Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mobile Ag. Lab

Thanks to the initiative of Mrs. Raubenstrauch the elementary students were able to experience the mobile lab "Agriculture in the classroom" last week.  Mrs. Raubenstrauch, working with the Department of Agriculture, wrote a grant to receive over $2,000 to have the mobile lab come to our elementary school.  Every student spent 50 minutes in the lab learning about different aspects of agriculture and agriculture production.  The grant covered the cost of the mobile lab and an instructor provided by the Department of Agriculture.  I can attest to the quality of learning experience because my oldest daughter constantly tells me about what she learned as she uses the lip balm that the students made from bees wax!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Congratulations to David Klein

One of our seniors, David Klein, was chosen as a Big 30 Academic Award winner.  The Big 30 consists of over 37 school districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The Big 30 revolves around an all-star football game, but the organization also hands out academic scholarship money.  David was one of four high school seniors from the 37 school district to receive the $1,000.00 scholarship.  The scholarship is based on academic performance, community service and school leadership.  Congratulations David, this is a big honor!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

May Budget Presentation

At the Board meeting last night the school board received a presentation from the Finance Manager, Mr. Rhoads on the latest school district budget. The school Board approved a preliminary budget in February that included a 1 mill tax increase and about $350,000 in spending cuts. As described in a blog post in March, the Governor’s budget cut about an additional $350,000 from the school district’s funding. When all is said and done, the school district is spending at the same level as the 2005-2006 school year. I am proud to report that while the spending of the school district is going down, our achievement scores are rising. This reflects the commitment of the Board and the teachers to raise the level of effective instruction for the school district’s children. While the budget does not include furloughs of employees or cutting of absolutely essential services for the children, there is one area of concern that the school board must be attentive to.

The district and all community members must realize that the budget takes a significant amount of money from “reserves” (i.e. the savings account) to balance the budget. I believe this is a proper use of the reserve funds, but the projections for the reserve fund show that it will be gone after 4 more years. At that time, there will be very difficult decisions to be made regarding personnel and programming. Of course, being an optimist, I hope that the economy improves enough over that time period that the school district’s revenues will make any further cuts unnecessary.

Please feel free to visit the school district’s web site or stop in the district office to review the budget. The budget reflects a conservative financial approach while maintaining vital educational programs and services.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thank you to Walmart

WalMart in St. Marys recently donated $250.00 to the Ridgway High School Yearbook.  The Yearbook club used the funds to help support their "Kids Night Out" program that runs throughout the year.  Kids Night Out is a fundraiser that the Yearbook Club uses to help offset the price of the yearbooks for students.  I want to thank Mrs. Buhite (the Yearbook advisor) and all of the students on the yearbook staff for their help and dedication to make sure the yearbook gets produced.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Show Choir at Disney

I apologize for my lack of blogging has been very hectic in the school district as we prepare for the budget, the end of the year, the summer programs we run for teachers and students and planning for the upcoming school year. I will have more information on all of those items in the next few weeks.

I am very proud to tell you that our show choir who had the opportunity to perform in Disney in Florida over the Easter Holiday. Besides the fact the students had the opportunity to get away from the cold rain of northwest Pennsylvania, the students had the opportunity to perform in professional setting and see what life is like for professional entertainers. The following statement is from Mrs. Morley-Palmer, the choir director.
"The Ridgway Show Choir students were Disney cast members for the day on Saturday April 23. They not only performed at Downtown Disney but were lucky enough to spend time with full time Disney cast members for an impromptu Master Class. Students spent about a half hour in a question and answer session and learned the audition process, college credit opportunities, and what a day as a cast member entails."
Congratulations to the students on a great job and thank you to Mrs. Morley-Palmer and all of the adult chaperones.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How I use Twitter

I have a confession to make…I like (and use) Twitter. I know, I know you are thinking to yourself “who wants to know that Tom Butler is now eating supper” or some sort of similar inane nonsense. Let me tell you, Twitter can be (and is) used for more than to update the social happenings of celebrities or common folk. As a matter of fact, Twitter has been the BEST new way that I have found to learn about the world we live in. Let me explain.

