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Friday, March 21, 2014

The Calendar Versus Reality

The persistent but subtle rays of sunshine that have penetrated the wispy cloud cover seep through the large window behind me and peer over my shoulder as I type this brief Blog entry. It's March 21st. Accordingly, it's Spring. Yet it's not the calendar that will signal the change of seasons but something else more meaningful and majestic.

The calendar factually declares that Spring has arrived, yet it's begging to have the page turned from March to April in a merciful plea for warmer weather. Winter in upstate New York has ignored the meaning of dates and the official introduction of Spring this year. Snow lingers along the side of roads in heaps that have too slowly diminished in size and gradually turned from white to brown from the splatter of sand distributed on the roads to defend against the ice. Even the most patient and understanding of citizens of the Empire State have been rendered anxiety-filled as Winter remains relentless in it's grip. Today was no exception, with temperatures this morning in the low twenties and made more troublesome with steady winds that breathed a damp, cold air into any crevice it could find in coats or houses.

I turn toward the window and look, not expecting to find what I want, compelled by hope more than anything else. No. No sign of them.

There are three bald eagles that have seasonal habitats much like New Yorker's who have grown weary and opt to live in the sunshine of Florida or South Carolina for the long winter months. While freezing temperatures slowly form a thick crust of ice that coats the Hudson River twenty-five feet behind our school building from December through February, the eagles seek the vantage point of their nests a quarter mile upriver by the hydroelectric dam that supplies the Green Island Power Authority with electricity. From their perch there they can maintain access to the fish in the area at the base of the falls that escapes the formation of ice by virtue of the constant churning of water. That source of food provides the magnificent and regal birds with sustenance during the harsh Winter months with a steady diet of fish.

Although the ice that recently covered the Hudson like an ill-fitted wig has been broken up into stubborn ice flows that resemble jagged pieces of a giant puzzle, it has not been perceived as welcoming enough for the eagles to return to their warm weather nest at the edge of Center Island, a small slip of land that sits in the middle of the river that separates the city of Troy from the village of Green Island.

Ah, when I can spot the eagles in their nest high above the water at the fringe of the mature stand of trees that climb above the floor of the island, then I can relax and be confident that Spring has finally, and really, arrived. Shortly thereafter I can take the stairs to the roof of our school and be at the same height as the eagles and watch them, hoping to catch them in flight as they soar through the sky and suddenly dive down to pounce on unsuspecting fish in a series of movements that offer an aerial ballet that few people have an opportunity to witness.

Until then, we can only bundle up, be resolute, and endure the last vestiges of Old Man Winter.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Testing 1,2,3...

Think back to your school experiences between Kindergarten and high school graduation.

What is your best memory during those years in school?

Is it solely academically related? For example, the day you won the spelling bee after all those hours of studying? Or, is it a socially or emotionally based memory, as in the great big smile your teacher displayed when you won the spelling bee, or the high fives from your classmates after the spelling bee victory?

I strongly suspect that most of readily recall those experiences that involve relationships and interactions, not periodic tables or multiplication tables. That's why I'm concerned about the present and prevailing environment in public schools that are pressed and stressed to prepare children for fill-in-the-bubble tests that bear the weight of stringent assessments under the guise of accountability.

While it may be seem counter-intuitive to the layperson for schools to invest valuable school time in recess and the arts to prepare for high stakes tests in English Language Arts and Math, I think it's counter-productive to devote disproportionately high amounts of time to those two subjects in an effort to produce higher achievement levels on those assessments. The value ascribed to those two subject areas dwarf and diminish the worth of all other subject matter, especially the arts, as well as periods considered non-academic, like recess and lunch. Think of the phrase - "You measure what you treasure." Are we reducing the focus of schools, especially at the elementary level, to all things Math and ELA?

In a related issue, the ongoing fiscal crisis that imperils public schools has caused reductions in programs and personnel. It's not uncommon to read of school districts that have been confronted with decreased revenues and tax levy caps that precipitate required budget cuts in instructional programs. All too often, these cuts are in electives at the high school level, non-mandated programs throughout the school system, and subject matter that is not tested by the state. The Arts and Physical Education are frequent victims of such decision making.

While daydreaming recently, I thought of how interesting it would be if instead of testing the knowledge of learners on the fill-in-the-bubble assessments (how much higher order thinking can we expect in questions reduced to multiple choice questions?) we instead ask the learners to be inventive and take the sheet of bubbles and create something out of it? For instance, we'd probably get some terrific leopards and giraffes from our second graders. Imagine what the seventh graders could come up with.

