (KNOW, DO, REFLECT) will become the philosophy through which we view deep learning in Shelby County.

    Comments (-1)
  • Strategic Planning (9/17)

    Posted by James Neihof on 9/12/2017

    Strategic planning isn’t just for business leaders. It is for schools too. Any school district with a mission to succeed must have a plan to get there.

    We are in the final year of our current Strategic Plan. Together, we’ve accomplished much in the last four years. Now, work is underway to build the next plan. Teachers, parents, students, business leaders, school board members and administrators are dreaming, researching and brainstorming. Synergy is growing among the 260 members of our Strategic Leadership Team!

    We are mission driven. Our strategic planning grows from our desire to prepare wise students who master standards, lead by example and embrace social responsibility.

    • Preparing wise students - Because our graduates will compete for jobs that haven't yet been created, education should increase their wisdom - the ability to take sound action.  Our graduates will need to apply their knowledge to solve problems. Success will be about performance. Sound action, based on good judgment, will require full mastery. And those who succeed will be those who can think, share ideas, make collaborative decisions and solve problems in teams.

    • Leading by example - After more than a quarter of a century in public schools, I’ve seen my share of high impact leaders - both students and teachers. One strength stands above all else as the key ingredient to their overwhelming success. They lead by example. It sounds simple, but it is true. No other leadership trait comes close. As we, the leaders of the community, model exemplary living, our graduates learn to be exemplary leaders too.

    • Embracing social responsibility - Our millennial graduates are the most multicultural demographic in history. To succeed in coming years, they will take on responsibility for an ever-shrinking, yet stubbornly divisive world comprised of systematic racism, economic inequality and politically enforced marginalization. That’s why it is so important for the system of education in our community to foster the development of empathetic understanding - locally and globally.

    Here’s what is happening this fall. The school district’s two hundred plus members of the Strategic Leadership Team will envision the outcomes we desire four years from now. Our district’s leadership team will organize the vision of the planners into strands. Each strand will be engineered backward from outcome back to inception.

    Then, between now and 2022, empowered parents, students, school leaders, and community leaders will share leadership through a well-articulated strategic plan guided by our common mission - preparing wise students who master standards, lead by example and embrace social responsibility.

    Comments (-1)
  • Olivia's Legacy (8/17)

    Posted by James Neihof on 8/4/2017

    Olivia is in the 7th grade. On Thursday, the second day of the new school year, Olivia offered to share with me something she had just written. Like many of her peers, she has grown up in this community where leadership has been intentionally taught. For five years now, teachers, parents and community leaders have been talking about and attempting to model the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    She explained that she and her classmates had been asked to reflect on the contribution they wanted to make to their school community as seventh graders. Below are the words she wrote.

    As you read this young lady's words, I encourage you to reflect on where you were in seventh grade. Would you have echoed her sense of responsibility for your community, for your world?


    The legacy I want to leave at West Middle is that I am kind, hard working, independent, smart, a leader, strong, brave, a girl, passionate, friendly, open, and weird.

    I AM ME

    I can do anything, I can inspire, I can make a difference, I can lead the way, I can help, I can show my personality, I can be free, I can stand up for others, and I can shine.

    I CAN   

    I will grow, I will try, I will work, I will smile, I will play, I will listen, I will sing, I will learn, I will see, I will care, I will laugh, and I will forgive.

    I WILL

    I promise to do my best, to help my community, and to put other first.



    Wow! I’m thinking we are in really good hands with kids like Olivia growing up to lead our community.

    Comments (-1)
  • Welcome Back (7/17)

    Posted by James Neihof on 7/24/2017

    To the Shelby County Community:
    Welcome to a new school year!  I am delighted to continue working with the students, parents, staff and the Shelby County community as we prepare our students to master standards, lead by example and embrace social responsibility.
    Guided by a transformative strategic plan, the Shelby County Public School District has set a clear course to success. Board members, key business leaders, and school personnel are committed to delivering a world-class education - based in the realities of the 21st century - to each child enrolled in Shelby County Public Schools.
    The over 7,000 children in our district are at the center of our planning and preparation for this year. For them, we have worked throughout the summer to hire and train the very best candidates available – both our veterans and the new hires.
    We desire for Shelby County’s children to contribute positively to their 21st-century world. This desire requires a transformation of the schooling experience. This growing transformation affects all educational levels - elementary, middle and high - and addresses each student’s individual educational needs. We call this transformation personalized learning.
    Increased and improved technology has led to our students having more control of the pace and personalization of their learning in each of the last three years. This year even more students and parents are choosing a blended learning model, combining the best aspects of traditional instruction models and high-quality digital tools. For many digital natives, this is an optimal learning environment.
    As our transformation continues, you may see changes in our classrooms such as:

    • The teacher acting more as a learning guide or facilitator.
    • Students working independently and in small and large groups.
    • Students using projects as an avenue for inquiry-based learning.
    • Students demonstrating mastery through exhibitions.
    • Greater teacher and student interaction with technology.
    • Use of Schoology, a management learning tool for educators and students.
    • District curriculum, textbooks and other resources provided in electronic formats on Schoology.
    • Improved student/teacher/parent engagement and communication through online learning tools.
    • A more flexible physical classroom environment.
    • Different placement and adaptability of classroom furniture.
    • Schools serving as community centers with Internet access and extended learning hours.

    We are prepared for an exciting year and invite the entire Shelby County community to continue to partner with us.  Together, we will succeed.


    James Neihof
    Superintendent of Schools

    Comments (-1)