Valid email addresses are required to post comments. If your comment is not posted, I will send you an email with an explanation.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Memorable Day - And Night!

Friday, April 29th, was the first school day all year that went by without me publishing a Blog entry. Let me explain how this streak was interrupted.

I generate the writing for my posts each evening. However, yesterday was a full day - and night. There was a half day of school due to an afternoon professional development program. I attended several really interesting and enlightening sessions revealing the excellent and creative work of staff members who had developed inquiry based learning projects using a variety of instructional tools and methods. It was perhaps the most interesting and productive staff development day I have experienced in my career because it featured the efforts of our own staff, and these presenters served to enhance the instructional prowess of their peers in a subject of interest and value to our continuous improvement strategy. The commitment of the presenters was readily apparent in the preparations and delivery of their teaching and learning strategies.

Once the instructional sessions were finished I went immediately into preparations for the Junior Prom. From that point, until the end of the After Prom party at 2:00 am (in the morning!), I was away from home. Not long after falling asleep I arose and headed to the opening ceremonies of the Green Island Little League season. Even though this schedule was rigorous, I am not complaining because it contained the spectrum of experiences which attracted me to the position of superintendent of Green Island. That is, instead of a role as principal which limited me to a specific grade configuration, like Kindergarten through grade 6, I was able to experience important events in the lives of elementary learners anxious to start another campaign of baseball and high school learners who were excited about the Prom.

My wife and I attended the Heatly Junior Prom last evening. It was a pleasant and entertaining experience. The young men and women in attendance not only demonstrated positive and appropriate behaviors, but they also gave every indication of having an enjoyable time throughout the festivities. The event was free of drama and divisiveness. The effect of the small size of the school and the resulting familiarity among all members of the student body were evidenced in the permeable interactions between and among people from grades 9-12.

The school is too small to limit the Prom to just 11th graders. The average grade at Heatly numbers approximately 25 learners. As a result, anyone from grades 9 -12 is welcome to purchase a ticket for the Prom. The selection of the Prom Court and a few other elements of the Prom are restricted to 11th graders, but everyone is able to engage in the dance, consume a fine meal, listen to music, and attend the After-Prom party.

The actual Prom was preceded by a get-together at the gazebo in the small park adjacent to the school. Despite the threat of rain, which has visited the area nearly every day for a week now, many community members took advantage of the assemblage for an opportunity to take photographs and videos of the high school learners in their gowns and tuxedos before any raindrops made their presence felt. It was a relaxing half hour or forty five minutes. It was nice to visit with proud parents and grandparents and watch as the adults recorded images of their children and grandchildren, but also the offspring of neighbors and friends. The ease in which adults mingled among the groups of Prom attendees and took pictures was a reminder of how close the community is, as well as a reflection of a strength between the community and school.

At 6:00 pm a Party Bus transported the Prom attendees from the park to the country club for the dance. I appreciated that the majority of the young men and women went to the Prom in this manner. For one thing, it maintained the togetherness of the participants. But there was another special point. That is, there was no competition among people hoping to impress with extraordinary and expensive limousines.

This experience meant a great deal to me because I know nearly every one of the high school learners and the occasion was more personal because of that. I was impressed, but not entirely surprised, by the respectful demeanor exhibited by the prom attendees. As a chaperone, I did not have to worry about any trouble among participants, nor was I distracted by the need to constantly supervise those at the dance. Instead, I was able to sit back and watch the young men and women enjoy an important annual ritual.

Following the dance we went to a local bowling alley where everyone was treated to pizza and soda while bowling as much as they wanted. I was asked to join a team with three high school learners and we proceeded to have a lot of fun in a half hearted competition (thankfully, no one was paying much attention to the scores). I was grateful to be invited to become involved as a participant rather than a spectator. I found myself trying to imagine a similar experience when I was in high school. I never met the superintendent of the district I attended until he handed me my diploma at my graduation ceremony - so I couldn't really picture him having fun with us at an after Prom party.

The activities throughout the school day and Prom night were pleasurable experiences that reaffirmed my assessment of the staff and learners at Heatly. They're special, and I'm fortunate to be able to work for them.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Home Stretch

Prior to moving to Troy soon after accepting the post as superintendent of Green Island, my wife and I lived in the Saratoga area. The signs confronting those who enter Saratoga proudly identify the city as "Home of Health, Horses, and History." The reference to horses is no doubt a reference to the famed horse race track, the oldest of its kind in the country. Among the terms associated with horse racing is "the home stretch," that point in the race when the horses charge around the final corner and head fast for the finish line.

We are at that point in our "race" (and I don't men the Race To The Top!) this school year. The weather has finally become a bit warmer - even though it's been very wet - and the sun hangs in the sky a bit longer. The Junior Prom, another sign that the days are passing, is tomorrow evening. This is the time when people find themselves distracted with daydreams of the vacations, the beach, the pool, barbecues... It's not hard to lose focus and stray from the path that you set at the start of the school year.

Deviating from stated goals and commitments represent a pivotal leverage point that often separates success from failure, or at least distinguishes success from mediocrity. I have long enjoyed playing and watching soccer. I love the sport and my good fortune in soccer enabled me to parlay my experience into a scholarship to college. yet, it's a sport that frustrates people. Unlike basketball where baskets are scored every few seconds or so, or football and its celebrated touchdown dances, or even baseball, where scores are usually in the 6 - 4 range, soccer is a low scoring game. it's exciting, but low scoring - hence the extremely elongated scream from the broadcasters - goooooooooaaaallll.

One unusual statistic arises from soccer that can remind us of the power of focus and attention, preparation and readiness. Although there are two halves of 45 minutes in the 90 minute long game, and so relatively few goals scored (rarely are there more than 2 or 3 total goals per game) it was startling to find what a disproportionately high percentage of these goals are scored in the first and last 5 minutes of each half. That  is, although these four 5 minute periods represent a sum of 20 minutes out of the entire 90 minute game (or 22% of the length of the game) far more than 50% of all goals are scored in that short amount of time.