I once worked in a school district that tested prospective candidates for the gifted and talented program by giving them a sheet of paper that was blank except for a single, fairly small object that appeared in the middle of the paper. They were asked to create something using the object in their composition. It wasn't a question of their artistic talent but rather how creative they were, and how they could extrapolate from that single object and produce something.

Another memory I have about testing took place when I was an elementary principal in Texas serving a school with a large Spanish speaking population. The required state tests were significant challenges to children who spoke English as their second language. In one test, the children in third grade were presented with a paragraph about a little mouse who lived in an area between the walls of a house. The test instructions directed children to imagine they were the mouse and describe what they saw when they looked out of the mouse hole. One child followed the directions and explained in English that his mouse was named Jose and then he proceeded to write everything that followed in Spanish. He was not awarded any credit for his answer because it was in Spanish and it was an English Language Arts exam. Think about that for a moment. He responded appropriately to the directions and was quite creative but it was all for naught. I'm sure that if his work was translated it would be as expressive and descriptive as his English speaking peers. However, the test was not eliciting or examining creative thought but simply grammar, spelling, punctuation....

The acquisition of skills and knowledge are fundamental platforms for future cognitive endeavors and success in disciplines, but significant advances and innovations emerge as much or more from creativity and imagination. Einstein suggested that imagination is more powerful than knowledge - and that's from someone who was a giant intellect!

I am hopeful that the current philosophy on testing and accountability becomes tempered by reason and discounted by reality.



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Where Are You Going?

I experienced several philosophy classes in college and attended a summer-long institute at Harvard on educational philosophy. I also enjoy reading inspiring quotes that can serve as a guide along life's journey. That said, I often find myself referring to the great author Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) for advice.

Here's a quote from his book, Oh, The Places You'll Go.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy
who'll decide where to go.

Our school does not, and should not, tell our learners what path they could or should take in life. Instead, our purpose is focused on equipping them with the knowledge, skills and experiences that will assist them in whatever direction their journey takes. We must promote the conditions and opportunities for our learners, at all stages and ages, to sustain their dreams and nurture their hopes throughout their time with us.

Few can accurately forecast the future, whether it's measured in years or decades. Who knew thirty years ago that we would be able to immediately connect with others thousands of miles away via the Internet, or use phones (hand held phones no less) to capture immediate pictures of life events and send them on to others, or access incredible amounts of information from vast resources on the world wide web? I didn't (or else I would be routinely having lunch with people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet).

Instead of streamlining graduates toward specific fields of study or occupations, we have to help them construct the vehicle they need to travel to their personal goals in a rapidly changing world where 20% of the jobs of today did not even exist in the marketplace of ten years ago. I would ask any adult who has been in the workforce for more than ten years to examine their current responsibilities and determine how much they have changed in that time period due to technology or other innovations and practices.

The task of preparing learners requires a broad array of skills and experiences that should not be limited by a curriculum suffering from inadequate financial support at the state and federal levels, or a curriculum narrowed by special interest groups (near and far) or corporations intent on defining learning experiences that reflect a politically motivated focus. Most importantly, schools must prepare graduates to be life-long learners, since the world of work will continue to change at an accelerated pace across a globe that has become more and more interdependent.

Where are you going?

The Alternative Veterans Exemption

The Alternative Veterans Exemption is among the new laws that recently introduced in New York State. This amendment to the existing Real Property Tax Law "grants school districts the authority to exempt a portion of the taxable assessed value of the primary residence of certain veterans. The exemption provides a reduction in the assessed value of a qualifying property, dependent on the nature of the veteran's service and the local law adopted by the school district." (the language is copied from a document provided by our legal counsel clarifying the law). County, city, town and village governments had already been faced with this decision years before and it was now being extended to school districts.

While there are a few other qualifiers and options, the thrust of the legislation offers the school Board of Education the opportunity to act on the proposal, either rejecting, affirming, or rejecting the issue with a plan for future discussion. The exemption involves a 15% exemption, not to exceed $12,000 (or the product of $12,000 multiplied by the latest state equalization rate for the assessing unit) to qualifying veterans (i.e. veterans who were on active duty during a period of war). Veterans who served in combat zones may receive an additional 10%, not to exceed $8,000. veterans that sustained service related disabilities are also eligible for a percentage exemption equal to one-half of their disability rating received by the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense, up to $40,000.

