Friday, April 30, 2010

A Great Conference

The past three days I attended the Forum for Western Pennsylvania Superintendents. The Forum is housed in the University Of Pittsburgh. The Forum meets twice a year and provides the best professional development for superintendents that I have experienced. This year we conducted a simulation to create our own society. I was in a group that had no money, jobs, or ability to travel. For each one hour session our group concentrated so hard on just making sure we had a "subsistence ticket" so we would not "die", that we never managed to accumulate any money or assets. I learned how hopeless one can become when the "game" is stacked against you and there is no way that you can win. I realize that there are students and parents that experience the same thing because the game of life may be stacked against them. I can't say that I understand what they go through day in and day out in their life just because I was in a simulation, but I sure have a different perspective now. The school system must be a place where transparency is obvious and people have the information to make decisions for their lives. I hope Ridgway Area School District can move closer to this ideal.

I had an interesting discussion with a young woman that was helping me by a new cell phone. She was talking about the differences in schooling between the United States and New Zealand. She spent some time going to high school in New Zealand and I think she had some interesting insights. Her number one insight was that school s in New Zealand (at least the one that she attended) graded VERY HARD. She told me that her school over there did not believe that students should receive an "a" unless they were truly working hard and an outstanding student. Interesting… I know that we hear about our education in the United States that there is a lot of "grade inflation". Tackling that issue is complicated. Our school district is starting to look at our grading system both at the school and teacher level. The insights gained are starting to bear some from fruit. How to grade homework is one example of a discussion that was started because the teachers started to examine grading.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where do we go from here?

I have been reading a lot about some of the challenges that schools in other states are facing.  The economic picture looks bleak regarding state funding in those states.  This is forcing scools to make increasingly tough decisions regarding programs and staffing.  Pennsylvania schools will not be immune to this trend.  Unles the State can find a spare 600 million dollars to provide level funding for schools, then Pennsylvania schools and communities will face hardships.  I foresee some tough times ahead.  We can approach these tough times in two ways: with a poor attitude or with a good attitude.  I know that school districts will have to fundamentally change how we provide education to survive.  I believe Ridgway will not only survive this process, but the district will thrive.  Our students will be better served after we go through the process.  I will have more on this topic later.

Forgive the typos...this is my first mobile blog.  Typing on a cell phone is not easy!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Five Year Non-Negotiable Goals for Achievement and Instruction

The Ridgway Area School Board met in January to create non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction. These goals will cover a five year period. The Board met with a consultant, Dr. Pat Crawford, for over three hours working together with the administration to create these goals. The goals will help guide the decision making process for the school board for the next five years. I believe it was very good decision by the Board to decide to create these goals, especially in light of the pending financial difficulties that lie ahead for all school districts in Pennsylvania (more on that subject in a later blog).

As you review these goals, please pay attention to the positive nature of the goals. First and foremost the school board is very dedicated to the idea that literacy instruction and creative problem solving will help students thrive in the 21st century. To try to create a curriculum that will benefit a student ten years from now is folly. Rather, the school district must help students acquire skills that will translate to a variety of different scenarios and tasks.  This is the true meaning of education in the 21st Century. The school district does not want to prepare students for careers that are “dead ends” (please follow this link for jobs that will be available over the next few years). Our students must be prepared to couple creativity and technology to position themselves for the careers that will allow them to live well in the future. Like it or not, future careers will involve people becoming “independent contractors” of their own work. They will not be able to go to work for a factory for 40 years.

Finally, one of the hallmarks of the future is transparency in operations for public and private organizations. The best way to accomplish this transparency is through effective, open communication. Therefore, one of the goals of the school board is to create more spaces where parents and the public can interact with the school district. I look forward to fulfilling this goal for the school board. It is exciting to think of what all of us can learn from each other once effective communication is started.
I am away from the office for the next few days. What this means is that I am going to try to “mobile blog” but I cannot guarantee the results. Since communication and technology are so important for the future of our students, I am trying to play “catch up” by using technology more. Please bear with me as I attempt to mobile blog!!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Scool District Initiatives

This document was created for the school board in January to review some of the initiatives that have taken place in the school district over the past several years. I thought you might find it interesting.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Over the past few days my youngest son (age 6) has been helping my brother lay a brick patio at our house. My brother was very patient with my son and showed him how to make sure everything was in place so they could lay the brick correctly. I watched as my brother corrected my son in some of the techniques as they were working and I was proud to see that my son paid attention and did it correctly. He was so proud that he could lay the bricks that he asked me to come over and he taught me how to lay the bricks. He explained it just like my brother had explained it to him, but he also added what he had learned by doing the task. It was a great learning experience.

