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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Paths We Choose

This Blog entry will represent a bit of a departure from most postings. With a request for your patience and understanding I'll indulge it a bit of a personal reflection with little reference to instruction at Heatly.

We held an open house/barbecue yesterday for my son, who leaves this Wednesday for a 27 month assignment with the Peace Corps in Mongolia. He will teach English to learners in grades 5-12 and serve as a resource to native instructors who also teach English as a foreign language. We won't see him for at least a year. We're not even sure that he will be assigned to an area with Internet connectivity that would allow emails and Skype. It was a last opportunity for family and friends to gather and wish him well. The experience was mixed with the joy of interacting with so many caring people and the sadness of his impending departure.

I come from a family of nine, with six siblings - three brothers and three sisters. The large size of the family and the small size of income resulting from two parents with self imposed limitations (she was always at home with young children and unable to work outside of the home - he was always struggling to find meaningful work as a 10th grade drop-out) left all of us in a precarious position financially, emotionally, and socially. Nonetheless, I persevered and pursued my dreams with the same vigor and confidence I generate to implore learners at Heatly to sustain their hopes.

On this day, of all days, with family and friends gathered for the special send-off, it was a coincidence that the newspaper with the most circulation in the capital region of New York would feature stories on two adults who emerged from the impoverished family that lived years ago in the condemned 1880's tenement that squatted along the Mohawk River in Schenectady. Above the fold on the front page of the Sunday edition of the paper was a story of three different schools that have cultivated a working relationship with a vendor to provide expanded learning opportunities through web based on-line instruction. I was quoted with respect to our purpose and goals at Heatly. We want to enrich instructional possibilities for our learners and offer them a menu of courses designed to make them more competitive as they seek their future. Also, the staff of the newspaper ran a story on one of the top runners in America as she prepares for an upcoming road race that represents one of the most significant races for women in the country. The article references her relationship with her legendary former high school coaches in Saratoga. The coaches happen to have garnered nineteen New York State high school cross country championships to go along with their seven national running titles. These coaches happen to be my sister and her husband. My sister has twice been honored as the top track coach in the U.S.

That's a long way removed from the days when we both trudged through the hallways of elementary school clutching free lunch tickets and wearing the hand-me-down clothes of classmates. Mere mentions in the local newspaper are hardly noteworthy, but the paths we chose that enabled us to make a difference in the lives of others have been rewarding.

I believe the good fortune I have experienced is as much due to the powerful potential of public schools as it is to my endurance in warding off the effects of poverty. I suspect that the reason that I and this particular sister of mine invested a career in public school education was to acknowledge our debt to the teachers who helped facilitate our advancement and "pay it forward" to others by pledging to help transform the futures of the boys and girls we worked with as educators.

Certainly, not every teacher we engaged on our journey through public school exercised compassion and empathy, but there were enough who did at critical junctures to guide us toward prospects that would otherwise remain elusive. I believe that public schools can make a difference in the lives of children. I believe that there are many caring and considerate educators who construct learning environments that cultivate and promote opportunity and growth for all learners. I believe in the possibilities of "rags to riches," anyone can "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" and make a better future. Perhaps it is nothing more than an idealistic and naive unfounded myth that teases countless people confined by different factors. But, maybe again, the belief in public schools as a lighthouse of hope for those struggling with vision limited by the fog of stereotypes, perceptions, and prejudice just might be true.

I also believe my son will spread encouragement, support, and hope among the learners he will teach English in the classrooms of Mongolia. He will make a difference in their lives and in turn will realize a significant difference in his own life. His views and awareness will be expanded, and his understanding and focus will be enriched. I am proud of his conviction, his commitment, and his courage.

I will surely miss him very much.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Memorable Day

The elementary school learners and staff collaborated on producing their 12th annual Memorial Day Program yesterday morning in the Heatly gymnasium. The elementary student council and their advisors have accepted responsibility for recognizing Memorial Day assembly. It was a terrific balance of information and entertainment that focused on the purpose and importance of the holiday. The event featured songs, poems and narratives, plus the presence of several local veterans who were honored for their service to our country. In addition, each of the elementary learners received a patriotic red, white, and blue cap.

The ceremony began with a video that emphasized the meaning of our pledge of allegiance. This was a vivid reminder of the need to avoid taking our freedom for granted. It provided children with a better understanding of the words that they routinely recite each morning at school. The elementary chorus then offered a rousing rendition of the national anthem. Following that song, local veterans in attendance were introduced and recognized. The names of other veterans were read aloud as well.

The 4th graders presented an acrostic poem that suggested different ways to remember the meaning of Memorial Day. The second grade then sang the Woody Guthrie song, This land is your land... as a resounding expression of our national pride. The sixth grade learners were next and they read a timeline of significant points in the evolution of our flag, from inception to adding stars as states joined the nation. Following a student council member providing a history of the song, the first graders enthusiastically sang, Grand Old Flag. The Kindergarten learners then marched up to the stage and delivered the song Yankee Doodle with gusto and volume after one of the members of the student council explained the history of the song. The student council read a poem entitled "What Heroes Gave" before the third graders delivered readings on, "What a veteran means to Me." That led to a smooth transition to the next presentation, a poem read by two students, Take a Moment to Thank a Veteran. This last poem was accompanied by a video saluting veterans for their sacrifices. The final element of the ceremony was supplied by the elementary chorus when they sang, In Flanders Fields."