This was a peculiarly challenging issue. On one hand, denial of the exemption by any school board could very well be perceived by their constituents as un-patriotic at a time when men and women in the American armed forces remain in harms way across the globe. On the other hand, approving the exemption would subsequently displace whatever amount that was exempted onto the shoulders of those local taxpayers who are not exempted. In other words, since the tax levy would remain the same, the amount decreased by the veterans exemption would be transferred as a commensurate increase for all other taxpayers in the school district - at a time when schools across the state continue to face economic peril exacerbated by the Governor's proposal to sustain the withholding of promised aid to public schools in the form of the infamous, Gap Elimination Adjustment. So, any increase would rest on top of the tax bills of those taxpayers who will be asked to vote on any additional school budget increase on the May 20th annual budget vote. That's certainly a risk that districts would be flirting with in May as their operating budgets unfold for voters.

Informal surveys revealed that the vast majority of school boards opted to deny the exemption with qualifiers and an intent to review the proposal after they've had more time to analyze the potential financial effects. That is a difficult task when any district serves several towns or villages within the borders of the school district, especially since the towns may not have been consistent in their respective votes on the exemption themselves.

I recommended that our Board of Education approve the exemption and include the provision accommodating "Gold Star parents" (parents who have lost a son or daughter in the line of duty). My recommendation was based on our estimation of the impact, which would amount to a 1.1% exemption that would be transferred to all those taxpayers not qualifying for the exemption. Yes, it would be an increase for non-exempt taxpayers on top of whatever increase we project for our budget for the 2014-15 school year. Yes, that increase could therefore endanger our ability to secure an affirmative vote by the public on May 20th, which would place our district in an extremely difficult position. That would be a risk, but isn't every member of our armed forces taking a bigger risk when they serve in our defense in a combat zone? Visit a Veterans Administration hospital or speak with a Gold Star parent and ask them.

The proposal was unanimously adopted by our Board. I cannot speak for the individual Board members but I can explain why I recommended the exemption. We have the ability to vote on our school budgets, political representatives and many other issues, and the freedom to express ourselves and enjoy the benefits of a great democracy because of the sacrifices men and women in uniform have made to preserve these rights and more. It's been said that 1% of our population serves to protect the freedoms of the other 99%. I don't want to think or believe that our school budget will be defeated because the majority of voters are upset or unwilling to bear the 1.1% cost of those who have served during time of war - and those veterans who have paid significant or ultimate costs in body and spirit.

We'll see on May 20th.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Adversity and Cooperation

This Blog entry continues with the theme this week of Read Across America, an important focus on reading and a tribute to Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel).

The first quote is from the Dr. Seuss book, I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollow.

I learned their are troubles
of more than one kind.
Some come from ahead
and some come from behind.
But I've bought a big bat.
I'm all ready, you see.
Now my troubles are going
to have troubles with me!

I'm certainly not advocating for "might makes right" or any aggressive response to anyone in opposition with an idea or opinion I might have. Instead, I would substitute the bat for truth, facts, and what's right. Public schools have had to endure a relentless economic attack in New York in the form of what's referred to as the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA).

When the state was confronted by a budget deficit the governor and legislature turned to the state aid for public schools to make up the deficit in what was expressed as a one-time dip into funds intended to support public schools across the state. Hence the term, Gap Elimination Adjustment. That one-time reach into the cookie jar continues to this day. In that time, our small school district has been deprived of over 1,600,000 dollars that were expected to be distributed to our system. Despite significant staff and program cuts, the community had to absorb the loss through successive annual tax increases to prevent further reductions and eliminations. In district after district, community after community, taxpayers have experienced a shift in the percentage of revenues from the state's responsibility (less) to the local taxpayer (more).

Our Governor is now boasting of a two billion dollar surplus, yet we are still being strangled by the Gap Elimination Adjustment that was designed to bridge a deficit in the state budget. I guess we are supposed to be happy that instead of losing $357,603 through the GEA, we are only losing $336,184. Wow, we lose $21,419 less than we were scheduled to lose. I can assure you we are not jumping for joy...

I am hopeful, like all other superintendents and school board members, that "right" will prevail. That is, if there's no deficit then there should be no need for the GEA. I am hopeful that enough people, voters and legislators, will see the truth and understand the facts and the state aid will be restored so public schools can enhance instruction and promote the hopes and dreams of learners everywhere.