I have been reading a lot about motivation and how to motivate people. According to Daniel Pink (in his book Drive), the old way of motivating people by using “carrots or sticks” simply does not work. True motivation must be something that is intrinsic in nature, not something that someone does because they want a prize or do not want a negative consequence. Research is pretty clear that extrinsic motivators like prizes and punishment do not work over the long haul. Incentives or punishments may increase motivation for a short period of time, but over time, motivation will actually decrease. I have read in the news recently that schools are paying students to get good grades or to read a certain amount of books. This may work in the very short term, but research suggests that student’s “productivity” (as measured by grades or amount of books read) will decrease below the original level if these types of incentives are used. I can see where these incentives may be useful to start a child on a path of better achievement, but the school system better figure out a way to intrinsically motivate the student after a short time or the entire plan will backfire. So, how can the school systems motivate students? There are numerous ways, but I want to discuss one simple way: allowing students to teach.

One of the best ways to motivate students is to have them become “experts’ at something and have them teach. I witnessed this phenomenon with my son. Once he did a task a few times (which was more than I had ever done the task), he became an “expert” especially in relation to my knowledge. He then parlayed that knowledge to teaching me. In other words, he now has a detailed knowledge of how to do a task, he has taught the task, and he has learned the task. I hope that schools can put students in situations where they can become experts at a topic and teach other students/adults what they have learned. In schools where this happens, motivation is not a problem and no one has to pay a student a thing to do well in school.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

National Merit Scholarship

Congratulations to our own David Klein for being selected a qualified candidate for the National Merit Scholarship. David was chosen based on his outstanding performance on his PSAT test. Every student who takes the PSAT's are eligible, but only the top scores are selected as a qualified candidate. Nationally, there were 1.5 million entrants for the scholarship and only 50,000 were chosen as a qualified candidate. In September 16,000 semifinalist will be announced. In the meantime, David and the school district have to fill out some paper work so he can be eligible for the next round of competition. Congratulations David on all of your hard work that has led to this prestigious recognition!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Today I want to discuss the importance of a proper “mindset” for success in schooling (and life). Yesterday I discussed how practice is much more important to becoming an expert than genetics. Today, I hope to show that a person’s mindset is more important than any innate genetic “gifts” someone may have.

The term mindset (as used in today’s blog) was developed by Stanford University’s Carol Dweck. Her book, Mindset, explains her theory of the importance of mindset to the success of people. Basically, she says that there are two kinds of mindsets: a “fixed” mindset and “growth” mindset.

In a fixed mindset, a person believes that they were born with a certain amount of ability or intelligence and they can never have or grow anymore. You either “have it” or you don’t. This mindset can lead to an incredible amount of ‘snobbery” as people believe that they are better than their peers. It can also have a devastating impact on people who believe they do not have the “gift” and will not try to improve themselves. People in this mindset tend not to be risk takers because they do not want to do anything different because it will show everyone that they do not have the ability to accomplish the task. The following quote is from carol Dweck’s website dedicated to mindset:

In the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty much flawless… Beyond how traumatic a setback can be in the fixed mindset, this mindset gives you no good recipe for overcoming it. If failure means you lack competence or potential—that you are a failure – where do you go from there?

In the growth mindset, a person believes that ability is ever evolving. In this mindset, a person believes that practice and constructive failures are good because you learn from the experiences and become better. In her book, Dweck spends a lot of time discussing how our society is trying to protect children from disappointment by constantly telling kids “You are so smart” or “You are the best”. These messages instill a fixed mindset because the message to the student is that “smart” is a fixed quantity and if they fail at something then they must not be smart. A better way to talk to kids and students is to praise the effort that goes into a task. Even if your child does not win the first place ribbon, the hard work that went in to attempting to win the ribbon is what is important. Of course, if a student (or adult) does not do well at a task and they did not work hard, then you must be honest with them and tell them that is was because of a lack of effort. You must not claim that the competition was “rigged” or that favoritism was in play. Excuses like that encourage a fixed mindset because responsibility for the hard work necessary to succeed is transferred somewhere else.