The event was very special for a number of reasons. The intent and tradition of the show remains significant, but beyond the presentation itself, the courtesy and attitude demonstrated by the children as audience members was impressive. The program was approximately an hour in duration yet the children were attentive and responsive. This is a testament to not only the behavior of the children but the supervision of the staff. Everything combined to produce a memorable Memorial Day celebration at Heatly.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crossing Bridges

It's easy to overlook many different elements of our daily lives. Either we simply take experiences for granted, or we are so immersed in the incredible amount of interactions, decisions, and opportunities we are engaged with that they are eventually obscured.

Let's take snow for example. We might all agree, even the most ardent skier, that we had too much snow this last winter. However, our two learners who immigrated from Algeria had never seen snow until two months after they arrived in Green Island. Back in North African country of Algeria they would have to travel four hours up to the mountains to find out about snow. Nonetheless, they both accompanied a bus load of fellow Heatly learners and visited West Mountain in Queensbury where the group all enjoyed tubing down the snow covered mountain. This interest in trying new experiences has served both of the Algerian learners well as they become assimilated into a new culture with unknown customs and a different climate.

Our communications director interviewed both learners today for an upcoming article that will be posted on the school district's website. I sat in on some of the interview with curiosity and admiration. I was interested in their explanation of the trials of transition and respectful of the resolve and commitment they have made while encountering a foreign environment; unable to speak more than a few phrases of English, (they are fluent in Arabic as well as French) and unfamiliar with any of the other 320 learners of Heatly.

I won't share much more of the interview. You can read it on the website soon. I was also intrigued by their experiences because my son leaves June 1st for a two and a half year assignment in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. He will live with a host family for three months to provide him with an immersion in the culture and an opportunity to learn the Mongolian language.

I am impressed with the ability and determination that our two new learners have displayed. I am similarly proud of how well the Heatly learning community has welcomed and accommodated the foreign born learners.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Quickly read the next two lines aloud.


What did you read?



Although the lines have exactly the same letters and sequence there certainly is a big difference between the two interpretations. That distinction directs organizations down divergent paths of attitude. My role at Heatly in my first year as superintendent has been to clearly differentiate among the two statements and lead the staff to the understanding and acceptance that opportunity is indeed now here - despite the prevailing dismal economy and recent past of being cited as a school in need of improvement that may have inferred that opportunity was nowhere.

It has required exercising a constancy of purpose, consistently modeling optimism, demonstrating genuine interest and enthusiasm, and attributes of what some scholars of leadership refer to as "servant leadership." These characteristics include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. This model of leadership is framed around the belief that the dynamic between and among a leader and followers is fluid, situational, and representative of a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship instead of a top down, authoritative driven organization. The leader serves the needs and interests of others as a means of facilitating the creation of a growth oriented organization.

I hope that others will perceive and conclude that I have allocated far more time to these people-building activities than I have to the nuances and technical aspects of instruction. That is, I have valued the need to invest time and energy in developing the conditions that promote and sustain a positive attitude at Heatly as a priority over the devotion to developing curriculum maps and specific instructional strategies. That ranking is not meant to diminish the importance of instruction, but rather to acknowledge that the significance of the right attitude is a prerequisite to experiencing success in skills.

Southwest Airlines, the most successful company in air travel, believes that much of their success is the result of creative, committed employees. Central to that high level of performance among its staff is the organization's dedication to hire the right people on the basis of a selection policy to "hire for attitude, train for skill." One comes before the other. It works for Southwest Airlines and I hope it works for Heatly School. We'll find out soon enough.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Political Tug Of War

Disagreements, deadlocks, stalemates, arguments, and prolonged disputes. Few people are enamored with any of these words and the mere mention of them will likely bear awkward discomfort. Yet, we are often confronted by the dilemma of not getting our way on an issue of contention. Nearly every dynamic imaginable, in fact virtually anytime there are two or more people together for an extended time, one may experience the frustration of an impasse at some point, be it husband and wife, college roommates, longtime friends, teammates, neighbors, partners, and the list goes on and on.

If the situation rests with competition, where in order for someone to win it means someone must lose, then it increases the odds of gridlock or a sustained struggle. Public school education in New York State will soon be the forum once again for an intellectual and political battle. The various parties that comprise representative bodies of stakeholders (teachers, state education department staff, political policy makers of every persuasion, superintendents, principals, and school board members) are immersed in a tug of war in which each group has an end of a heavy rope that is knotted in the middle. At different times one group earns some ground and then invariably a competitor gains an edge. The focal point of this competition is the conflict between a previously passed education law referred to as 3012-c, or simply, APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) and administrative regulations recently passed by the New York State Board of Regents (at the behest of Governor Cuomo).

The regents whisked through their regular agenda after quickly digesting and approving the Governor's proposal that he had published in an open letter to the Chancellor just days prior to the meeting. This decision amends several important measures before the original bill, signed into law by former Governor Paterson in May of 2010, could be enacted. The change has tumultuous implications that pose severe obstacles to the successful implementation of the act.

There are certainly issues in the conflict that beg legal intervention and potential injunctions that could interrupt the progress and direction of the path of this law. There are questions of procedure and protocol with respect to administrative regulations versus approved law - and which has priority over the other. Also, there are concerns that some of the language in the modifications generated by the Board of Regents intrudes upon language and practices negotiated and agreed upon by local boards of education and unions representing teachers and principals.