Twitter can (and is) used for inane updates on the minutia of people’s lives. I thought the same things for a few years. Then last year I was reading about the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the article pointed out that Lance Armstrong (the 7 time winner of the Tour de France and cancer survivor) had more Twitter followers then the Wall Street Journal had subscribers. Wow, that got my attention…so I joined Twitter and started to “follow” Lance Armstrong. He posts passionately about the need for preventative measures to reduce the rate of cancer. (I suggest you research his foundation if you are interested in cancer prevention) My education for the positive uses of Twitter started with the realization that good social outcomes could come from passing information through this medium. My “Twitter education” followed four steps.

1. I slowly started to familiarize myself with Twitter and how to control the various features available. I started by “following” Lance Armstrong. I realized that I do not have to “tweet” if I do not want to and I could just “follow” people (which means that when they tweet, I get their update).

2. I then searched for educators on Twitter and found incredible resources available. Since Twitter only allows a person to tweet 140 characters most people that I “follow” simply link to a web site or a blog they find interesting with a very short introduction on their tweet.

3. I then started to notice that many organizations and web sites have a Twitter account. Some of these were interesting to me and I started to follow them. I also found that some of my favorite authors use Twitter quite a bit.

4. Finally, I have used my Twitter account as a repository of information that I glean from the internet. I simply tweet (link) information to myself which allows me to know where this interesting information is (easy access).

I have since stopped following Lance Armstrong because I did not want to have an overload of tweets from the 14 people/organizations that I follow. However, the educators and authors that I follow have helped me gain a deeper understanding of education, society, and how to improve the world we live in. I am a big fan (as if you couldn’t tell) of Twitter as a source for great information. I welcome you to go to my Twitter account (@TomButler10) and see how I use this web 2.0 resource. You will have to get an account to do a search, but the accounts are free.

P.S. Once you have an account, you can "tweet" this blog entry by clicking on the Twitter icon at the end of the blog entry.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Defense of Teachers

Today I want to discuss the importance of teachers. Specifically, I will discuss the importance of teachers in a public school setting. If you were to believe most politicians and the majority of the media outlets, you would believe that public school teachers are incredibly selfish individuals who don’t like children, spend all of their “free time’ commiserating with each other about how to spend all of their money they earn and planning for a “fat cat” retirement. (Never mind that teachers earn 14% less as a public employee than they would in the private sector) That is the myth, let’s talk reality. In my 20 years experience in public schools, the vast, vast majority of teachers care deeply about their students and sacrifice mightily to help their “kids” as much as possible. Teachers also make connections with (and act as role models for) students. Let me give you a personal example.

My youngest son went to an Easter egg hunt on Saturday and won a silver dollar. The first words out of his mouth after he told us he had won were “I am going to tell Mrs. Peterson she… will be excited.” Mrs. Peterson is his kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Peterson has made a connection with my son that has helped him academically and socially. She has taken time out her busy day to help him with some coping skills; worked with my wife and I on a plan to have consistency to help him with coping skills; she has taken his academics farther than we thought possible; and most importantly, she has become his greatest “cheerleader” to let him (and his parents) know that he is a wonderful little boy. What more could you want from a teacher? As wonderful as Mrs. Peterson is for our son, most teachers in our school system act in similar ways. My wife was waiting in the elementary hallway for a teacher conference a few weeks ago and she told me that she had a wonderful sense of caring from the staff for all of the children. As she listened to teachers talk to parents about their children she sensed how passionate the teachers were for their jobs and how they wanted to help all children. We feel very lucky that our children are in a system where the adults care deeply about all children.

