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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dignity and Respect

Our secondary level learners in grades 7-12 received information on the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) this morning in an assembly featuring an individual who has visited many area schools to inform people of the various elements embedded within the upcoming state-wide law that takes effect this July 1, 2012.

Here's a summary of DASA provided by the state department of education:

This legislation amended State Education Law by creating a new Article 2 – Dignity for All Students.  The Dignity Act also amended Section 801-a of New York State Education Law regarding instruction in civility, citizenship, and character education by expanding the concepts of tolerance, respect for others and dignity to include: an awareness and sensitivity in the relations of people, including but not limited to, different races, weights, national origins, ethnic groups, religions, religious practices, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identity, and sexes. The Dignity Act further amended Section 2801 of the Education Law by requiring Boards of Education to include language addressing The Dignity Act in their codes of conduct.

Our Board of Education will be reviewing and developing policies required under this new law. Similarly, our student handbook will include guidelines and details of the law to comply with the DASA.

It's an interesting reflection on our society in general that a law has to be passed to promote people to treat others with respect and dignity. I may be an idealist, and I'm certainly too old to be naive, but whatever happened to just following the Golden Rule of treating others the same way you wish to be treated?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New Vision of Teaching?

Sometimes what is reasonable and what is practical collide at the intersection of reality and perception. The results can often be ugly.

So it is when one ponders the current state of public education, replete with depleting resources and complete with competing interests. School budgets have been slashed with programs and personnel dwindling to the point where some schools barely hover above minimum state required curricula and courses. Charter schools, operating unencumbered from many confining state mandates while benefiting from public funding, continue to expand.

The pace and scope of imposed change has left many occupied with survival tactics rather than sustaining visions of the schools of tomorrow. The present threatens to obscure the future. There is an old saying that goes something like this, "When you're up to your rear end in alligators, it's hard to remember that your job is to drain the pool."

Now let's turn to a vision of the future of education that was recently developed and shared at the national level. It's very impressive, if not realistic. Here's the link to the full story. A summary appears below the link (along with my personal thoughts are parenthetical and in boldface).

The shared vision focuses on three main goals, which include ensuring all students are challenged to meet a high bar that prepares them for college, career, and citizenship; narrowing the opportunity and access gap between more and less privileged populations of students; and, preparing all students to be globally competitive. Seven core principles make up the elements of achieving these goals. They include-
  • A culture of shared responsibility and leadership; (see imposed laws/statues such as NCLB, or, in NY, the APPR)
  • Recruiting top talent into schools prepared for success; (with all of the budget cuts many schools cannot hire new staff, some haven't hired for a couple of years)
  • Continuous growth and professional development; (much of professional development is designed purely to conform to state/federally imposed requirements)
  • Effective teachers and principals; (as measured by complicated, burdensome systems of accountability that are more mechanical than inspirational)
  • A professional career continuum with competitive compensation; (according to recent national surveys teacher morale is lower than it has been in years)
  • Conditions that support successful teaching and learning; (accountability systems that promote standardization and teaching for the test) and
  • Engaged communities (media reports would lead one to suspect that some communities are as enraged as they are engaged)
Something to think about!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Where Did the Money Go?

A reporter and photographer from the Albany Times Union visited the school today to prepare a story on one of the many peculiarities within the entangled financial web of state aid to public schools in New York. The same newspaper had already published an article a couple of weeks ago explaining how the much ballyhooed "2% tax cap" was first, not a tax cap but a tax levy cap, and second, the dramatic impact that a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) could have on the state's formula for districts to calculate their allowable tax levy cap for voting purposes. Our permissible tax levy cap turned out to be 13.946 due to the loss of funding ($348,080) in the local power authority's annual contribution in lieu of taxes. We eventually proposed a 12.47% increase that was subsequently approved by 58% of those casting votes on the budget.

Today's story involved the potential and future impact of a Green Island resident sharing in a mega millions lottery prize last year. Each year, when you file your state income tax you are required to identify the school district in which you live. this allows the state to determine the aggregate income wealth in the respective school districts. This total, combined with the sum of the assessed property value within the boundaries of the school district, produce a measure of the particular community's ability to generate revenue in support of the school. the higher the index, called the CWR (Combined Wealth Ratio) is then used in the formula to allocate funds from the state. The lower the district's CWR, the higher the rate of state aid distributed to the district.

The good fortune of the local winner (he received a prize of 28.9 million dollars before taxes) left our district vulnerable to a drop in future state aid since his winnings represented an increase in our aggregate income of nearly 70% - without elevating the socio-economic level of our district. That is, our collective income reflects a community unlike our actual socio-economic level. We still have the same poverty rate as before, the same percentage of children eligible for free/reduced lunch, the same of everything. All that's changed is the total amount of income and the average income - not the median income. Accordingly, the state would dispense far less aid to our school on the basis that in a strictly mathematical calculation we are far more affluent than before, whereas in a conceptual and practical analysis, we are exactly the same in terms of our needs.

