Friday, May 28, 2010

RASD Cafeteria Information

I want to discuss a “hidden gem” in our school system. Our cafeteria serves breakfast and lunch to our students that exceed the current nutritional guidelines for school breakfast/lunch. The school district has a very high participation rate for lunches with almost 85% of our students purchasing lunches from the cafeteria. Approximately 250 students buy breakfast from the cafeteria and around 850 students buy lunch every day. The cafeteria offers a wide variety of choices to our students every day including fresh fruit and vegetables. 51% of our students qualify for a free/reduced rate based on the income of their parents.

The cafeteria employs 11 employees with 6 full-time and 5 part-time. The school district gets reimbursed from the federal government for every student that qualifies for a free meal. The school district is reimbursed $2.78 for every lunch served to a student that qualifies for a free lunch and $1.56 for a breakfast. The price of a breakfast for a student is $1.00 in the high school and .90 in the elementary school while lunch is $1.60 in the high school and $1.35 in the elementary school. You will notice that the school district is reimbursed more from the Federal government than what we charge our students. There is a proposal in Congress to force all schools to charge all lunches at the reimbursement rate for a free student. If that passes, that would force the school district to increase lunch prices for all students. I am very proud of our cafeteria. The food is nutritionally sound and tastes good. There is a variety of foods for students to choose from and the cafeteria exceeds the State nutritional guidelines.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Student "Growth" this year

I want to share some data that the school district has gathered concerning student growth through the school year. There are many forms of data that a school system can use to judge how well they are doing. Benchmark assessment data is one of these forms of data. Other forms of data that a school can use are alumni surveys, student surveys, SAT scores, college admittance information, and analysis of budgetary expenses relating to student instruction. I have included a presentation that I shared with the school board last night that shows the growth that students have made according to benchmark data the school has collected. The data helps inform decisions teachers make when considering instruction and curriculum. Overall, the district has shown remarkable growth of its students. This is a reflection of the hard work of the staff, the focus the district has placed on curriculum and research-based instructional strategies, and a Board focus on student achievement. I am hopeful that this kind of benchmark data will continue to show dramatic growth over the next few years.  Although this data analysis in not too in-depth, it does show that the district's concentration on student achievement is starting to pay off.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

School Transformation

Today I will finish the topic of transformation in the school system. Transformation of the system means that public education will “look” fundamentally different then it does today. The basic assumptions that we hold for how students are taught should change. Deep transformation will take some time, but I will briefly explain how Ridgway Area School District will position itself to start the transformation process.

How will Ridgway Area School District start the transformation process?

1. Organizations must become more open and transparent and that includes public education. People demand to know how public institutions are operated and demand to have more input then in the past. With that in mind, the elementary school will institute a parent academy next year which will offer a space for parents to interact more informally with the school. The elementary principal, Mrs. Herzing, is also exploring “parent liaison committees” which will be another way for parents to have more input into what goes on in the school. At the high school Mrs. Vargas has started a student advisory group which has been very influential in making suggestions concerning the governance of the school. The student’s suggestions can be found in my blog on May 12th.

2. There must be a focus on student achievement. It goes without saying that a focus on student achievement is also a focus on student learning and teacher instruction. The school district has focused on instruction this year through intense training of the teaching staff on research-based instructional strategies that improve student achievement. The school district is also asking all teachers to create “benchmark assessments”. Benchmark assessments are a fancy name for creating a local test that truly measures what was taught in the classroom. Benchmark assessments are created by grade level or subject area teams of teachers working together so each student will be judged on the same criteria regardless of what teacher they may have had. In the best of all possible worlds, benchmark assessments are used to adjust instruction throughout the year. In other words, if too many students do not do well on the assessment, then the teacher will need to re-teach the concept using different instructional strategies.

3. Fostering student creativity and problem solving must be a focus for Ridgway Area School District. I hear from community members as well as teachers about the lack of problem solving capabilities of students. The school must start to adjust the way we think about being creative and solving problems. Creativity is not something that must be confined to music or art classes. All curriculum areas in all grade levels must offer opportunities for students to show their creative side. The school district shows off our music and art students’ creativity through concerts and exhibitions. The schools must now do the same for the student who finds a creative solution to a problem in math, social studies, foreign language and all curricular areas. Stanford University has a great model in their K-12 lab. The students and teachers all follow “design thinking” which centers on identifying and solving real world problems. That model would be great for Ridgway Area School District. The school district currently uses community resources to try to help students become more creative (Appalachian Arts Studio) but expanding the school’s reach into other community venues is a must.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Transformation vs. Reform

A few weeks ago I was discussing the difference between school reform and school transformation with someone from the Knowledge Works Foundation . I have thought about this difference a lot in the past few weeks and I want to share with you my ideas of school transformation and what I think it means for Ridgway Area School District. I will discuss the specifics of why I think a transformative period in public education is occurring in a later blog; this blog will be concerned about the difference between reform and transformation.

