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Friday, September 30, 2011

Open House Opened Up

The attendance of parents at this year's series of Open House events at The Heatly School increased by approximately 50% compared to figures from last year. That difference can be viewed as an indicator of progress toward a goal of constructing a bridge between home and school in an effort to engage parents as partners in education.

Hopefully, the upsurge in parents visiting the school can be attributed to renewed interest in the people, programs, and practices that have evolved over the last year. Maybe the higher numbers reflect higher levels of support and commitment. Maybe television programs on those nights were just unappealing or re-runs. More than likely it was a combination of the above AND because of the staff members who went the extra mile and personally called parents and extended invitations to attend Open House. The refreshments were well received (I volunteered to taste test several cookies to make sure they were good enough for the public - it's a sacrifice I make for the good of the school!!) The door prizes didn't hurt either. Nor did the form and direction of the opening remarks and presentation by the building administrators. Not only was there a clear focus but the set-up in the gymnasium was much more welcoming and conducive to an accommodating spirit.

Hopefully, we can take advantage of the momentum fueled by the success of Open House this year and build a platform for future interactions by nurturing the relationship with parents. Maintaining a bridge between home and school constructed on communication, mutual respect, and trust is critical. We have expanded our formal communication apparatus to include our quarterly newsletters in print, a continuously updated district website, School News Notifier, Facebook, this daily Blog, and now - Twitter. Together they represent a comprehensive system for reaching out to parents to bring them into the school.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Digging Education

Imagine closing school for two days on short notice so learners in 7th to 12th grade could assist in the harvest of the potato crop. That's what the learners of that age range were expected to do when the Governor of the Tov Aimag (state) in Mongolia declared a potato emergency approximately two weeks ago. Talk about community service!

The school where my son teaches English as a Peace Corps volunteer was empty of secondary level learners as a result of that decree. The climate of Mongolia provides a very short growing season and the potato is a staple of the Mongolian diet. Most of the crops are tubers or root vegetables like carrots and turnips. The threat of impending cold weather prompted the action. In retrospect, it proved to be a wise decision since it snowed four inches last night in Bayanchanmandi, the small village of 2,500 where my son lives as the only American in town.

His Facebook posts and emails serve to remind me how fortunate we are. There is a sharp contrast between his own educational experience as a young learner in America and that of the children he serves in Mongolia. There are so many opportunities and experiences we take for granted - and often whine about when things don't go exactly to our liking. There are no buses transporting children to school. Many of the 700 learners walk to and from school in distances measured in miles (the mercury dips well below zero there during a winter that far exceeds ours in length). That certainly reflects a desire to learn. The conditions at the school built by the Soviets a few decades ago, (outhouses, lack of equipment and technology) pale in comparison to typical public school in our country.

Yet attendance and commitment is high among the learners. The behavior of learners toward staff members is respectful and supportive. My son reports that the learners in his classes are eager and enthusiastic to study English. Their clothes and expressions reveal the influence of our culture stretching deep into rural Asia. The learners appear to clearly understand that education offers the potential for social and economic mobility and a brighter future. There does not seem to be a prevailing sense of entitlement and school is not viewed as something one must endure. Instead the learners perceive education as a privilege and opportunity.

They don't just dig potatoes, they dig education too.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

So...What Do We Do? (a follow-up)

Last night's Blog post entry lamented the lethargic pace and misdirected path of reforming public schools in America.

Not one to be content merely with raising concerns, I will offer proposed solutions. These suggestions are fueled by my professional experience and greatly influenced by the thought provoking words of Mary Cullinane, Director of Innovation, US Partners of Learning of the Microsoft Corporation, who delivered the closing remarks at the Fall Institute of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

1. Move from a static, predetermined, outdated and not entirely relevant curriculum to an engaging, timely, dynamic, and fluid scope and sequence of skills and knowledge.

2. Use readily available data to personalize the path of instruction for each learner. Exploit technology to collect, store, and retrieve data with efficiency and effectiveness to tailor the rate of coverage to the individual. This represents a move from differentiate instruction, which tends to sort learners into temporary skill/work groups, to an individualized course of instruction.

3. If we adopt and sustain personalized instructional paths then the next obstacle is the archaic model of 180 days per year from September to June school calendar that recognizes seat time more than it reflects a commitment to continuous progress. Time is the currency of learning metrics.

4. Mary Cullinane referred to her personal experience as a former high school History teacher responsible for teaching a class on current events - while required to use a school adopted textbook that was three years old! Content is not static, learning is not experienced in isolation whereby subject matters do not interact. That is, disciplines are interconnected and knowledge is organic and constantly growing. Reliance on textbooks, even those less than three years old, still falls short of constructing a relevant and meaningful context in a world which is dominated by 24 hour 7 day a week access to information.