Meanwhile, during the dispute among parties, we are left at school with the responsibility of enacting a newly adopted policy that may not be sustained through both political and legal appeals. Apparently it's not enough that schools struggle to accommodate changes imposed by the constraining economy. Nor should the external mandate of increased high stakes assessments be viewed as a burden to assimilate within the operation of our schools. The rapid twists and turns of the APPR have assumed a life outside of the intent of the law and have been transformed from being a means to an end to now becoming an end to a means. Perhaps the issue is no longer what is right but rather who is right. There are a great many people in the balance. Expect to see a clash of sound bites, threats, and raw political power unfolding in the coming weeks. Until then, we must assume the responsibility of following the altered law in order to be compliant in September and remain focused on our mission of preparing graduates for college, career, and citizenship.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shopping for Scholarships

I spent Friday evening and Saturday morning with forty-eight learners who assembled this weekend far removed from the newspaper headlines and television sound bites that cast public school education in a negative light. These accomplished individuals arrived at the Desmond Albany Hotel and Conference Center as candidates for thousands of dollars in scholarship money provided by the Golub Corporation, a family-in-business headquartered in Schenectady and operating Price Chopper supermarkets throughout a six state region. The Golub Foundation has distributed millions of dollars in support of learning since forming the foundation in 1981, from this scholarship service to sponsoring influential educational seminars. Interestingly, the founders of the company, two sons of a hardworking and determined Russian immigrant, opened the area's first "one-stop shopping" outlet in their first store, called Public Service Market, in Green Island in 1932. There are now over 120 stores spread across New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

I was a member of the committee charged with the responsibility of reviewing the resumes of the high school and college learners and deciding which of them would receive the prestigious awards. The learners emerged after a screening committee sorted through over 1,200 applicants. The process was very difficult because the quality of performance and the promise of future achievements among the forty-eight candidates was exceptionally high. It was unfortunate that some would leave the experience without a scholarship. However, each of the candidates and their families were recognized at a dinner held in their honor Friday evening in the ballroom of the Desmond. In addition, they were guests of the foundation and received lodging at the hotel along with breakfast this morning.

It was a humbling experience for the committee members, all of whom have served long careers as educational leaders and earned doctorate degrees. Despite the lengthy experience and interactions with our share of brilliant learners along the journey, these candidates were awe inspiring. Their applications not only boasted superior achievement in the classroom, but also included a variety of extra-curricular activities as well as community service projects. As I said, it was a humbling experience. But, it was also a reaffirming experience too. The remarkable accomplishments of the candidates prove that despite the stream of media criticism often directed at public schools there is sufficient positive evidence that the future will be inherited and enhanced by the learners of today.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Run Around

I was running after staff members tonight, chasing them through the streets of Albany.

That may not sound like a good thing for a superintendent to be admitting. However, the occasion was a positive experience. We had formed a running team consisting of Heatly staff members to participate in the CDPHP sponsored 2011 Workforce Challenge Cup. Tonight marked the 31st consecutive year of the event. It's designed to bring colleagues together to promote a healthy and fun activity. Businesses and organizations are encouraged to field teams, wear tee shirts representing their work place, and join others in an activity that also raises funds for local non-profits.

There were over 9,200 participants. Some companies had over 100 staff members on their teams. The mass of people made for a colorful rainbow like collection of tee shirts that proceeded up Madison Avenue as son as the race started. The atmosphere was festive, with music playing in the background as the various work groups assembled at the plaza area adjacent to the state museum. The rain held off and the runners enjoyed nice weather, a little humid, but the soft breeze made for a comfortable temperature.

Heatly's staff members ran very well and were great representatives of the school. They demonstrated spirit and commitment. I was grateful to be included on the team. I could say that I was running behind them all to make sure that each of them was okay, but I have to admit I was feeling all of my 58 years (and lack of regular training). I finished the 3.5 mile distance more than a handful of minutes after they had crossed the finish line. They did a great job!

As superintendent, it's important to display support for school related activities, especially when staff members are going above and beyond to promote awareness of our school. Actually, the 3.5 mile run was not as difficult as preparing the recently approved school district budget. It was a nice relief to get out and enjoy the good weather after approaching exhaustion these last few weeks focused on constructing a budget that balanced the needs of the learners and the capacity of the tax payers. The run was an entirely different experience than what awaits me two weeks from tomorrow. I hope that June 3rd will be sunny and warm because I have volunteered to sit in a dunking booth at a celebration the school is providing to reward learners who have consistently demonstrated positive behavior for the second half of the school year.

Oh well, I'm sure it will be fun - just like the race tonight.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Creative Day

I attended a conference yesterday at our regional BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) to address instructional strategies related to the newly adopted common core learning standards. The primary objective of the meeting addressed the need to infuse writing instruction across grade levels and content areas. The information proved to represent a powerful resource for our use in designing future learning plans at Heatly. This will help us as we attempt to integrate writing skills within each department and across all grade levels. Most importantly, rather than exercise writing techniques in a mechanical and routine format as a stand alone focus of instruction, we want to nurture and refine the act and influence of writing as a dynamic form of expression, information, and persuasion far beyond the confining limitations of an English class and well outside of the boundaries of teaching grammar.