Reform has become a “tired” word in education. Books have been written explaining why reform efforts in public education have not worked. The best of these, in my opionion, is Tinkering Toward Utopia by David Tyack and Larry Cuban . In the past, reforms have been created and developed in a “cookie cutter” model. Usually a well meaning researcher or organization creates programs that works well in one locality then “scale-up” the reform and offer it to the rest of the country. Oftentimes the reforms are forced on school districts through either the state or national departments of education. The result is that there is not a “buy-in” from the local school districts and the reform (no matter how viable it is) is not implemented with fidelity. The end result is a muddled process of reform that does not really change anything within the school district.

The contrast to reform that is forced on a school district is transformation of a school district created by the stakeholders of the school district. It seems obvious that if one wants a system like public education to actually change, then there must be input from the people in the local school district. A community and school district must have leadership that believes that a radical transformation can take place and then nurture the change to make sure it occurs. With transformation there is no “cookie cutter”, one size fits all solutions. Rather, there are thousands of permutations of what change can look like in the school district. I believe that all change must be focused on the question “what is in the best interest of the student”. Transformation cannot occur for the benefit of administrators, teachers or well meaning reformist. The students in the schools must be the focus of transformation. Tomorrow I will discuss transformation more deeply. I hope this blog helped delineate the difference between reform and transformation.  I hope that we are positioning Ridgway to move forward and start the process of true transformation.  Our initiatives that have been implemented will assist in this process.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Invention of Air

Today I want to talk about a book that I read over Christmas called The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. The book is about Joseph Priestley and the origins of modern chemistry (basically, Priestley started modern chemistry). What I find fascinating about the story is the interconnectedness between what Priestley accomplished and the people he associated with and the times in which he lived. I don’t know if he would have been able to accomplish what he did if those two factors were not in play. I will blog about connections and networks on Monday and Priestley’s life story is a testament to the power of interconnectedness. One of the ideas that comes from the book is how to use “conversations with self” to allow ideas to form and change over time. Writing ideas down on paper is a great way to remember them so you can go back and change them and adjust them to new frameworks and information. We spend so little time today as a society allowing ourselves to just sit and think. We believe that we always have to be entertained or working and we do not allow our own genius to develop. Einstein “Any man that reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking”. Now, I may disagree with the reading too much part of this quote, but not using our brains enough is an interesting point. Priestley and his colleagues would meet at a coffee house (Ben Franklin was part of this group while he lived in London) and discuss topics and debate ideas. The end result was a revolution in science. This is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it. I wrote a summary of the book and framed it for rural education leaders. One last interesting note, Priestley moved to the United States and is buried in Northumberland, PA.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dr. Butler Goes to Washington

I apologize for not blogging over the last two days. I was in Washington DC and I forgot how to mobile blog. Today I want to talk about my testimony in front of the House Committee on Education and Labor. You can find the link to the testimony here. You can view the testimony by clicking on "Archived webcast". My written testimony was more detailed than my verbal testimony. Each witness only has five minutes to speak so you have to cut your official written testimony down to a five minute mark. I will have my verbal remarks for you later. I was asked to offer a small, rural school district perspective about the reauthorization of ESEA (No Child Left Behind). Please read my written testimony to better if you want to better understand my point of view. I will provide a short overview of the testimony below.

The major theme of my testimony was that collaboration and teacher professional learning is a key component to any successful school reform. I feel that Ridgway Area School District has had a long history of stakeholders working together to improve student learning. I also stressed the importance of teacher professional learning and that school districts should encourage professional learning on the part of the teachers. I believe that the school district’s teacher supervision plan is a good example of something that was created to encourage collaboration and teacher professional learning. I also recommended to the committee that broadband service is a must for rural school districts. Beyond broadband access, school districts also need the technology infrastructure within the schools to take advantage of the high quality broadband service. Broadband service begins to level the playing field for rural school districts as we can provide better learning opportunities for our students and high quality professional learning for our teachers. I will have more pictures from the trip after I download them from the camera.  The picture today was taken from my smartphone. My goal for the trip was that people in Washington would know about Ridgway Area School District and about the great community that we live in, I feel comfortable that I accomplished this task.

