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Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting Paid - Paying It Forward

Here are two very different posts that are inexplicably linked.

I have been attending the winter conference of the New York State Council of School Superintendents held in Albany from yesterday morning (Sunday) through tomorrow (Tuesday). This is an important event that provides opportunities for skill development and the acquisition of knowledge for school district leaders.

The opening of today's activities was greeted by news of Governor Cuomo's proposal to pass legislation capping the annual salary of school superintendents throughout New York. Districts with fewer than 250 learners in grades would be limited to no more than a salary of $125,000, whereas larger districts would be capped at $175,000.

Let me assure readers of this Blog who live or work in Green Island that I DO NOT exceed the proposed cap. Not only is my salary below the recommended salary cap for superintendents, it is $4,500 below the salary I was contractually scheduled to receive if I had remained at my previous position as principal of Schuylerville Elementary School in Schuylerville, New York. Obviously, the allure of accepting the position as superintendent of Green Island Union Free School District was much more involved with pursuing a goal of extending leadership influence across all grades K-12 than money. Furthermore, I informed our school board president several weeks ago that I am not asking for any salary increase in light of the present economic turmoil that plagues our region. I'll leave it at that without jumping on a soapbox to defend my compensation.

Now that the possible distraction of my salary is out of the way I can Blog about an enriching and enlightening experience I had at the conference on Sunday. I had the pleasure of listening to a speaker convey a profound message on behalf of his daughter. His name is Darrell Scott. His daughter's name is Rachel Scott. Rachel was the first fatal victim of the 13 people who died during the violent rampage at Columbine High School eleven years and eleven months ago - April 20, 1999.

Rachel was a prolific writer who produced several personal diaries before she was randomly slain at age seventeen as she sat outside of her high school. The words contained within her diaries, in particular an essay she had written and submitted in English class just two weeks before her death; offer a powerful view on the prospects of generating and spreading good will one act at a time, one person at a time. Here's a summary of her thoughts in one sentence:

I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same. - Rachel Scott

Her passionate desire to make a difference has come true, albeit after her senseless death. Her personal goal has formed the basis for an energetic and dedicated organization devoted to making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others. I wholeheartedly encourage you to visit and learn more about the organization and its mission.

This group has stretched well beyond Rachel's native Colorado and reached across oceans and through borders to impact millions of people, especially young people. Her story, as told in multi-media format by her family, is incredibly inspiring and certainly worth a review. It speaks of respecting differences, extending help, and making a difference through kindness and compassion. Her goals ring even louder today when cyber bullying has enlarged the scope of those who are mean spirited.

I purchased a copy of one of the books written about Rachel and signed by her dad. I am anxious to read the story. I had an interesting conversation with Mr. Scott and revealed to him my own connection with Columbine. My wife grew up just miles away from Littleton Colorado in a small community outside of Denver. Also, the superintendent of the Jefferson County School District (88 schools including Columbine) at the time of that tragedy is a personal friend of mine and former colleague when we were both school administrators in Amarillo, Texas years ago.

The story of Rachel Scott is heart wrenching. There were many tears in the room as her father shared his memories of her and the desire she had to promote kindness. The presentation was a tribute to a wonderfully gifted young lady wise beyond her years. Despite a life needlessly shortened, she provoked a cause that will extend far into the future, beyond imagination. In fact, her reach resembles that of one of her heroes who also left the world a diary of vision and hope - Anne Frank. Rachel's extraordinary message is one that should resonate with each of us and prompt us all to subscribe to volunteering individual acts that continue a chain reaction of compassion.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Making A Difference

There are times when I wonder whether I'm applying the right strategies at the right time in the right manner.

One of the perplexing aspects of my role as an educational leader is accepting the fact that the degree of impact and the value of outcomes of some of the decisions I make today may not be determined for weeks, months, or even years - if ever. I believe that many educators feel the same way about the challenge of extending energy and effort without immediate feedback. I realize you can quickly discern from the grade learners receive on an assessment whether you were successful or not in teaching a specific skill or particular concept, but I'm referring to long-term influences. For instance, a learner can perform very well on a test but the real measure is whether the individual will appropriately and successfully apply that skill in the future. That is, the learner may regurgitate the facts or demonstrate the skill at the point of evaluation but you may never know whether they inculcated the knowledge and skill or merely studied it and produced it solely for the test. In another example, a decision to select a new textbook series for math can not necessarily be examined for impact for more than a year before you can ascertain the merits of that decision relative to sustained performance levels across grades and through the scope and sequence of instructional delivery. It requires a firm conviction, resiliency, confidence, and a leap of faith to persist in spite of that uncertainty. Growing people, building the future, and transforming perceptions and understandings takes time.

I have stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the school building nearly every day since the first day of school. I've previously explained my purpose - to learn names and faces of our learners and establish relationships through simple greetings, handshakes, and brief conversations. In fact, the idea behind spending valuable time in this fashion came from reading how Walmart stores employ greeters as a means to reduce theft. Studies showed that a casual exchange between the greeter and customers, however trivial and fleeting, develops enough of a connection that it dissuades most would-be thieves from thoughts of stealing items from the store.

Given that, I still imagine that there may very well be people - staff, learners, and parents - who question my investment of time in such an endeavor. Why is the highly paid superintendent spending valuable time just standing around outside as a glorified Walmart greeter when he could be inside his office attending to more important responsibilities? Is that what the residents of Green Island are getting for their taxes? Nonetheless I have persisted in imitating the postal workers creed of "neither snow nor rain nor heat..." and diligently welcomed everyone to school each morning with hopes of somehow extending a sense of acceptance and recognition to each individual.

This week I discovered, firsthand, the benefits of this daily routine. It was reaffirming. After a while you really get to know each person, by way of their usual facial expressions and habits, and even the way they walk and  who they walk with. Some are more outgoing than others, some display more humor, but they all manifest unique characteristics that offer distinctions. Because of these peculiarities evidenced by individuals I was able to detect someone approaching the school with a slower gait wearing a somber expression that was markedly different than their normal demeanor. That prompted an inquiry about their state of being. There was an admission of a troubling issue, but a reluctance to express specifics. I took note of that exchange and later, during the exchange between first and second periods, sought out the individual and once again asked if everything was okay. This solicitation induced more of a response, enough to direct the individual to a specific staff member who could appropriately address the issue and provide support. The learner indicated they were surprised that I had noticed them and followed up on the initial interaction. This same experience was replicated in another instance two days later. Every day slightly over three hundred kids of all ages pass by me as they enter the school. I'll never know what, if any, difference my presence makes with them, but on at least two days I know I made a difference.