5. Along with the confines of a 180 day school year that stretches from September through June, we also experience the restriction of a methodical and predictable plodding from one grade level to another. This point is clearly related to the issue of seat time. Learning needs to become more mobile. Progress should be measured in mastery of curriculum free of the bounds of time. We have learners who could conceivably take the state regents exam on the first day of school and pass the test - yet they must endure the required seat time accumulated over the 180 days of school rather than submit evidence of mastery and move forward in the curriculum.

6. One of the more interesting points I extracted from the presentation by the Microsoft representative yesterday regarded the subject of video games. Certainly, this is a subject Microsoft is well versed in. The average failure rate in video games has been pegged at 80%. That is staggering, yet gamers play on. How long would a learner in a classroom sustain their interest and commitment if they encountered a similar 80% rate of failure????   

Consider the context of video games. The player selects one that is interesting. The game level at first is fairly easy and gradually becomes more complex and difficult. There's immediate feedback and consequences for choices and decisions made by the player. The learning is mobile in the sense that the player selects his/her personal environment in which to play. The player progresses at his/her own pace. Finally, there are built in rewards for accomplishments - chiefly advancing to an even more daunting performance level of the game.

The challenge for the school is to replicate as many of these conditions as possible to promote the success of the individual.

Something to think about as we explore our future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tried And Tried And Tried ...And Tired!

Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Albert Einstein

I believe there are few people who are not critical of some aspect of public school education. I say this despite many years of data collected through the annual Gallup Poll that reveals over and over that the public is more than satisfied with their local school (usually grading the school with a "B" rating) than they are of public schools across the nation (usually grading other schools with a "C" rating, or lower).
Given the overall perception that public schools are under-performing and not meeting potential - what can be done, by whom, when, and where? Missing from the equation in this series of questions is the "why" of education reform. Among the primary stumbling blocks in education reform efforts is the fact that most of us have experienced 13 years of public school. That lengthy experience leaves us a victim of a combination of familiarity and nostalgia (selective retention) that prevents us from imagining and exploring alternative perspectives.

Someone once claimed that if parents and teachers were given the chance to change education they would simply reinvent the school they attended. It often appears that those who have their hands on the levers that influence schools arrived at that status through success in schools and would therefore feel far less inclined to alter the orientation of schools than those who have been victimized by the shortcomings of the traditional educational paradigm.

Why else have we clung to a long outdated agrarian based school calendar formed so farm families can help with the crops? Why are we teaching American History in high school in the same forty minute blocks of time that we did fifty years ago - before the JFK and MLK and RFK assassinations, Viet Nam war, the Nixon resignation, Moon landing, civil rights marches, Gulf wars, 9-11, recession,...? How can we spend the same amount of time studying Science when the field of Science doubles in content every four or five years?

I listened to a very informative presentation this morning delivered by an education specialist with Microsoft. She likened our national efforts at reforming education to the same well intentioned but deceptive practice that many people indulge when deciding to lose weight. They join a gym after an earnest New year's resolution, pay monthly fees, buy new work-out clothes, attend classes regularly - then erratically, then infrequently, and then they lose interest and resolve.... and nothing changes. We have experienced an illusion of action and a facade of commitment. The structure changes, but the system remains the same.

In education we conjure up new acronyms (RTTT; APPR; RtI; CCC...) and create "innovative programs" in a rather elaborate sleight of hand but as long as the calendar and clock remain the same, as long as teachers work privately in cubicles shared with 25 learners, as long as ill conceived mandates and confining policies and misdirected accountability shackle innovation, as long as content and coverage rule over relevance and rigor, as long as success is measured in seat-time as one plods patiently through school grade by grade - not much will change. 

We need a revolution of liberating ideas and opportunities not a lethargic evolution of tired practices and programs. Where is the free enterprise and market-place of ideas necessary to stimulate an otherwise over-regulated industry of teaching and learning? Why the clamor on the national level for freeing businesses of restrictive bureaucratic red-tape to spur the economy while vigorously clamping down on the creativity and experimentation needed to provoke genuine innovation in education? How can you speak of job creation and economic engines without talking about education?

Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Albert Einstein

Monday, September 26, 2011

Schools Versus Prisons

The title of this Blog entry might strike the reader as an odd combination of institutions. I have to admit, for me it has a bit of a humorous ring to it, but the subject is poignant and thought provoking.