In addition to the valuable support services I received at the meeting there was another feature available at the site. The various hallways and conference rooms that comprise the expansive BOCES facility were festooned with hundreds of pieces of art works created by learners from around the area. I knew that several of our local artists from Heatly were represented in the collection. Our school district website has a nice article about the artists and provides images of their respective pieces of art. I was very pleased to discover that the entrance to the conference room where our meeting was located was flanked by the artwork of two different Heatly artists. During a break in the session I was able to tour the show and find the creations of the rest of our artists. Their creative talents contribute to positive publicity for our small district. I am proud of the products of their skill and imagination.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Budget

The day has finally arrived. May 17th. The day that voters across the state experience the opportunity to exercise the rights of citizens of a democracy and express their opinions by pulling a lever in the privacy of the voting booth and collectively determining the level of investment within the publicly supported schools of their community. The economic doom and gloom that make daily appearances in some form or fashion in the media hang over us like the dark clouds that have persistently drenched the area in rain. Anxiety has increased throughout the day due to the realization that a defeated budget would result in further reductions and negatively impact programs and people already weakened by the budget cuts of last year.

The construction of the annual operating budget proposed for the upcoming 2011-12 school year was a continuous circus. No, it wasn't wild, nor were there thrills and chills. The reference to the circus involved the juggling of ideas, walking the tightrope of competing interests, and balancing revenue and investments. At times the experience felt like being shot out of a cannon. Much work had been expended in developing a budget that is both sensitive to tax payers during the present time of economic plight and responsive to the needs of children in pursuit of their future aspirations. Many ideas had been examined as dollars and cents while always reminding ourselves of the people and stories associated with each aspect of the budget.

At 8:00 pm the outcome of all the preparation and perspiration of the last few months was announced. Despite the current economic distress plaguing the state, the voters of Green Island reaffirmed their faith in the "small school with BIG ideas" by approving the budget by a 72.5% to 27.5% margin and increasing their investment in the school by 2.78% over last year's budget. While this news is great it also reminds us of the tremendous responsibilities we face in operating at performance levels that continue to invite the fiscal support of tax payers next year and into the future. It is a task we do not take lightly. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning Today - Leading Tomorrow

Our elementary school student council spent today shadowing representatives of our local government in Green Island. The experience was framed around a robust and interesting agenda. We are grateful for Mayor Ellen McNulty-Ryan and Executive Assistant to the Mayor, Sean Ward, for generously providing their time to offer our learners an insight on governance procedures and activities.

The children had previously received an informational packet that supplied them with: a history of Green Island; the organization of the town and village, including the Industrial Development Agency, and background on the Green Island Power Authority. The group was welcomed by Ellen and Sean. Following introductions, there was a tour that began at the Water Plant, extended to a visit of the Hydroelectric Plant, continued onward to local municipal facilities (Police Department, Fire Station, Department of Public Works, and the Administrative Offices. Next, the group took a break for lunch and enjoyed pizza and beverages before resuming the tour.

A mock Village Board meeting occurred in the afternoon. This event took the participants through an imaginary meeting, complete with the same template for an agenda actually used by the trustees. A special element of today's agenda involved the examination and adoption of a mock local law proposed by the youngsters. After the meeting, the day concluded with a question and answer session during which the learners could find out more about the meaning and mechanisms involved in managing the village.

This Government Day experience represented a valuable opportunity for young learners to gain an understanding on the responsibilities and activities associated with effective governmental operations that support our society. Some day in the not so distant future, this generation of elementary age learners will be exercising leadership and managerial tasks necessary to sustain our way of life. The decisions, whether at the local, state, or national level, will have implications for those they serve - including us. For that reason, it's important that we supply them with a perspective on the practices of government. For that reason, it's important that we provide them with optimal learning experiences to prepare them for the future. For that reason, it's important that you vote on the school budget. You can vote on Tuesday, May 17th between 2:00pm and 8:00pm in the Heatly School cafeteria.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Scholar Recognition

I very rarely post the names of members of the Green Island School community for reasons of maintaining privacy but this evening I'm making an exception. I'm straying from practice because the names of these two individuals have already been publicized in a special insert in the regional newspaper this week.

Douglas Schneidmuller is the valedictorian of the Class of 2011 of Heatly High School. Doug was featured in  the 2011 Scholars' Recognition published by the Albany Times Union. When Doug was asked to nominate a teacher who influenced his life in a significant way he selected Science teacher Jenny Starr. Doug prepared a written statement for the Scholars' Recognition program panel explaining how Mrs. Starr made a difference to him. 

We are very proud of Doug's accomplishments at Heatly. He has truly generated considerable energy and effort at pursuing his individual goals while simultaneously advancing the school toward its organizational goal of sustaining improved instruction and increased performance. Doug not only excelled in the classroom but he was also an active participant in an array of extracurricular programs. In addition, Doug earned his Eagle Scout award in the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. Doug will be attending the Albany School of Pharmacy in the fall within a program of study that will lead to becoming a pharmacist.

We are also very pleased at the distinction accorded Mrs. Starr as the teacher who most influenced Doug at school. Her dedication to her profession and her passion for teaching have extended well beyond her influence of Doug. She exercises leadership responsibilities among her colleagues, assist in extra-curricular activities, and serves as the district's Chief Information Officer.

Thanks to both Doug and Jenny for allowing their well deserved and hard earned individual honors to reflect positively on our school district. They will be guests at the annual awards banquet sponsored by the Scholars' Recognition program and underwritten by several generous businesses.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The weather was great today. That meant there were a lot of different activities one could enjoy on a nice day. Yet, at 6:15 this evening, with the sun still hanging in the sky and opportunities to escape and relax in any number of ways, a small but committed group of parents convened at their monthly meeting of the Heatly Parent Teacher Organization.