Why? The team that eventually meets with victory achieves the success because they begin both the game and the second half ready and focused. They do not lapse into complacency or decrease their effort as the halftime break nears or the end of the game approaches. In other words, successful teams maintain their momentum and their commitment throughout the entire course of the game whereas unsuccessful or mediocre teams begin the game before they are physically prepared and mentally ready. Similarly, lower performing teams look forward to the reprieve of halftime and may become distracted with anticipation and impatience. This lack of commitment leaves them vulnerable to opponents who demonstrate a constancy of purpose and a goal of winning.

Organizations such as a faculty, or learning team, in schools "compete" in a similar arena. School staff members must sustain their efforts at high levels of performance to really make a difference in the future of the learners they serve. We can't afford to let up because the appealing opportunities of summer vacation beckon us. We have to generate our best each and every day if we expect to cross the finish line first. If we don't consistently exhibit our commitment we can't expect our learners to contribute their best effort.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Art Of Spring Break

This Blog entry is not intended to be an essay on what I did over spring break. Instead, it's presented as a reminder of the importance of art in our life and world. This, at a time when too many schools  are cutting art programs out of the budget - largely because the discipline may not be perceived as valuable, when resources becomre more scarce, as thos subjects that are tested in state mandated assessment programs.

Work kept me fairly close to home during spring break. The budget required a few of days of work which left a couple of days for some free time. My wife and I enjoy and appreciate the arts. My preference leans toward the visual arts, in particular the one dimensional work of paintings and photographs. That interest led us to two interesting museums, each within a day's drive from the capital region.

One day we went to Williamstown, Massachusetts to visit the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. There are many particularly fascinating pieces. My favorite painting of all is among the permanent works of art located at the Clark. It's a painting of a Moroccan woman by John Singer Sargent. It's visually arresting. The exhibits were very appealing. A lunch in town and a little shopping made for a fine day.

The next day we traveled to Cooperstown to tour the Fenimore Museum. Among the primary benefactors of this quaint museum is Stephen Clark, the brother of the aforementioned Sterling Clark. The attraction was a traveling exhibit of photographs of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one of my wife's favorite painters.

Beyond the beauty of a work of art is the fact that it is inherently an example of problem solving, a vital life skill. There are multiple issues - depth perception, color mixtures, shading, line of sight, proportionality, use of space, meaning, symbolism, representation and many other points to consider when plying the craft of a painter. The design and draft of the painting requires preparation and thought. It's obvious that the work of an artist is challenging and necessitates skill and knowledge, creativity and problem solving.
Likewise, the art of photography is much more than merely taking a picture of your aunt at the wedding anniversary. It takes a sharp and discriminating eye to seize an object and convert it into a subject that is thought provoking or inspiring. Composition, use of light, balance, focus, angles and more must be considered when seeking just the right photograph that moves away from a memento among family members and becomes meaningful to the masses.

Photo-journalism has bridged the art of photography with the power of the medium to recreate and explain significant world events that frame human issues. These men and woman often risk their lives to present a realistic perspective on war torn areas of tremendous human strife and loss. Sadly, an acquaintance of my son was recently killed in Libya while covering the terrible conflict between the regime and rebels. He was a victim of government backed forces who indiscriminately launched mortar fire throughout the city of Misrata. Tim Hetherington was an award winning photo-journalist who had produced critically acclaimed documentaries on the war in Afghanistan as well as photographs that were gripping and thought provoking.

Art has been evidenced throughout civilization. The study of art history reveals the story of mankind. Art in varied forms reflects the major themes, conflicts, celebrations, and accomplishments of man. Similarly, music also represents a parallel path of man's existence. Our lives are surrounded by art well beyond what we can find in any museum - print and music oriented advertisements, clothes, car designs, architecture, and on and on... We must recognize the value of art and sustain the growth of art in all its varied formats. The arts serve an essential role in education.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rookie Mistake

Ah, it was going to happen sooner or later. My inexperience as a superintendent would emerge in some unexpected form during my initial year in the role. That's not to say that I've been error free since I started in Green Island last July. I haven't been immune from miscalculations or acts of omission that could have been adjusted in retrospect. However, I almost missed an important time-line this year that was imposed by the state in 2002. It's another of the countless reports we are compelled to file.

Each district is required to electronically submit a State Property Tax Report Card that details data regarding the proposed budget for the school system. This information includes the amount expended the previous school year, the amount proposed for the upcoming school year, the percentage of change between the two totals, the proposed tax levy, the tax levy from the previous year, the difference between these last two figures, and the consumer price index for the recently concluded year. No matter how many budgets I constructed as a principal over the three decades I served as a building principal, I was never involved with this element of the process. It was a central office or superintendent function that I hadn't experienced.

Now, you can't generate the data necessary for this report until you have a school board meeting to formally arrive at the proposed operating budget. I hadn't scheduled such a meeting because I assumed that our public hearing on the budget, scheduled for Thursday, May 5th, was all that was needed to prepare the budget and subsequently present it to the public for their consideration during the twelve days between adoption of the investment plan and the actual vote on it - Tuesday, May 17th. I had periodically provided the board members with relevant information, updating them with each and every change or input we received from the state department of education involving state aid allocations. We've discussed factors influencing our budget at earlier board meetings in preparation for finalizing the budget. We were ready to present the recommended budget at our May 5th school board meeting. However, I didn't realize there was any such thing as a State Property Tax Report Card so I hadn't scheduled a board meeting until I ran into a superintendent of a nearby school district at a conference of school superintendents on April 14th. Fortunately, during a conversation we had on school budgets he mentioned the State Property Tax Report Card - and the April 23rd deadline date for submission.

As soon as I returned to the office following that meeting I immediately initiated the procedures and notification of a special meeting of the school board that would allow us to formally adopt an investment plan for the 2011/12 school year before the due date of filing the State Property Tax Report Card. We publicized the meeting in the local newspaper, distributed information through our School News Notifier that sends emails and phone calls to those who have signed up for the system, and we announced the meeting on our school district website. Beyond the oversight, the regret I had about the issue was the special meeting had to take place the following week, during spring break. I was worried that people would feel that we intentionally scheduled the special meeting during a school break to avoid or minimize discussion, since many people might be out of town on vacation. The possible public relations fallout of the short notice was a concern. I apologize to anyone who was not able to adjust their schedules in order to attend the meeting.

