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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Weather-forecasters and Athletes

Well, winter remains stubborn. The opening games of our baseball and softball season have been postponed in advance of an approaching storm. Perhaps as much as 6 – 12 inches of snow is expected to drape the area overnight and through tomorrow. Just when we had a brief hint of spring a week and a half ago, we are once again confronted by the realities of living in upstate New York where weather is fickle. Perhaps this is a cruel April Fools’ joke played out by Mother Nature.

Now that I think about it, the job of a weather forecaster is rather interesting. In what other occupation can you provide such expansive predictions – i.e. “…from 6 to 12 inches of snow will fall…” or “the temperature will be in the thirties tomorrow” and not fear that you'll lose your paycheck? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could speak so broadly in your role at work? I’m not suggesting that it’s an easy job by any means. I'm certain that it's difficult to read the various factors that influence weather outcomes. However, weather forecasters, despite the latest and greatest technology like Doppler Radar, often appear to miss their mark. Where else but weather and baseball can someone be successful less than half the time and still continue at their job? In baseball, if you get a hit in 30 out of every 100 at bats, a 30% rate of success, you’ll be richly rewarded in an amount of money measured in millions.
Even when weather forecasters are wrong, their mistakes may not be considered bad. For example, if the prediction of rain on your outdoor party turns out to be in error, you’d be happy about the sunshine that basks your guests as they enjoy the get together. And, in baseball, if your favorite team experiences victory when the player who hits .220 knocks in the winning run, you can overlook his faults as a hitter.
(off the point remark – I’m not looking forward to school tomorrow since I’m a loyal fan of the Detroit Tigers and they opened the season today with a loss to the New York Yankees – a fact that will not escape the attention of many learners at Heatly. Maybe we’ll have a snow day and people will forget about it over the weekend or the Tigers will gain revenge before we return to school Monday)
If the success spectrum runs the gamut from the relatively low level of baseball batters and weather forecasters to the extremely high level of airline pilots and neurosurgeons operating with no margin for error, I suspect educators would be, and should be, placed far closer to the doctors and pilots than the baseball players and meteorologists. Every parent should harbor high expectations for those people who contribute to the learning experiences of their son or daughter. There are few opportunities for “do-overs” when you are looking at the value of a child’s future and their opportunities and possibilities – all of which are impacted by the efforts and energy of multiple staff members. What does a parent have that is more important than the hopes and dreams of their child?
This represents a tremendous burden of responsibility for educators. It is an especially difficult role at an extremely challenging time. Educators are bearing a significant portion of the growing angst sweeping the country in the form of a mass of people who have become disgruntled and weary by the stress and strain of a bleak economy.  I believe that the words and actions captured in news article after news article attacking collective bargaining units (often targeting teacher unions) are voices of frustration expressed by people fatigued by weak economic indicators that have been as relentless as a bulldozer. What else can people say? Who else can they blame? How else can they communicate their fears and anxiety? Certainly teachers and other educators have been exposed to the same rise in gasoline prices, heating oil, groceries, and everything else. The thousands of thousands of teachers across the country who have been laid off in the last couple of years is a testament to the vulnerability of the role of teacher. This year promises to be no different except that with so many teachers already laid off there are fewer to be laid off without shutting education down.
Teachers and unions have unfortunately become lightning rods for those lamenting the vise like grip of the economy. After all, has anyone expressed outrage at the annual multi-million dollar salaries of athletes? Instead we welcome the opening of yet another season of baseball with fanfare – with spectators shelling out, on the average, over a hundred dollars for a parking spot, concessions, and a seat at the game to watch players who make small fortunes. And, if you can’t get to a game then you can relax at home and view game by game access to your team’s contests through a special cable program, or follow along on your cell phone.  There are nine members of this year’s New York Yankees twenty-five player roster who have annual salaries larger than the entire annual operating budget of the Green Island Union Free School District. Whew!
Let’s take another perspective on bad-boy Charlie Sheen who made over a million dollars an episode for his weekly television program (which apparently wasn’t enough to persuade him to observe the expectations and guidelines imposed at his work-site and keep his job). Instead of being ravaged for his indiscretions and obscene salary during a recession, his every move is shared by reporters to fans starved for news on their favorite actor, and his every thought is received by hundreds of thousands of devoted fans via Twitter. Ah, what a life. Interestingly, Charlie Sheen has been both a TV fan and a baseball player, at least the one he played in a role of a pitcher in the film Major League.
When I think of the value accorded an educator working to shape the intellectual, emotional, and social growth of children over an extended time, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. He was apparently asked how he felt during his journey to the moon. He replied by pointing out that he realized that he sat atop a huge rocket that was constructed of over three hundred thousand parts – all purchased by the government in a low bid process of procurement. Surely, we cannot pay our teachers salaries on par with the rock stars, starlets, and professional athletes who all too often serve as poor role models for youngsters, but we shouldn’t expect that we can secure the best people to positively influence our children and protect our investment in their future by using a low bid process either.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Experiments And Experience

Over the last twenty years I have been invited to speak throughout the country, and abroad, at conferences focusing on creating effective schools. In preparation for these seminars and in an effort to enhance my own performance, I enjoy reading about meaningful research that’s been condensed into a brief narrative or reflected in an experiment that offers a much easier to understand format for audience members. I collect information like this to support my presentations as examples that convey important leverage points in forming an effective organizational culture that promotes school improvement.

Here are two examples I’d like to share. They both serve to explain how I feel toward a couple of significant elements of leadership. Each of these experiments was contained in the book, In Search of Excellence.

The first provides insight into the value of empowering employees. If you successfully articulate a guiding vision, train people properly, provide sufficient resources and supply task specific assistance when needed, and offer opportunities for employees to extend themselves free of direct supervision, (what I refer to as snoopervision) you are apt to discover increased success.

“In an experiment, people were divided up into two different groups. Individuals were then sent one at a time to a room with the following instructions. "Your task is to put together as many puzzles as possible in a designated time period. There will be disconcerting noise (jackhammers, blaring noise, confusing, loud sounds...).
The second group was also separated as individuals and given the same directions. There was one exception however; these people had a switch that they could use to eliminate the noise.
The results of this study were interesting. The group with the switch, not surprisingly, completed far more puzzles than the group without the switch. But, the significant finding was that nobody in this group used the switch. It was just the knowledge that it was there if they needed it that provided the security for the participants to be successful.”