I'll conclude this Blog post by relating a story adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley.

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Donors Choose And Policy Choice

Warning: Although this Blog post begins with a pleasant reference to a positive bit of news, it moves toward a running rant on the state of the state's education structure and contains more than an opinion or two. If that will scare you then turn away today and return tomorrow for a less strident piece. I will apologetically admit that this post is more opinionated in nature (and follows yesterday's post - Debate As Civil Discourse) than any of my other posts and may result from my attendance today at a forum of superintendents discussing the enormous financial challenges facing public schools. Here goes:

Two teachers recently submitted separate requests to Donors Choose, an on-line charity ( connecting generous people with children in classrooms. Their proposals were successful in attracting benefactors interested in advancing learning opportunities. Congratulations to the teachers for their efforts at obtaining much needed supplies for specific learning experiences. Thanks to the donors, who will receive heartfelt thank you notes from our learners. For more information on this subject, please read the article on our school district website.

Here's an explanation from the donors choose website of how the organization began.

How we started

" grew out of a Bronx high school where teachers experienced first-hand the scarcity of learning materials in our public schools.
Charles Best, then a social studies teacher, sensed that many people would like to help distressed public schools, but were frustrated by a lack of influence over their donations. He created in 2000 so that individuals could connect directly with classrooms in need.
Our mission is to improve public education by empowering every teacher to be a change-maker and enabling any citizen to be a philanthropist.
Our vision is a nation where students in every community have the resources they need to learn."

This project is a noble attempt to broker assistance to schools in need. Unfortunately, the massive cuts that presently imperil the financial resources of public schools throughout the nation will likely produce far more applications to donorschoose from teachers responding to reductions in supplies and materials resulting from continued budget shortfalls.

The hue and cry on both sides (I'm sure there are more than two sides of the issue) of the budget echoes the volume of artillery blasts on the battlefield. The angry exchanges and accusations, and the use and abuse of statistics in the support of interest groups - be they state legislators confronted by demands far in excess of available dwindling funds, irate taxpayers screaming of fatigue, employees fearful of losing their jobs, collective bargaining units threatened by the economic pinch, or politicians seeking to exploit the economic woes to advance agendas against labor unions - have obscured the interests and voice of those perhaps most impacted by the decisions - the learners.

My parent's generation grew up in the Great Depression and matured during World War II. They gained unprecedented access to higher education through the G.I. Bill that was initiated and extended to members of the armed services returning home from the war. The collective increase in knowledge and skills fueled a wave of prosperity that grew the national economy. In turn, my generation, the Baby Boomers, not only reaped the added support from their parent's newly minted middle class status amidst suburban sprawl, but also enjoyed the benefit of increased federal funds allocated in the form of grants (Pell Grants, Equal Opportunity Grants..) designed to help pay for college. The generation of my children was supported by a robust national economy charged by technology and innovation advances like the industries, and the dizzying and intoxicating largess of the stock market that offered a healthy amount of support for education.

Now what? What do we owe the members of the current generation? What are the implications of the future if we limit the hopes and dreams of public school learners inhabiting classrooms in the present? Who pays? -not now, but years from now when the cost of a decreased investment becomes clear? Will we remain leaders in the world? Will we be competitive? How will we explain what we did or didn't do, to our children and grandchildren?

Money alone is not the issue or the answer. I am an advocate of reforming education to prevent the suffocation of opportunities by rigid regulations, outdated traditions, and errant expectations. Unfunded state mandates may serve as an imposing obstacle. They also reduce the impact of local governance by elected school boards compelled to comply with legislated requirements that may not rest comfortably on districts as disparate as Green Island and Staten Island. Eliminating, or greatly minimizing these requirements that lack any accompanying dollars from the state could stimulate both savings and innovation. Education seems more regulated than virtually any other industry - at a time when creative solutions are needed for vexing problems. Our nation has witnessed many transformations through deregulation in industries such as airlines and energy. Policy makers and interest groups have played politics at the expense of those responsible for implementing and/or receiving services (see a Blog posted earlier this week for references to the bureaucratic hurdles impeding on-line learning experiences that could inexpensively expand the reach of our learners desiring enriching elective classes). I'd like to suggest we actively and aggressively pursue the weeding out of stifling regulations and mandates and hope that Governor Cuomo is not just conducting a chorus of rhetoric when he called forth a commission on mandate relief. We need more than perplexing sound bites and political bones tossed here and there with the intention of temporarily placating the public. We need real and strategic mandate relief.

I'm not one prone to conspiracy theories, nor do I point my finger at any stealth like organization or interest group. That would credit people and agencies with more insight and finesse than deserved. But, my fear as an advocate for Green Island originates from a skeptical opinion that small school districts are being slowly strangled by the combined (not coordinated) negative impact of the economy and the manipulations of thinly disguised policies on state aid and educational practice that can be exploited to ultimately steer small districts toward merging with another district as the only means of survival. It is a belief that these forces have coincidentally formed a perfect storm that lends itself to exploitation. Forced mergers, even with attractive financial incentives have not produced the consolidations expected or desired by those calling for centralization, efficiencies, and economy of scale because merging schools is not solely about finances as much as it tends to be about emotions, history, local governance, affiliation, and community identity. The circumstances resulting from the blend of fiscal problems, political rhetoric, and stricter requirements represent a more subtle mixture of regulation and practice that can leverage mergers as the only available recourse, leaving the hands of policy makers clean and the hands of the absorbed school community empty. It's just an idea.

Finally, I can honestly state that I am one superintendent who does not receive, or even approach, the salary of Governor Cuomo. He has effectively drawn attention to a red herring by calling out superintendents on their pay as an example of the waste in education and a source of potential savings. Not only would the collective salaries of every superintendent in the state not begin to bridge the funding gap between his budget proposal for education and the needs of public schools, but he should perhaps redirect his view toward the salary of the much heralded Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children's Zone charter school system, (prominently featured in the recently released documentary, Waiting for Superman). Though I have no doubt that Canada is an exceptional educational leader and innovator, I also have no doubt that his annual salary of $400,000 dollars is much, much more than twice the average salary of superintendents within the capital district region. 

