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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Maintaining The Course In Spite Of The Curse

School was in session for the morning only today. We experienced productive staff development activities during the afternoon. The focus of these learning opportunities were Inquiry Based Learning projects and Smartboard strategies. The presenters offered practical techniques designed for teachers to enhance the delivery of instruction.

A regularly scheduled staff meeting followed the professional development sessions. It was a challenging meeting for me. The topic was the State of the School District Address.

I began by reaffirming my decision to join the learning community at Heatly this summer. It was a conscious decision despite evidence of a struggling system. The scores on state mandated assessments had attracted the state department of education's designation as a School In Need of Improvement. The enrollment of learners has been declining slightly each year for the last several years. The staff was ravaged by significant cuts last spring. The economic crisis remained a threat. The district hadn't had a superintendent from outside the district in twenty years.

I applied to serve Heatly because of the opportunity it presented for an individual to make a difference. These last six months have reinforced that decision. The staff is committed to improve and stretch to reach their collective potential. The learners have been refreshing and engaging. The community has been accepting and supportive. The school board has been resolute in their efforts to facilitate success.

Yet, we remain in a struggle, largely cursed by a fiscal crisis that continues to constrain public schools. We are unaware of the specifics of anticipated state aid and that lack of knowledge inhibits planning. The new governor and state legislature have significant issues to wrestle over before they can present us with specific financial figures, including the prospect of consolidation of local governments, (school systems?) which poses a threat to Heatly. We anxiously await the outcome of the posturing and rhetoric so our annual operating budget can be constructed. Until then, much is held in abeyance. Beyond the reduction in money effected by the state cuts to school aid, additional amounts have been lost as enrollment drops, and funding has been further diminished by the cost of tuition for learners who had transferred to Charter schools over the summer.

You might say we are surrounded by swirling forces and curious question marks. Nevertheless we are in position to advance in the same manner I had referred to in an earlier Blog posting of January 6 entitled, "Surrounded!" We can either retreat in a defensive posture that merely delays the slow and inevitable defeat, or sigh and surrender to overwhelming odds, or we can identify our objective, coordinate our energies, marshal our courage and attack in another direction. Our survival dictates the latter choice. Our commitment ensures the last choice. Our future warrants that final option.

Let's start by re-framing our organization. Imagine you own a business, such as a restaurant. Success depends on many factors but it largely rests on your ability to attract and retain customers, pure and simple. Look at the variables that must combine to produce success. You may have the best chef in the area but the quality of the food can be negatively impacted by unreliable, uncooperative and indifferent waitstaff who mistreat customers and dissuade them from returning. Conversely, even the most amicable and helpful waitstaff cannot overcome poorly prepared food that disappoints customers. Prices must be perceived as appropriate or many potential customers may not ever step foot in the restaurant. The environment of the restaurant certainly weighs in the decision people make regarding their selection of a place to enjoy a meal. Location is a concern as well, particularly if parking is limited, or the parking lot is distant enough from the restaurant that people are inconvenienced to walk through the rain or snow. In short, each of these factors contributes to the performance and success of the business - and if just one drops below acceptable standards your business may end up bankrupt.

Public schools are a business and any educator who disagrees with that perception will likely experience great difficulties during the present and prevailing distress that shadows the issue of school finance. Heatly must operate as a business. Customers (learners) have to be our focus. Attracting and retaining these consumers determines our progress. Quality control, soliciting feedback from customers, earning the confidence of investors (the community stakeholders who vote on our budget in May) and marketing our services and products can go a long way to help us forge success.

All departments must not only commit to success but also cooperate and recognize the interdependence required for goal attainment. This is not the time to be divisive and seek to preserve one department's share of the resources by casting aspersions toward the quality or viability of another department within the school or suggesting reductions in another unit. Collaboration is critically important to generate the synergy necessary for our school, or any school, to overcome the challenges we face and the expectation to do more with less.

Lastly, I placed a guillotine on the table in front of the staff as I explained the dire foe we face. I willingly inserted my arm through the opening and thrust the blade down. It passed through my arm and landed at the base of the stand. I then withdrew my arm, free of any signs of harm, and insisted that we could also survive cuts. It may help that I perform magic, but we really won't need magic - just common goals and shared meanings. I am convinced that we can continue to improve and meet with progress despite the obvious pitfalls that we confront.

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