Whenever I review this piece I apply it to myself. I can swim, but I’m not a very good swimmer. As a youngster I watched my father dive into Sacandaga Lake like an Olympic swimmer to snatch up one of my brothers who had been beneath the surface for too long, rush him to shore, and administer CPR to revive him. My younger brother was blue and still for a while as he lay on the beach. That sapped my confidence in swimming in anything but swimming pools where I could clearly see the depth of the water and be close enough to the sides in the event I need to relax. Understanding my surroundings or environment enables me to feel more composed and assured. I know I can get to a side of the pool quickly when needed. The security of clearly defined boundaries permits me to have fun in the pool without fearing anxiety attacks that are brought on by the murky deep waters of a lake or the distance from shore.

The second selection presents a clear picture of goal setting that might surprise some people. It’s a realistic form of developing goals that stretches individuals but falls short of overwhelming those involved.

An experiment was conducted that involved individuals going into a room that had a stake standing upright, and three rings. Each person was told to go into the room and throw the rings on the stake. They were not told where to stand. Observers looking through a two way mirror plotted where the people stood and the distance from the stake.

They found three distinct groups. One group practically stood over the stake. Another group stood way over on the opposite end of the room from the stake. The third group was about halfway between the two. The risk takers were those in the middle because they were realistic in their expectations - far enough away to challenge themselves, but not so close that it was too easy.”

Leadership involves a considerable burden of responsibility. Chief among my duties as the leader of Green Island Union Free School District is the task of being a shepherd and guiding our collective efforts to increase performance levels at Heatly. It is a role I accept with a great sense of accountability to the community. As such, I do not want to accept risks beyond our capacity as an organization, nor do I want to limit our progress with stunted goals that fail to promote the pursuit of our mission. Like the experiment noted above, I want us to reach forward and grow by identifying realistic and inspirational goals.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From Here To Mongolia

My wife and I have a son (30 years old) and a daughter (27 years old). As we raised our children we cultivated certain experiences and developed several general but deeply held values, such as care, compassion, integrity, honesty... Among the beliefs we reinforced is the personal reward one receives when availing themselves of the opportunity to serve others. Both my wife and I have experienced lengthy careers in public school education. We have modeled the personal characteristics we cherish for our own children through our work on behalf of countless learners over our many years as educators. The moral compass points we have supplied our son and daughter have been embedded in the expectation that helping others can precipitate a "carry it forward" progression whereby the recipients of acts of kindness and generosity will similarly extend themselves to assist others.

Our daughter is enjoying her fifth year of teaching elementary age learners. She invests her heart and soul in her efforts to promote the growth and sustain the dreams and hopes of children. Her gregarious personality and unwavering commitment clearly contribute toward her success. She has coached athletes and encouraged learners in many different settings, all with the goal of raising expectations and compelling their pursuit toward individual potential. I am very proud that she has elected to follow in the footsteps of her parents by entering the teaching profession. She had vowed early on, well before graduating from high school that she would become a teacher.

Our son, on the other hand, shied away from teaching and carved out a different path for his journey. He was reluctant to work in the same role as his parents. As a child, he attended an inner city elementary school where I served as principal. He was one of three learners in a grade that numbered over 120 that were not a member of a racial minority. His classmates were from several different South and Central American countries, a handful of nations from Southeast Asia, a few Native Americans, and the rest were from other racial groups that together comprised the full spectrum of human skin pigmentation. One common denominator among this diverse population was the poverty they shared, no matter where they originated.

Our son acquired a keen insight into many different customs and cultures. He also developed a sense of humility and sensitivity born of his interactions with his less fortunate classmates. This experience eventually was converted into a passion for enriching his understanding of other people and other cultures. He graduated from college with a degree in anthropology and archeology. He continued his studies and received a graduate degree in History. That training enabled him to obtain a position with the Smithsonian sponsored National Museum of the Native American in lower Manhattan in New York City. After working at the museum for four years he will be steering his life in another direction. On June 2 of this year he will leave home to begin a 27 month assignment in The Peace Corps serving in Mongolia, half a world away from New York.

Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on the planet. Forty percent of the Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia work in isolated rural villages and live in yurts (or gers), a product of the nomadic way of life practiced through generations of Mongolians as they frequently traveled across the country tending to herds of yaks and goats… The country is surrounded by Russia and China. The great Gobi Desert forms a southern boundary. The majestic mountains on the western border form a formidable boundary. In between are the steppes, or an expansive area of hot, dry land covered in grass. He will be away from home without an opportunity to return for the entire 27 months. My wife and I are hopeful of taking a trip to visit him at some point during that long stretch of time.

It is ironic that his responsibility in the Peace Corps will be teaching English to learners in grades 5 - 12, and working as a resource for Mongolian teachers who instruct English. He will be a teacher after all. He will help others by equipping them with the ability to communicate in a language that will enable Mongolians to enter an interdependent global economy as they extract the vast and valuable reservoirs of minerals beneath the surface of their territory. Mongolia is a country on the verge of tapping into their rich natural resources to improve their economy. Increasing the number of Mongolians who can communicate in English, the official second language of Mongolia, will assist the country in raising their stature with other nations.

The Peace Corps sponsors a program called, School Match, in which the schools served by Peace Corps volunteers are matched with an American school for pen-pal exchanges that seek to enrich learners of both participating schools. If our son is fortunate enough to live and work in an area that has Internet connections, then we will be able to communicate regularly via email or Skype. Also, in that event, learners at his school could communicate electronically with learners in America. That could prove to be a great learning experience for everyone.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Change Can Be Frustrating

Change often produces an uncomfortable feeling within people. It’s a word that may induce anxiety and fear in some people. Even minor changes can be awkward and unsettling.

Try this - put your coat on by changing the order in which you insert your arms. That is, if you normally put your right arm in the sleeve first, reverse it and put your coat on by placing your left arm in its respective sleeve first. I'll bet that was an unusual feeling. Cross your arms like you usually do. Now cross them again, but this time switch the arm that was on top with the one that was on the bottom. Sit down in a chair and cross one leg over the other just as you generally do. Now reverse that position by crossing your legs with the other leg resting over the knee. How did that feel?

Those were very simple and inconsequential changes that nonetheless left you feeling noticeably different. Just imagine how difficult it would be to change something very complex and important.

That’s the idea that prompted this Blog posting today. In as much as last Friday was refreshing and reaffirming, today was a test of emotional endurance. It was a reminder of the challenge of change. Our school has made considerable progress yet there are minor and inconvenient speed bumps along the way. There are hills and valleys in every journey. Today was a valley.