Let's skip the rhetoric and stop the arguments and begin the earnest work of growing people by nurturing dreams and sustaining hope.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Debate As Civil Discourse

Peter Drucker is probably my preferred source for ideas, particularly regarding leadership. He is the author of many books considered as classics in the world of business and leadership. Although he recently passed away his thoughts are sustained through the Drucker Foundation. Tonight's Blog evolves from a quote contained in a publication of that foundation, entitled, On Creativity, Innovation and Renewal.

"In his essay “The New Atlantis” Francis Bacon the 17th century essayist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth, sought to explain the emergence of the Golden Age associated with that time period. Within his essay he imagined a new utopia with no borders, no boundaries. Vision ruled in place of politics. The leaders in this envisioned new world were considered Merchants of Light – “Great merchant traders and capitalists who plunged their personal wealth and reputations into ships that sailed beyond where all maps ended. They sailed into foreign nations under the names of other nations and brought back books and abstracts and patterns of experiments of all other parts.”

This quote has resonated with me because I have not been shy about attempts to stretch myself through the exercise of personal exploration and imagination. The desire to seek new perspectives and try new experiences has always proved tempting. I'm anxious to look over the horizon or around the corner. Every opportunity represents a potential for learning.

Heatly High School is fortunate to have many young men and women who dream and imagine - people who harbor a similar interest in adopting new ideas and adapting to new experiences. Among those people anxious to grow and discover are two enterprising young men who have endeavored to explore untrod paths and plow unturned fields. They have demonstrated their commitment to do their part to facilitate  improvement and progress at Heatly through their efforts to expand opportunities, not only in pursuit of their personal goals and gain but, more significantly, in areas in which they derive no advantage or enhancement other than the satisfaction of promoting and providing possibilities for others to benefit. They have searched for perceived needs and wants and then worked to generate appropriate responses.

This pair of entrepreneurs, or aspiring Merchants of Light, has been responsible for quietly, in stealth like fashion, initiating the development of programs and practices that stir both thought and progress. Their generous effort and energy has been impressive. I have enjoyed visiting with them and listening to their questions and suppositions. They have been helpful and respected advisors.

I first met one of the two during a tour of the school as part of the interview stage of the search and selection process for a new superintendent for Heatly last May. There was a question and answer segment between the student council members and the candidate. I was asked several probing questions related to the school budget and my views on school finance - pretty heady stuff for even a high school learner. I was so impressed with his interest, and concern for the fiscal plight of the school and the subsequent impact of budget reductions to the programs and people of the school, that I remained for over an hour afterwards meeting with him on a one-to-one basis explaining the nuances of state aid formulas and budgeting practices.

A Debate Club is one project among the several different proposals extended by the two young men. They were interested in creating more extra-curricular activities at school to involve classmates who were not already engaged with other school related experiences. After soliciting enough members to authenticate a need they persuaded a supportive teacher to volunteer her time as an advisor to supervise an after school club. I consider the goal of debate to serve more than simply meeting the interests of participants, but to provide a forum whereby young people can learn and appreciate the civil discourse of informed debate, as opposed to arguing, talking over each other, or trading toxic and venomous barbs designed to belittle opposition. The television and radio already offer an overwhelming amount of talk shows that merely devolve into shouting matches and name calling.

I am hopeful that this group will grow. I am grateful for the dedication and loyalty that these two young men have manifested in their actions.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cutting the Nets

The varsity girl's basketball team of Heatly High School realized an outstanding accomplishment this evening. With their convincing victory (more than a twenty point margin) over the visiting team from Loudonville Christian they have completed the regular season of the Central Hudson Valley League with an unblemished, perfect campaign. This is an extraordinary feat, particularly when one considers that the team is comprised of only eight players. That limited roster has left the team vulnerable to possible setbacks in the event of a player experiencing foul trouble, injury or illness.

Nonetheless, they endured challenges beyond what you would normally expect, from team after team determined to become the one opponent that spoils the unbeaten season for Heatly. Their success emerged as another challenge. The pressure to remain on path to a season without a loss in the league grew with each passing victory. The ability to focus and maintain a commitment to their coach's strategy might have waned during stretches of contests that featured point margins wide enough to lose concentration and deviate from the game plan, with forced shots and errant passes. However, determination, discipline, and desire triumphed.

This is largely the same group of young ladies who led the varsity soccer team to the regional playoffs. They have become accustomed to winning and rather than hope to achieve success, they expect to meet with success. This is also virtually the same group of girls who attracted recognition for their high levels of performance in the classroom, receiving distinction as a Scholar-Athlete Team as a result of their cumulative grade point average exceeding 90. We have every reason to suspect that the basketball team will duplicate the honor and sustain success in academics and athletics.

The outcome of the game not only meant an unbeaten season but also the league championship. The realization of that goal precipitated the tradition of cutting down the net of the basketball hoop. This task has become a time honored tradition since North Carolina State men's basketball coach Everett Case had his team cut down the nets as a souvenir after capturing the Southern League title in 1947. It was a pleasure to watch the players and coaches savor the attainment of an unbeaten season. Their hard work and sense of togetherness were rewarded in those moments it took to snip the strings of the net before an appreciative and proud group of supporters.

As superintendent of Green Island, I consider myself the head coach of the instructional team of the Green Island Union Free School District. Naturally, I am hoping that the success of these young ladies, in soccer and basketball, in academics and athletics, will stimulate a similar drive to success throughout the school system, K-12 in any and every endeavor and challenge we encounter. Let these victories serve as momentum for success for all, at every stage, at every age. We need to identify and practice the same characteristics of perseverance, dedication, and cooperation as this great team if we ever expect to cut down the nets that have conspired to contain us in the past.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sound Bites and Bumper Sticker Philosophies

Andrew Cuomo, recently elected Governor of New York, outlined several concerns during his State of the State address last month. Among the issues he raised and the perceptions he articulated was his critical view of educational performance levels in public schools across the state. Cuomo shared an opinion that served as a combustible sound bite when he claimed that New York spends more than any other state on public school education (based on per pupil expenditures) yet achieves at a level placing New York at 34th of the 50 states.

