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Monday, October 29, 2012

Small Businesses and Small School Districts

I met an old friend this weekend as I was shopping for some supplies to help my daughter prepare for the upcoming storm expected to strike the Northeast on Monday. He owns a small hardware store up in Washington County that features materials for farmers in that area. He has owned the store for many years. However, the future viability of his business is being threatened by the simultaneous challenge of contending with a weak economy and competing with a large national franchise store that recently located within a couple of miles of his shop and offers similar items for sale.

We talked about the issues we face - his small independent hardware store and my role as superintendent of a small public school district. Our competitors extend a broader array of products and services that are often more cost effective on a larger scale, which in turn means consumers can have greater choice at a reduced cost. That's a particular bonus during a weary economy. Neither of our operations are sustainable on cost alone.

That prompts us both to examine how we can differentiate our businesses from our competitors and add value to the customer. Ultimately, we have both invested in relationship management as the platform for survival. While the Big Box stores offer more choices at lower prices, the products and services are often pitched by inexperienced, part-time workers who are generalists in what they sell instead of specialists. Ever shop for a washing machine at a Big Box store and discover that the sales clerk is young enough that their only true experience with a washing machine is relying on mom to use it to wash their clothes? That doesn't necessarily instill confidence in what the clerk tells you about the washing machine when you are about to spend several hundred dollars on a purchase. Most times, they turn to a manual to explain the appliance.

In contrast, I noted that John knew the names of each customer who entered his store. These shoppers weren't buying something from a part-time employee who was fulfilling a job. Instead, they were buying something from John, a long-time acquaintance who they could count on for support through a relationship borne of trust, honesty, and reliability. He personally stands behind each transaction with his credibility as a guarantee. He takes time to engage customers in casual conversations that extend and enhance the relationship.

Another point of distinction that separates John from the Big Box store is his personal and sincere involvement in the community. He has served as a member of the Board of Education either with the local public school district or the regional BOCES, for over forty consecutive years. He cares about his neighbors and demonstrates his concern for the greater good of the community. He has been a long time sponsor of various not-for-profit youth groups. He is very aware of the needs and interests of the community and responds in a constructive manner whenever and wherever possible.

He's a determined man who has reduced his profit margin in the wake of the recession. He has ensured that his employees recognize the value of customer service relationships to fend off the presence of a giant competitor. Most of all, he is a man of integrity who is committed to doing what is right for others.

I suspect that he will continue to remain in business in the shadow of the Big Box store because of his personal qualities and because he has carved out a sustainable niche by nurturing relationships with each and every customer.

Our school district is not much different. We are too small to offer the breadth of curriculum and classes available at the much larger high schools in the area. But, we offer a depth of relationships between adults and learners that is extremely difficult for those larger schools to match. We believe that ultimately, relationships matter in education. The nature of interaction in a human service organization prioritizes care, compassion, and understanding as critical attributes and leverage points of differentiation between our small district and those much larger. Relationships are a prerequisite for creating success in learning.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Achievement AND Growth

A Comment on the Business First Ranking of Area Schools:

Monday afternoon a reporter from News Channel 13 visited our school to interview me about the Business First ranking of 84 area schools. The ratings of schools are based strictly on three different achievement factors: 10% of the ranking is based on the graduation rate over the last 4 years; 50% of the ranking is based on state regents exa
m scores over the last 4 years; and 40% is based on the Math and ELA scores in grades 4-8 over the last 4 years. Heatly was ranked 80th of the 84 school districts.

The level of performance portrayed in the ranking is unacceptable. However, 4 years ago (when Business First began collecting data for this report) our school system was identified by the state as a “school in need of improvement.” Since then, the combination of learners, parents, and staff members working together have lifted the school above the standards to the point we have been designated a “school in good standing.” Our improvement is not reflected in this ranking.

It’s interesting that Business First published their findings based on achievement measures alone, because the State Education Department and the governing Board of Regents have determined that the new evaluation system for public schools and teachers across the state is based on growth as well as achievement. Last year was the first year using this "growth" format in grades 4-8.

Instead of a focus on achievement as a singular gauge of performance of teachers and learners, the state has adopted a sophisticated program of evaluation that identifies how much each individual has grown during the course of a school year. This system recognizes that all learners do not arrive at the starting line (Kindergarten, or the first day of school each year) with the same learning experiences, opportunities, or resources. Instead, the new evaluation system uses a specific testing format designed to measure the progress of each individual as they advance year to year. It’s no longer enough to simply identify where the learner is at the end of the year, but to examine how much they have grown over the course of the year.