One final note, the hospitality and assistance that Congressman Thompson’s office gave to my family and me during the trip was impressive and appreciated. The Congressman spent time talking with me about education and the reauthorization of ESEA, but more importantly took his time and talked with my kids. He now has a new (younger) fan base! I also want to thank the staff from the Congressman’s office (Deborah Pontzer, Darrell, and Matt) for helping me through the testimony process and making sure that I only had to concentrate on my testimony.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tree Cutting and a Physics Lesson

Okay, yesterday my family (and other interested by-standers) was entertained by watching a huge red oak tree near my house being cut down. Normally, this may not seem to be such an educational lesson, but this picture will probably help you see how physics and other physical sciences came into play in this event. I was fascinated by the amount of calculation required to determine where to place the ropes to assure that when a big limb was cut, it would hang harmlessly above the ground. My wife was explaining to our children how pulleys work. One man could lower a limb that weighed over one thousand pounds and place it on the ground without leaving a mark. I encouraged my children and any other kids that were around to watch because they were witnessing a perfect physics experiment in “real life”. Other than the fact that this work is very demanding physically, one has to be sharp intellectually to do well. I am happy to report that there was no major damage to anything as a result of taking the tree down.

On another note, I will attempt to “mobile blog” again over the next two days. I am going to Washington DC to testify before the House Committee on education and Labor. I will be offering a “rural perspective” on turnaround schools and the proposed reform models from the US Department of Education. I am looking forward to the opportunity to have a voice for rural school systems across the nation.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Transparency and "Beta" status

I have been thinking a lot about transparency in our educational system. I have mentioned before that I believe society (and by default the educational system) has started to change in ways that has not been seen for hundreds of years. We are on the forefront of a foundational shift in how people interact with each other, how we learn, what we do for a living, and what are relationships will be to large governmental agencies and multinational corporations. The linchpin for this change (at least for our school district) is a sense of transparency. There must be transparency at every level of the organization and transparency is a two way street. To effectively provide a quality 21st Century education for our students the administration, teachers, parents, and students must feel as if we all acting on the same information. For this reason, I will be conducting open, honest budget conversations with the staff of the school. This will allow the staff to act within the same framework of knowledge that the administration does.
Students are also an important part of this equation. The reason the school is here at all (and that w ein the system have jobs) is because of the students. They should be aware and have some say in what the educational system looks like. As a matter of fact, for our schools to thrive in the 21st century the participation by the students will be a must. This transparency goes deeper than just a public relations stunt. Transparency allows everyone to have a stake in the health of the organization and lets an organization experiment with different leadership and organizational models. This “beta” status will help Ridgway Area School District thrive as we navigate the seismic shifts in education and society at large.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


One of the school board non-negotiable goals for instruction and achievement concentrated on communication.  At the high school that goal was used to start a conversation with students about their experience in the school.  Mrs. Vargas also started the conversation with the faculty and coaches so the school district can start to become more open and transparent for everyone.  A brochure that Mrs. Vargas created highlights what was learned from these conversations and some of the actions that have been taken because of the knowledge.  I hope you learn something from the brochure and appreciate the efforts the school district is starting to undertake to allow all stakeholders to have a "voice" in their school.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Middle School Science Fair

The Ridgway Area Middle School held its annual 7th grade Science Fair on May 5, 2010. Approximately fifty science projects were on display in the middle school main hallway. The students in the photo were awarded first place ribbons by the judges. (L to R: Beth Renaud, Allie Oknefski, and KiKi Jacobs). Renaud and Oknefski received a ribbon for their project “How Scary Movies Affect Your Heart Rate and Blood Pressure.” Jacobs received a ribbon for her project “Translucent Egg.” Congratulations to all of the participants , Mr. Martino, and Ms. Glass on a successful Science Fair.

Congratulations to all participants!

Monday, May 10, 2010

School Board Meeting Tomorrow

The next meeting for the Ridgway Area School District Board of Directors is tomorrow at 6:30 in the elementary school cafeteria. Here is the tentative agenda for the meeting. The May meeting is always busy because the board votes on items for the following year. Positions such as solicitor, treasurer and substitute teachers are voted on at the meeting. I am also very pleased to let everyone know that we will be honoring some of our outstanding high school students at the meeting. Every month we honor a "student of the month" for each school, but this month we will also honor students who have won honors academically and athletically. It should be a great time.