These dedicated individuals have collectively made a significant imprint on the school. They have remained enthusiastic and constructive all year long. The agenda is robust and full of events and a wide assortment of efforts directed at improving the school for learners and staff. I am very appreciative of the energy and time they devote in support of the school district. They have sponsored book fairs, dances, movie nights, and a lengthy list of fun activities for kids.

Tonight's list of discussion items included a review of fund raising promotions that serve to finance the operation of the organization and the countless experiences they provide children. In addition, they have planned a family fun day late in the school year that will feature several attractions. The PTO will supply ribbons for the elementary field day next month. They are providing an exciting field trip for the sixth graders to mark the transition the learners will make as they conclude their elementary years and prepare for entry to the secondary school. They are also presenting awards to participants in the summer Reading program. And there's more...

Our PTO is a remarkable group of individuals who perform as a team in assisting all children through a diverse array of activities. We are grateful for their support. I enjoy meeting with them because it's reaffirming. It's great to see how helpful the group is and how instrumental they are in serving as a bridge between home and school. The PTO represents a valuable asset to our school.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's An Honor

Tonight was the induction ceremony for the local chapter of the National Honor Society. This national organization shares the following information on its website:

National Honor Society (NHS) and National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) are more than just an honor roll. The Honor Society chapter establishes rules for membership that are based upon a student's outstanding performance in the areas of: Scholarship, Service, Leadership, and Character. These criteria for selection form the foundation upon which the organization and its activities are built.

The young men and women who were acknowledged this evening for their accomplishments have earned membership in this distinguishing organization through a combination of commitment, self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, and pursuit of excellence. These attributes were consistently demonstrated over an extended period of time. Candidates for the National Honor Society were subject to analysis of their transcripts to determine whether they met high performance standards. They were also required to submit a letter of reference from a community member a well as a faculty member. In addition, they completed a Student Activity Information Form that would reveal experiences outside of the classroom that would warrant consideration in the selection process. Finally, the five member Faculty Council voted on the nominations, with a majority vote needed to approve the candidate.

I'm proud of the hard work and dedication that the newly inducted members of the Honor Society have displayed in and out of school. Their attitude and achievement have reflected positively on the school district.

The ceremony was well organized and presented efficiently. There were many people in attendance. Parents and family members who have exercised their support throughout the years formed an appreciative audience. Several staff members were also on hand to witness the inductees experience this memorable event.

Beyond the Honor Society induction ceremony, there were also a number of prestigious awards granted to exemplary learners. Many of these awards included the prospect of thousands of dollars in the form of scholarships to local colleges, like RPI and Russell Sage.

All in all, it was a great night befitting the terrific young men and women who were bestowed with well deserved honors. They are the pride of Heatly High!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Giving Blood

I hope that you didn't think that the title of this Blog entry had anything to do with our recommended budget under consideration by voters on May 17th. We feel that the requested amount of funds is appropriate and necessary for our learners to meet with success and our taxpayers to not be overburdened. In fact, the proposed increase to the local tax levy is lower than the state average among school districts across New York.

Giving blood has nothing to do with the budget. Rather, that's what I'll be doing this Friday afternoon at the Green Island Community Center to assist the local blood drive. This is an important contribution and civic responsibility. Everyone who is able to donate blood should consider the opportunity to do so this Friday. Contact the office of the Greeen Island mayor for more information. The drive is from 2:00pm to 6:00pm. The Heatly High School Student Council has already sponsored two blood drives this school year. Our school staff and student leaders accept a role in supporting the interests and needs of the community.

As summer approaches, the need for blood unfortunately picks up as people are more involved in outdoor activities, particularly driving to and from camp or on vacation. The prospect of accidents increases and causes stress on local blood bank supplies. Each of us faces the potential to be in a situation where blood is necessary in an emergency or for surgery. Please consider donating blood - and think about how important it would be to have access to a suitable supply of blood in the event you find yourself in need. Donating blood, and helping others through a contribution of time and effort, are the acts of compassion and generosity that help define a sense of community.

See you at the Community Center this Friday the 13th. Your donation will turn a superstitiously unlucky day into someones lucky day by providing the life saving potential of blood.

Friday, May 6, 2011

One Small Cup Of Coffee

What can you buy with $1.10?

Think about it. That's not much. Your options are fairly limited, but I believe you can buy a small cup of coffee for that amount of money.

Let's imagine that you skip just one single cup of coffee per week for a year and instead put the $1.10 aside in a piggy bank. If you save $1.10 for each of 52 weeks you would have $57.20. I realize that a year would be a rather long time to wait patiently just to arrive at $57.20. However you now have enough money to increase the possible uses of your funds.

You could write down a lengthy list of items you could purchase for $57.20. You could patiently wait an entire year to save up enough money to buy two dress shirts or one pair of name brand jeans or five movie tickets or dinner for two at a restaurant or four music CD's or two popular video games --- or you could invest the money instead of spending it.