The New York State Education Department reviewed test data from every public school with grades 4-8 and determined that Heatly received the ranking of “effective” for the rate of growth demonstrated by the learners. This is the second highest rating a school can receive. So, as you can see, achievement tells a very different story than growth because it does not reveal the impact a particular teacher (or school) has on the learners in their class (or school).

This notice is not meant as an excuse, but rather, an explanation. We have been involved in efforts to improve our achievement levels and overall effectiveness. We have increased our efficiency by coordinating professional growth activities with the state curriculum and assessments. Our staff is focused on providing opportunities for all learners. Our rating by the state this year as an "effective" school is proof of our progress and growth.

Dr. Mugits

Monday, October 22, 2012

Superintendent 3.0

The last school year began with flood that sent water seeping into the building, and ended with the community approving a 12.47% tax levy increase and the state department of education according our school district the status of an "effective school district" rating three years after the school system was identified as a "school in need of improvement."

It was certainly a year of benchmarks and experiences.

That brings us to another new school year. This is my third year as the superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District. Today is October 22, 2012 and I have struggled to produce Blog entries on a regular basis, after posting daily during the previous two years.

There may be several reasons for the dearth of Blog posts. Among the explanations: the well is running dry - after over 300 postings it becomes more difficult to offer fresh perspectives; time is a limited commodity that is rapidly consumed by other needs and challenges. However, the chief obstacle likely causing the reduction is the increasing frustration I have encountered while contending with the breadth and depth of state change initiatives mandates imposed on public school districts across the state of New York. Not only are these requirements draining in terms of energy, they are exhausting my reservoir of resiliency in terms of logic and context.

First, let me express my support for the intent of the changes. These measures, such as the Annual Professional Performance Review (and all the acronyms encumbered within the APPR), are aimed in the proper direction to precipitate improvement in public school achievement levels, and, in the case of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), promote a sensitive response to the need to develop and sustain a safe and accommodating climate in school buildings. But, my lament is derived from my opinion that there are too many changes at the same time. It is overwhelming. It has prompted anxiety levels among educators that approaches the point that provokes a counterproductive response among those charged with implementing the policies and practices.

I would hope that there is no opposition to the Dignity for All Students Act ( And, because I believe that learners will be more productive when they are assured treatment with dignity and respect by those sharing the school environment, it would be appropriate to present this significant policy mandate first and with full attention. There is a great deal of awareness and training of staff and learners expected for DASA to become an integral part of the school culture. Additionally, because offenses are reportable to the state, there is a considerable amount of paperwork and administration involved in the process.

Only after DASA is successfully enacted in all schools for an entire school year, should the state embark on the next critical piece of legislation, that being the APPR ( Unfortunately, the compelling and simultaneous mandates compete for the vital resources of time and training - both elements requiring money at a time of economic scarcity across the state. Research on the subject of organizational/institutional change would reveal that competing major change initiatives are apt to dilute success rates regarding implementation.

Who can argue against improving achievement levels in our schools since education represents such a tremendous investemnt in the future of our society? I clearly support well designed proposals seeking to leverage increased success rates in public schools. Yet, tomorrow I will attend my third conference and training session associated with APPR in the last four days of school! Similarly, for all the testing that is invoked on our learnners, there is a cost in instructional time - a resource that has not expanded in years. I was recently in texas for a funeral and during the brief visit I interacted with former colleagues who are presently exposed to the same demands for more frequent tests that we are in New York. One person summed matters up with the following assertion: "All of the weighing of the hog doesn't change the quality of the bacon."

I feel my energy is depleted at a physical, emotional, and psychological level. I wouldn't be surprised if the end of this school year finds a higher percentage of superintendents retiring than the average number over the last few years. I wrote an essay last year titled, APPR leads superintendents to AARP (American Association for Retired Persons).

Perhaps, after wrestling with the puzzling nuances of the state required APPR format in a race to submit a plan for approval to avoid a threatened loss of state aid, and incorporating the requirements for DASA, (and completing the detailed BEDS - Basic Education Data - i.e. how many computers are in the school?, how many books in the library?...) I will be able to resurrect a stronger sense of purpose and meaning and regain my writing voice with more frequent Blog entries.