I’ve been struggling at school with unwritten policies and accepted practices that have existed over time from one generation of employee to the next to the point that perhaps few if any even recall how and why the policies and practices originated. These are challenging obstacles for a new person since the policies and practices are not found in written form anywhere. They must be interpreted, not translated. That's not been easy!

Here’s a story I am repeating from a Blog of two months ago to reinforce this mysterious process.

“One Easter, years ago, I observed my wife and young daughter preparing a special dinner. This was one of those great experiences whereby one generation passes along the traditions that collectively form the thread of a family to the next generation. My wife had cut off a thick portion of each side of the ham prior to baking it. This left a fairly small ham in a rather huge pan. That provoked the curiosity of my daughter, who asked her mom why she did this. I was sure that the explanation would reveal a special recipe or technique handed down through the family. But, my wife wasn't really sure of the reason herself except that her mom had demonstrated the same method when she was little. However, she was certain that it always produced a delicious ham. Upon my urging she called her own mom for specific reasoning. My mother-in-law was similarly dumbfounded and simply replied that her mother had always experienced success with the same method. Finally, fueled by my growing interest in discovering the reason, a call was placed to my wife's grandmother to find out why everyone cut off the ends of the ham. Grandma simply replied "I only had a small pan so I had to cut off the ends to make it fit."

Here’s another quote on the subject of change, this time from Leading for Innovation and Organizing for Results by Frances Hasselbein and the Drucker Foundation. “Learning to forget becomes almost as difficult as learning to adapt.”

In addition, where there should be policies in support of, and compliance with, externally imposed guidelines, there have sometimes been empty pages. This is not an intentional act of defiance or negligence. Rather, it’s likely an accumulated oversight. It is a perplexing situation that I do not attribute to anyone, or any design, in particular. I believe instead that it’s the result of an unguided gradual and imperceptible evolution. These beliefs and actions have continued unabated as part of the DNA of the organization, without a powerful enough reflection or introspection to modify otherwise.

The district has experienced a succession of superintendents who have worked their way up the organizational ladder from teacher to principal to superintendent. I am the first district leader in twenty years who has not started as a teacher in the system. There are many advantages to this form of succession, (predictability, security, consistency, an understanding of the culture of the district…) but one potential disadvantage is that without moderation these same advantages can unknowingly become hindrances. Traditions become as hardened as cement and unyielding to change when needed. Complacency can thwart or overwhelm progress. The absence of new perspectives can eventually blind the organization.

Not only that, these unwritten policies and practices have been encoded to the degree that some people are convinced that the policy or practice actually has a firm and real basis. It’s only when they are confronted by contradictory evidence that they reluctantly acquiesce and embarrassingly accept that the belief they held for years has suddenly evaporated in reality. The environment of the school and the terrain of the social, political, and technological landscape surrounding it have changed. Although there have been exceptions here and there, people seemed to have continued doing what they were doing and how they were doing it without anyone intervening with enough credibility, authority and clarity to alter the course and create a new direction with new expectations.

This is not an indictment on everyone or anyone. It is a testament to the influence of invisible factors sheltering against change. It can seem like carbon monoxide gas, a toxic gas that, because it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating its very difficult for people to detect and it eventually overcomes people.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, suggested that “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” He offered this tragic story told to him by a friend as an example of how some people respond to change with resistance.

While portaging around a small dam on an early spring canoe trip to Maine he noticed a young man who had been drinking. The young man's rubber raft went over the dam and overturned. The people on the river bank were unable to reach him. The man in the water struggled, desperately trying to swim downstream against the backwash at the base of the dam. In a few minutes he died of hypothermia, His limp body was sucked down into the swirling water and popped up seconds later. It was ironic that he would have survived if he had dived down to where the current flowed downstream instead of struggling against the force of the water. 

Author Roger Martin, in an article in The Harvard Business Review on Change, entitled Changing the Mind of the Corporation, stated that, “Crisis is the privilege of survival. Companies that fail to make the most of new opportunities fail because they are still doing their best to make the most of old opportunities.”

Folk humorist Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

Our small school where everyone knows everyone else – our “one big family” – had slowly and surely become insulated over time until it was exposed by the pronounced and imposing standards of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act and the state mandated regulations (such as the Annual Professional Performance Review) that supported it. This measure forced open the doors of the school through its requirements for regular assessments that prompted comparisons with other schools and consequences for not meeting certain performance levels. We became identified as a School In Need of Improvement. That attracted attention and provoked changes, even if they seemed harsh and unforgiving.

I believe that’s why I was selected as superintendent when the district had a vacancy. There was a need for a different (not better) vantage point and a new compass. I also believe that I won't be successful in leading the organization unless I find the proper balance between old and new, the ability to differentiate between what we need to keep and what we need to leave out. I need to distinguish between changing people and changing attitudes. There's a great deal of difference. I need to respect what works and work to cultivate replacements for what doesn’t work. I must also change. I could improve by becoming more patient and apply more empathy in understanding the intricacies of the existing organizational culture. It took a long time to form and it will likely take more than a little time to change. Although it may seem disconcerting to some, I am working at influencing and leveraging change because it’s easier for me to orchestrate it than to have litigation or legislation vigorously compel the change at a personal and financial cost to many.

If we expect to meet with success we will need to learn to change together and grow together. It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Day Of Renewal, Reward And Reaffirmation

The decision to leave my last school leadership role was not easy. I had invested nearly twenty years of my life and soul in that position. During that time I was involved in hiring 68 of the 77 teachers who now serve the 1,000 learners in that school. I attended countless weddings, funerals, graduations, birthday parties, baby showers and other personal benchmark events involving staff members. However, the sheer size of the school had outstripped my ability to maintain the depth of relationships with people that are essential in any human service endeavor. That critical element, plus a desire to influence a school system from Kindergarten through grade 12, prompted me to search for an opportunity to exercise leadership in an environment where an individual could make a difference, where each person counts.

Green Island, with 320 learners spanning Kindergarten through grade 12 in a single structure, proved to be such an attraction. My personal background has made a compelling case for promoting the cause of underdogs. The Heatly School certainly qualified for that mantle. The test scores warranted improvement. The morale, as measured by staff surveys, was similarly in need of attention. It represented a challenge, but not an insurmountable or unfamiliar task. Although the school where I had previously served as principal was ranked in terms of state test results among the elite schools of the capital region despite a rate of children qualifying for free or reduced lunch that was at least twice as high as those with similar performance levels, it was mired in the below average levels before my arrival. Those twenty years saw a significant rise in achievement, without a single grievance ever being filed by a member of any bargaining unit, and extremely positive results of anonymously completed parent surveys of the school. So, I have been motivated to work together with others to reach individual potential and organizational capacity.