The bottom line on the budget we presented to the public last night seeks a tax increase that will likely charge the average Green Island taxpayer $56.00 more next year than the current year. For that amount, just less than the cost of a small cup of coffee each week for a year, a taxpayer can sustain the progress at Heatly and earn a return on theirr investment that is measured in terms of quality of life for the community. Not only will the added amount contribute toward the resources necessary to enrich learning experiences for boys and girls intent on following dreams of success, but a school that is perceived as effective is one that will be viewed as an attraction by those interested in purchasing a home in Green Island. The more people with children who show an interest in the school the more buyers there are for houses. This supply and demand equation boosts home values in equity or sales. When a school is considered weak in performance the community becomes depreciated because people do not find it appealing. There is a relationship between the performance level of a school and the community that surrounds the school regarding house and property values - ask any realtor. Just like the tide that lifts all boats, everyone has the potential to benefit from an improved school, whether they have children attending the school or not.

I know that the economy is weak and induces anxiety, insecurity, and fear. I realize that. I informed our school board at the start of our budget development process that I would not ask for a raise nor would I be willing to accept a penny more in salary than I am receiving this year. As the leader of the school I have a responsibility to set an example for the organization.

Yet, I earnestly believe that the budget our school board has developed is one that is a fair balance between the capacity of a community to invest in the future and the needs of learners who pursue success and represent our future.

One less small cup of coffee each week can make a big difference.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The "B" Word - Budget

There have been many new experiences confronting me as I navigate through my first year as a superintendent. Some have been completely unexpected (quickly submitting the New York State Property Tax Report Card after finding out about it only days before it was due) while others have been expected - with anxiety and worry. Preparing and presenting the school district's operating budget falls into the latter category. Tonight's Board of Education meeting was also the forum for the annual public budget hearing. The meeting offers the public an explanation of the budget in terms of revenues and expenditures, and extends an opportunity for audience members to ask questions.

The budget is a compilation of lists of figures that are essential to the existence of the school but as a document it falls far short of capturing the meaning, value, and purpose of what goes on within the building each and every day. People are inspired by action and feeling, hopes and dreams - not by numbers and charts. Yet, without the financial infrastructure we would lack the resources that fuel the educational engine.

I was nervous. You never know how many people will show up, what they'll ask, and whether you'll be able to respond intelligently to a wide spectrum of potential questions on pencils and pennies. As superintendent, you are the face of the school district. Integrity and communication skills count even more than the ability to recite numbers and explain programs. If people don't trust or have faith in the messenger the message won't matter.

A late notification by the state of a small but significant detail lost within the expanse of the Governor's original budget proposal proved unsettling to us. A week before all school districts were compelled to submit their State Property Tax Report Cards (which requires the adoption of a budget - which sets in motion a proposed tax levy and ultimately a projected tax rate) the state informed schools of a change that has been obscured on the intense political rhetoric pushing for the acceptance of a 2% property tax cap. While many politicians are supportive of a proposed 2% cap on property taxes as a means of saving money for taxpayers, another cap has already been approved. That cap limits the amount of savings homeowners can claim from their STAR (state tax relief program) exemption to no more than 2% of what they saved the previous year. So, homeowners will be deprived of what they would have normally saved beyond that 2%. This in turn means that instead of saving additional money through the STAR program, they will be paying it directly in the form of increased taxes. All the attention on the 2% property tax cap obscured people from learning about this seemingly hidden bit of news. I have yet to see anything in the media about it! This change caused our projected tax rate to more than double, from 1.79% to 4.03%. This isn't good news during tough economic times.

I stressed the difference between spending and investing. Our district has to stop running away by cutting people and programs and instead turn around and search for new opportunities. We emphasized the investment value in the NovaNet (an online credit recovery program designed to reduce drop outs and avoid losing state aid that leaves with each drop out) and Virtual High School (an online menu of challenging elective classes intended to enrich our curriculum and retain our learner population by discouraging learners from walking out of Heatly for larger high schools with a broader array of learning experiences. In short we focused on drop outs and walk outs. Both drop outs and walk outs cause us to lose money. Once we lose money we end up cutting people and/or programs. Once we cut people and programs we invariably invite more learners to drop out or walk out - and then the cycle begins again. It's time to stem the bleeding. We have to take a stand and convince the public we are worthy of their investment and know what to do with their funds to maximize returns on their money.

Anyway - we got through the meeting with just a few questions. There were no ripe tomatoes tossed or unkind words thrown around. I was grateful it was a respectful and polite group of people for my first budget presentation. Now we have to promote passage of the budget so we can move forward and turn the corner.

May 17th here we come.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Apples And Oranges

My wife and daughter are attending a presentation tonight at the Palace Theater in Albany. They are accompanied by several friends who are also educators. They all share an interest in the speaker, Temple Gandin, and her extraordinary experience with autism.

Grandin's website  provides the following information:

Dr. Temple Grandin—world-famous animal scientist and autism self-advocate—has been included in the 2010 TIME 100, the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world!
The list, now in its seventh year, recognizes the activism, innovation, and achievement of the world's most influential individuals.  Temple is listed as one of twenty-five "Heroes" of 2010.  The author of the article, a professor at Harvard University, writes, "What do neurologists, cattle, and McDonald's have in common?  They all owe a great deal to one woman...Temple Grandin….an extraordinary source of inspiration for autistic children, their parents—and all people."

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. Now her fascinating life, with all its challenges and successes has been brought to the screen. HBO has produced the full-length film Temple Grandin, which premiered on Saturday, February 6th on HBO. She has been featured on NPR (National Public Radio), major television programs, such as the BBC special "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow", ABC's Primetime Live, The Today Show, Larry King Live, 48 Hours and 20/20, and has been written about in many national publications, such as Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and New York Times..