We held the meeting and conducted the exercise of reviewing projected expenditures and revenue in light of the current financial environment. We examined the instructional context of programs and practices. All of this, as we maintained our commitment to the district-wide goals we developed back in our Board Advance in August (Remain a small school with BIG ideas). We eventually produced the financial figures that were featured in yesterday's Blog entry - Walking The Tightrope.

I'm sure there will be other mistakes of omission, as opposed to commission, along the path of acquiring experience and expertise as a superintendent. Someone once explained to me that everyone makes mistakes, but successful people learn from their mistakes. This was another learning opportunity for me. There's an idiom associated with mistakes that suggests there are two types of mistakes, and they are both related to a boat. Some mistakes are like a hole in the boat above the waterline of the boat. It's not good, but it won't sink the ship. These mistakes are inconvenient and more readily fixed. The other type of mistake is like a hole beneath the waterline of the boat. Those mistakes are more difficult to repair and, depending on the size of the boat, the hole could sink the vessel.

This was a hole above the waterline. Our boat is still sailing - toward a critical May 17th vote on our annual operating budget.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Walking The Tightrope

The balancing act expected of school superintendents and board of education members who must construct an annual operating budget while holding the interests and needs of learners in one hand and holding the needs and interests of taxpayers in the other hand, requires the concentration and deftness of an accomplished tightrope walker. One small mistake and loss of balance could produce dire consequences.

Like the tightrope walker, the superintendent and board of education perform this feat before an anxious audience. No matter how much the performers may tremble with withered nerves, a look downward to see if there's a safety net must be avoided for fear of losing focus and falling. This challenge merits confidence, conviction and a leap of faith.
Some spectators are weary taxpayers seeking relief from increased costs associated with supporting the local school system during a difficult nation-wide economic crisis. Others in the audience desire the funding necessary to safeguard the future of their children by sustaining the hopes and dreams of children through sufficient programming and effective practices. Still others have an interest in maintaining education as a positive contributor to quality of life issues in their community. Everyone has a stake in the outcome of the budget vote.

It's not as easy as distinguishing between spending and investing, although that's a necessary starting point. I don't believe school districts can or should expect support for merely spending money. That's not hard to do. Instead, the district leaders must recognize that their challenge goes far beyond spending. That is, strategic spending or investing in the long-term pursuit of the organization's mission and purpose is warranted rather than simply adding an inflationary factor to past expenditures to produce a new budget. As resources grow more scarce the need for efficiency becomes more vital. We are expected to do more with less. However, the push toward efficiency should not be at the expense of effectiveness. Success in performance and approval in the voting booth require both qualities. In addition, creativity, persistence, sensitivity, and visionary thinking are helpful ingredients for success.

Last Wednesday evening the Green Island Board of Education met and approved an investment plan for the 2011/12 school year designed to balance the needs of learners and the interests of the community. Their deliberations resulted in a proposed budget (grand total of $7,077,869) that calls for a 2.78% increase ($191,122) in expenditures over the current school year budget. This total budget figure would require a 2.75% increase ($74,715) in the tax levy (to generate a total local contribution of $2,791,626) compared to the existing funding amount. If we examine the proposed budget from another view, the budget for the next school year ($7,007,869) is only $111,300 more than the school budget that Green Island taxpayers overwhelmingly approved for the 2009/10 school year. That means that the cost of operating the school district has only increased 1.6% from the budget that was approved two years ago. That's not inappropriate, even considering the sagging economy. We have to trust that the budget will be approved if we pledge ourselves to serving the needs of our learners while maintaining compassion regarding the realities of the economy.

There will be a loss of one teaching position that is expected due to attrition (retirement, without filling the vacancy). The district enacted severe budget reductions last year (5.6 staff positions cut) in the wake of a loss of state aid. That elimination of recurring expenses, together with the board of education's decision last week to redistribute nearly $600,000 from the unassigned reserve balance funds, allows us to mitigate the combined impact of a decrease in state and federal aid and an increase in pension contributions and health care costs. The allocation of unassigned reserve funds was also motivated by the need to comply with state guidelines governing the limit of unassigned reserve accounts. In meeting that requirement, we subsequently become more vulnerable to future decreases in state aid. I can't help but feel like we are being painted into a corner, with our options becoming more limited each year.

Stay tuned. We'll find out more about our future on May 17th.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rolling Along

It's that time again. Time to review grades from the last marking quarter and identify those learners who have met the criteria for distinction as members of the Honor Roll and the High Honor Roll. We're rolling along, making progress, and building on our successes.

It was a pleasure to receive three high school learners as unexpected visitors to my office this afternoon. They were all seniors who were very proud to announce to me that over fifty percent of their classmates from the Class of 2011 (22 members altogether) were represented on the High Honor Roll (10) and Honor Roll (2). Of course, they represented three of that total. They had every reason to boast of this collective accomplishment. It speaks volumes of the desire and responsibility of the Class of 2011. They are nearly finished with their thirteen year odyssey through The Heatly School. It's very tempting for seniors everywhere at this time of year, many having already been accepted into college, to relax a little and reduce their commitment from what it may have been at the start of the school year. Clearly they have averted that potential trap, since coasting through the motions of the final months of school will not prepare them for the perseverance and time management they will need for success in college next September.

I am very proud of this senior class. They have been active participants in, and significant contributors to, the present and future of Heatly. I am grateful that my initial year as a superintendent has been one in which I could rely on the members of the senior class to serve as effective role models for the younger learners who follow behind them. They are productive and constructive young men and women. Watching them progress through their last year of school and stand precariously on the threshold of leaving an environment and community where they have experienced thirteen years, and anxiously look out at varied and diverse opportunities, has been very interesting.

Another enjoyable experience today was the opportunity to attend the "March Madness" celebration. This event was the brainchild of a high school teacher who also provided the bulletin board artwork to display the activity. The ceremony was the culmination of a campaign to promote and acknowledge excellent attendance. It ran along for the last five weeks parallel to the March Madness college basketball playoffs. Lose a game and you're out of the tournament. In this case, if you're late or absent from school you're out of the competition. Attendance was charted in brackets just like the basketball playoff structure.