Despite the difficult decision to depart that school (and a tenured position, higher salary, and generous amounts of political capital), I have experienced no regrets. Today's staff development day at Heatly merely reaffirmed the conscious choice made last spring to start anew in a different challenge. The full day of learning activities was attended by staff members who demonstrated commitment in stretching their professional reach and discovering fresh possibilities. Their participation was active and engaging. They were clearly not content to simply go through the motions of collecting seat time (especially on a Friday - and a payday!). They contributed to examining various policies shaping the people, programs, and practices of the school. They provided multiple perspectives on key issues. They displayed a willingness to acquire expanded skills and knowledge. And, I must point out that the staff has exhibited this same impressive degree of professionalism and conviction at monthly faculty meetings and countless and varied committee meetings.

I gained a great deal from the various sessions, learning about different views on common issues and obtaining important perspectives. I am much more familiar with the means of exploiting the interactive white board as an instructional tool. Most importantly, I am proud to be a member of the Heatly staff and confident that this is the team that can meet with success in promoting learning for all ages, at all stages - despite the enormous financial challenges that confront our efforts.

It was a productive day that reinforced the benefits of that fateful decision last spring to leave my comfort zone and explore a new challenge. I'm grateful for the experience and the opportunity.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Learning - In An Empty School

Tomorrow is a staff development day at Heatly. This is a great opportunity for our staff to have the time to work together and address perceived needs to leverage continued improvement of our instructional program. The morning begins with a presentation on the value of collaboration. In fact, the title of the agenda for the day is, A Day of Collaboration. This discussion will be followed by a variety of learning activities planned by a committee of staff members.

Before we share information on these training experiences, it's worth noting the apparent irony that plagues schools everywhere. Public schools across the country promote life-long learning as a value embedded within their organizational mission statements. Yet, when one examines the amount of time that school districts are able and willing to commit to advancing the learning of their staff members, it appears contradictory. That is, the state provides for a mere four days in the school year for staff development, or as the state refers to them - Superintendent Conference Days. Contrast that with the amount of training typically provided in the private sector. For instance, if a new technique of an innovative technology reaches the market that impacts performance and efficiency levels at General Electric, IBM, Ford, or even much smaller, local businesses, you can be assured that the business or firm will provide training for employees. It's a matter of remaining competitive. If these businesses don't adopt and practice the new technique or use the innovative technology, they may fall behind their competitors that do utilize these new factors. Losing out on these opportunities may very well mean losing customers and losing business. Schools are really no different.

Research supports this contention. I have read where the average business sets aside approximately 10% of their annual budget to support training for employees. Meanwhile, public schools allocate less than 1% of their budgets for staff development. There are generally two reasons for this difference. First, beyond the state restrictions of four days per school year, schools rely on tax-payer approved funds and many members of the public have difficulty envisioning that teachers are actually "working" when there are no learners in the school. That thinking is aligned with similar associations that doctors only "work" when they are interacting with a patient, or lawyers only "work" when they are engaging with clients. There are new policies and programs to be enacted, new teaching methods to be practiced, and new mandates to be accommodated by school staff.

Secondly, staff development days prompt changes in childcare needs. A day off other than a holiday or annual winter and spring breaks can be disconcerting to those parents who must search for alternative locations and supervision for their children when school is not in session. While faculty meetings and committee meetings take place after school hours, large scale and lengthier training activities require half or full day agendas. These training sessions cannot be done while the school is full of children. If the staff development sessions are scheduled for the summer months when children are already out of school, then it would increase costs for the district and thereby increase budgets at a time when the economy has a tight grip on everyone's budget. This is similar to training in the private sector, which is nearly always provided during the work day, since private sector employees are not expected to work beyond their regular schedule to receive training without compensation.

The Heatly staff will be attending sessions tomorrow involving the Instructional Design Team, The safe Schools Committee, The Policy Committee, Team building exercises, Progress Monitoring Training, as well as a few different technology experiences like Smartboard Basics and Applications, Instructional Websites, and Microsoft Office Applications in Education. It will be a full day that contributes toward staff members affirming the need to be life-long learners.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Weather And Financial Forecast