I consider Cuomo's statement to be an opinion because there are as many different ways of measuring actual costs of education as there are methods of calculating performance levels. One must carefully define input and output if they expect to make a viable point. For instance, when assessing costs for education, does the examiner take into consideration the high cost of heating school buildings in this part of the country? Are the financial figures placed in the context of regional and state indices of cost of living when comparing statistics among states with widely different economies? What aspects of learning are you measuring - graduation rates? college admissions? collective grade point averages? scores on common tests (there aren't any tests for the general population of learners that are common to all 50 states - or even half of them!) participation in advanced placement classes? number of credits required to graduate? rigor of the curriculum?

I'm certainly not calling Governor Cuomo a liar. Let me make that absolutely clear. However his free and casual use of a caustic citation without a carefully constructed context calls to mind an adage I remember from a statistics class in college: "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure."

I recognize that the 24 hour 7 day a week news cycle of radio, television, print, and internet sources literally buries people beneath an avalanche of data and news stories. The intense competition for the attention of the audience overwhelmed by information produces a plethora of sound bites and bumper sticker statements (like, "1st in spending, 34th in performance!") that reduce content to a minimal amount of packaging with hope that people will remember a catchy phrase or an important number. I am sure those rankings remain in the memory of many people who followed the State of the State speech. However, although it enabled the Governor to make a case for subsequently calling for a sharp decrease in state aid to public schools, per his contention that New York tax payers were not getting appropriate value for their money, it was not entirely accurate. Or, at the least, it did not begin to offer a comprehensive perspective on a very complex issue.

It seems that for every study suggesting that public education is operating at an inferior rate, at the national level of state level, there is a correspondingly converse study that asserts public education is presently meeting the challenging demands of production and performance.

For instance, here's a summary of extensive research conducted by the Center for American Progress  a not for profit organization which examined a number of factors impacting the education process in terms of Return On Investment. In other words, they meticulously explored publicly available vital statistics on each of more than 9,000 school districts throughout America to determine the value of performance related to cost and resource allocation using data from the 2007-2008 school year  (it should be noted that since the 2007-08 school year Green Island has improved its achievement level and is no longer considered by the state to be a School In Need of Improvement). The researchers reviewed "academic achievement relative to a district's educational spending, while controlling for factors outside of their control such as cost of living and degree of student poverty." The critical question driving the research was - What are the taxpayers getting in return for their investment in their local public school district, when demographic factors (poverty rate, special education, English language learners, regional cost of living [comparable wage index]) are used as metrics to provide a proper context for the study.

The three different productivity measures are featured and defined below in italics. There are six different levels used in the evaluation matrix to arrive at Return On Investment (ROI) rankings from 1-6.

Basic Return on Investment index: This measure rates school districts on how much academic achievement a district gets for each dollar spent relative to other districts in their state. We adjusted for a variety of factors including cost-of-living differences as well as higher concentrations of low-income, non-English-speaking, and special education students to avoid penalizing districts where education costs are higher. Green Island received a ranking in the orange - we were considered in the bottom third in spending and the bottom third in achievement. This is the fourth level of six levels - with red representing the lowest (1) and green the highest (6).

Adjusted Return on Investment index: Measure that uses the same approach as the Basic Return on Investment index or Basic ROI (see entry below), but applies a statistical method called a state-level regression analysis to adjust each district’s spending for the different costs associated with serving larger concentrations of low-income, non-English-speaking, and special education students in its state. The adjustments or weights used in the Basic ROI are often not sensitive enough to account for spending differences within states. Green Island once again received the orange ranking, meaning that after adjustments were made to account for demographics, we remained with a score of 4 out of 6.

Predicted efficiency index: Index measuring whether a district's achievement is higher or lower than would be predicted after accounting for its per-pupil spending and percentage of students in special programs such as students receiving subsidized lunches. Under this approach a low-achieving district could get high marks if it performed better than predicted. Lowering academic expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, however, is not a policy position the Center for American Progress supports.
The first two measures rate districts based on the achievement that school systems produce compared to their expenditures after controlling for factors outside the district’s control. In contrast, the predicted efficiency measure doesn’t compare achievement to spending. Instead, the approach rates districts on the results of their predicted achievement after controlling for factors outside their control. This distinction is important. The first two approaches attempt to measure how much “bang for the buck” a school district gets.
Technically, then, this approach does not evaluate districts against an evaluation matrix, nor does it weight or predict the amount that a school district spends on education. Instead, we used a regression analysis to predict what achievement a district should have relative to other districts in the state given its spending and percentage of students in special programs. Green Island received a darker orange ranking, showing that the district actually performed at a more efficient rate than expected. That is, when accounting for the demographics of the district, and the spending of the district, Green Island performed at a rate of efficiency higher than one would predict because the anticipated ranking was either medium cost with low achievement, or higher costs and medium achievement - neither of which are an efficient use of funds.

This was one of several methods used to assess school performance. Judging educational outcomes is a particularly difficult analysis - more than can be described in a single sentence or in one breath - like a sound bite or bumper sticker philosophy.

The bottom line --- the voters within each community should have the right to exercise their analysis on the Return On Investment for their tax dollars when they vote on their local school budget in May to determine whether the district budget is approved and what level they find appropriate -- with the right to exceed a 2% tax cap if they feel it is justified.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Revolution - Or Not?

With near lightning speed, thousands and thousands of people in two different countries organized mass protests that eventually relieved themselves from the burden of autocratic rulers in the last thirty days. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were aided and abetted by social media technology. Digital images taken by cell phone cameras and transmitted, together with text messages and the exploitation of computers and the Internet in general all conspired to serve as a vehicle for people to express themselves and to organize. While it remains to be seen what shape the new governments take as both countries enter uncharted waters and uncertain futures, the quick transformations clearly demonstrate the impact of technology and social media. Now, contrast that with the apparent inability of these same technologies to stimulate a revolution in our public schools. I am not implying that technology has eluded public schools. Instead, I am referring to the difficulty we face at Heatly to introduce on-line courses as a result of potential bureaucratic obstacles created by the New York State Board of Regents.

The Regents are examining a proposal as we speak, that would impose rather severe restrictions on on-line service providers and the schools who wish to engage in working partnerships with these service providers. We are very interested in adding on-line courses to our instructional menu for next year. Our small size prevents us from offering more than a few elective courses beyond the state minimum. This leaves our learners at a disadvantage when compared with the opportunities available at much larger high schools who can leverage their size and scale to supply learners with many electives in a far more robust curriculum.