First, I'll dispense with the humor. I attended Jefferson Elementary School in Rotterdam, New York many years ago. At that time the school was divided into two separate buildings across the street from each other. Fifth and sixth grades occupied the older brick building, sans gymnasium or cafeteria, so we had to walk across the road for physical education and lunch. Not long after I graduated from high school, the district sold the old building and it was converted into the Rotterdam Police Department and Jail. Years later, on a trip back east from our home in Texas, I toured my hometown with my son and daughter. Along the way I pointed to the Police Station/Jail and explained how I spent two years in that building. Their silence indicated that they were a little puzzled about my past - until I gave them the history of the building as my former elementary school.

Now the serious part. I have been attending the convention of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. This morning's featured speaker was Dr. John King, the Commissioner of Education for the State of New York. He presented updated information on the many different challenges facing school districts across the state. As he provided the rather grim juxtaposition of higher standards at a time when resources have become scarce during economic decline, he shared a story attributed to a principal in Michigan. King reported that the principal had apparently sent a personal letter to the governor of Michigan requesting that the state executive declare the principal's school to be a prison.

That's right; the principal wanted the school to be designated as a prison! The administrator's reasoning was sound, but tongue in cheek. His plea stated that his school receives $10,000 in state aid for each learner while the state spends $40,000 each year for each prisoner. He added that the prisoners receive free and full health care, immediate access to health care, and three square meals each day - all benefits that elude most of the learners attending the school where the principal serves as leader.

Yes, he was being sarcastic and displaying a heavy dose of irony - but the contrast in support is both startling and thought provoking. Among the most significant common denominator among prisoners in penal systems throughout the country is the lack of education. Spending $40,000 per prisoner and $10,000 per learner certainly appears to be a case of a pound of cure instead of an ounce of prevention. Investing in education is clearly not a panacea, but the return on investment is far greater than the expense of maintaining an expansive and growing prison population.

Think about it...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just Say Thanks!

I am making a request. Actually, I'm asking you to do two things. Three, really.

First, please read the article I have copied and pasted from a National Public Radio news feature that was aired on the radio today.

Second, listen to the audio of the article explaining the National Teacher Initiative.

Third, I want you to reflect on your own experience as a learner and identify a teacher who made a positive and constructive influence on your life. Then, use available Internet search engines and the like to seek out that teacher and find a way to contact that teacher to thank him or her.

Neurosurgeon Gives Thanks To His Science Teacher

Enlarge StoryCorps After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki.
After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki.
After a patient told neurosurgeon Lee Buono to thank the teacher who inspired him, he called up Al Siedlecki.
September 25, 2011
As a middle-school student in the '80s, Lee Buono stayed after school one day to remove the brain and spinal cord from a frog. He did such a good job that his science teacher told him he might be a neurosurgeon someday.
That's exactly what Buono did.
StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative
The National Teachers Initiative is a project of StoryCorps, the American oral history project. Each month this school year, Weekend Edition Sunday will celebrate stories of public school teachers across the country.
Years later, a patient with a tumor came to see Buono. The growth was benign, but interfered with the patient's speech. "He can get some words out," Buono recalls, "but it's almost unintelligible. It's almost like someone's sewing your mouth closed."
"I'm talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation," he continues. "They started asking me about myself." They asked Buono who inspired him to become a surgeon, and he told them about his old teacher, Al Siedlecki, back at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, N.J.
Surgery was a success. The patient's powers of speech returned. "He's just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me," Buono says. "You make sure you call that teacher," the patient said. "You make sure you thank him."
So Buono did.
"I picked the phone up and you go, 'Hey, it's Lee Buono,'" Siedlecki says to his former student. "'Lee, what's goin' on man? I haven't heard from you since you were in high school,'" he said.
"'I want to thank you,'" Buono replied.
"I was flabbergasted," Siedlecki says. "I said, 'Of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me?'
"It was the same feeling I had when ... when my kids were born," Siedlecki says. "I started to cry. It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you."
Lately, Siedlecki admits, "I almost am afraid to say that I'm a teacher to some people."
Not anymore, he tells Buono, "because you called me. I'm a teacher, and I'm going to help as many people as I can to find their passion too."
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Brian Reed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Between Here and There

Manhattan, Kansas is located approximately 1,300 miles west of Green Island, New York. Camerino, Italy is situated nearly 4,400 miles east of Green Island, New York. From Manhattan, Kansas to Camerino, Italy is almost 5,700 miles. Those two endpoints represent the farthest distance traveled by learners who enrolled in our school district during the summer break. We have two sisters from Kansas and a foreign exchange student from Italy joining us in Green Island.
Our enrollment has increased slightly compared to last year after accounting for those who have become residents of the village and those who have relocated from Green Island. We have added 18 learners at the elementary level and 9 at the secondary level. We welcome the newest members of our learning community and pledge ourselves to successfully assimilate them into the school culture.
In addition to the distance that separates these learners, there are differences as well. That can also be said about any group of learners in any classroom. General ability levels range across a spectrum in any classroom. A typical fourth grade room, for instance, may have any many different skill levels as children. Even if two members of the class tested out at the same Reading level, there would still be variance in performance levels among the many specific skills that comprise the subject of Reading. One learner may be high in comprehension and low in vocabulary, while the other may score at opposite levels - leaving them with very similar overall achievement levels.