The combination of a winter that is refusing to give way to spring; and the prolonged economic crisis that continues to linger, has left many of us more than a little depressed. I think we are all anxiously awaiting the chance to move forward and leave both of these issues behind. Unfortunately, we have no control over the peculiar habits of Mother Nature, and our school has only slightly more influence over the economic troubles that we face regarding state aid to education in New York.
What we do have is the ability to respond to those challenges that are beyond our control. We can get our snow shovels out, put snow tires on our car, dress in warmer clothes, and persist in contending with the harsh winter weather. Similarly, we can examine our budget, revisit our priorities, increase our efficiency, meet with our state political representatives, and maintain the pursuit of our mission to prepare graduates for success in citizenship, college, and career.
We’re running out of alternatives. We’ve exhausted our allotted number of “snow days” for this school year, and we’ve nearly exhausted our funding sources for next year in the wake of a significant reduction in the aid we receive from the state under the budget proposed by Governor Cuomo. Our school district will lose more than $560,000 compared to what we received last year.  Last year, Green Island received $515,000 less than the year before that. This means that during the last two years we have experienced a decrease in state funding of more than $1,000,000. That is a very large amount for a school district with a total annual budget of less than $7,000,000.
Where is state aid going and what are we doing with it? After all, Governor Cuomo claims that schools can absorb this cut in state aid if they just used their reserve funds. In simplistic terms, we have two different accounts for our funds, like you may have at home. Our operating budget meets the need of regular and anticipated expenses, like your checking account meets monthly household expenses. Our reserve funds are much like your savings accounts. The money is not meant for daily expenses like groceries or monthly charges like car payments, but for those rainy day one-time expenses, like when the hot water heater breaks down or the car needs unexpected repairs. Our rainy day fund is like a taxpayer savings account that covers the costs we bear if: people successfully challenge their assessments; we experience unexpected repair costs; we must pay unemployment compensation and retirement and health care costs for potential retirees.  We are required by the state to maintain these funds. Last year, to avoid staff and program cuts beyond the 5.6 positions eliminated and the loss of several extra-curricular programs we took more than  $300,000 out of our reserve funds to meet our budget. If we make a habit of using our savings for regular and predictable expenses that occur over and over, then we will have nothing left for the unanticipated events in the future - in other words, when the well runs dry. At the rate we have been tapping into our reserve funds the well has only three more years left. 
We must respond to this financial crisis. We must do so with strategic decisions designed to balance the capacity of local taxpayers, preserve the instructional integrity of our school district, and protect the future opportunities for our learners – who will one day become workers and taxpayers that we will all depend on during our own retirements. These youngsters are your sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, neighbors and fellow residents. They will become voters who will shape policy and programs that will impact the rest of us in the years ahead. How do we want to prepare them for this important responsibility? Do we expect less of these children than we expected for ourselves? What role will we all play in their pursuit of hopes and dreams? What will we tell them in the years ahead when they reflect and ask about our decisions during the financial issues of 2011?
Here’s what our school board and I are analyzing as we prepare a budget to submit to Green Island voters on May 17. First, we are waiting for accurate and definitive budget figures from the state. At this point the numbers they have discussed are proposals and subject to political arm wrestling among the governor, senate, and assembly. While we await the final figures we are monitoring enrollment, reviewing the needs for staff within all of the employee work groups, observing state and federally mandated programs, and using more reserve funds to cover deficits.
In addition, we are making every effort to demonstrate the value of investing in our school district. This year we introduced an on-line program that helps prevent drop-outs by offering learners an opportunity to recover credit for previously failed classes. For next year, we are expanding our high school course offerings with on-line elective classes so our learners can compete with graduates of other schools in college and careers by enriching their learning possibilities. We cannot lose sight of our purpose. We must convince parents in Green Island that we are the school of choice to serve their children. Every time we have a child withdraw from our school to attend an alternative school we experience a loss in the state aid we would otherwise receive for that child, plus the increased costs of tuition to charter schools, and the price of transportation to private and parochial schools (which we are required by the state to provide). At this time we have six children from Green Island attending a nearby charter school that costs the district a yearly total of $84,000 in tuition. That means we have to reduce our operating budget by $84,000 to balance our budget. If we keep cutting instructional programs we may experience the departure of even more learners – and lose more money.
Here’s why education in New York is a good investment:
·         Education Week released its annual “Quality Counts” report showing New York’s schools rank number two in the nation on policy and performance. Our schools earned an overall grade of B, second only to Maryland with a grade of B+.
·         New York Schools rank first in the nation when it comes to closing the achievement gap in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.
·         New York’s students rank third in the nation for their Advanced Placement test scores.
·         New York ranks fourth in the nation for improving high school graduation rates70.6% compared to 68.8% nationally.
·         New York ranks fourth in the nation for the percent of adults enrolled in college or with postsecondary degrees.
·         New York consistently ranks at or near the top in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. In fact, more than one-third of this year’s semi-finalists are from New York.
Here’s what our state leaders can do to help public schools minimize cuts to programs and services:
Support meaningful mandate relief
·         Create regional health insurance pools to leverage district buying power and standardize benefits and contribution rates for all public school employees.
·         Provide pension reform for more predictability of employer contribution rates, possibly requiring all public employees to contribute more toward their pensions.
·         Streamline New York’s tangle of special education requirements, many of which far exceed federal requirements and significantly drive up education costs without demonstrating a corresponding improvement in education outcomes.
·         Oppose shifting millions in summer school-age special education costs from the state to school districts. It is unfair and unwise to create new unfunded mandates at a time when schools are already facing significant state aid cuts, rising costs and intense pressure to hold down property taxes.
·         Exempt schools from the state’s Wicks Law, which would provide long-term capital and debt service savings to school districts and the state.
Object to the governor’s tax cap bill
While a tax cap is viewed as a potential benefit for taxpayers, it comes at a steep cost to our school children. The governor’s tax cap bill is particularly troubling because it would be among the most restrictive in the nation. Under this bill, school districts that experience budget defeats would not be able to raise their tax levies at all. It also fails to exempt mandated increases in health and pension costs outside district control.
We urge our lawmakers to look at the impact of tax caps in California and Massachusetts. Massachusetts enacted a tax cap, but the state took on a greater responsibility for funding its public schools and implemented sensible reforms. And today they’re ranked third in the nation – right behind New York’s public schools. California, on the other hand, established a cap at the same time it cut state aid for education, causing a now legendary downward spiral that it has yet to recover from.
Oppose cuts in incentive aid paid to school districts using shared services from BOCES
The 47 school districts in the Capital Region and surrounding areas would see a loss of more than $6.1 million in BOCES Aid in 2012-13 under this proposal. BOCES has helped districts achieve greater efficiencies and economies of scale through shared services. There is a serious disconnect when the Executive Budget would pull support from proven regional cooperatives, only to turn around and create a new pot of money to reward districts for efficiencies.
In fact, the time is right to strengthen the role of BOCES by enacting at least some of the recommendations of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief and the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, such as allowing municipalities to take advantage of BOCES programs.
Extend the “Millionaire Tax” – a surcharge on 2% of the wealthiest New Yorkers
This will offset devastating cuts and prevent higher property tax burdens on working families. While banks, corporations and Wall Street investors are recovering from the meltdown with record profits, the rest of the state is still struggling with unemployment, depressed property values, skyrocketing health insurance costs and stagnant wages. Is it fair to demand sacrifices from everyone except the wealthiest New Yorkers? Estimates show that extending the tax would result in more than $1 billion in tax revenues for 2011-12 and up to $5 billion in 2012-13.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Curriculum Mastery Overrated?

The March 21, 2011 edition of On Board, the weekly journal published by the New York State School Board Association, shared an interesting article in their "research briefs" section. (p. 13)

"Business executives, students, teachers and parents all believe that higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving and the ability to work in teams are of greater importance to college and career readiness than higher-level curriculum content."

"More than 90 percent of each group surveyed said that problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to work independently were 'absolutely essential' or 'very important' for students to be ready for college and careers."

Later in the article - "But only three in 10 business executives (and half of teachers, 64 percent of students, and 71 percent of students) said 'knowledge and ability in higher-level science such as chemistry and physics' was absolutely essential or very important for college and career readiness. Similar percentages of respondents in each group believe that knowledge and ability in higher-level math - such as trigonometry and calculus - were absolutely essential or very important."