There are a number of companies providing on-line courses. On Wednesday, I visited a school using the Virtual High School on-line program. It was an impressive experience. However, it is expected that the Regents will soon pass guidelines that may preclude such programs. The restrictions inherent in the proposed policy would require core subjects delivered by the district's New York certified teachers. Although all of the on-line providers we are examining as possible suitors employ certified teachers, only one requires that the teachers are certified in New York. And those teachers would not be "district" employees but rather employees of the on-line service provider. While educators and policy makers may argue over the semantics of words, like "core," "district," and "deliver" and define and redefine these terms, we anxiously await the final ruling to determine whether we can operate an on-line program that would comply with state policy.

Granted, no school and no learner should be subjected to an improperly managed program or ineffective teachers. Yet, the refusal of our state education department to affirm and accept the credentials of certified teachers from other states could jeopardize our ability to offer expanded learning opportunities at Heatly. These elective on-line courses are necessary for our survival as an independent educational entity. We already offer mandated core courses necessary for graduation. However, if we expect to meet our responsibility to offer enriched learning experiences that will allow our graduates to be competitive with graduates of larger schools that routinely present their learners with a broad range of course selections, we'll need the Regents to make allowances and grant flexibility in their policy.

We'll find out soon enough.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Universal Fears And Needs

Tonight's Blog entry evolves from a terrific book written by Marcus Buckingham, entitled, The One Thing You Need to Know.

The author references the work of anthropologist Donald Brown. After examining a large number of wide ranging cultures throughout the world Brown identified five fears held among members - and the needs they reflect - that were common, in varying degrees, among the different cultures. He categorized the findings within his book, Human Universals, as follows:
1. Fear of Death – The Need for Security
2. Fear of the Outsider- The Need for Community
3. Fear of the Future – The Need for Clarity
4. Fear of Chaos – The Need for Authority
5. Fear of Insignificance – The Need for Respect

I kept this information in the back of my mind as I started work in a leadership role within a totally new work environment.

I was aware that the Green Island Union Free School District had been subjected to a closely monitored study on the advantages and disadvantages of merging with another, larger district. Although the decision was made to remain independent and avoid being swallowed up by the neighboring school system, the exercise nonetheless left a fear of another attempt in the future and the potential demise of the school district. Since a merger would substitute local governance and critically alter the educational infrastructure and grade configuration of the building it would seem like an organizational "death."

According to Brown and Buckingham the antidote to the fear of death involves creating and sustaining a sense of security. Admittedly this is becoming more difficult each year that the state reduces aid to schools and erodes much needed fiscal support. However, we have been reviewing our school district in an attempt to increase both effectiveness and efficiency to earn credibility with our stakeholders and justify their investment to the degree that we may feel secure.

I cannot underestimate the second point - fear of the outsider. I have been told that I am the second person to become superintendent of Green Island without having prior experience in the school district. It has been twenty years since the last, and perhaps only other, "outsider" served the system. The tendency to promote from within holds both advantages and disadvantages. The leader was once "one of us." Familiarity offers a smooth transition in that the leader has an understanding of the culture and the staff members have an idea of who the leader is as well as the values and beliefs of the leader. Despite whatever differences that exist between the superintendent and staff members, at least all parties know each other. There is little time lost in having to learn new people, policies, and programs. This provides a fairly secure transition. In contrast, that same familiarity could possibly blind the organization to changes in the external environment that could impact the district. There is a possibility at a conscious or unconscious level of the organization to perpetuate the past in spite of the need to seek alternative designs and adapt to changes to remain competitive.

The response to this fear is nurturing a sense of community. That will account for welcoming people as they enter the building at the start of the day, maximizing my visibility by visiting the cafeteria, attending community events, being present at athletic events and concerts, having lunch with learners, and trying to be out of the office as much as possible to interact with members of our learning community and develop personal relationships. Communication, whether it's this Blog, informal chats with staff and learners, personal letters home recognizing those contributing toward our mission and goals, or phone calls seeking feedback from parents, all point to promoting a sense of community.

The third item - fear of the future, is closely aligned in Green Island with the fear of death, or losing our identity in a merger with a larger school district. Uncertainty, or even ambiguity, can cause anxiety among members of the organization. Not knowing what comes next, or feeling confused about our direction, can exacerbate fear. People want to have a clear mental picture of where they're going and why they're expending effort and energy in the endeavor.

Articulating a vision of a desired future state for the school district is important. The call for Green Island to be a "small school with BIG ideas" speaks to our future as an independent district free of being absorbed by another school system. It implies innovation, change, creativity, vitality, and a commitment to make a difference by being different. Hence, our interest in pursuing alternative programming, stretching to see with new eyes, redefining our collective purpose, building alliances among constituent groups, forging common goals and shared meanings.

The fourth category - fear of chaos and the associated need for authority is one which requires political agility in Green Island. Confusion undermines the collaboration necessary for our success and wastes valuable resources of time, material, and human capital. On the other hand, an aggressive or overbearing assertion of authority would make the transition of a new leader very difficult. There needs to be order without intimidation and inhibitions that could strangle the system. Dictatorial and absolute power would not cultivate the empowerment needed to distribute leadership throughout the organization. The more "I, Me, and My" present in the culture the less "Us, We, and Our" within the culture. The latter will sustain the organization much more than the former.

Subtle and specific tactical moves and diplomatic interventions are needed to convey a sense of authority and avert conflict. The successful resolution of a contract negotiation that had reached impasse (for a year prior to my arrival) and involved a fact finder's report was central to both actively inserting myself into the political process and working to bridge the distance and differences that had separated the two parties in the process. It took three meetings to reach an agreement. There was no evident animosity interrupting those three negotiating sessions. I believe progress was made when we focused on areas of influence rather than positions of power.

Despite assumptions that a small school population would insure that no one feels insignificant, it's easy for anyone to feel neglected, disrespected, and rendered meaningless (these are often the same contributing factors in a dynamic as small as two people in a failed relationship, so it's not a matter of numbers). One must give respect in order to receive respect. This mutual exchange requires credibility, honesty, integrity, and communication. In this case, the leader models desired values and beliefs. Any dissonance between what one says and does will invariably lead to confusion and loss. Treating people as you wish to be treated remains sound advice. The manner in which the leader spends his/her time often serves as an accurate gauge in relationship building. Time is a precious resource and its use is a testament to value and meaning. Spending time with people, actively listening to people, and extending time as a form of respect, all contribute to building esteem, pride, and worth.

