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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.

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