To review the entire survey, go to

Let's move from a survey of various stakeholder groups with investments in education who are critical of the value accorded certain elements of standard curriculum in public schools, to a summary review of the value of standardized assessments as they currently exist as measurements of learning. This excerpt comes from Richard Rothstein, author of Class and Schools. (p. 86)

"The problem is not that tests of academic performance are invalid. Standardized tests can do a good job of indicating, though not with perfect certainty, whether students have mastered basic skills, can identify facts they should know, can apply formulas they have learned, or can choose the most reasonable inference from alternatives based on passages they have read. Such tests have a place in evaluating schools, as they do in evaluating students. However, they are of little use in assessing important academic skills, like creativity, insight, reasoning, and the application of knowledge to unrehearsed situations - each a part of what a high quality school should teach. Such skills can be assessed, but not easily in a standardized fashion."

Reading these two pieces, albeit representing only a thin slice of the voluminous research on curriculum and assessments, nonetheless offers some insight on the great debate existing within the arena of educational policy makers. No Child Left Behind pushes for assessments of basic skills and is reliant on standardized assessments as a form of promoting higher levels of achievement. Meanwhile, many researchers claim that the skills that business executives and others suggest are essential for success in college and career are the same skills that are not being properly assessed by the standardized tests endorsed by proponents of No Child Left Behind.

There you have it. Are we identifying certain skills as vital because they lend themselves to standardized tests, and discounting other skills considered critical because they don't lend themselves to commercially produced large scale assessment instruments? What about the soft skills that are significant in the workplace - like the ability to work in teams, successfully solve unrehearsed problems..? What about the attitudes and values that often determine success in careers and can't be measured in standardized tests - like dependability, responsible behavior, creativity, cooperation...?

What do you think?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Same But Different

Tomorrow marks another session of our school-wide mentor program. This initiative that connects staff members of all roles with learners of all ages was proposed to address a dynamic central to the organizational culture of our school - the value of interpersonal relationships. After everything is said and done in terms of planning instruction, hiring staff, allocating resources, purchasing technology... the real critical attribute of a good school rests on the breadth and depth of relationships among members of the learning community.

The suggested topic for the mentor sessions is "diversity." This is certainly a subject worth examining and discussing. As countries and cultures become more interdependent and mobile, and the earth shrinks more and more with each new technological innovation, the need to understand and respect differences takes on greater importance. Yet, as former newscaster Tom Brokaw lamented a decade ago, we are finding that children are growing up at a time and in a world where they can instantly connect with someone halfway across the globe - but not know very much about their next door neighbor.

It's a bit ironic that when the inhabitants of our world should focus on diversity as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, we are becoming more narrow in our perspective in the arena of education. Differences shouldn't define us or divide us. However, one can make the case that in public education across our country, the movement for regulation and standardization is gradually promoting uniformity and a degree of homogenization that blurs differences existing by region and culture - from the rural and isolated fishing village clinging to the shore of Alaska, to the densely populated urban center of Chicago to the sprawling residential tracts of Dade County Florida. In addition, it matters in respect to ability and opportunity. The focus on a common core learning standard has the possibility of excluding those who require other experiences at engaging learning. A common curriculum with attendant skill and knowledge assessments produces a "one size fits all" dilemma that may increase efficiency but decrease effectiveness, just like it would if clothing or cars or virtually anything else was standardized. Again, it's ironic in a world of choices - from choosing among over a hundred television channels or selecting from countless different brands of the same commodity at big box stores - we are limiting opportunities in a quest for the Holy Grail of higher and higher achievement levels.

Beyond the narrowing learning opportunities and the limited creativity and spontaneity within the classroom, there is another risk associated with the homogenizing of public education. (I emphasize public education because - in another irony - the fastest growing service industry within the field of education includes alternatives like charter/private schools and home-schooling, two areas exempt from the reaches of standardization) With the surge toward a national standard of curriculum and measurements, we deprive local communities, big and small, from one of the most common exercises of democracy and one of the most accessible public forums for local politics - representation by your neighbors and community members who volunteer in the form of the local board of education. What political operative is more in tune with the needs and interests of investing your tax dollars in a manner that leverages successful contributions - the governor? the state assemblyman? one of your two U.S Senators? Do they know you? Do you run into them when you're shopping or going to the little league game? Are they like you? Can they appreciate the nuances of your community? Can they be held as accountable as school board members?

Among the difficulties facing school district budgets is the fact that in one pull of the lever you can directly and immediately impact the direction of your tax dollar. Try initiating an influence like that on where your federal tax dollars go. That accessibility presents a vulnerability. There is the prospect that people who are frustrated with their inability to determine how their taxes are spent at the state and national level will express their disappointment at the local level by defeating the school budget. I understand that, and regret the possibility. Politicians at the state and federal levels deal with incredibly large amounts of money that spin heads around trying to figure out how many millions are in a billion (there are 1,000) or a trillion (there are 1,000,000). That's mind boggling to me.

It seems reasonable enough to experience fatigue while attempting to sort through the deep discussions on economics in Albany and Washington D.C. And, especially when we are in the throes of an economic crisis where it seems that our state and national representatives are deaf to our concerns, one can turn to the confines of the small voting booth at the local school and register displeasure with the entire economy by venting and voting "No." So, it seems that the fatigue may find itself emerging during that point in May where one single vote can make a potentially significant difference in an election with the total votes cast is often measured in the hundreds instead of thousands and millions.

Is it fair? Not really. Does it happen? It could, but let's hope not. Lost in all of the debate on the cost of public education is the fact that 94% of all of the nearly seven hundred public school districts in New York State passed their budgets last year on their first try. Apparently people have confidence in their local school district and perceive it as a worthwhile investment in the future.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spring And September: Hope And Optimism

The nice thing about winter in upstate New York is that it eventually unleashes a surge of appreciation for Spring. It’s only been a few days since the ugliest sight of the transition between the seasons was erased. That is, the period of time when the snow banks, the last vestige of winter’s assault, have surrendered to warmer temperatures and melted, shirking the ugly brown veneer of sand and mud that have coated them since the road department scattered the elements in the wake of snowplows.  

This year the fiercely cold winds and the depth of snow were as persistent as ocean waves upon the shore. The inclement weather laid siege to the area, restricting life and leaving people under a three month long house arrest.

These last couple of days have been a welcome reprieve from the harsh winter when snowstorm after snowstorm battered the area, interrupted only by occasional bouts with sleet and rain. The temperature slowly rose until the thermometer broke through into the fifties. I've enjoyed the change as I stood out in front of the school greeting everyone as they entered the building. There were detectable bounces in the steps and noticeably broader smiles on faces. Overcoats have been replaced by more accommodating clothing.