The mindset theory is fascinating and I am not giving it justice in this blog. If you want to learn more, please visit Carol Dweck’s Mindset website, or go to the program that she developed for students to train them to have a growth mindset. The program is called brainology and is a curriculum a student can take on a computer.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

10,000 hours of practice

I can remember watching Michael Jordan playing basketball on television and thinking, “Wow, he is so much more gifted then the other players on the floor”. Watching him soar through the air, steal passes, and score at will on people attempting to defend him led to my opinion of his giftedness. There is no doubt that Michael Jordan has talent, but the “back story” is also important for our discussion of intelligence and giftedness.
Michael Jordan was famously cut from his high school varsity basketball team as a sophomore. He simply was not good enough to make the team. In other words, he did not have the “natural ability” to make the team. What is important for his own personal story is that he made a vow to himself that he would never not be good enough to make a basketball team for the rest of his life. He began to practice relentlessly for hours at a time. When he became the best player in the NBA he would spend summers working for hours on a part of his game that he thought he needed to improve. He obviously met his goal of not worrying about being cut from a team again, but what does this story tell us of our work with children in the school system?

Recent research, as laid out in Daniel Pink’s Drive, Malcolm Gladwel’s Ouliers, and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, makes it clear that there is one mitigating factor that leads to success in any area. I am talking about success as measured by musical, athletic, academic, social or any other measure. Yes, there is some influence in your natural aptitude for a task, but the far greater influence is the amount of practice that you put into a task. All three authors discuss the 10,000 hour rule. 10,000 hours is how long it takes someone to practice a task before they can become an “expert” or world class. As neurologist Daniel Levitin states in Outliers, “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert…But no one has yet found a case in which true world class expertise was accomplished in less time” (p.40). Whether it be a rock band (The Beatles), a computer wizard (Bill Gates , Paul Allen), or music (Mozart) all of these people were not naturally gifted and had to work hard for thousands of hours to reach their level of “genius”. They simply worked and practiced for years upon years. Although the dominant belief in society is that there are some people who are just “gifted’ and that the rest of us can never reach a level of “genius”, that simply is not true.

What does this mean for education? First, educational systems cannot lower expectations for students. All students can learn…period. Please read about Marva Collins and Erin Gruwell and what they accomplished with students that supposedly could not learn. Their stories show the power of expectations and practice. Secondly, although a school system cannot provide the 10,000 hours necessary for world class expertise, the school system can encourage students to be resilient in the face of failures as they start on the road to find their own expertise. Thomas Edison famously failed thousands of times before he and his team developed the light bulb. Schools must help students realize that failure is just a learning experience for your next attempt. As Michael Jordan and all other “geniuses” know, practice and hard work are vastly more important than inherited “genius”.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What is "Smart"?

This week I will explore the issue of whether or not some students are just "born" to do well in certain subjects. the short answer is "no"; in fact, everyone can learn and heredity plays a small role in a student's ability to learn. However, I realize that the dominant belief among society (and educators) is that some people are just “born” smart. Obviously heredity does play a role in ability, albeit a smaller role than one might think. By the end of the week I hope you have a more nuanced opinion of the interplay between genetics, environment, and expectations for students. This link will help you get underway as you think about “natural ability”. The blog discusses the IQ tests and recent research on natural “ability”.

Friday, April 16, 2010

School District Audits

When I became superintendent one of the first things that I noticed is how often school district’s in Pennsylvania are audited. The districts are not being audited because of perceived wrong doing, rather State law requires these audits. The audits are conducted to protect the taxpayer and the State (which gives RASD well over half of the money for the budget). There are two types of audits. First there is the State audit which occurs every other year. The second is a “local audit” of the financials. This audit is paid for by the school district and is done by an accounting firm every year. The State audit is larger in scope than the “local audit” which concentrates on strictly the financials. Both audit reports are public record and are discussed at public meetings.

The State audit has a dual purpose. First, the auditors will have items that the auditor general will want to focus on for all school districts. For example, two years ago the auditors focused on technology and how secure the school district’s network was from outside influences. The auditors wanted to make sure that all staff and students signed an “acceptable use” form; they looked for our protocols for vendors to access the network to conduct updates on programs that we run; and finally, they looked at the filtering process the school district uses to make sure “bad content” from the internet stays away from the students. Two years ago, the auditors also concentrated on school safety and looked at procedures the district has in place to monitor who is in the school at any given time. The second area of focus is items the auditors will review every year. These are items such as teacher certification (is all of the paperwork in order for every teacher), attendance (are the policies and procedures of the district, and state law, being followed), transportation (how many students are assigned to buses, the mileage of the buses compared with the actual amount of money paid to the bus contractor. The auditors also review clearances for all bus drivers to make sure they are up to date.), payroll (reviewed to make sure the school district is withholding the proper amount for social security, retirement, etc), and purchase orders (to assure that all applicable laws and statutes are followed concerning the purchase of items for the school district).