Finally, the school district's budget will not be voted on at this meeting. The board and administration continue to work on the budget and there will be a final approval at the June Board meeting. The preliminary budget still includes a one mill tax increase to serve as an insurance policy in case the school district loses the lawsuit concerning occupational taxes that one of the board members has filed.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Yesterday our Yearbook staff (under the direction of Mrs. Buhite) had an opportunity to learn how to write from a professional sports writer. The Yearbook staff used the communication tool Skype to talk with Frank Isola from the New York Daily News. Mr. Isola covers the New York Knicks for the newspaper. The students wanted to learn tips about how they could improve their writing since they are writing so much for the yearbook. By using Skype, the students were able to hear and see Mr. Isola and they could interact with him in real time. Mrs. Buhite was very happy with what the students learned and believes that it was a very valuable educational experience for the students. The students reflected on their experience as well. It is interesting that one bit of advice that Mr. Isola gives is that the best way to improve your writing is by simply writing more. That advice makes me think about an earlier blog where I discussed how anyone can improve in anything by simply practicing. The blog talked about how it takes 10,000 hoyurs of purposeful practice to become an "expert" in something.
Good job Mrs. Buhite and the Yearbook staff!!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Mighty Elker Band

The school district's band director, Mr. Hoffman, has created a wonderful web site that I want to share with you.  On the web site you will find all sorts of information about the Elker band.  You can even listen to recordings of their band concerts under the "rehearsals" neat is that?  I hope you enjoy the music!  It is wonderful to experience something that students have created.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Coming Financial Storm Part 2

I have heard a lot in the news lately about how the “teacher” pension fund will bankrupt school districts across the nation. The simple fact is that there is a crisis in Pennsylvania with the pension fund, but I think it is important to understand how the pension fund got into such a dire situation. I think it is important to know some simple facts about what employees are included in the pension fund (at least as I understand it). The pension fund (the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System), includes teachers, all support staff, state employees (and interestingly enough) Pennsylvania law makers. There are over 600,000 members (both active and inactive) currently in the pension system. For educators, the benefits include a “multiplier” of 2.5%. What this means is that once a retiree reaches full retirement age (62 years old or 35 years of service) they will receive a pension payment based on the following formula: number of years in service X 2.5, this number is then changed to a percentage. The next calculation is the average salary of the last three years of work for a retiree. Once that number is calculated, the percentage from the first calculation is applied and that is what the retiree will receive. So, for example, if a retiree is at full retirement, you multiply 35 (years of service) X 2.5 which equals 87.5. If the average salary over the last three years of service was $60,000, then calculation is 87.5% of $60,000, which is $52,500. This is what the retiree would receive in benefits. I will not get into more of the rules and penalties that are involved if someone does not reach full retirement, but suffice to say that there are penalties if one does not reach full retirement age. I believe the multiplier for state lawmakers is 3.0. So now that you understand a little bit more about what the benefits are, how did the state get into the current crisis?

The pension is funded in two ways: employee contributions and employer contributions. The employee contributes a percentage of their income to the fund and the employer contributes a percentage of the employee’s income to the fund also. The State then reimburses the local school district for half of their contributed amount. For employees within the school system, the rate of their contribution is 7.5% if you were employed after 1983 and 6.25% if you were employed before 1983. Employees have actually contributed more to the fund since 1999. The percentage that the employers contribute has fluctuated greatly over the past ten years. This fluctuation is where (I believe) the crisis has its start. State lawmakers determine what the percentage will be that the employers will contribute. This chart provides historical data showing that in 1997-1998 a drastic decrease in employer contributions started to occur. Again, this was a policy change made at the State level. It is also obvious to anyone who has tried to balance a checkbook, that if you put less money into your account eventually you will run out of money or you will have to start putting more money into the account. For awhile, PSERS investments were doing so well that those earnings masked the fact that the contribution rate was decreased. However, with the economic downturn, those investments are not doing as well. This is the risk one takes when you rely on the “magic” of the market for your income. To make up for the years when policy makers felt that the employers did not have to contribute much money to the system, school districts are now going to have to make up for that lack of contributions. The percentage rates that the school districts will have to contribute (remember half of that is reimbursed by the State) will increase dramatically over the next few years. This increase will have a distressing effect on school budgets across the State. For Ridgway, the district anticipates a $500,000 dollar increase in our share of the pension contribution.