The flowers burst above the ground, chirping birds fill the air, leaves unfold on previously bare trees, and the warm rays of extended sunshine wrap around us - all signs of casting aside the months of a long winter hibernation. The fresh possibilities of the new season slowly overwhelm the dormant winter. Spring offers a sense of rebirth and renewal. That's why I enjoy spring - starting over!

Spring reminds me of September. I have the same feelings of excitement as children return from their time away from school, sporting new clothes of many styles and colors, showing evidence of growth and change, and bringing hope and optimism in their hearts and minds, as sure as they bring fresh supplies in their ubiquitous backpacks. They enter new grades with new prospects and new perspectives on their futures. It's a time of blank slates and positive beginnings.

Although I work through the summer, my role and responsibilities are different enough in scope and direction that the alteration of duties represents an interruption in the flow of my year just as winter disrupts much of our daily life and routines. That intermission breaks up the rhythm of my calendar and causes September to mimic the form of spring. I feel rejuvenated by the excitement of children migrating back to school, anxious to renew relationships with friends they haven't seen regularly since school ended in June. They're curious to find the location of their lockers and classrooms, and eager to experience the next grade as they continue their progression through school. There is no better affirmation of the sense of renewal as the wide-eyed Kindergarten learners, who are birthed into a vast new chapter of their lives filled with hope and optimism.

I've often wondered how I'd feel if I worked in a different career that was continuous in time, unabated by discernible transitions like those that separate the seasons. A job with calendars that merely flip pages and blend together, without looking or being any different from one month to another. Extended relationships with peers with interactions so frequent and elongated that workers might not detect subtle changes within their fellow workers. The absence of regular benchmarks and rituals, such as observing learners pass from one grade to another.

As I reflect on a life in which I've lived through fifty three of these school year cycles, from entering Kindergarten, through college, and into a lengthy career as an educator, I feel very grateful and fortunate to mark my life in this manner. Maybe that's why it didn't seem to be such a long period of time for me until I actually sat down and counted. I enjoy the annual rites of spring - and September - and look forward to experiencing many more.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Tale Of Two School Districts

Read the opening lines of  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (below) - and then examine the statistical chart supplied by the The Statewide School Finance Consortium (An Alliance for the Reform of Public School Funding in New York State). The figures demonstrate the significant disparity between two school districts that are nearly identical in enrollment and in socio-economic status as measured by the percentage of learners receiving free or reduced lunches. The data reveals the impact of the combined wealth ratio of a district and how it influences the distribution of state aid. It also shows the inequity of the state aid to school districts.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities English novelist (1812 - 1870)
                            Green Island    Colton-Pierrepont
                                          (St. Lawrence County)

2010/11 Enrollment          316                        317

2010/11 Budget          $6,886,747             $9,225,000

2011/12 State Aid Cut   $566,415                $493,663

*Combined Wealth Ratio      0.62*                      1.29*

**Free/Reduced Lunch Rate   49%**                 50%**

State Aid Cut % of Budget      8.2%                    5.4%

State Aid Cuts Per Student   $1,792                 $1,557

Narrative: Two school districts separated by only one learner and $2,338,253 dollars! That's how much LESS our annual operating budget is at Green Island compared to Colton-Pierrepont. That's $235 dollars LESS per learner. Here's a quote from Governor Cuomo's press conference today:
Both the State Senate and Assembly have proposed restoring between $260 million to $467 million to schools, but the governor said he will only negotiate for much smaller budget restorations.
"This state government is going to take a 10 percent reduction. Ten percent reduction, and we're asking the schools to take a 2.7 percent cut," said Cuomo. "'Well they're gonna hurt the children.' Manage the school system, reduce the waste, the fraud, the abuse. 'Well, we don't have any.' I don't believe it."

I am a Democrat, so I'm not bashing a member of a political rival - but I have to say:

Governor Cuomo - I wish we only received a 2.7% reduction in our budget at Green Island instead of an 8.2% cut! In fact, the $556,415 reduction in state aid only represents an 8.2% decrease in our total budget. When you compare how much state aid we received this year against how much state aid we are scheduled to receive next year it's nearly a 20% reduction in overall state aid. Where is the waste, the fraud, and the abuse in our budget when our budget is $2,338,253 LESS than a comparable district that has only one more child in their district? Are our children and their future, their hopes, and their dreams worth any less than those in other districts? Where is the equality in that comparison? More importantly, where is the equity?

* = The Combined Wealth Ratio (CWR) is a measure of relative wealth, indexing each district against the statewide average on a combination of two factors, property wealth per pupil (per assessed value of properties in the district) and income wealth per pupil (as measured by the collective incomes of residents in the district). The average rating in the state is 1.0. This means that Green Island's wealth ratio is well below the state average and just under half of what the wealth ratio is in Colton-Pierrepont.

** = Free and Reduced lunch rate, provided by the Nutrition Consortium of New York State.
Income Eligibility Guidelines: 2010-2011

Free Lunch Qualifications
Family  Size Monthly  Yearly
1                  $1,174  $14,079                         
2                    1,579  18,941                            
3                    1,984  23,803                           
4                    2,389  28,665                             
5                    2,794  33,527                            
6                    3,200  38,389                                                                                
Each additional 
member, add
               + $406 + $4,862                            

REDUCED-PRICE Eligibility Scale
Family Size Monthly  Yearly
1                $1,670  $20,036
2                  2,247   26,955
3                  2,823   33,874
4                  3,400   40,793
5                  3,976   47,712
6                  4,553    54,631
Each additional
Household member + 577 +6,919

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Behind The Curtain

There are few more entertaining experiences than enjoying an excellent stage play or musical. The array of talent on display - the artistry of the choreography, the enchanting music, the elegant costumes, the interesting sets, the intriguing drama,...  However, there is so much more than what we see and hear. The incredible work and effort that occurs behind the curtain is often unappreciated and overlooked, and more likely unknown to all but a few members of the audience. There are many people involved in moving the sets and arrangements, making costumes, manipulating the lighting and sound controls, and so much more. We just don't have access to the private side of a public show.

The same is true regarding many different workplace experiences. For instance, I attended a conference today - a Select Seminar on developing a comprehensive support system for school leaders - sponsored by the Capital Area School Development Association. There were a number of issues raised concerning obstacles in the path of those people desiring to become successful principals.