I stated earlier that this is a potential and future problem we face. Since the state aid to education formula is frozen during the ongoing fiscal crisis the impact of this financial windfall will likely be delayed, if and when the freeze on the formula thaws. We are hoping in the mean time for appropriate intervention by the legislature (we contacted both of our local representatives and apprised them of the issue and asked for their help in mitigating this possible disaster) and/or the state department of education.

I'm sure many have asked themselves, before buying a lottery ticket, "What are the odds of me winning?" Similarly, we have asked, "What are the odds of the smallest town in the state (0.7 square miles) having a resident hit one of the biggest lottery prizes ever awarded in the state?"

I hope the article, expected to be included in the upcoming Sunday edition of the paper, will bring attention to an awkward and devastating problem facing our school district in the future.

Our greater hope is that the state lawmakers will eventually display the courage to ensure a more equitable distribution in state aid to education, as directed by the successful litigation brought on by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Such an action would require lawmakers to become more concerned with what is right instead of who is right. The children who would benefit by the equity are neither democrats nor republicans. They are all worthy of our investment in their future.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wanted: School Managers; Leaders Need Not Apply

The title of this Blog post could very well be the title of a job advertisement submitted by the New York State Department of Education in a newspaper in the near future. The more regulations that spew out in the form of Student learning Objectives, Annual Professional Performance Review, mandated testing programs that infringe on direct instruction,... the less value there is in leadership.

Thirty-five years as a practitioner of educational leadership at all levels of schooling - elementary, middle school, and high school before assuming a district wide position of influence - has afforded me a keen vantage point on exercising the responsibility for creating and sustaining a productive environment for teaching and learning. That insight convinces me that creativity and innovation shrink in perspective when measured against the heightened worth placed on filling out forms, counting units of this and that, and following state imposed requirements. Education is appearing to resemble a paint-by-numbers experience more and more each year.

It is a depressing scenario playing out in public schools across the country. The rush to standardize and the interest in uniformity subsequently places a premium on homogenized schools, no matter the distinct differences that separate one school from another. Demographics of economic levels and race aside, all schools must follow the same rules. There is precious little opportunity to explore and exploit qualities of program and practice as they apply to the unique properties of a school. Inhibitions increase as high stakes pressure leaves administrators risk aversive.

The more meetings I attend to learn about the latest state mandates, the more I am concerned about the direction that public school education is taking. I am reminded of the title and sub title of one of my favorite books, written by Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus, Leaders: Mangers Do Things Right, Leaders Do the Right Things. Management, that is, doing things right, is not beneficial if what is being done is not the right thing to do.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Crying A River

There will be enough tears shed tomorrow in a particular school district in the region that a new river could evolve. A very sad experience that played out over the last week ended in tragedy Thursday afternoon when the body of a young man who had been missing during a camp-out was discovered lifeless in the Hudson River. An autopsy revealed his death was attributed to asphyxia due to drowning resulting from a Grand Mal Seizure Disorder. He apparently suffered a seizure and fell into the water as he was searching for wood for the campfire.

I met the young man a dozen years ago when he enrolled in first grade at the elementary school I served as principal. A handful of years later he would receive a certificate from me at a ceremony marking the transition from the elementary school to the junior-senior high school. In between, he evidenced all of the enthusiasm, curiosity, and spirit of his classmates. He was well liked and readily accepted by his peers. He was scheduled to graduate from high school next month. He attended the senior class trip to Disney World in Florida just last month. He was on the threshold of his adult life.

It's a time in life meant for young men and women about to celebrate the conclusion of a shared thirteen year journey to rejoice in the known and project in the unknown. It's a time of optimism and excitement, when they prepare to invent their futures. Soon after the graduation speeches end, all in their own way speaking of promise and prospect, hope and tomorrows, they will embark on different paths diverging from common classrooms and years measured in 180 days calibrated by bells at regular intervals. Some will scatter as they continue their education in college campuses strewn across the map. Some will report to work assignments in various fields of employment. Some will enlist in different branches of the armed services. All of them will pledge to reunite and recall their pasts in a reunion sometime in the years ahead. No matter where they go, they would be someplace. But, no one expected any of them to be in a coffin before the pomp and circumstance played to announce their graduation procession.