There were 76 elementary learners who evidenced perfect attendance and 58 high school learners who accomplished the feat. That's over one third of all of the learner population of the school - despite the competition occurring during the tail end of the cold and flu season. Hat's off to the English teacher and principal for coordinating the effort to motivate the dedication and commitment necessary for perfect attendance over the five week span. Everyone appeared to be enjoying the pizza and beverages. In addition, several attractive gifts were awarded to the lucky people who had their name drawn from the collection of perfect attendance winners.

On that note, school is closed for the spring break. I hope that the week off brings good fortune and relaxation to each and everyone. I will be wrestling with the final preparations for the annual budget that we will be presenting to the community for a vote on May 17th. I will resume posting Blog entries when we school opens again on April 25th.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Turning The Corner

On your mark; get set; GO!!

Registration began for the on-line classes we will be offering in September. After a short delay in technology, and a great deal of patience from anxious learners who will be sophomores, juniors and seniors next year, our guidance counselor successfully facilitated enrollment procedures. The list below displays some of the courses that our learners signed up to experience.

The Human Body
Young Adult Literature
Russian Language and Culture
Computational Science and Engineering Using Java Script
Psychology of Crime
Oceanography: A Virtual Semester at Sea
Introduction to Statistics
Advanced Placement Economics: Macro and Micro
Computer Aided Design (CAD)
Sports and American Society
Anatomy and Physiology

Do those courses look anything like what you took in high school? I can tell you, my high school experience pales in comparison to the range of courses (nearly 200 in all) that were made available to the learners that registered today. This is a step in turning the corner and transforming learning experiences at Heatly.

This was an exciting opportunity, but it’s just a start. We want to be successful and enable the on-line class experience to grow as we move forward. We identified learners who have demonstrated success in the classroom and, most importantly, provided evidence of intrinsic motivation and dedication to meeting their assigned responsibilities.

Learners almost camped out in the guidance office as they awaited the moment to register. These experiences will expand learning possibilities and enrich preparation for college and career. However, the courses will not be easy. Time management and self-discipline are critical attributes necessary for success. The classes will represent a challenge as much as they represent an opportunity. This accounts for our selectivity in registering learners, especially the first year of the program.

It’s another BIG step for a small school. We will expand the number of learners and the grades involved in the program in the near future. Eventually we will reach beyond on-line classes and also add school-to-work internship programs and the ability to take college classes during high school. It’s more a matter of creatively re- organizing the infrastructure of the school (primarily the master schedule of classes, and a different view of the teaching-learning dynamics) than it is of finances.  We need to project success, adapt strategies, and invest and allocate resources in a manner that will allow us to optimize learning for the benefit of our learners and our community.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

X Marks The Spot

I havx bxxn thinking of what wx nxxd to do at Hxatly in ordxr to
continux our improvxmxnt and xncouragx thx community to
havx xnough confidxncx in our school to invxst in us with a majority
votx to pass our budgxt on May 17th.
I can communicatx this mxssagx fairly wxll xvxn though my kxyboard is not
working pxrfxctly. Howxvxr, it would bx much xasixr if all of the kxys workxd togxthxr.
That's also trux about our xffort to pxrsuadx votxrs. Wx can bx good xnough with
all xmplyxxs contributing xnxrgy and dxdication, but during thxsx difficult xconomic
timxs good xnough is not convincing xnough. Wx havx to be grxat in ordxr to xarn
thx trust and faith of taxpayxrs. It's nxcxssary for xvxryonx to work coopxrativxly
to maximizx our potxntial.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Nutty

Reading feeds my mind like oxygen feeds lungs. I have a voracious appetite for reading that borders on a dependency. It's difficult for me to just sit around and relax without feeling guilty that I'm wasting time that could otherwise be spent consuming information of all sorts - news, comedy, sports, narratives, fiction - you name it, except for mindless celebrity worship and tales of horror (and maybe weather), I'll read it.

I recently found an interesting story while rummaging through a compilation of educational articles. This is an example of a flash-point issue that impacts public school education. Our diverse, complex and interdependent society has produced many, many different intersections of perceived rights and wrongs. Virtually any and every social issue eventually seeps into the school in some fashion. Since public schools are operated with state and federal money that supplement the local tax base, the school becomes subject to legislation and policy from both levels of government. That is, compliance or the perception of non-compliance with applicable codes and statues form the basis for grievances that are often played out in either the formal environment of a courtroom or the informal and raucous court of public opinion. Meanwhile, until there is some resolution, the school awaits the outcome of vociferous debate on civil rights issues of race, gender, speech, due process, and the like.

This news story involves a school in Volusia County, Florida where the parents of children at Edgewater Elementary School are protesting the attendance of a child at the school with a severe, life threatening allergy to peanuts. The news story on CNN was accompanied by video of the protest. The parents claiming to be offended by the school's accommodation of the child, at the expense of their children having to not only avoid bringing anything with peanuts to school but also requiring preventative measures such as having the children wash their hands, vehemently express their opinion that the child should be home-schooled - like some outcast.

The school is thrust into the middle of arguments between those who cite the allergic child's right to a free, public education and those who feel that their child should not have their rights infringed upon by the needs of others. There are certainly other additional issues, such as the school's liability, appropriate accommodations, costs at a time of great economic constraints, and much more.

In a very simplistic perspective, the peanut allergy child has a right to a public school education, just like the rest of the children who attend the school, whereas there is no right that protects children bringing anything in for lunch or snack that they want. There are only 180 school lunches in the year that would otherwise include 1,095 meals at three meals per day for 365 days a year. I love peanut butter but I can adapt to this restriction without falling apart. There are many other opportunities to eat peanut butter.

Although I see kids bring food into school that I feel is not in their best interest (high calorie, fatty, junk foods and intensely sugar filled drinks and meals with little or no nutritional value) and may serve as a long form invitation to future medical issues (child diabetes, heart conditions exacerbated by obesity...) I cannot intervene other than to promote healthy food consumption in our health curriculum or ask the nurse to reach out to the parent or provide information in newsletters or at PTO meetings. The content of the lunchbox is a parental choice, or the responsibility of whomever packs the lunch for the child. But, that said, we can act to prevent children from bringing in food items with peanut/peanut oil... if it represents a potential danger to a child with an identified and diagnosed medical condition.