Of all of these five fears, and their related needs, Buckingham claims that the most significant one is the need for clarity. People must perceive and inculcate a sense of the direction and meaning of, and for, their life in order to generate hope and reaffirm purpose. Eliminating, or greatly reducing, that fear of the future decreases the anxiety emerging from the other four fears. It's a personal and emotional tipping point.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Will Virtual Become Reality?

I traveled to North Warren Central School this morning. This small rural school district, located in the Adirondacks, is involved in its third year with a supplementary high school instructional program called Virtual High School ( This on-line learning system supplies a robust menu of over 200 different courses for learners to select from in pursuit of expanding their learning opportunities. North Warren engaged with the vendor supplying the program in response to concerns regarding the narrow curriculum their high school provided. Like Heatly, the scale of their enrollment and the restrictions of their budget prevented them from offering much more than the basic, minimum of courses. The district was interested in multiplying learning experiences for learners in an effort to better prepare them for the competition for admission to colleges of choice.

Similarly, Heatly is small (even smaller than North Warren) and we presently offer few electives beyond required courses. As a result, study halls abound. While study halls may be much appreciated in the short term by many in the high school, the idle time that may be characteristic for many does little to prepare them for developing an enriched portfolio of classes when seeking admission to college, and even less for preparing them for the rigors of academia once they gain entry to college. Therefore, we'd like to increase opportunities for those willing to make the commitment to invest the effort and energy necessary to reach their learning potential. We are examining the viability of the program, the cost of the program, and the practicality of the program in terms of meeting this perceived need. We would have to identify learners willing to interact with, and benefit from, on-line classes. In my opinion, we must grow opportunities to remain competitive in our business. We can no longer offer just the minimum of instructional experiences and preparation in an ever-changing world of increasing demands for success. Yesterday's solutions will not readily meet tomorrow's problems.

After interviewing high school learners, teachers, a guidance counselor, and the site coordinator from North Warren, I can conclude the following.

On-line classes are not for everyone. Self-discipline, time management, and organizational skills are expected and required for success. The classes are very challenging. The experiences enhance your transcripts when applying for colleges. The workload is demanding, particularly the Advanced Placement courses. A commitment is mandated (individuals actually sign, along with their parents, a "Document of Understanding" prior to acceptance into the classes). There is a committee to screen interested candidates. Learners are not required to be tech savvy - the software structure of the program is very user friendly. Classes would be instructed by certified teachers. These classes would not duplicate what we already provide at Heatly. The program is not intended to substitute classes for what we presently offer at Heatly, nor replace teachers. Grades would appear on the Heatly transcript.

We will continue to explore this program as we create our budget for next school year. This appears to be a worthy opportunity that could extend learning experiences. It would also advance our progress toward the goal of being a "small school with BIG ideas."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Honor Rolls And Extra Roles

The High School Student Council sponsored a breakfast for all of the learners who performed at an academic level that qualified them for either the Honor Roll or the High Honor Roll. It was a great meal and a relaxing opportunity to acknowledge the dedication and commitment demonstrated by these young men and women over the course of the recently concluded ten week marking period that constituted the second quarter of the school year.

The high percentage of award recipients who evidence participation in extra-curricular activities served as a testimony of support for the research results produced by a survey administered each year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. That annual study reports a high correlation between involvement in extra-curricular experiences and grade point averages - with those learners extending themselves in various school related activities outperforming their classmates who do not indulge in anything at school beyond their normal class schedule. The learners who engage in extra activities, whether it's band, chess club, debate, or athletics, appear to be able to translate and transfer skills (goal orientation, cooperation, communication, decision making...) and characteristics (dedication, self-discipline, commitment, practice...) between the classroom and the extra-curricular activity.

In particular, the varsity girls basketball team (presently unbeaten as they near the end of their league campaign) was represented by all but one member. These are almost the same girls who earned recognition by the state as a Scholar Athlete Team during the soccer season (where they extended their season by qualifying for the post season tournament). There are undoubtedly going to make it two athletic seasons in a row as a team of academic distinction. I can add with confidence that they not only win on the field and court, and pursue excellence in the classroom, but they consistently display evidence of great sportsmanship while competing at superior levels of performance.

I have referenced the book, Class and Schools, by Richard Rothstein, in an earlier Blog post. It's a great source of perspectives on the role of schools in addressing achievement gaps among learners. The author points to the academic advantage that learners derive from activities beyond the normal hours of the school day - "The advantage...comes mostly from the self-confidence they acquire and the awareness they develop of the world outside their homes and immediate communities, from organized athletics, dance, drama, museum visits, recreational reading, and other activities that develop their inquisitiveness, creativity, self-discipline and organizational skills." (p. 11)

For another view on factors influencing classroom achievement from outside the walls of the classroom we can read what Rothstein says - "Econometric studies show that non-cognitive skills are a stronger predictor of future earnings than are test scores. In public opinion surveys, Americans consistently say they want schools to produce good citizens and socially responsible first, and high academic second. Yet we do a poor job, actually no job at all, in assessing whether schools are generating such non-cognitive outcomes." (p. 7)

Not only did the breakfast this morning show the strong relationship between academics and extra-curricular activities, but Heatly also boasts a rather high percentage of the entire learner population at the secondary level (grades 7-12) who are involved in school related activities outside of normal school hours. One of the benefits of a small school district is that learners are afforded many opportunities to participate in programs and experiences outsde of the classroom.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In The Gutter

What do the recent state budget proposals and state mandates have in common with the unusual weather we have been  experiencing this winter?

I realize these two points appear to be totally unrelated, but I thought of both of them yesterday afternoon and evening while working hard to try to free the ice from the gutters of my house.

The large amounts of snow piled high on roofs everywhere in the area (and contributing to roof collapses of houses and barns) was reduced to some degree yesterday by temperatures that finally rose above freezing. The snow melt dripped down the roof and onto the ice that was already filling up the gutters. As the snow melted and then froze again in this interesting snow, melt, freeze pattern over the course of the winter, the ice worked its way above the gutters and into the area beneath the roof shingles. The force of nature is amazing as anyone who has witnessed a natural disaster can attest. Who would imagine that the ice could eventually separate the shingles and then, tucked away beneath the shingles, melt on a warm day like yesterday? Well it did. That would account for the water dribbling down an interior wall of my house (and maybe the house of more than one reader of this Blog).