My prayers and thoughts go out to his family. It will be a painfully emotional experience at the wake tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Small School District, BIG Increase

I hadn't been superintendent at Green Island very long before the term, "A small school with BIG ideas" emerged as the most descriptive phrase to breathe life into our mission and meaning. However, there has been no better affirmation of the value of those words than what happened today. The residents of Green Island, despite the pressure of a weak and weary economy, approved one of the largest tax levy increases (12.47%) in the entire state with a 58% to 42% tally. It was truly a case of a small school district with a big budget increase.

The support we received is certainly not taken for granted. Rather, it is incumbent upon our staff to consistently demonstrate that the community investment is a worthy use of valuable resources. We must pledge to sustain our progress and continue to earn the support of those we serve.

The passage of our budget is a relief, but the economic stress on public schools will extend beyond this coming school year. That's why it's essential that we maintain our focus and stretch to meet higher performance expectations as we nurture the dreams and hopes of learners at all stages and ages.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Different Tests

Our high school learners recently participated in an interesting experience that had nothing to do directly with preparing for the state tests, but everything to do with preparing for a potential test that really matters, particularly as we neared the annual Junior Prom. Let me explain.

At a time when state assessments approach and anxiety begins to build within public schools across New York, our high school learners were divided up into two different groups and sent on a field trip to Ed Frank's Choices 301 program in Altamont, New York. I've copied a message in italics from the program's website to explain their mission and purpose:

Program Goals
To raise awareness in both our youth and adults regarding the importance of safe driving-- use of seat and lap belts, observance of proper speed limits, and especially the need for abstinence of alcohol and other drugs when operating motor vehicles.

Choices 301 Inc.
The Choices 301, Inc. program focuses on the dangers of Driving While Intoxicated (DWl), Aggressive/Extreme Driving and the crashes, injuries and deaths which can and do result from one poor choice or bad decision.
The program takes a multi-faceted approach aimed at educating the public about the realities and dangers of DWl, aggressive and extreme driving behavior and the failure to utilize the proper passenger restraint devices in motor vehicles.

Although our learners are not asked on state tests to respond to questions about peer pressure, decision making within a social and emotional context, or the many sources of distraction impacting motor vehicle operators, they will likely find themselves confronted by such factors outside of school at critical junctures in their life. When that "test" of self-discipline, moral courage, and will power arrives, we want our learners to be aware of the possible consequences to their decisions. We consider this an appropriate investment in the future. It represents a significant test of their "mettle" may very well be more important than the state's test of their "medal" (as in, what level of achievement did each individual perform at on a 4 point rubric for the exam).

The combination of an increase in state-wide tests and the decrease in available funding for public schools has placed schools in the unenviable position of cutting staff and narrowing the curriculum. Many schools have felt the potent effect of dwindling financial resources and jettisoned teachers in electives, like Art, Music, Business and many other areas not covered by the reaches of a state imposed test of Math, English Language Arts, History or Science. The curriculum has narrowed and the assessments have widened. This direction holds the potential for negative and long term consequences regarding the prospect and promise of a broad base of knowledge, creativity, and higher order thinking skills, just to name a few.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wait,...What Was That?

Every once in a while I come across an article so poignant and moving that I opt to share it here in hope that the piece receives the attention it deserves. I don't know who to attribute it to, but the message it contains and the thoughts it provokes are worthy or our attention.

A man sat at a metro station Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Let's not create and sustain a school environment that becomes so focused on tests and standardized curricula confined to a lock-step progression that our children end up as indifferent to the world around them as these people who couldn't or wouldn't make the time to appreciate a source of unique beauty and wonderment. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Teacher Appreciation

Today marks the beginning of Teacher Appreciation Week. There shouldn't have to be a week designated for acknowledging the positive and constructive impact that many teachers have had on countless learners everywhere. Not a day passes without someone someplace benefiting from the influence, dedication, and support of a teacher.

Let me share a reflection from someone I know very well.

His favorite teacher was never an instructor who stood before him in any classroom. He never received a grade from his pen, nor a check on his daily roster. The school he attended was large enough that he passed through the curriculum without formally interacting with this individual of distinction. Yet, the teacher's contribution echoes throughout his life to this day.

Trauma and drama were compulsive companions throughout his childhood. It was a time bereft of dreams and burgeoning with nightmares. Suffice it to say, it was an emotional gauntlet at home, with school providing him a welcome refuge from the residue of poverty and abuse.

One day his mother decided to escape the burden of shepherding seven children through their childhood amid a turbulent marriage and violent environment. Her overdose was enough to confine her to a hospital room for several days, the first of which offered no indication of life or death as an outcome. Nonetheless, following evening visits to her hospital room, the boy would go to school each morning without notifying anyone outside of his apartment of the incident.