During the discussion, one of the veteran principals pointed out how she worked with two interns who had attended graduate school and taken coursework leading to certification in school administration. The principal explained that once the interns, both experienced teachers, discovered the responsibilities of the principal that were performed "off stage and behind the curtain" (i.e. countless evening duties, many intense meetings held in private due the sensitivity of the issues, absorbing phone conversations...) they were no longer interested in becoming principals - despite the classes they had taken to prepare for such an opportunity. The dialogue continued forward and a handful of suggested practices were generated in response to developing future principals, like leadership academies and mentoring programs and collaboration with appropriate professional organizations. The ideas continued to flow. I remained quiet until the moderator acknowledged my silence and solicited my opinion.

I volunteered that I was still reflecting on the point made earlier about the interns who had expressed an interest in becoming principals - until they actually found out more about the vast role of the principal. These two interns were experienced teachers, yet they were not at all familiar with the scope and intensity of the leadership position. I had to admit that after serving as a principal for thirty-three years, the last nineteen working with a superintendent who was open and transparent in his actions, and thinking that I understood the wide range of responsibilities of a school superintendent, I was nonetheless still surprised by the many tasks that confronted me as a new superintendent. I had no idea of the subtle nuances of state reports, amortization of school debt service, actuarial data compiled to determine expected durations of health care payments to retirees, and the many other requirements and expectations that were deftly performed under the radar by my former superintendents. These were not the attractive, attention getting, or exciting elements of the job of a district leader. This was a surprise, after all those years I worked as a principal.

I shared this experience as a further example of the belief that school leaders do not explain or fully demonstrate what they do in their roles. The confidential nature of a great deal of the responsibilities prohibits others from a view of the principal's or superintendent's work. What's left is a compilation of varied activities and duties that could be perceived as appealing and within the grasp and capacity of experienced educators who have acquired the proper coursework. Perhaps school leaders are reluctant to offer a more revealing perspective on their assignments for fear of being considered as complainers or whiners. I don't really know.

Here's what I think I know now, after nine months as a superintendent, that I didn't fully understand before I accepted the job. There are two different analogies that come to mind as I think about my experiences thus far.

First, the role of superintendent is like being the last person remaining in the circle of a dodge ball game. You must constantly dart here and there as a ball is tossed at you. Agility is prized so you can avoid being hit. No sooner do you elude one throw then you need to anticipate where the next throw is coming from, and react quickly - over and over. Your head swivels so much you get a bit dizzy. You wish your head was on ball bearings. You move so fast things become blurry and you can't tell who's got the ball. Sometimes it seems like the ball is coming from everywhere, all at once.

Second, the duty of the superintendent is much like a goalie in soccer. There are ten other players on your team out on the field but the opponents only score when they get the ball in the net behind you. Even though that means that the opposition must somehow get past your ten teammates before they reach you as the last line of defense, the goalie bears the brunt of any score by the other team. The final image of a goal is the ball passing by the outstretched arms and legs of the goalie, not that of the other defensive players that share in the responsibility of protecting the net. There is no one to turn to for solace or share in the burden of blame and responsibility. You're out there alone. You're the one who must stoop down and regretfully retrieve the ball from the back of the net while the other team and their supporters raise their voices in cheer. If your team wins, it's because your side scored more goals than the opponents. If your team loses, it's because the goalie surrendered too many goals. 

Yet, I wouldn't change a thing. I have enjoyed my initial year as a superintendent as much as I enjoyed my thirty-three years as a principal - and for the same reason. I firmly believe that an individual can make a difference in the lives of others. I am willing to experience the occasional irritants and challenging demands of the leadership position in exchange for the tremendous personal reward of feeling I have helped to promote growth, nurture hope, and sustain dreams among those I have served. It's worth it. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. If school leaders were as anxious and willing to share their celebrations as they are to broadcast their misery, there would be no shortage of candidates interested in the role.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

School Is Going To The Dogs

Well, the school is going to the dogs.

That's not a problem - or a bone of contention! If you paws after reading the opening line of this Blog entry you will see that this is no tail, nor am I barking up the wrong tree on this issue. You'll have to excuse the ruff puns - superintendents aren't generally known for their sense of humor, and I am no exception.

Our school librarian has coordinated weekly visits by Maggie, a 170 pound Mastiff. Maggie is a certified therapy dog. First grade learners enjoy having a non-judgemental and very appreciate audience when they read aloud, and Maggie appears to be entertained by their efforts. Our district website ( features an interesting news article on the arrangement, complete with digital images of Maggie and several young readers. In addition, the accompanying text presents several different benefits accrued by children through this unique experience. It's well worth reading if you haven't done so already.

In real estate, realtors have a saying that the three most important features in selling a property are: location, location, and location. Similarly, the three most prominent components of success in the early elementary grades may be considered: reading, reading, and reading. The content may not be as important as the act itself, whether it's the back of a cereal box, a comic book, or a non-fiction text. Reading, particularly when pursuing an area of interest, goes a long way toward improving reading skills and expanding vocabulary.

Certainly, having a patient and supportive audience can help the beginning reader build confidence by receiving timely and appropriate feedback. In addition to Magge the Mastiff, we are also fortunate to have community members who volunteer to visit the school and read to children in the lower grades, and high school learners who drop by classrooms and share their time with developing readers.

Our library has come alive this year and boasts a variety of special activities and learning experiences. The interactive white-board, or Smartboard, has been effectively employed as a technological tool that leverages successful instructional opportunities. The diversity of media sources - print, film, digital, and electronic have all contributed to an environment that promotes learning. The librarian has served as a critical resource to staff members. Her expertise has assisted with integrating curricula and producing synergy within visiting groups of learners. The value of a librarian is such that the district would realize a great gain by eventually extending the service to full time for the 330 learners in the school. The declining state aid to schools currently represents the obstacle to meeting this goal.

If my life was represented in a single graphic, it would be an image of a little boy pursuing his goals by climbing up stairs made of stacks of books. The ability to interpret text and convert letters to words and words to sentences and sentences to paragraphs and paragraphs to pages - all added up to useful information and ideas that fed my appetite for learning. Reading empowered me. The more I read, the more I was able to create the hope and grow the dreams which allowed me to escape the grips of poverty. Reading opened doors for me.

I encourage you to make the time to experience the satisfaction of helping an emerging reader somewhere ( a son/daughter, grandson/daughter, other relative, neighbor, church member,...) by simply listening to them interact with the text of an interesting book. I know you can find a child to offer your time and make a difference. You'll both realize a benefit and all it will cost you is time...