Okay, beyond ranting about the throes of winter weather in upstate New York, how does this merit any attention in a Blog on education? Mandates and policies can also pile up and eventually overflow their containers (organizations confined or guided by policy mandates) and subsequently show up in places you wouldn't expect, causing damage you don't want.

We are attempting to construct our school district's annual operating budget in preparation for a community-wide budget vote mandated by the state to occur on a specific Tuesday in May. I use the word attempting because you can't simply develop a budget overnight. This budget, by the way, must project out as far in the future as June 30th 2012 (the last day of the next, upcoming fiscal school year). That requires us to estimate what prices will be like nearly 15 months from now regarding the cost of utilities (gas, oil, electricity) transportation contracts, paper goods... and anticipate potential problems like a boiler requiring repair, a leak in the school roof, and other possibilities. Not only is this process difficult, but we may not even know what the status is of the state budget (and the state's contribution level to school aid) at the time we present the budget for a vote by Green Island residents!

The Governor has released his proposal for state financial aid to schools. These figures are preliminary and must be reconciled through negotiations involving the state senate and assembly (and lobbyists). It's not likely that the figures we have been given at this point in time will be the same figures when all is said and done. The Governor also commissioned a group to identify current state mandates that are unnecessary and therefore subject to modification or elimination. That could help by offering some budget relief. Also, the Governor has proposed a $250,000,000 competitive grant entitled "The Administrative Efficiency Grant" (although I have not seen any explanation of the parameters of this grant) This too, may provide some budget relief. And, as I said earlier, since we may not even have final figures when we vote in May we must prepare out budget while operating under several different and possible scenarios.

In other words, policies and mandates have piled up layer upon layer to the point that the excess may force its way into whatever spot they can find - and possibly cause damage to the structure.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Transformation Information

There is no shortage of criticism regarding the performance of public schools in America. In fact, since nearly everyone who offers disparaging remarks on the status of education has likely attended public schools for thirteen years, they often consider that their lengthy experience legitimately qualifies them as experts. There are few, if any, other professions that are so vulnerable to condemnation. I would certainly not feel justified in questioning any particular techniques of a surgeon, or the designs of an architect, or the strategies of a lawyer. But, I'll stick to what I know and continue to provide my perceptions of public schools - from the inside.

I don't believe we will improve education if educators feel it is their right and privilege to ply their trade with impunity. Nor is anything gained by defensively recoiling to comments viewed as cynical and then discounting these ideas as potential leverage points for improvement. What I'm about to suggest may appear as heresy, coming from someone who has served as a school leader for over three decades. I believe that one of the problems with public schools is a matter of leadership.

I will use one of my favorite books as a platform for this contention - Leaders, by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. The authors suggest that the trouble with many organizations (I'll substitute the word schools) is that they tend to be over managed and underled. The people who fill formal positions of influence in schools may prioritize and revel in the ability to manage the daily routine, yet never question whether the practice should actually be performed. To manage means to "bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct." Leading is "influencing, guiding in direction, course, action, and opinion." The divide is crucial and cited in the subtitle of this book -  Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things. The difference in perceptions reflect a significant distinction in values and judgement. Managers are inclined to focus on efficiency while leaders are oriented toward effectiveness. While both effectiveness and efficiency are necessary for success, we must first establish what we need to do before worrying about how we need to do it. It's an issue of priority. A predilection for managing promotes compliance instead of commitment, favors conformity over creativity, and allows uniformity to triumph synergy. We cannot manage our way out of a crisis. We don't need committees as much as we need leadership. It's not an agenda we need but a credible and enduring vision. Mandates and commands will not facilitate success as much as menus and choices.

Progress is not advanced by simply perpetuating what has always been done. Certainly not at a time of exponential change in virtually every area of our society outside the walls of the school and beyond the gates of the schoolyard. Public schools have long operated under scrutiny but the ongoing economic crisis has exacerbated the pressure, resembling nothing short of a form of slow strangulation.  

I cannot hope to express this as eloquently as Bennis and Nanus so I will quote them instead. Their words clearly apply to Heatly and perhaps every school. The advice warrants attention. Each school should regularly conduct an audit of their "health" with reference to external conditions - i.e. political, social, financial, and technological changes and their resulting impact.

"The challenge of leadership is in redefining tradition in terms of reality. Unlearning requires the discarding of old knowledge when actions by the organization clash with changed reality in the external environment. Leaders stimulate learning by serving as role models. Some organizations are learning handicapped. They just seem to be so rigid and inflexible that nothing less than a major crisis can change them." (my suggestion = imagine this economic crisis as an opportunity in disguise - one that offers prospect of creating alternative solutions) "Leaders can provide the setting for innovative learning by designing open organizations in which participation and anticipation work together to expand time horizons for decision makers, broaden their perspectives, allow for the sharing of assumptions and values, and facilitate the development and use of new approaches. The organization can develop a sense of its purpose, direction, and desired future state."

My goal at Heatly is to engender what leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described as Transformative Leadership. I am striving to produce and sustain the conditions for followers to elevate themselves and reach their potential through envisioning their future, feeling empowering, and being enabled. It's often a messy and unpredictable process - much more like sketching free-hand on a blank page as opposed to coloring in the outlines of figures in a coloring book. But, I believe it's a more rewarding and sustaining experience whereby followers emerge as situational leaders and influence is distributed throughout the school system.
Ron Tichy describes the characteristics of Transformational Leaders in his book of that title:
1. They identify themselves as change agents.
2. They are courageous individuals.
3. They believe in people.
4. They are value driven.
5. They are life long learners.
6. They have the ability to deal with complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
7, They are visionaries.