Appropriately attending to the unique and individual needs of all learners in a class requires a teacher to be adept at diagnosing skill levels and subsequently prescribing instructional strategies designed to extend the child's learning. Flexible, skill oriented grouping that adapts to the content and coverage of concepts in the curriculum, where configurations of learners are periodically adjusted based on teaching the specific skill to learners deficient at that particular skill, and enables teachers to better accommodate the different learners that compose the class. Using data to inform instructional decisions, agility in planning lessons, versatility in delivering alternative instructional methods, and adaptability in organizing for instruction represent key attributes necessary for differentiating instruction and accommodating all learners within a class.

This challenge places the teacher in a role similar to that of an orchestra conductor. The conductor is responsible for working with many different musicians and instruments, from tuba to piccolo, and exercising the perception and insight to know how and when each instrument can contribute to the piece of music without disrupting their colleagues. Harmony results from the effective and efficient coordination of varying skills among the many different members of the orchestra. It's certainly not an easy task. However, respecting and accommodating different learners - whether stretching to reach all achievement levels, or stretching to incorporate children from thousands of miles away - is the basis for operating an organizational culture based on relationships.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dollars Or Differences

I encountered a bit of serendipity when I discovered a quote of interest as I was searching for another quote from the same person, former television anchorman Tom Brokaw. His words grabbed hold of me and reaffirmed my decision to enter the career of public school leadership. Brokaw said, "It's easy to make a buck. It's a lot tougher to make a difference."

I am one of seven offspring born to a family headed by two adults who chose to end their formal education after tenth grade. The absence of high school diplomas severely limited the opportunity for my parents to provide the means to support such a large brood. Growing up impoverished could understandably have served as the impetus to lunge forward at any and every chance to make as much money as possible to render poverty a distant memory.

My oldest sister and I both followed our goals and chased our dreams by making the commitment of effort and energy necessary to meet admissions guidelines for college. She earned the distinction of a National Merit Scholarship and the expansive possibilities that await someone of that academic status. I experienced good fortune in school and, together with my ability on the soccer field, was invited to attend a long list of colleges. Each of us was in a position to select from a vast menu of prospective futures. Her talents in science, particularly for a female at that point in time, presented a financially rewarding career in a wide open field - science research, chemical engineering, medicine, university level teaching,... My interest in the social sciences prompted admission counselors and advisers to recommend law, government, foreign service, political science public policy, and other areas as a potential landing zone for a profession.

While both of us were confronted by rather lucrative possibilities, neither of us wavered from our decisions to invest ourselves in the education arena. After all, we arrived at that point in college where we had enticing and financially rewarding careers at our calling because we were recipients and beneficiaries of caring teachers who extended us empathy, understanding and encouragement - beyond their capacity to impart valuable knowledge and skills. Collectively, those staff members fed our dreams and supported out hopes. They were among the few who looked beyond the reality of problems slowly suffocating our family, and the confining stereotypes cast upon us by other staff members, and instead perceived the possibilities and opportunities that could unfold through our potential.

So, the decision to enter teaching was not a difficult choice or a regretful option. We wanted to serve as bridges for others who grew up like us - kids who were frustrated, inhibited by low expectations, and otherwise resigned to suffer within the firm grasp of hopelessness and helplessness. In short, we were far more compelled to make a difference than make a dollar.

We have both been rewarded over and over in untold sums of satisfaction and priceless amounts of personal pride. Neither of us would ever imagine going back in time and altering our path.

In the grips of the present economic crisis that plagues our region, state, and country it would be plausible for current graduates to follow the money to jobs presenting high salaries and substantial benefits. But, in my opinion, if we are to relieve ourselves as a nation of the burden of problems that now appear so overwhelming, the solutions will more likely be created by people who are determined to make a difference than by those who are primarily motivated by making money. I recognize I may be simplistic and I'm not inviting a lengthy debate on the long list of other factors that brought us to the brink of disaster, but think about it - wasn't the "me first" personal greed that inflated Wall Street coffers (and individual wallets) and the "hollow house built of cards" real estate boom and the insatiable "right now" consumer appetite for instant credit beyond our means - the fuel that greatly contributed to the present crisis?