The auditor will classify any problems into two categories: “findings” or “observations”. Observations are simply something that they want to see addressed before the next audit. These are usually not a serious problem. Findings, on the other hand, are a more serious problem and require the school district to address the problem as soon as possible. The school district’s last audit had no findings or observations. The State auditors usually will spend up to three months conducting their audit.

The second kind of audit (the local audit) is paid for by the school district and looks strictly at the “bookkeeping” of the school district. The auditors will review all of the financial data to make sure money is being spent from the correct account or credited to the correct account. The best visual would be of someone coming to look at your personal checkbook and making sure all of the numbers add up. This audit will take 4-6 weeks to conduct and is conducted every year. I hope this blog entry sheds some light onto all of the controls in place when it comes to the operation of the school district. The most current State audit can be found here and the local audit here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I just love to watch kids create things. I believe that public education must allow students a chance to create something every day. Sometimes I hear that our students in school today lack critical thinking skills, and they need more problem solving skills. If that is true, how can the school system “fix” the problem? The best way is to allow kids to let their natural instinct to create to come out. This can be through art, writing, solving a math problem, or devising a unique perspective on a historical problem. I say, let kids create! Here is a picture of some of our kids working on creating pottery during their time at Appalachian Arts Studio.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Preliminary Budget Passed Last Night

Last night the school board approved the 2010-2011 preliminary budget. The $12,714,669 budget includes a 1 mill tax increase. I foresee that future budgets will be much more difficult to balance. There are signs of stress even in this preliminary budget. For the first time in years we are not putting money into our long term maintenance fund. We are also continuing to take money from our savings to balance the budget.
With that being said, the school district is making great strides in developing a coherent strategy to improve student learning. This strategy starts with the budget. This budget continues the trend from last year to fund professional development of our staff to assure that the students receive the best instruction and curriculum possible. This budget also reflects the school board’s resolve to fund the five year, nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction that the board created this winter. I cannot overstate the importance to the students of the school district that the budget includes these items. There will be tough choices made in the future concerning the school district’s budget. However, I am hopeful that the school board will continue to stay focused on improved student instruction and achievement.
Mr. Rhoads did a budget presentation last night. He presented a powerpoint reviewing all of the major points in the preliminary budget. There are two budget documents. One is on the “official” state required form. While the other budget is in a format that Mr. Rhoads puts together with explanations for specific budget items. I would suggest that you read the second one to learn the most about the school district budget.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Student Artwork

Yesterday I discussed the “Building Communities Award” that RASD and Appalachian Arts received. As a follow up, I want to share some artwork that one our students created for this year’s Chainsaw Rendezvous which is organized by Appalachian Arts. Macie Campbell will graduate this year, and although she may not pursue a career in art, I think you will agree that she is very talented. You can see her carvings here, here and here. Macie is not only a talented artist, but I can attest to her friendliness. Way to go Macie!

Monday, April 12, 2010

RASD Receives "Building Communities" Award

I am pleased to announce that the Ridgway Area School District and Appalachian Arts Studio have received an honorable mention award (and $250) in a state-wide contest for efforts to promote community building. The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and Penn State’s Center on Rural Education and Communities sponsor an award that recognizes rural schools for their efforts in building communities. The following is from the CREC web site:

The award recognizes a rural school or school district in Pennsylvania that has distinguished itself through innovative practices contributing to the educational experiences for the students it serves, while collaborating with the broader community for the benefit of all.

Ridgway Area School District and Appalachian Arts have partnered for a number of years to provide enriching, creative opportunities for the students of the school district. This year, the district and Appalachian Arts have partnered to receive a grant that will build an interactive walking trail by rehabilitating an old railroad bed. You can read the application narrative here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