But, this effort will more likely succeed if there is coordination and cooperation among school districts instead of competition for scarce resources in times of economic peril. That brings me to another Dr. Seuss quote, this time from his book, The Lorax:

Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It's not.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Planting Seeds, Growing Hope

As we enter the third month of 2014, businesses of all types and sizes continue to sustain operations while struggling with a strangulating economy that has endured for nearly six years now. Public school districts are no exception. Decreased state aid and local taxes shrink revenue sources that feed educational budgets. In the state of New York 10,000 teaching positions have been eliminated since 2008. We are once again approaching the point at which budgets are developed in response to revenue estimates. This has come to signal continued staff reductions in the wake of fiscal shortfalls that beget the worn and tired mantra of, "We must do more with less."

It's been said that during the depths of the Great Depression of the last century, when businesses were going bankrupt, and the companies fortunate enough to survive were laying off people to thwart closure, that Thomas J. Watson Sr., then president of International Business Machines (later, simply known as IBM) opted to hire staff and improve their benefits. He asserted that salespeople generated revenue so it would be counter-productive to let people in that role leave the company at a time of economic stress.

The leadership of Green Island Union Free School District has attempted to adopt a strategy similar to Watson's at IBM. Although we've experienced staff reductions, they have been the result of attrition. No staff member has been laid off since June of 2010. In a customer oriented, relationship based human service organization, staff members are critical contributors to a collective economic engine. That claim is predicated on the belief that the decision of individuals casting votes on the annual operating budget is more personal, emotional, and psychological than it actually is financial.  Consider staff members as Watson viewed salespeople. They "sell" the school in the manner they interact with children, parents, and community members. Their commitment, demeanor, and cooperation are integral elements in securing the trust and faith of those who enter the voting booths on the third Tuesday of May each year and determine the fate of the school district's budget.

Holding firm and avoiding lay-off notices is a challenge in the face of shrinking state aid and overburdened taxpayers fatigued by a shift in financial responsibility for public education in New York from the state to the local communities. So, how does a Board of Education maintain the conviction necessary to survive and seek advances in an era of decline?

It starts with language, and an acknowledgement of the significance of shaping and managing meaning as an organization develops shared purpose and common goals. For example, does your Board of Education hold an annual Retreat? During the second month of my tenure here in Green Island we held a Board Advance. That's right. Too many districts have elected to retreat instead of searching for opportunities to advance. It's common now during this fiscal crisis for school leaders to echo Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel's quote "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." but too few leaders strive to breathe life into those words. Let's stop retreating, from the economy and from our critics.

Almost all school districts meticulously account for their revenues and expenditures in colorful budget materials presented to voters. Instead, we reference our revenue and our investments. That simple change evokes a clear distinction between spending and a more purposeful strategy of allocating funds to exploit critical leverage points designed to make a constructive difference. It implies a more entrepreneurial approach to the budget. Isn't the goal of the budget to invent the future by sustaining the dreams and nurturing the hope of learners by exercising judicious and tactical investments with the public funds? It's not merely matching columns of revenue to match columns of expenditures. Too many school districts purport to have noble missions about teaching and learning when the real mission of the school is balancing their budget.

If the school district's purpose is focused on learning, then why don't more schools refer to the people within the buildings as learners? If your staff isn't learning, then neither are the children. Students is a term that limits the population to children aged five through eighteen. Students are people who study. Study is casually defined as the process of learning about something, as opposed to learner, which is defined as someone who is learning something. Let's go with the person instead of the process.

We have been persistent in our attempts to plant seeds and grow people. We have exercised opportunities to expand possibilities for our learners as they invent their futures. We began by addressing the need to bolster our instructional program at the secondary level. We were vulnerable in those grades and suffered from individuals opting to enroll in private, parochial or charter schools that offered more course choices than a small high school like Heatly. The loss of learners could lead to a downward spiral which could leave us with an unsustainable program and increase the anxiety of staff members and community who fear the threat of a merger forced by necessity.