John Kotter outlines eight steps to transforming an organization:
1)  Establish a sense of urgency
2)  Form a powerful guiding coalition
3)  Create a vision
4)  Communicate the vision
5)  Empower others to act on the vision
6)  Plan for and create short-term wins
7)  Consolidate improvements and produce still more change
8)  Institutionalize new approaches

I've supplied these specific contributions on transformative leadership from a small collection of resources among influential authors as a map for the staff and parents of The Heatly School so they will understand what I'm trying to do and where I'm trying to go.
I hope you'll join me on the journey.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Hard Day's Night

It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night, I should be sleeping like a log

For those of you who are either at least 55 years old or music aficionados of "oldies," you'll recognize these two lines as the start of an early Beatles hit - It's a Hard Day's Night. (I hate it when I find a song on the radio that I really enjoy and then, after relishing the memories it evokes, listening to the DJ announce it as a "golden oldie")

It's 12:34 am, officially Friday morning. I am creating this Blog late because I've been at work since 7:15 am this yesterday morning. The Board of Education meeting ended a little over two hours ago, but the business manager and I remained afterwards and discussed the budget for awhile (the local paper reported a projected $552,000 reduction in our state aid allocation based on the governor's initial budget proposal). I can never go right to sleep after a Board meeting, no matter what time I get home. There's too much to review in my head, too many summary notes and a lot of reminders for tomorrow's to-do lists. I can't refrain from analyzing the "how come?" and "what for?" reflections of the experience to relax enough to get to sleep for another hour or so - then it's up again to start the next day and report to work for more. At least it will be Friday and I can persevere and then catch up on sleep over the weekend.

It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night, I should be sleeping like a log

Today began with cars carefully navigating the road along the front of the school. A road made narrower by high snow banks flanking both sides. Yesterday's heavy snow, mixed with sleet, forced us to use another "snow day" - our third already this school year. By the way many of the learners trudged up the stairs it was apparent that the off day weighed heavy on people. I think we're all getting a little weary of the sustained snow and bitter cold temperatures. The beauty of winter is losing its luster.

The weather has played havoc with our sports schedule. We had to cancel the basketball game Tuesday night due to inclement weather. That was actually a make-up game because the original contest between these same two teams was previously postponed by snow as well. It will be a busy next two weeks as the teams scramble to get in all of the games before the end of the regular season.

The boys varsity lost their game. It was a game interrupted by the acknowledgement of a player entering the exclusive 1,000 point club. The good news didn't continue though as they were unable to contend with the superior height advantage of their guests. The girls varsity team remains unbeaten in the Central Hudson Valley League. They must concentrate and sustain their focus and intensity despite the lack of close competition as they methodically make their way through the season.

The subject of our mentoring session today was exercise and nutrition. These are two important topics as we experience a challenging winter. The cold and snow often combine to discourage children from getting outside and being active. I'm afraid that for too many kids the lure of video games in a warm house is more tempting than bundling up and going out to sled, shovel, or even play in the snow. This became apparent when I quizzed the kids on what they had done yesterday when school was cancelled and they had the whole day to find something too do. We also talked about nutrition and the charts on packaged food products revealing caloric content and vitamins. I'll make a note for next time to be sure to talk about the importance of getting sufficient sleep!

It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night, I should be sleeping like a log

I'm going to try to get to sleep before the alarm signals another morning. Good night!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Half Full Or Half Empty

The January Regents exams and mid-term tests are now memories (hopefully pleasant memories). Monday signaled the start of the second semester of the school year. That means I am halfway done with my first year as a superintendent and my first year in Green Island. It's a time to indulge in a retrospective view of the progress, or lack thereof, during that time period.

I chose to enter a district-wide leadership position rather late in my educational career. It was a choice based on values and preferences, not lack of preparation or opportunity. I believe that my thirty-three years as a building principal reflected more than sufficient proof of the ability to effectively transfer that experience and exercise the knowledge and skills required to perform successfully as a superintendent. The decision to apply for the post at Green Island was oriented around the prospect of leading a K-12 district that was small enough in enrollment and staff for an individual to make a positive and constructive difference on a personal level. The key to that equation was that relationships would be developed and sustained at an arm's length through personal interactions instead of across parking lots and among people only known through name tags. So, any self-assessment would be framed by the context of that personal preference and the associated core values and bedrock beliefs.

That's where I'll start - from the domain of personal interactions.

I have stationed myself on the sidewalk in front of the school from 7:20am until 8:05am on approximately 90% or more of the school days (even Tuesday morning in the bitter cold and constant snowfall). Given that almost all of the 320 learners walk to school because the district does not provide bus transportation, their arrival is staggered and on-going, allowing me to personally welcome individuals as they approach the single entrance to the school. I relish this experience. I was very often at the front door of the school in my prior leadership position but since nearly all of the 1,000 learners at that school were bused and subsequently disembarked from the 18 buses at the same time, extending personal greetings left me feeling that I was swimming upstream against a strong current. Great intentions were no match for the reality of a mass arrival that mimicked a stampede.

By stationing myself on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs leading to the only unlocked entrance to the school I was able to learn names and relate them to faces, eventually acquiring enough information to connect names and faces with personal stories revealing the character and hopes of many of the learner population. Presumably, they were also learning about me. This exchange is necessary in moving from the level of acquaintance to a deeper relationship that offers mutual respect and trust. Care and compassion are the desired by-products of this cultivated arrangement.

Together with roaming the hallways during class changes in the secondary school and dropping by the cafeteria and visiting tables of learners scattered throughout the room, I had more opportunities to develop an understanding of individual learners. Elementary children have been daily lunch guests in the superintendent's office. I've been offered an interesting perspective on the interests and thoughts of kids through the wide ranging conversations that have taken place over pizza and hot dogs. In addition, my participation in the mentoring program enables me to sustain a constructive relationship with the young learners I meet with.

I have attended all of the home basketball games and missed only a single home soccer game. Those events have extended interactions beyond learners to parents and other members of the community. PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) meetings have been another source of contact that provides insight into the general mood of the community and the expectations of the school. I'm sure there have been many other forms of connecting with people. Overall, I feel confident of the progress toward a goal of nurturing a healthy organizational culture that promotes collaboration and compassion. However, my focus on meeting and greeting learners as they enter the school has resulted in missed opportunities to mingle more with the staff members during that narrow window between their arrival to work and the time learners begin bursting through the door of the school. In response, I have made a conscious effort to walk along the hallways and visit rooms to speak with staff members whenever I can immediately after dismissal of learners. In addition, I have attended as many different committee meetings as possible to not only maintain communication but also increase an awareness of the progress and direction we are making in improvement strategies.

Time will tell if the investment and commitment I have made toward establishing the school environment as the prime leverage point for improving the district is successful. We'll have to wait and see, trust and hope.