Dollars or Difference?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Apart And Together

I normally do not generate Blog post entries during the school day. There's very little uninterrupted time available to sit down and contemplate a subject or issue during a typical school day full of people and activities. However, I made the time this morning when two separate incidents occurred within a couple of hours of each other that produced an epiphany of sorts - and the decision to make the time to sequester myself in the office to create this Blog entry.

Early this morning, while I was watching television and using exercise equipment at home, there was a commercial touting the benefits of wireless service in your home. This feature enables family members to access cable TV and the Internet from any area of the house. There was an image of dad watching football on cable in the living room, mom shopping on-line via the Internet in another room, and kids in their respective bedrooms playing video games or listening to music. There are clearly advantages to having connections like that throughout the home so everyone has access to information and entertainment, but the images reminded me of how inviting it can be for each individual in a family to retreat to separate rooms and, even though they may enjoy their experiences, live separate lives.

We now have a menu of over 100 television channels; the means of electronically connecting with virtually anyone anywhere via email, Skype or cell phone; selecting merchandise from thousands of options at huge food markets and mega malls; and many, many other opportunities to exercise choices. The focus on individual choices (it echoes the Burger King commercial - "Have it your way!") may at some point promote independence and empowerment, but it also can also serve as a barrier as well.

Former television newscaster Tom Brokaw once reflected poignantly on the impact of technology. I will paraphrase his message. "We now have the means of instantly connecting to people half way around the world, but many of us know little about the people around our neighborhood."  

Those words remained with me as I drove to school. It was an amazing coincidence to find that today's schedule at school included a "Morning Program" for the elementary grades. This is a new opportunity at school this year. The elementary staff developed an activity to offer at the start of the day on Mondays and Fridays to focus attention on togetherness and community. Parents and community members are invited in as all of the elementary learners assemble in the gymnasium to recite the pledge of allegiance, hear announcements, acknowledge birthdays, share good news, learn about the day's weather, and experience time together.

I inserted myself into the program during announcements and spoke of the effect the wireless commercial had on me. Then, as I looked around the gymnasium at all of the elementary learners and a number of parents who invested their time in attending the event, I reiterated the importance of the Morning Program and the need to share information and work together. It was a great opportunity to contrast the wireless commercial and the real need we all have to foster a sense of community. I ended by suggesting that many of the problems that plague our world can only be successfully addressed by people banding together and cooperatively creating solutions.

In fact, the National Department of Labor once asserted that the number one reason that people lose their jobs (outside of a terrible and depressing economy) is the "inability to get along with others." There is no better reason to justify our Morning Program at a time when too many schools hold out hope that the most effective method of improving achievement levels is to spend every available minute of the school day with learners devoted to preparing for tests. The Heatly School is preparing children for tests - but more than academic tests - we are preparing them for a world beset by issues that require social skills, cooperation and creativity to find fair and equitable solutions.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Superintendent Version 2.0

The start of my second school year as superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District sure feels different than that initial day in the role twelve months ago. I am now familiar with the myriad amount of state reports and other responsibilities of the office that had previously been unknown to me, despite the many years I had worked as a building principal with superintendents. That beneath the surface list of duties proved to be full of surprises!

I also have a far better understanding of the nuances of the organizational culture - the "way we do things around here." That knowledge, together with the relationships that I've formed in the last year, will offer valuable assistance as I enter the second year of service.

I am convinced that our school district can sustain improvement and subsequently stretch our performance levels with the people we have on staff. Increasing achievement is not a matter of hiring new staff members or purchasing new materials as much as it is about framing a new attitude in the district. That path begins with clarity regarding our mission and a guiding vision. Our direction cannot be vague. Words and terms like - most, maybe, try, the best we can,... restrict possibilities rather than facilitate progress. Some is not a number, soon is not a time. We have to pledge ourselves to preparing all graduates for college, career, and citizenship. We have to commit to that target each and every day leading up to graduation. 

The vehicle for pursuing our mission rests on our fidelity to the 6 C's we addressed when the staff met on the day before school opened: Clarity; Communication; Collaboration; Commitment; Compassion; and Consistency.

The learners looked a little taller and a little older as they walked up the sidewalk on opening day. I was informed by one 7th grader that I looked a bit older but not an inch taller (Oh well). They represented all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors. The common denominator among them is that their faces are a reminder of our purpose. There is an individual story behind each expression. We should not do anything that robs any of them of their hopes and dreams. We must extend respect and dignity for all; stimulate a desire to learn relevant knowledge, skills, and work habits; provide meaningful and timely feedback on their learning experiences; expend as much energy and effort as we expect them to exercise; and successfully assimilate them into a community of learners.