1 Mill Property Tax Increase

In the last installment in my series on the preliminary school budget, I want to discuss the proposed property tax increase of one mill.  As you may be aware, the school district is currently in litigation.  The litigation was brought against the school district concerning the occupational tax.  The occupational tax is assessed against your occupation.  How your occupation is assessed determines how much you pay in occupational tax.  Currently the schol district receives a little over $300,000 in revenue from the occupational tax.  The lawsuit brought against the school asks for an injunction preventing the school from collecting the occupational tax.  This would put a $300,000 "hole" in our budget.  Even worse for the school district, if the school district loses the lawsuit, then it would be required to forfeit all occupational taxes collected since 2007...that would be almost one million dollars.  The prudent course of action for the school district is to try to raise revenue in case the district loses the lawsuit.  However, because of the provisions of Act 1, the school district cannot raise property taxes high enough to offset the potential loss of revenue.  I hope you can understand the difficult situation this places the school district in.  The district may lose close to a million dollars but it cannot raise funds to offset the loss.  Losing the lawsuit would have a devestating impact on the education of our students. 
With all of that being said, with a one mill tax increase, a person who has their property assessed at $100,000 would realize a $50.00 increase in property taxes. One mill brings the school district about $90,000 in revenue.   As I have mentioned many times this week, this is a preliminary budget and circumstances may change before the final adoption of the budget in June.  I present all of this information about the budget to give you as much information as possible.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Preliminary Budget Part 2

Yesterday I laid out the basics of the preliminary budget and some of the challenges associated with creating the budget.  Today I will discuss where the school district gets the money to operate.  Of the total budget, the local share (which comes from local taxes) is $4,834952, or 41% of the budget.  The State contributes $7,305,804, or 57% of the budget.  Finally, the Federal Giovernment contributes $198,300, or 2% of the budget.  If you have a calculator handy you will notice that these numbers do not add up to our totaal budget of $12,714,669.  This preliminary budget has the school district using $225,613 from our budget reserve (savings account).  Additionally the school district has a $150,000 grant contingency in the budget.  This simply allows the district to spend any grant money that may arise throughout the year.

What is interesting about where the money comes from is the influence the people giving the money have on our schools.  For example, the feds contribute very little to our budget, but exert an enormous influence on how we operate the schools through No Child left Behind.  Their influence does not match their contribution.  On the other hand, the State does contribute the majority amount of money to our budget.  As a matter of fact, over the last 5 years the local share of the budget has decreased 3%, while the State share has increased 3%.  Politicians in other parts of the State ask themsleves why their constituents (through taxes they pay) have to pay to educate students in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.  Although our share of the budget paid by the State is not the highest in the State, it is above average.  These are all interesting questions.  I want to think that people pay taxes because they know that they are contributing to the "common good" and that education is the best investment for your money.  Some may disagree with that assessment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Preliminary Budget Part I

As the school board reviews the proposed budget for the 2001-2012 school year, I thought it would be beneficial for everyone if I spent a few days explaining some of the budget.  First of all, the total budget expenditures are $12,714,669.  This is an increase of $298,000 (2.32% increase) over the budget last year.  Of all of the expenditures in the budget, 84% are "fixed" costs.  In other words, there is very little the school district can do to affect these costs.  For example, the agreements the school district has with the teachers association and the support service personnel association are legal contracts that the district must abide by.  These include salaries and benefits of our employees.  Salaries alone account for 52% of our budget; while benefits account for another 21% of the school district's expenditures.  The other 11% of fixed costs are insurance, tuition for students in other placements, transportation, utilities and debt service.  The challenge for the school board is to present a budget that keeps education in the forefront, while at the same time keeping taxes low.  With 84% of the budget "fixed" there simply is not a lot of "wiggle room".

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Budget Meeting

There will be a budget meeting tonight at 6:00PM in the elementary school library.  The school board will review the preliminary budget presented by the administration.  The budget building process was difficult this year for a couple of reasons.  First, the school district is still feeling the effects of the poor economy.  This has curtailed collection of some of the taxes that the school district uses.  Secondly, the school district is currently facing a lawsuit requesting that the school district not be allowed to collect occupational taxes.  If this lawsuit were successful, the school district would realize a $400,000 deficit in the budget.  To make matters worse, because of Act 1, the school district would not be allowed to raise property taxes enough to offset that amount.  The school district could raise taxes only enough to recover less that $120,000 of that amount.  I hope you can see where this places a great burden on the school district during the budgeting process.

With all of that being said, I am pleased that we will be able to present a preliminary budget for the school board that allows the school district to continue to move forward.  The total budget  amount is $12,714,669.  This is $140,000 less than last year's budget.  The school board will review the budget tonight, make adjustments and suggestions over the next week, and then vote on the preliminary budget at the April board meeting.  The budget will then be available for public viewing until the June board meeting where final approval of the budget will be passed.