A teacher approached him in the hallway between classes as he passed by his room and asked the boy how he was doing in school. The student responded with a nondescript, "okay." That reply apparently wasn't enough. The teacher led him into his classroom and inquired further. The teacher was not deterred by the boy's defensive answers designed to deflect attention. Finally, the teacher intimated that a relative of his was a nurse in the local hospital. He went on to explain that while there was no intent to divulge confidentiality, the nurse became aware that the boy was lacking counseling and felt she should reach out to the teacher to prompt support. At that point, the boy collapsed and sighed like a punctured tire suddenly losing air.

He assured the boy that he had not told anyone because he respected that the youngster had not volunteered any information to anyone on the staff of the school. In addition to the stigma associated with suicide and mental health issues many years ago, the boy couldn't imagine that anyone would care about his plight. The teacher simply stated that he was just checking in on the boy's status and reminded him where his room was in the event the boy wanted to take a time-out or talk to someone. They chatted briefly, but the teacher's action spoke volumes more than spoken words.

That teacher will likely never know how much his investment of time and compassion meant to the boy. The kind gesture by a teacher who was not responsible for any part of the boy's formal schooling was invaluable. Each time I recall that personal revelation, shared to me years later by the man who grew out of that boy, it reinforces an adage I came across years afterward and applied regularly to my experiences in education:

"People don't care about what you know until they know you care."

Great teachers consistently demonstrate sincere care and compassion, and wield those attributes beyond what can be measured by a GPA or displayed on a diploma. Take a moment to reach out and express gratitude to a teacher who made a difference in your life.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Burden of Responsibility

Tonight’s Blog will begin with a brief look at a cliché and then proceed to an old and controversial study on stress. Both of these subjects converged as I worked on the budget over the weekend. The cliché is one that has echoed in many homes where parents face the challenge of rearing children. The research was rightfully criticized on an ethical level due to the pain inflicted on the animal subjects participating in the study.

First the cliché:  I have never subscribed to the apologetic-like exclamation, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" that some people assert prior to delivering bad news or administering punishment. Surely, one would hope that the parent winces from the need to discipline a child because it represents a bad choice or action on the part of the child to warrant negative reinforcement. While there might be some residual emotional or psychological “hurt” (or regret and guilt) for the disappointed parent, the child is the recipient of the punishment and likely incurs more of the hurt than the parent.

Now for the study:
Brady’s executive monkeys (1958). Extracted from the following website:
Brady yoked two monkeys together and administered electric shocks every 20 seconds for six-hour periods. One of the monkeys, the ‘executive,’ was able to press a lever that delayed the shocks for 20 seconds. However, it was unable to stop all shocks.
Many of the ‘executives’ died of stomach ulcers.
Brady concluded it was the stress of being in control that had caused the ulcers. It couldn’t have been the shocks per se since the other monkey got the same number of shocks to its feet but didn’t get ulcers.
(Please note: while I hold an executive position and more than a few people think superintendents act like monkeys, in this experiment the term executive monkey refers to the monkey’s role as the one in charge of the lever mitigating shocks)
I had to deliver the prospect of unfortunate news to anxious teachers on the day prior to a contract language imposed deadline for notifying staff members who may possibly be impacted by budget reductions. Although we have constructed a budget that does not include any such reductions, the potential for a defeated budget vote would precipitate lay-offs since we have exhausted nearly every other avenue for cuts besides personnel. Upon entering my office, each person appeared to be struck with the realization of what the meeting was about.
I haven’t slept well at all the last few weeks as we navigated through the turbulent financial white-water wreaking havoc on our budget, and ultimately on the staff and learners of our school district. The burden of responsibility for trying to exercise any and all measures to avoid personnel cuts has proven to be substantial, but I can't complain. It doesn’t begin to approach the shock and effect that these teachers experienced. Several of the teachers are the age of my own daughter (a teacher in another district) and I thought about how I’d feel if she was receiving news like this.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the teachers to hear my explanation about the inequity of the state formula used to distribute funds to public schools in New York, the sharp decrease in federal dollars, and the significant loss of local revenue from the local Power Plant. Anything I said after identifying the percentage of reduction to their position (no position was eliminated) was probably lost on the individual, swept away by fears emerging from the impact.
I felt terrible. I wish I could’ve averted the need to inform people of such depressing news but the weary economy and constrictions imposed by the state government and department of education have prompted this unfortunate exchange between superintendent and staff members to be replicated throughout nearly every school district in the state.

On May 15th we will await the outcome of the vote and discover whether any of these possible reductions will be required to be implemented. Until then, my suffering as the bearer of bad news will continue to pale in comparison to those who may have their dreams put on hold due to a confluence of financial problems beyond their control. I am hopeful that the support of the community will prevail during this difficult economy and we will resume our pursuit of excellence with an intact staff.