That's what we need to do. Now, here's what I believe that I need to do as an individual.

I must work with our school board of education to reach a fair and equitable accord with each of our bargaining units in a manner that supports a collaborative school culture and appropriately balances compensation with the resources of the community.

I must orchestrate our resources to effectively and efficiently promote higher levels of performance by:

1. fostering dreams and sustaining hope for all members of our learning community.
2. simultaneously promoting organizational goals of the district and individual goals of staff members - permitting each individual to exploit unique skills and professional discretion, while remaining oriented to the overarching goals of the district.
3. incorporating a new assessment program called NWEA (developed by the Northwest Education Association) that is a growth oriented adaptive assessment for learners in Kindergarten through 10th grade, administered three times each year in Math, Language, and Reading, that identifies individual instructional levels and skill bands that inform the instructional decision of our teachers.
4. ensuring that our staff has the conditions, training, and support necessary to meet the demanding challenges of state learning standards.
5. examining possibilities before they become obvious or necessary - explore the creation of a school-to-work internship program that presents real life work experiences for our seniors as they begin the transition from school to careers and colleges; evaluate the prospects of providing college level classes in our high school beyond the existing foreign language oriented University in the Classroom program; determine if our master schedule can be adapted to allow seniors the opportunity to attend local college classes in the afternoon hours of the normal school schedule; and finally, make every effort to look "around corners and over horizons" for experiences that could benefit our learners.
6. successfully integrating various state mandates such as the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) in a process that does not distract us from our pursuit of the district's mission.

I need to provide and preserve a bridge between the school district and the community by:

1. promoting constructive interactions between the school district and our community.
2. regularly communicating our work and progress to those outside of our school.
3. making a convincing case that we are an investment worthy of the financial resources of our taxpayers.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

September Reboot

One of the really refreshing aspects of working in public school education is the calendar. I don't mean having the summer off for a vacation because I have worked year round as a school administrator for 35 years now. No, what I am referring to is the fact that our school calendar has a definite beginning as well as a defined end point. There's a clear start and a definite end to the year as opposed to many private sector work roles in organizations where the weeks follow each other continuously in an endless flow only interrupted when a worker goes on vacation. Those calendars are never ending.

In contrast, the rhythm of working from a universal start (although the "back to school sales" seem to arrive earlier each summer) and common winter holiday vacations, a shared February break and a traditional Spring break, all the way through to those hot days approaching the end of June combine to create a familiar cadence. This means that every September births a new beginning and all of the hope and optimism that emerges from a fresh start. It's the promise and prospect of starting anew that offers me inspiration and optimism. Another year, another opportunity, another group of wide-eyed five year old children populating Kindergarten class with all of the future about to unfold with every turn of the calendar. The imagination can run wild in an attempt to think of what intriguing possibilities await these little boys and girls when they grow up in a world that experiences change at an accelerated pace with astounding innovations.

We will be working diligently to invent our own future at the Heatly School, for every learner, one day at a time.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Here We Go - A Summary of the Opening Day Speech To The Staff

Dear Staff Members,

Here’s a written summary of the presentation delivered Tuesday as a welcoming address.

The exercise involving the sand and rocks was intended to explain how difficult it can be to effectively engage with the essential leverage points in an organization when it is distracted by issues that are important but not urgent, and issues that are urgent but not important. The theme is related to the subject of our last session together in June – The Valley and the Ambulance – which expressed the potential waste of time and resources spent on responding to a problem with treatments by calling forth ambulances instead of initiating preventative measures like building a fence that prevents people from going over the cliff in the first place. It’s a matter of focus and strategy.

Each of the six rocks used in the demonstration represented a critical - urgent and important - focal point for us as we move forward.