However, there is room for accommodation. The school where I served a principal for nearly twenty years prior to arriving at Heatly has a long history of meeting both the medical needs of children with peanut allergies and the interests of other children who enjoy foods with peanuts as an ingredient. Of the 1,040 learners in the K-6 elementary school, nine suffered from peanut allergies. It starts with exercising some common sense and consideration. Knowledge is vital. It's incumbent upon the school to provide up-to-date medical information related to the allergy. This must be conveyed to educate all learners and their parents, since the interaction among children in the cafeteria, at bake sales and class parties extends the threat of transmission beyond the walls of a single classroom. The nurse plays a critical role in communicating relevant information. Although most peanut allergies are triggered by ingestion, there are small numbers of children stricken with air-borne reactions. Those children in the latter group require more sophisticated and vigilant guidelines. It is not an incredible stretch from provisions schools make for other children with unique and special needs (i.e an elevator key for a child in a wheelchair, a scribe for someone with temporary loss of the ability to write, an interpreter for the hearing impaired,..)

The school provided a separate lunch table that was identified as peanut free. All tables were wiped down with a disinfectant immediately after the table was vacated and before the next group of diners arrived. Signs acknowledged "peanut free" classrooms. A letter was distributed before school began in September advising parents of children in classes with peanut allergy effected learners to please respect the needs of the child in the same manner they would want their own children treated. Hands were frequently washed (and why not, this also reduces transmission of germs that cause simple colds...and helped thwart H1N1) and handi-wipes were well stocked in the classroom and cafeteria. The buses were similarly off limits for peanut snacks. Parents and children were provided with recipes and examples of alternative snacks. The school lunch personnel separated peanut foods from alternatives offered to those with allergies. Everyone became conscious of food safety - and many become more interested in paying attention to what's actually in the food we eat.

The point here is the complex position public schools find themselves in as they seek to accommodate children with varied needs and interests, different pasts, presents and futures - within a dynamic environment greatly impacted by those outside the school in the form of policies, regulations, laws, litigation, social values, political perspectives, and economic realities. There are constant adjustments (think of the new challenges posed by emerging technology driven programs like social media that has spawned more opportunities for bullying...) for schools to navigate as they seek to provide and promote learning opportunities to prepare graduates for college, career, and citizenship. Sometimes the intrusions appear as solid brick walls that impede the progress and intent of the schools, most of the time the challenges are inconvenient speed bumps.

Not long ago there was a popular television commercial aggressively touting the new flashy style and energetic breed of cars produced by Chrysler. The tag line after a display of the new features of the car was, "This isn't your dad's Chrysler!" Well, the public schools of today are definitely not, "your dad's schools!"

Perhaps that's why whenever I've been asked to reflect on my lengthy career as a school leader and cite the most profound change I've experienced during the three plus decades of service, I have surprised people who assume the response would be technology of finances. Instead I am quick to reply that the fact I can instantly recall the phone number of our school's legal representatives is the most distinct change. I am struck by the sharp contrast between my early years - when I simply contacted a local all-purpose lawyer for general advice on a legal matter facing the school - and the past fifteen years when I have consulted with a legal firm representing the school with specialists in a variety of specific educational issues - special education, personnel, contract negotiations, finance, litigation...

That's the reality of schools of today.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Music To My Ears

My wife and I went to a musical over the last weekend. The play involved a learner from our high school and it took place on the stage in the auditorium of the school district where I worked as a principal prior to accepting the position as superintendent in Green Island. I anxiously looked forward to the play for two reasons. First, the chance to experience the talent of a young lady from Heatly who accepted this demanding challenge as a vehicle to pursue her personal dream of a career in the performing arts. This would be the culmination of a series of rehearsals and endless practices in preparation for the three presentations of The Sound of Music. Second, I suspected that I would see several people from my years of work in that community. It would be a welcome opportunity to re-connect with acquaintances. In addition, curiosity compelled me to examine the outcome of a recently completed capital project in the district - featuring a renovated auditorium with new seats, lights, sound system, and air conditioning.

A wave of personal nostalgia swept over me as people made their way through the entrance of the building. One after another, I recognized familiar faces of young and old and took the time to catch up on what has transpired in the nearly nine months since my departure from the school system. It was a terrific experience. Yet, despite the lustre of the encounters I found no regret about leaving twenty years of effort and energy behind went I left for Green Island. I was incredibly fortunate to serve a supportive community, work with an extraordinarily high performing staff, and exercise responsibility of thousands of wonderful learners who stretched through two generations. I learned a great deal and grew on a personal and professional level as a result of my experience working there. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I am indebted to the support and care I received from members of that school community.

However, the decision to leave that excellent district came down to a pivotal point that separated reality from dreams. I wanted to accept the responsibility of influencing an entire school system rather than an abbreviated portion, like an elementary school, or a junior high school, or a high school. It wasn't the size of the building necessarily but the breadth of the span of influence. I wanted to make a difference on a grander scale that stretched from Kindergarten through grade twelve. I wanted to advance toward that professional dream enough to start all over at a new assignment.

Interestingly, the pursuit of a dream is what inspired the young lady to travel approximately forty miles each way to practice and rehearse for this production, not to mention the time invested in memorizing lines and songs and the intricate interactions in time and space with her fellow performers. It offered her another step closer to realizing her personal vision. It would become an experience that would help her further her resume and expand possibilities. Clearly, in my opinion, she displayed skills worthy of distinction and recognition that will equip her to receive additional roles in other performances.

Now you know that this Blog entry is leading back toward our purpose and meaning at Heatly - it always does, doesn't it? I have mentioned in previous posts over the last few months about efforts we have generated to fulfill the goals developed at a School Board Advance (we can't afford to retreat at Heatly!) held in August. We have challenged ourselves to remain a small school, create BIG ideas, and offer enriched and expanded learning experiences - in the face of a loss of state aid to education during tough economic times. Ah, but I will steal a line from a song in the musical - "When God closes a door he opens a window," to explain our perspective on searching for opportunity within a crisis.