The subject of autism has sparked the direction of this Blog entry. When I reflect on my own public school career as a learner, I cannot recall being in school with anyone who evidenced signs of autism. Similarly, I don't have any memories of people afflicted by any overt handicapping disabilities. Nor do I have any recollections of classmates with peanut allergies, aspergers, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or any other of the myriad conditions that have since been identifies as factors impacting learners and their environment.

I am sure that my memory is not bad, and I'm sure that there were children who experienced any number of these disabilities. However, they were often excluded from attending the typical neighborhood public school and instead sent to receive educational support at some specialized school providing services via specially trained staff members. That may be true to a large extent in terms of describing exclusionary practices, though I never did hear about any child with peanut allergies until ten or twelve years ago. Childhood diabetes also appears as a concern that has recently been elevated by virtue of increasing numbers.

Until the mid 1970's, when public law 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act - amended in 1997 as the IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was introduced as federal legislation, handicapped learners lacked sufficient support in advocacy as well as instructional practices and programs. Prior to that they did not enjoy the same rights to an education offered more fortunate learners. There are many different handicapping conditions identified and acknowledged that enable learners to receive assistance attendant to their disabilities (a wide range of learning, physical and emotional disabilities).

The passage of those legislative acts allowed children with special needs to be accommodated in the least restrictive educational environment. In nearly all cases, the least restrictive environment has become the local public school. This allows children to pursue their development in the same school setting as their neighbors and peers. That also means that, with approved testing modifications, handicapped learners now engage with the same state mandated tests as every other classmate.

We are testing far more learners than ever before. We are testing children who, if they evidenced the same needs thirty years ago, would not be subjected to the high stakes assessments of today. We are testing children of limited English proficiency in speaking and writing skills because they have recently emigrated to our country. We are testing almost everyone. Not only is that okay, but it is necessary to ensure progress and monitoring of the educational development of each individual.

However, lost among the chorus of critical comments about how poorly our public schools are performing "compared to when I went to school" is the fact that schools of today are very different than the schools of people who spout such accusations. We are testing all children, not just the children who are fortunate enough to not suffer from any of the disabilities covered by federal legislation. The pool of statistics for comparison purposes is not common across vast periods of time. Much has occurred between generations of learners that makes it extremely difficult to compare achievement standards.

Additionally, beyond the comparisons of performance there is another issue in which schools suffer from the same distorted judgment. I am speaking of cost analyzes between schools of today and schools from earlier time periods. The specialized programs and materials necessary to support instruction of disabled learners and those temporarily handicapped by language barriers all bear costs not borne by schools of years ago. As a result, when people examine the cost of schools or cost per learner, they conclude that we are spending much more than the past and receiving too little in return.

I am not complaining of the inclusion of all learners in testing programs, or of the cost of specialized programs and staff (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy...). Instead, I am complaining about people complaining about current school costs and school performance levels when using statistics that have been distorted by the introduction of mitigating efforts and expenditures since those "good old days" of comparison.

This comparison sounds like those that often form the basis of arguments among sports fans when they debate the calibre of current players and those from an earlier generation of competitors. How well would Babe Ruth hit against Roger Clemens? Could Whitey Ford strike out Alex Rodriguez" How many home runs would Mickey Mantle hit if he played today? It goes on and on in sports (Who's better Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan or LeBron James?) There is no way to truly and accurately compare different generations of athletes in the same sport due to many factors and differences separating time periods - training regimens, equipment, extensive travel, improved nutritional and medical attention, (performance enhancing drugs?) different arenas/stadiums and conditions (domed stadiums, artificial surfaces...)

On a final note, consider this - no matter how dire the present is, these days will someday in the not too distant future become the "good old days" of our misty memories - I guarantee it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

The Heatly School is a hybrid of sorts. It's an anomaly, small size in size but urban in environment. Normally small school districts are found in rural areas whereas cities boast large school systems. Although our soci-economic and racial demographics are more reflective of the statistics associated with many of the larger schools surrounding our district, the size of our district leaves us with much in common instructionally with our distant counterparts in the countryside beyond the capital region. We're a little of each and different from both.

I attended an interesting conference in Albany today sponsored by the New York State School Boards Association. It was entitled the Rural Schools Summit. The lure for me was the opportunity to connect with leaders of other small school districts who experience issues similar to those evident in Green Island. There were several intriguing presentations that proved informative. Sessions focused on the challenges of enrollment decline, decreased state aid to education, and maintaining the precarious staffing patterns necessary to meet the Regents guidelines with a small and dwindling number of high school teachers. In addition, there were discussions on shared services, school reorganizations and mergers; a representative from Cornell's Center for Rural Schools explained how to access and exploit supportive data to find a difference that makes a difference; attracting international learners in a systematic program designed to increase learner population and promote cultural diversity as a learning opportunity; the potential impact of the Regents Reform proposal as it relates to rural schools; and an open question forum seeking pressing issues facing rural schools across the state.

All of the learners in Green Island live within a short walk to the school so the problems of lengthy bus rides, particularly as they apply to possible mergers of small districts within expansive swaths of land, didn't apply to Heatly. The demographic homogeneity that may prove limiting to rural schools preparing learners for a world unlike their isolated and distant (think Adirondack region) small communities was also a source of difference that separated Heatly from the discussion. However, there were more than enough parallels to make the conference a rewarding experience. I left with new ideas, valuable resources and productive contacts with colleagues. I also left the conference with the revelation of how unique The Heatly School is when compared to other school districts.