1. Clarity: Defining our meaning and purpose is a necessary first step in promoting success. Our mission is, “Every student will graduate prepared for college, career and citizenship.” Central to that pursuit is the path of fostering dreams and sustaining hope.
2. Communication: Communication often connects people in the same way that mortar links bricks to form a firm foundation to support structures. Communication between and among stakeholders is critical to success in any human service enterprise. If we do not communicate with parents we are not valuing their contribution as a partner in education. We need to make regular, accurate, and timely use of EdLine as a vehicle to offer progress oriented data to parents. We need to make Open House a profitable experience by articulating the goals, expectations, and opportunities for our area of responsibility. This will allow parents to better understand and support our efforts. We must also recognize that academic success is dependent on communication between staff members if we expect to have an operational curriculum with effective scope, sequence, and integration for our curriculum.
3. Collaboration: Collaboration emerges from communication. In order to cooperate we must be able to interact constructively with each other. Our mission must be clear to form common goals and shared meaning. The sand we used in our demonstration with the rocks is a substance that slips through your hands with ease yet, when packed together inside a bag sand is strong enough to prevent flood waters from pouring inside the building and damaging the school. People banding together can project the same effect – strength and resolve.
4. Compassion: Teaching and learning is inherently an intensive human dynamic. As such, relationships usually form the fulcrum point separating success and failure. While we can “know” a learner on the basis of objective data and measurements, we really don’t “know” the individual until we care about them and imagine walking in their shoes for a while. Empathy and understanding are related to the degree of genuine interest we extend to others. We should always treat our learners as we would want our own sons and daughters to be treated. Why should our expectations be any different? The Golden Rule comes to mind.
5. Commitment: We are all, directly or indirectly, experiencing the frustration borne of political gridlock in Washington D.C. The virtual refusal of either party to extend accommodations has ground progress and solutions to a halt. No one really wins in an environment where parties are fundamentally retrenched and inflexible. There is a strong possibility that everyone loses when people become more vested in their side “winning” than in arriving at an elegant solution of mutual benefit and best alternatives. Regardless of what our individual roles are here, we must all pledge ourselves to creating and sustaining a positive learning community that fosters dreams and sustains hope.
6. Consistency: The conceptual distance between what we say and what we do is very revealing to others. Longfellow’s famous quote applies – “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” Our policies and practices must be consistent in operation. While differentiated instruction that accommodates learner variability is an appropriate response to the needs of learners, variance between teachers in classrooms responsible for the same learners (policies on homework, grading,…) can lead to confusion and frustration among learners struggling to meet guidelines that differ from class to class.

The state’s education law embedded in the APPR regulations has taken the high stakes pressure that has hovered over the learners and plunked it down on the desks of the teachers as well. If nothing else, we can now feel the impact from a different perspective regarding assessment, weights of measurement, and the potential consequences of not meeting rigid requirements.

We have evidenced measures of Adequate Yearly Progress at all areas. That’s a significant improvement from being designated as a School In Need of Improvement. By incorporating the 6 C’s referenced above in the operation of our school, and by adopting a position of being pro-active instead of defensive and reactive (i.e. the Valley and the Ambulance) we can remain a small school with BIG ideas and meet with increased performance levels.



Thursday, September 8, 2011

Supporting Your School - A New Definition, A New Standard

School spirit can be measured in many different forms. Usually, when one thinks about school spirit they conjure up images of enthusiastic teens cheering on sports teams, displaying pride in their school, supporting various school events and generally spreading good will among members of the school community. However, several teenagers at the Heatly School have redefined the term and established new standards of performance levels associated with demonstrating a genuine investment in their school that goes well beyond cheering and celebrating activities.

The following high school learners generously contributed their energy and effort toward sandbagging the school on August 28th during the recent flood of the Hudson River in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Adriana Brown 
Chiars Fedeli (a foreign exchange student from Italy who arrive only two days before the flood)
Melissa Heffern
Laura Strizzi
Elijah Legault
Nate Miller
Brittany Charette
David Gagne

They gave new meaning to the term "preparing for the opening day of school." I want to extend my personal thanks to these fine young men and women who exhibited extraordinary commitment to their school! Their sense of duty and achievement does not end at helping to preserve the school. They are all active and productive participants in school activities. I am proud to serve as their superintendent.

Here's a link to a Wall Street Journal article on the community effort. The reporter's family is from Troy and they somehow learned about our plight and contacted their son who reached us for a news story.

I apologize if I have missed any other students who were engaged in this special project. The people assembled arrived out of the blue by word of mouth or Facebook postings. The urgency of the work prevented me from taking an opportunity to make an accurate accounting of all workers. People simply showed up, asked how they could assist, rolled up their sleeves, grabbed shovels and bags and went to work. This collectively genuine act of civic responsibility and community dedication reminds me of the definition I once heard of character - "true character is revealed by what you do and how you act when nobody is looking." Once pizza was consumed after finishing the work, people departed as casually as they had arrived. They just pitched in and did was needed to be done and went off without fanfare.

Thank you!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rain, Rain Go Away!

A steady rain was not enough to dampen the spirits of the 320 learners as they made their way along the sidewalk and up the steps of the school this morning to start another school calendar. It was either their enthusiasm that fended off the effect of the rain, or the fact that today's downpour paled in comparison to what we experienced ten days ago when flood waters of the Hudson threatened the school. I guess we are all getting used to the rain. Oh well.