I have communicated plans about increasing the expanse of our curriculum through on-line learning in the form of academic electives not currently provided. In fact, we begin registration on Wednesday. I also have referred to future plans that would allow high school seniors to block their required classes in the morning so they could attend classes at local colleges in the afternoons. In addition, we expect to organize the infrastructure necessary for the evolution of a school-to-work program that would enable seniors to engage in extended job shadowing experiences at various organizations in the area that feature extended opportunities for high school seniors to learn about prospective careers. Toward that end, we hope to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with many other businesses in the next year or two. Well, we have secured a relationship with one such enterprise for next year. It is the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany and the first intern we will place there is the young lady who sang her heart out in The Sound of Music over the weekend.

Beyond our mission of, Preparing graduates for college, career, and citizenship, is our commitment to sustain hope and nurture dreams of learners of all ages, at all stages. That's music to my ears...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Crossing Paths

This Blog entry is rather short compared to normal posts, but I hope that it will be measured by content rather than quantity. I compose the written pieces every evening. And right now I'm really tired after remaining at work in my office until a little after midnight last evening (early this morning). There was much to be done following the school board meeting last night. There were various loose ends to be connected, budget numbers to be reviewed for accuracy, ideas needed for alternative solutions... Since I had been at school since 7:15 that morning, the only time available for the Blog posting yesterday was after the meeting concluded at 10:00pm. I have yet to miss posting an entry on a school day this year so I squeezed that in to the cramped schedule. I'm anxious to catch up on my sleep as soon as I complete this entry.

I enjoy escaping the confines of the office and walking around the school, even if it's only for a few minutes reprieve here and there. It's a reaffirming opportunity because it reminds me of what's important and reinforces our meaning and mission. Also, it's great to leave the office after being held hostage at my desk by the significant amount of work required in developing a budget during a continuing economic crisis.

Anyway, among the interactions I had and the observations I made today while traveling back and forth along the hallways and up and down the stairways of our three story building, was a particularly revealing experience that offers yet another example of the uniqueness of The Heatly School. I had come across the Kindergarten class as they were making their way from the Art room on the second floor back to their classroom downstairs. Each of the children along the lengthy single file line proudly displayed the project they made in class to me as they passed. Every one of them sported a large multi-colored Easter egg decorated with bright designs. They each took turns opening their individual egg, secured by a hinge-like device, to show me the little chick popping out from inside. The wide smiles on the faces of these five year old children instantly proved uplifting. That's another reason I make it a point to get out of the office as frequently as possible. That's what makes the difficult work in the office worthwhile. I am here to serve the learners of Green Island and promote opportunities for them to invent their future.

Soon after the class had descended the stairs in the direction of their room, a straggler came by after picking up something he had forgotten in the Art room. As he walked down the hallway he came across two high school girls strolling ahead of me. They're both members of the senior class. The little boy promptly stopped their progress and showed them his egg, opening it to surprise them with the chick peering out from inside the colorful egg. He was both happy and proud. I could tell that he wanted to impress the much older girls with his creativity. I joined them at that point and stood by watching the exchange. The young ladies were responsive and respectfully polite, each pausing to acknowledge his work and offer him a smile and feigning shock at the surprising appearance of the chick.

I couldn't help taking the opportunity to draw attention to the benefits of a single building school district that houses all grades from Kindergarten through 12th. I thanked the girls for bringing a smile to the boy's face. I asked the girls if they could sense how much their acceptance and recognition meant to the young boy. They chuckled and said he was cute and they thought his Easter egg was cool. I asked them if they realized if they attended one of the many larger high schools in the area that they would never have the chance to interact like this with the little boys and girls of the elementary grades. I reminded them of how much the elementary children look up to the members of our high school and emphasized how their charitable smiles and the brief, but valuable, amount of time they extended to the boy seemed to make his day. They nodded in understanding and agreement as the boy skipped happily down the hall to his class.

I walked back to the office with a little more spring in my step, and back to the stacks of papers covering my desk, reminding myself -  That's why I'm here. That's why the learners of Green Island deserve my very best effort at creating a budget that extends their hopes and sustains their dreams  - without extinguishing the hopes and vanishing the dreams of the taxpayers of Green Island.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Come To Speak Of It...

Public speaking is often enough of a challenge that most people avoid it at all costs. There have been studies that revealed that delivering a speech to a group of people in public is the biggest fear among respondents to a survey soliciting information on common fears. Just to show you how deep seeded and widespread this fear is, the second highest fear identified among people was the fear of death. That ironic ranking of fears prompted the joke that the ultimate fear would be the responsibility of delivering a eulogy at a funeral.

I can admit that when I was in school I would try every way imaginable to avoid giving oral book reports or participating in formal debates in class. It was only during my first year in college, when a required public speaking class provided me no escape from the task, that I confronted the fearful prospect of presenting a formal speech. Despite incredible anxiety and trepidation I surprised myself with the successful grade I received. Now, there is no doubt many people who wish I would stop speaking. Overcoming my fear of public speaking was empowering to me. In the last two decades I have been invited to speak at many educational conferences at the state and national levels. The largest audience was approximately 3,000 people. I have even made presentations on live television talk shows. It has been a quantum leap from those days that I was dizzy from anxiety at the possibility of speaking in public.

I raise this subject because at this evening's school board meeting we heard reports from representatives of the Elementary Student Council as well as the High School Student Council. These two groups occupy points on the Board of Education agenda at each and every meeting. The speakers provided impressive reports, delivered with clarity and purpose, with crisp voices, eye contact with the audience, and composure and confidence. I envy the head start they have on a very important skill. They are much more advanced than I was at that age. It was interesting to note that the teacher who has volunteered to serve as an advisor for our new Debate Club was also in attendance at the meeting. Both High School Student Council speakers are members of the Debate Club.

Our society values the ability of people who communicate with substance and style. Perhaps this is attributed to the fear most have about public speaking. They admire people who perform a task they consider insurmountable. Regretfully, some people have achieved fame based on the style of their speaking, despite the lack or absence of substance in their speaking.