I hear policymakers want to blame the school districts for “giving up the store” as far as benefits for their employees. However, as you can see from this blog, policy making at the state level (as determined by employer contribution rates that school district are required to follow) has played a big part in the pension crisis that will occur over the next few years.  The pension crisis is another piece to the puzzle that will impact how education is provided to our communities.  I am excited to work through these problems and look forward to improving the educational services for our students and community.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Coming Financial Storm

Today I will start to discuss a topic that is important for the school district and the community. That topic is the state of the school district’s finances.  The folowing comments are my reflections on what has happened and does not reflect any official position.  First of all, Ridgway Area School District is positioned very well for the financial storm that Pennsylvania school districts will face in the coming years. RASD will have no debt service after the next budget year. In personal finance terms, the school district will have no outstanding loans. This is obviously a good thing. The school district also has a healthy fund balance. State law prevents school districts from putting too much money in the fund balance; however, the school district has designated parts of the fund balance for projects and budgetary items that will increase over the next few years. With all of that being said, as I stated in an earlier blog, there are signs of stress in the budget. Namely, the school district has had to use money from the fund balance to balance the budget. You can equate this to using your savings account at home to pay your monthly bills; eventually the money will not be available. While I am proud about the state of our local financial situation, I have concerns about the state and national financial situation. Today I will focus my comments on how Pennsylvania used federal stimulus funds to balance the state educational budget.
When the financial crisis hit in the Fall of 2008 all areas of the economy were impacted. Almost immediately, state revenues began to drop sharply. The result was the states were not going to be able to balance a budget for the 2009-2010 budget year. In response, the federal government enacted what is commonly referred to as the “stimulus plan”. Although the stimulus money went to various entities, I will limit my comments to how the state used the money in the education budget. As a historical note, in the past, Pennsylvania usually increased educational spending between 2%-3% a year. This would translate into a 2-3% increase (generally speaking) in the money that school districts would receive in basic educational funding (BEF). Because of the economy, Pennsylvania could not continue that level of funding for education without using the stimulus money. In the 2009-2010 budget year, Pennsylvania increased educational spending by 300 million dollars, but decreased the state’s share of the budget by 300 million dollars. In other words, Pennsylvania used 600 million dollars of stimulus finds. This was an admirable thing to do for education. However, it created a “cliff” where Pennsylvania would have to double their contribution to educational funding in the next budget year ($600 million)) just to stay “level”. The Governor’s proposed budget for 2010-2011 for education includes a state increase of 300 million while still using $600 million of stimulus money. What this means is that in the following budget year (2011-2012) the state would still have to come up with $600 million “new” dollars to “level fund” the educational budget. I am skeptical about the possibilities of that occurring.
What do these numbers mean for RASD? If the state does not include a level funding formula in the 2001-2012 budget, RASD will have $600,000 less in our basic educational funding. This is a significant decrease in funding for the school district. While the school district contemplates this loss of revenue, there will also be a financial burden caused by the employee pension crisis. I will explain this crisis in tomorrow’s blog, but the school district may realize an additional $500,000 in expenditures in three years as a result of the pension crisis. If you add the $165,000 that we used from the fund balance to use in our budget, you will see that the district may have to find over a million dollars in program cuts and different sources of revenue. This will be a challenge, but a challenge that the district will be able to endure. There will be tough decisions to make concerning the budget but I firmly believe that the school district will be able to increase the capacity to help students in the future.

Monday, May 3, 2010

I-Touch in a Fifth Grade Classroom

Today I want to highlight how one of our teachers used an I-Pod I-Touch to enhance the instructional experience for her students. An I-Touch is a handheld device that acts a lot like a mini computer and fits into the palm of your hand. The students can access educationally appropriate web sites on the internet as well as using the device to type. This article is from the local newspaper about how Mrs. Raubenstrauch used the I-Touch in her fifth grade classroom. Great job Mrs. Raubenstrauch and all of her students!
The use of new technology in education is not a recent phenomenon. After all, at one point a chalkboard in a classroom was considered “new” technology. I am not one to believe that newer technology is the “fix-all” for everything bad in education. I will always believe that the most important component in the educational process is the teacher sitting down and trying to teach the students in their classroom. The power of some of the newer technology is that it can assist the teacher by bringing more resources into the classroom for the students to use. The article about Mrs. Raubenstrauch’s class points this fact out. The newer devices also allow students to interact with experts from all over the world in a controlled setting. Mrs. Buhite and I conducted an experiment this Winter testing whether or not an I—Touch can enhance the educational experience of students. You can read a "white paper" that I wrote about the topic here. The bottom line is that an I-Touch can enhance a student’s experience under the right circumstances. Schools must be willing to adapt their instruction to incorporate these new devices. After all, it is not the devices themselves that are powerful educationally; it is the resources that the devices can bring into the classroom.