However, the political and social topography appears familiar between Heatly and typical rural school systems. That is, the small schools, whether rural, suburban or urban, all appreciate and promote the depth of relationships and personal bonds that are characteristic of districts where enrollment is measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The sense of community and the connection between the school and village, town, or hamlet is one that is prized. On the other hand, there is a fear that the atmosphere of a small district may not expose young men and women to the experiences and challenges that may await them when they leave the community far behind for a more diverse and densely populated area. The curriculum offerings of smaller high schools suffer from the inability to operate on a scale that could financially justify the range of upper level courses (electives, Advance Placement classes, sophisticated math and science courses,...) for which very low percentages of learners qualify. This is especially during an economic crisis when support is lacking for classes that may contain only a handful of eligible learners.

It was definitely a worthwhile expenditure of time.

And, it's okay to be different.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rate Of Change, Speed Of Communication

This is a rambling Blog - with apologies if it strays away from anything on education and veers off a coherent path. I began writing without an ending in mind and little in between. It's a reflection on the present from someone intrigued about the projection of the future. That is, I think back to how things were when I was young and try to imagine how things will be when the learners at Heatly grow up. In this case, "things" refers to the rate of change around us and the speed at which information is communicated.

I suspect that I am not alone in trying to articulate the many different feelings that emerge from the news of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden. Certainly, there is relief associated with the elimination of the person considered by national security officials as our top terrorist threat, celebration that the surgical strike did not incur any casualties among the brave American men during the mission, and praise for those who planned and exercised this remarkable strategic effort. I wouldn't use sympathy to describe any feeling I have regarding the news of the successful raid on bin Laden's compound. Nor would I begin to imagine that this death will bring an end to the impact of terrorism. Rather, it's more like an end of a chapter, not an end of a story. I think that's why I am perplexed and confused about how I really feel. It's clearly good news, but that news is tempered by a belief that it doesn't bring promise of an end in the conflict. This battle with terrorists (not with a specific country or government or standing army) may very well be an ongoing struggle for years and years until it blends in as a normal part of life.

While bin Laden's death won't bring back the lives of the over three thousand victims of 9/11 it does affirm a degree of justice. Beyond the emotions and the questions (i.e. what did the Pakistani government know? how will terrorists respond now?...) I have found myself trying to perceive and experience this latest news through the eyes of someone much younger, with perhaps a far different vantage point and context.

This political and military victory offers some sense of accomplishment in a conflict that has dragged on for a decade. In other words, only a small percentage of the learners currently at were enrolled in school when the twin trade towers in New York City were reduced to rubble and entombed many innocent people. The dramatic figures of lost lives and the passage of time may have obscured the similar loss of life among passengers of the ill fated hijacked airline that went down in Pennsylvania that same day, or the victims of the crash into the Pentagon. That means most of the learners in our schools across the country are growing up without personally knowing what it was like without routinely hearing and reading about war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The permeable nature of communication and the lengthy reach of the ever-present media have combined to expose people to an incredible amount of news - to the point where the bombardment of information can seem like the multitude of snowflakes that separate a blizzard from a flurry. One of my favorite quotes regarding the diffusion of information was voiced by a high level government worker nearly thirty years ago (pre-Internet, social media, Twitter...) when he likened sorting through the flow of information to "drinking water from a fire hose." In addition to the barrage of news is the speed at which it's communicated. For instance, when an acquaintance of my son was recently killed while working as a photo-journalist covering the conflict in Libya, he learned of the man's death via Twitter just before it was announced on the television.

I can remember when there were only three television channels - and the television stations all stopped broadcasting shortly after midnight. Contrast that with 24 hour cable television, Internet,... There is no starting or ending point, it just keeps going and going and going. Now, news is shared amid an incredible number of options - on television, through the Internet, and in the pages of newspapers. Subjects like the bin Laden death compete each day with a rich menu of other stories, most notably the economy. The combination of a lengthy engagement spanning ten years now and the overwhelming sources of information has undoubtedly left youngsters in a vortex where one may drown not from the swirling whirlpool of water but a virtual tsunami of information. Yesterday's big news is soon thereafter replaced by today's big news in an onslaught of the senses with photographs, video streams, graphics, carnival barker-like talking heads on television, and too much more.

How will historians make sense of all this? What will future time-lines of history look like when reporting the many events crowded into the news of the world? How can one sort through the myriad sources of information (and misinformation) and interpret everything into some discernible format and narrative? How will future textbooks (or their inevitable replacements as a source of information) present a comprehensive explanation of the endless stream of information? What's most important? What gets left out? Will last night's news become forgotten in the future, squeezed out by many more features and stories of even greater significance?

The accelerated rate of change leaves nothing static. The environment is constantly changing in an organic, dynamic, and fluid fashion. I can recall how the nation changed so quickly when I was young. I was ten when JFK was assassinated; eleven when the advocates of civil rights marched in Selma; fifteen during the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the unrest at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; and sixteen when Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the lunar surface and hundreds of thousands left their imprint at Woodstock. Yet, I think that we presently live in times when one easily becomes dizzy from head-spinning rates of change. I believe that we have long ago lost the ability to control change and must now focus on our ability to adapt to change. That is perhaps the biggest difference between those of us over forty years old and those among us younger than forty. The difference in perspective is alarming. Success will belong to those who are most efficient and effective at sifting through the deluge of information with intellectual agility and determining what is really important and what makes a difference.

Just a thought.