It's a pleasure to see our learners engaging in developing public speaking skills because it affords them an advantage when it comes to job interviews and other activities where public speaking is expected. Exercising this vital communications skill will expand possibilities for these learners in future endeavors. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Silver Medal!!


Yesterday's Blog entry featured the outstanding accomplishments of our basketball teams, with both varsity teams earning well deserved Scholar Athlete Team recognition for our boys and girls from the state athletic governing council.

Today's Blog entry announces more great news. The Heatly Elementary Chorus was awarded Silver Medal status in competition with many other schools in the New York State School Music Association festival. The judges were very impressed by the performance of these talented boys and girls under the direction of music teacher Tiffany Dzembo. Last year marked the initial foray into the competitive music arena by our chorus and they proudly walked away with a Bronze Medal rating. As you can see, their effort this year attracted even higher performance ratings by the judges. Be prepared next year to celebrate a Gold Medal as the chorus continues to progress as they gain more experience.

Presenting yourself in public competition, like our chorus and sports teams, is both a challenge and a risk. Good or bad, your performance is witnessed by many people. Mistakes are magnified. Pressure is intense. Preparation is important. Focus is essential. Dedication and resilience and persistence contribute toward success. Teamwork is absolutely necessary for harmony in sound or action. Each of these attributes, and many others cultivated by similar activities, extend a person far beyond the actual event, whether it's music competition or a sporting contest.  These experiences often build confidence and composure that represent a benefit whenever the person engages in a new challenge. In short, these skills and characteristics expand possibilities of the individuals who participate in extra-curricular activities. Once developed, these qualities remain accessible to the performer in many different opportunities in daily life in the future.

While performance in sports and chorus is measured for all to see, the value of the accompanying statistics that dictate medal status or victories pales in comparison with the worth placed on state mandated assessments from the perspective of the No Child Left Behind legislation which emphasizes frequent, high pressure tests - even though both types of "tests" are closely associated with producing success later in life. Unfortunately, the gains of extra-curricular experiences are considered "soft" data (i.e. revealing subjective indicators of personal qualities and attitude) versus the "hard" data yielded by assessments measured in percentiles, scaled scores and standard deviations (generating numbers easily converted into objective evaluations). There is a saying that bears repeating when examining these state mandated tests in selected academic areas of Math and English Language Arts - "We measure what we treasure." That is, this could be interpreted as a reflection of the priorities and values of the state education department.

Sadly, it appears that many schools this year have been forced to contend with economic problems of declining resources by reducing extracurricular activities. Again, with demanding pressure to meet with success in those areas assessed by the state - with the resulting data published on the state education department's website for all to see - the scarcity of resources eventually points fingers to those elements of the curriculum and those of the supportive extra-curricular opportunities that are not considered important enough to measure in state-wide exams.

The Green Island community has reason to be proud of the extraordinary accomplishments of our learners across the full spectrum of experiences provided at Heatly, regardless of whether they are assumed to be significant by the state education department. They count to us and they should matter to you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hard Earned Victories

The Heatly School of Green Island has been notified that both of our varsity basketball teams are being recognized for their outstanding accomplishments in the classroom. The boys and the girls squads have each qualified as a Scholar Athlete team by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association for achieving high academic performance based on the collective grade point average of team members.

This honor is notable on several counts. First, maintaining excellent grades is a difficult challenge in itself, but considering that these scholar athletes were able to reach this pinnacle while devoting considerable amounts of time to team responsibilities makes the award even more distinguished. This is particularly true in basketball because it is a sport with a long season that spans Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks, with a number of games that far exceeds the total regular season contests in other sports. Second, both teams experienced great success in the classroom and on the basketball court. Each group earned playoff berths, and subsequent victories, with the girls acknowledged as the top seed in their tournament.

I have made reference in earlier Blog entries of the strong correlation between participation in extra-curricular activities and success in the classroom. These scholar athletes certainly reinforce the research on the issue. The self discipline, goal orientation, cooperation, and practice that serve to produce success in sports are the same qualities that greatly contribute to success in academics. Of special note is the fact that the girls who comprise the basketball team are largely the same group of girls who also received the Scholar Athlete Team honor as a soccer team this fall. We are hoping that the girls can continue their spectacular year by garnering the same honor as a softball team as well. Additionally, we wish good luck for the boys' baseball team in the classroom too. (Now, if the weather will only cooperate so the softball and baseball teams can actually play a game...)

Congratulations to these dedicated young men and women who have consistently displayed a commitment to excellence. Their hard work and sacrifices have been a positive reflection on our school and community.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hopeful Expectations

Nearly twenty years ago, Tom Peters, author of Thriving on Chaos, stated:

In an era when most institutions are hard put to define how they differ from their neighbors/competitors, no point of differentiation is likely to prove more powerful than quality.”

His words are even truer now than they were then. This claim should resonate with all public institutions, particularly in the field of education. In the years since Peters offered his assertion the alternatives to public school education have increased dramatically. Private schools, charter schools, and home-schooling have made a strong impact on the market that was once dominated by public schools. The resulting virtual monopoly on clientele may have contributed to a sense of complacency that has weakened the appeal of public schools by parents who perceived them as indifferent and unresponsive.  The public schools, perhaps through mandates that promote standardization and uniformity, have not appeared to differentiate themselves from other cookie-cutter style public schools enough to offer a choice for discerning consumers. Overall, this has not been an effective strategy for public schools.

Quality and value are not defined by the provider; they are determined by the customer.  National polls and a wide range of research on public perception of public schools reveals that parents are concerned with much more than simply achievement test scores. While the hard data on performance levels, graduation rates, and attendance can easily be measured and presented, parents emphasize the soft elements of schools in areas like respect, creativity, individuality, opportunities for parent participation, and curricular and extra-curricular experiences not easily reduced to percentiles and scaled scores.

Education provides an intangible product. It is not something that you can experience or test prior to purchasing the product. This is in contrast to a tangible product that you can test, touch, watch, or taste before buying.

Here are several observations on this issue made by Theodore Levitt, author of The Marketing Imagination.

