As a member of the Kansas Board of Education, Jim Porter of Fredonia believes “we’re changing the way people think about their schools.”
The goal is to show Kansas students and their families that “every student is valued,” Porter said, and as such tailor their studies to help discover and develop their talents.
“It used to be that a K-12 education was intended only to prepare students for college, and that anything less was second-class. We don’t believe that today. Of course, we honor the student who’s getting a full-ride scholarship to a university. But we also value the student who’s getting a full-ride scholarship to a technical college,” he said.
Porter is running for re-election in the Aug. 2 primary to represent District 9. A former educator and superintendent of schools, Porter is passionate about education.
“It’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Porter said Monday morning of his seven years on the state board.
From his tenure on the board as well as in the classroom, Porter said several yardsticks exist to measure a successful education.
“A student can have all the knowledge in the world, but we want to know what he or she can do with it. Are you a critical thinker? Can you solve problems? How well do you work with your neighbors? Are you respectful? Do you show up on time? Are you prepared when you walk in the door?”
“Parents and employers have told us they want to see these skills and attributes in today’s youth.
“We want to know not only that our students can graduate, but that they can do something after they graduate. That their diploma is valuable. By setting a low bar you can manipulate graduation rates; but you can’t manipulate success.”
Kansas students are making “significant improvements” to achieving the Board’s goals, Porter said. “But we’re not where we want to be. There’s still work to be done.”
About 35% of jobs in the state require a bachelor’s degree or higher; another 35% require a certificate of training, say as a physical therapy technician or as a welder.
“Our goal is that 75% of our students are in one or the other of those categories, because that’s what the job market demands,” he said.
It’s just as important for students to learn what careers they don’t want to pursue as it is what piques their interest.
“We are encouraging students to participate in internships and job-shadowing opportunities to learn about a variety of careers,” Porter said. “That exposure can save them time and money down the road.”
“In past generations, students went to college without a clue of what they wanted to study. Sometimes they changed their major a couple of times, and eventually dropped out, owing a lot of debt.
“We’re discovering that it’s better if students can decide on a focus before it costs them anything.”
During his service on the state Board, Porter has chaired three legislative task forces.
The first was on emergency safety intervention.
“This had been a hot-button issue for years and it primarily affected special needs students who were inappropriately being secluded or restrained,” he said.
When such a student “goes out of control, sometimes you have to restrain them and sometimes you have to seclude them,” Porter said. “But it’s not a punishment. It’s an intervention to calm them down.”
Porter said the 17-member committee was able to work with the disability rights community, parents and school administrators from across the state to come to an understanding of what methods work best.
“What I was most proud of is that the committee members, who came from all sides of the issue and had not always gotten along, came up with recommendations that were unanimous,” Porter said.
Legislators wholeheartedly supported the committee’s recommendations, he said.
Students with special needs are also a concern of Porter.
In his opinion, the state was shortchanging students by evaluating their limitations, not their potential.
“A state is supposed to have a transition plan for students by the time they are 14,” he said. “In Kansas, we were going by what a student’s disabilities were.
“There are a lot of special needs students who have abilities and can be productive citizens,” he said. “We need to make sure that we focus on their abilities, not their disabilities, so that we can help them become productive citizens.”
Porter said this difference in philosophy is now being seized by the office of special education at the Department of Education.
“It’s moving very quickly,” he said.
The most recent legislative initiative spurred by Porter concerns dyslexia, a condition that Porter has.
“I’ve always been a struggling reader,” he said. A former music teacher who plays trombone and piano, “I could always read the notes, I just couldn’t tell you what they were,” he said.
“For years, there’s been this war between phonics and the whole language approach to teaching reading,” he said. “And the research is clear. The phonetic structured literacy process works. And it works not only for students that are having reading difficulties, but it works for all students.”
Emphasizing oral language by being aware of speech sounds and the ability to manipulate those sounds helps children become more fluent and strong readers, the task force concluded.
The task force’s recommendations include that those who teach reading have training in structured literacy and that college-level education programs have faculty trained in structured literacy.
“If you’re going to teach teachers, you need to know what you’re doing,” he said.
An estimated 20% of Americans have dyslexia, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.
Because of the task force’s work, “we now have a coordinator for the dyslexic at the Department of Education,” he said.
Porter is running as a Republican. He faces Luke Aichele, a McPherson barber. The election is Aug. 2.