The first step in thwarting that risk was to adopt an on-line program of accredited classes that would supplement, but not supplant, existing classes and teachers. By partnering with Virtual High School we could provide a menu of over 150 classes that we would never otherwise offer due to our small size and the lack of financial feasibility. This also addressed another perceived problem - too many learners taking too many study halls. Study halls had increased over time because the small amount of staff could not provide any more instructional opportunities. Study halls hardly prepare learners for success in college. Learners now experience classes in anatomy and physiology, meteorology, macro-micro economics, and a host of others. In addition, they can electronically interact with "classmates" from other states and other countries. For learners who reside in Green Island, the chance to connect with peers from afar is an added benefit of the program. The funding for this program was sponsored by an anonymous donation provided by a philanthropist who gave me the money and instructed me to "plant seeds like you did at your previous school district." That generous gift was the leverage to take our first step in improving our high school - and our school district.

Next, we added eight different classes that earn college credit through a partnership with a nearby community college (Hudson Valley Community College). Learners who sign up for the classes earn credit without cost if they qualify for free or reduce meals (60% of  our learners qualify) and if they are not eligible for free or reduced meals they can pay $50.00 per credit hour, which is a significant savings compared to the normal fee structure at HVCC. The prospect of learners graduating from high school with college credit saves both time and money when they enter college. There was no cost to the district.

In addition, after one of our teachers took the initiative to secure appropriate certification "on her own time and dime "we started a School-to-Work program that allows interested learners to experience internships that offer insight into possible occupations in their future. The learners also receive instruction on career awareness, resume construction, interview preparations, how to complete job applications, desired work ethic, and many more skills and concepts. We are indebted to the dedication and commitment of business teacher Mrs. Marilyn Michaels for her desire to develop and offer this valuable program. There was no cost to the district.

We have also partnered with an area college (The College of St, Rose) on two different occasions that enabled our learners to visit a campus and learn about the college experience. Children have long been encouraged to "go to college" often without any idea of what college is about. The visit exposed them to the vast opportunities available at college and offered them a mental image to use as they plan their futures. The College of St. Rose used grant money to transport every one of our learners, K-12 to the campus for a day full of exciting and different experiences. It was a great success.

These programs have revitalized the instructional health of our high school. Once we had nurtured growth in our high school (and, importantly, stemmed the loss of secondary level learners to alternative educational settings in the area) we could focus on another instructional area that required attention - early intervention at the elementary level.

The first step involved reallocating an existing position to provide math instruction in the form of Academic Intervention Services. This role was responsible for supporting the needs of learners who qualified for extra help by virtue of their performance on state assessments in math. Prior to the staff restructuring elementary level learners who experienced difficulty in math, the children were not receiving specific instruction form a certified math teacher.

This year the school district prepared and submitted a grant seeking funds to start a full day pre-Kindergarten classroom. This team effort, generated by an assortment of teachers and the principal, was successful in acquiring the money necessary to develop the program, which starts tomorrow. By providing a formal learning environment for four year old learners within the school we hope to advance their fundamental knowledge and skills and increase their opportunities for success when they enter Kindergarten. That extra help should benefit our learners in the future. The state had already set aside money for use for a pre-K program to sustain a program but that amount alone was insufficient to start the program (i.e. buying furniture, technology, supplies...). Once the grant expires we will tap into the state's per pupil funding to extend the program.

It's been said that the word crisis requires two different characters to be translated into Japanese - opportunity and risk. We have perceived and respected the risk and opted to pursue opportunity.

A Tip of the Hat to the author of The Cat in the Hat

Our school is presently involved in celebrating "Read Across America" as a means of acknowledging the birthday of that great author of books for children (and adults who have remained young at heart), Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel).

Among the many profound quotes embedded in his books, I have selected one in particular to frame this day's Blog entry. It comes from the book, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut.

The more that you read,
the more that you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you'll go.

What better way to encourage young readers to expand their skills and learning experiences. I am a practicing magician. However, I always point out to young people that my favorite magic trick does not include illusions or slight of hand, but rather the ability to understand letters and words and sentences and ....  I remind them that although I was very poor as a child I "traveled" all over the world across borders and time by way of reading books. I "met" famous people and learned about how and why they became famous by reading books. The world opened up to me whenever I opened a book. And, the more I read the better I did in school.

Reading is a magical way of learning about our world and reaching our potential. Reading unlocks the knowledge within books that would otherwise remain a jumble of mysteries if we are not able to decipher the symbols that cover the pages. I encourage parents to invest time in developing the minds of their children by reading to and with them. Not only will they benefit academically from such an experience, there are few opportunities to connect better with children. Show them how important reading is by spending your valuable time with them and a book.

The more that you read,
the more that you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you'll go.