What makes intangible products unique is that they are entirely nonexistent before being bought, entirely incapable of prior inspection or review. For that reason, the customer is forced to make judgments far more on the basis of what’s asserted or implied about the product than with tangible products.”

Intangible products are by nature highly people-intensive in their production and delivery. The more people-intensive a product, the more room there is for personal discretion, idiosyncrasy, error, and delay.”

Customers buy hopeful expectations, not actual things. "Feelings" are more important than "feeling." How we feel about a car is more important than how the car feels.”

People buy products in order to solve problems. A product is, to the potential buyer, a complex cluster of value satisfactions. The generic “thing” or “essence” is not itself the product. The “product” is what the product “does.”

“Customers attach value to products in proportion to the perceived ability of those products to help solve their problems. Hence, a product has meaning only from the viewpoint of the buyer or the ultimate user. All else is derivative. Only the buyer or user can assign value, because value can reside only in the benefits he wants or perceives.”

“Instead of trying to get the buyer to want what the seller has, the seller should try to have what the buyer will want.”

Here’s some advice for those involved in education from David Bangs and Andi Axman, authors of A Crash Course in Marketing:

“Recognize that people don’t buy products and services. They buy solutions to their problems, and satisfactions of their wants and needs”.

In differentiating your product/service from the competition – tout the benefits of your product/service – not its features.

You don’t buy coal/oil/natural gas – you buy heat;
You don’t buy circus tickets – you buy thrills;
You don’t buy paper – you buy the news;
You don’t buy glasses – you buy vision.

And finally, taking a cue from the paragraph above, here are some of my expectations as superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District regarding the benefits of our school.

Green Island children do more than “attend” school – they get closer to their dreams day by day.
Green Island staff members do more than “teach” children – they sustain hope and grow learners.
Green Island parents do more than send their children to school - they share them with a caring staff.
Green Island taxpayers don’t buy an education – they invest in building the future.
The Heatly School of Green Island isn’t a big school with small ideas – it’s a small school with BIG ideas.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Bad Taste

Bear with me as I beg your indulgence. This recount of an unusual experience at dinner tonight does have a relationship with education and school. Let me explain.
Brenda and I went out to dinner this evening. It seemed like a long week for both of us and we looked forward to relaxing and enjoying a nice meal together. We chose a small restaurant that I had been to before, although this would be her first time there. I appreciated the meal I had experienced during my prior visit. We were the first arrivals but others wandered in every now and then. There was music scheduled to begin an hour after we sat down.
I imagine that most people elect to eat at a restaurant to either relax or celebrate or acknowledge something positive, as opposed to going out for dinner when you feel terrible or indifferent. Restaurants operate in the service industry. That is, the purpose of restaurants is oriented toward supplying customers with a pleasant and memorable experience so it will entice the diners to return again and again. You pay for the meal in exchange for well prepared food, an accommodating atmosphere, and positive customer service.
Ah, but this last element, customer service was sorely lacking tonight. The waitress fumbled through our order – several small plates of different types of foods. Meanwhile, another waitress could be overheard (it’s a small place) explaining to customers that “today is like one of those days that you wish you could erase.” That should have been a precursor for the meal. A couple of dishes of food arrived, but we were without a main entrée. After what seemed like fifteen minutes, and another chorus of lament by the other waitress with the apologetic refrain about erasing the day (to yet another nearby table of people altogether) our waitress returned with two dishes we had not ordered. She simply went back to the kitchen with them after we reminded her of the missing main entrée again. On her way to the kitchen she checked with a couple at the adjacent table and asked them if they had ordered (they had twenty minutes ago and were waiting impatiently). Nonetheless, she apologized and asked them to order once more.
Our main entrée arrived, but with another dish that we had not ordered (that makes three altogether). Brenda asked for another pot of hot tea. The waitress repeated her trip to the kitchen and came back almost immediately with a plate of food to the table behind us, whereupon she announced to the group (she obviously knew personally), “Here, I stole this from another order to speed things up.” These words were not reassuring. Within a few minutes the waitress brought out the food for the couple that had just re-ordered their meal, thus indicating that their order had gone in on time, she simply forgot she had submitted the request. They did not look happy.
The food was very good, the service was very bad. The co-owner appeared to sense that the operation of the restaurant was not smooth tonight. They have only been open for business for two or three months. He made the rounds among the tables soliciting feedback and extending apologies. They were having a bad day. Again, I believe that most people expect to engage with a positive experience in exchange for the price they pay for the meal. If the restaurant staff had just come right out and announced that they were experiencing some difficulties then we could have excused ourselves and gone elsewhere for a pleasant and enjoyable meal. I empathize with them. They had problems with the menu that was misprinted and the absence of a member of the wait-staff and the owner had to move her daughter as well as her eight year old granddaughter and….  That’s okay. I understand. It happens.  I feel bad – but – I arrived at the restaurant in good spirits willing to pay for a rather expensive meal. I did not come for inferior customer service – and a costly meal. We left dispirited and disappointed. It’s too bad because the food was delicious.
Now, what’s this have to do with education?
Each day hundreds of learners arrive at Heatly, at all ages, at all stages. Each of them brings their hope and promise of being another day closer to their dreams. They rely on our staff for support and direction, for assistance and accommodation, for care and compassion. They expect our very best. They need our finest effort. Anything less than that will not only be disappointing but it could have significant consequences measured in diminished growth and lost opportunities in their future. Many of these learners are dependent on us for their success. We can’t let them down.
I won’t return to that restaurant. Why would I when there are so many alternatives. Research shows that one disgruntled customer passes their negative perceptions to a couple of friends who subsequently share the news here and there until, on the average, a little over one hundred people have heard about the bad experience. That’s terrible word-of-mouth communication for the business.
I trust that staff members at Heatly realize that this spread of bad reviews that expands like ripples among dissatisfied customers is no different than what may happen each and every time we display poor customer service. Now, more than ever, with private, parochial, charter schools, and home schooling sprinkled throughout every district, schools cannot afford to be insensitive and unresponsive. The restaurant business has always been very competitive. Education has only recently entered the competitive arena. Our survival rests on providing a quality product with high performing customer service and value added experiences that enhance the interaction between client and provider.