Speaking of the Hudson River, Heatly is beginning a new course in the high school this year. The subject of the new curriculum is a comprehensive examination of the Hudson River from a broad perspective that embraces the history, geography, transportation, commerce, literature, science and politics of this famous American tributary. Since Heatly is located along the edge of the river it seems appropriate that we use it as the basis of a new elective course that will serve to expand learning opportunities in our high school. The class can be selected as either a History or an English credit because the units of study will provide learning experiences in both domains.

Naturally, when we decided to bring the river into the classroom we only intended to do so on a conceptual and intellectual level, although the river itself nearly entered the building on a very real level a week and a half ago. We want the class to offer an up close, in depth look at the importance of the river, without the river pouring in their classroom.

The addition of this class is another step toward increasing instructional experiences for our learners in an effort to provide them a more robust curriculum that will better prepare them for the future. We have also added on-line classes from a menu of over 100 different high school courses. In this manner we hope to strengthen the ability of our graduates to compete for a seat in the college of their choice. Our goal is to become more competitive with other schools in the region. This year we will explore the possibility of presenting a school-to-work internship program for 2012-13 as well as college level classes in high school. Despite being a small school we maintain BIG ideas for the future.

Friday, September 2, 2011

First Day of School - In Mongolia

As we near the first day of another school year in Green Island, I thought I'd share a picture of young learners awaiting the opening of the school doors on their first day of school in Mongolia. My son is a Peace Corps volunteer who has been assigned to a two year long position teaching English to learners and staff at a school of 700 in a small village in Mongolia. I really like the expression on the little boy in the foreground. His outfit is formal, his look reflects a mixture of anxious anticipation.

Our first day will be markedly different. There, the first day resembles a field day atmosphere involving wrestling for the boys and archery for the girls. In Green Island, the only wrestling will be between learners and their new schedules.

I am hoping that our school will be able and interested in becoming a partner with this school is an electronic exchange that could offer cultural experiences between the two groups. We have been using Skype to communicate with our son and will explore the opportunity to use that form of communication to connect interested parties within the two schools.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I'd like to start off this year's Blog with a post acknowledging the fantastic community-wide effort undertaken by countless volunteers last Sunday afternoon/evening to defend the school building from the flood waters of the Hudson River that runs along the school property. It's a tribute to the dedicated residents of all ages who combined to produce a protective barrier that prevented damage to the school.
If you looked up the term “sandbagging” in Wikipedia you will find numerous definitions, all of which are negative in connotation.
Sandbagging may refer to:
·         Deceiving someone by pretending to be weak.
·         Sandbagging (racing) a driver deliberately drag races or qualifies slower than what the car can actually perform
·         Sandbagging (budgeting), a manager deliberately overstates financial requirements with the intent of coming in under-budget, thus being praised.
·         Sandbagging (golfing), a player deliberately plays poorly until establishing a handicap and then raises his money bets, using the established handicap to unfairly win
However, I can assure you that the sandbagging efforts of the many volunteers that assembled at a moment’s notice in the rear of our school building on Sunday afternoon and evening were valiant and productive. Upwards of 75 people formed a spontaneous work group that shoveled sand, bagged it, tied the bags, and placed the bags over tarps located at strategic points in an effort to ward off the very real threat of the raging flood waters of the Hudson River. The volunteers worked with members of the local Department of Public Works and our custodial staff to defend the school from potential floodwaters. There were people of all ages joined together in support of the community and school. At one point, as I filled another bag of sand, I noticed it was being held by our newest student, Chiara Fedeli, a foreign exchange student who had just arrived from Italy two days before the flood.
Everything happened so quickly and with such urgency that I did not make a list of all of the volunteers. For that, I apologize because all of my fellow sandbaggers deserve a great thank you well beyond the 100 slices of pizza that was consumed once we finished the project.
Despite the parking lot being covered by over a foot of water on Monday, the only entry of water into the school was limited to seepage beneath rear doors and exterior vents. That was subsequently cleaned up by our hard working custodians - Anthony Lazzaro, Joe Simpson, Jason Sedgwick and Dan Brannigan.  They put in long hours both Sunday and Monday battling the prospects of a flooded building. We are now ready for the opening of school.
I would like to thank Mayor Ellen McNulty-Ryan, Sean Ward, Mike McNulty, and the DPW crew for coordinating the response as well as their significant contributions of information, time and energy. Finally, I want to especially thank Bill DeCianni, who not only generously provided his time as a volunteer but also personally brought materials and supplies that were essential to the prevention efforts.
This is an important reminder of the impact that can be generated by a group of dedicated individuals acting as a team.  It is also a tremendous reflection of commitment and support that is genuinely appreciated by members of our school community.
Dr. Michael Mugits, Superintendent