Now you will not hear these types of stories from politicians and the media because they do not fit the narrative of the greedy teacher. That is too bad because the truth is far different from what they want to portray. I am here to tell you that RASD has teachers that care deeply about kids and will work hard to help your child.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Community Meeting Tonight

There will be a community meeting tonight in the elementary school cafeteria at 6:00PM.  The meeting is part of a series of meetings that will determine alternate "indicators of success" for the school district.  Presently, the school district is "judged" largely on how well the students do on the State mandated tests (the PSSA's).  Although this is one indicator, I think we all feel that there are other indicators that more accurately reflect how well the school district is educating our youth.  Our goal for the meeting will be to develop a list of other indicators of success.  I will then present to the Board in May a report of my meetings with teachers, students, and the community and what other indicators of success the school district will use alongside the PSSA test.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mrs. Francis Dilulio

Today I will discuss another retirement. Mrs. Dilulio’s last day in the district is today. Mrs. D. grew up in Johnsonburg, the oldest daughter in a family of seven. She feels that her experience helping younger siblings instilled in her a desire to become a teacher. As a matter of fact, she says, “I never thought that there was any other option in my life other than going to college and becoming a teacher”. Mrs. D. graduated from Edinboro University in 1977 and immediately started to work as a long term substitute in Ridgway. Mrs. D. has spent the past 33 years teaching and has taught in every grade from Kindergarten to 8th grade (with the exception of 7th grade). She has spent the last 18 years as a second grade teacher.

I know a little bit more about Mrs. D’s teaching because my oldest daughter was blessed to have her as a teacher two years ago. Mrs. D. cultivated a side of our daughter that is very hard to “get out”. Mrs. D. has the uncanny ability to make every child feel as if every interaction in the classroom is personal to only them. Mrs. D. is simply one of the best teachers that you will experience anywhere. She creates an atmosphere of caring that allows all of her students to thrive and learn. Her expectations for academic excellence and behavior are very high and the kids consistently meet and exceed those standards. Visiting Mrs. D. today was very hard for me personally and professionally. It was difficult personally because of the deepest respect I have for her as a person. It was hard professionally because the school district simply cannot replace a teacher of the quality of Mrs. Dilulio.

I cannot forget to mention that Mrs. D. has had a “partner” in education for the past 27 years. Mrs. D. and Mrs. Mercer have been working alongside each other for the majority of their careers. Mrs. Mercer arrived a few years after Mrs. D. when Mrs. Mercer was hired in the middle school. The two moved to the elementary school together 18 years ago to teach second grade where they have been ever since. While visiting Mrs. D. today I was impressed with how much respect these two educators have for each other. As Mrs. D. told me “We are like sisters”.

I asked Mrs. D. what her biggest reward that she got from teaching she replied, “My biggest reward is seeing my students when they are grown up and succeeding in the real world; how amazing to realize that the high school principal, many of my co-workers, and even my mother’s home nurse were once taught by me”. Mrs. D. continues by saying that “Teaching has truly captivated my life”.

Finally, I have a story that speaks to the power of Mrs. D’s influence on her students. A few years ago one of our middle school students was struggling academically and emotionally. The student was in danger of dropping out. In a last ditch attempt to prevent that from happening our school psychologist asked the student if there was anyone in their life that they could hear from that would help them in her situation. The student immediately said, “Mrs. Dilulio”. Mrs. D. quickly sent a “care” package to the student and started a correspondence with the student that helped them through the tough patch. I can’t think of a better testament to an outstanding teacher.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Board Workshop Meeting Tonight

There will be a school board workshop meeting tonight at 6:00PM at the F.S.G. Elementary School library. The workshop agenda can be found here. The workshop is a meeting where the Board discusses potential action items for the upcoming Board meeting. Some items make it to the agenda at the regular Board meeting, while others do not. The process the School Board uses for making decisions is to have a workshop meeting one week prior to the regular board meeting. The meeting is open to the public and the public is invited to speak just like at the regular board meeting. There is usually a short executive session where the Board discusses legal or personnel issues. Most workshop agendas are driven by four types of potential actions: those items that must be considered every month, items considered seasonally, items considered yearly, and items that require special, immediate attention because of their uniqueness.

Yearly approvals are appointments for solicitor and other services. For example during this month, the school district is appointing an insurance broker. In addition there are regular agenda items that are discussed at almost every workshop. Examples include approving substitutes, bus drivers, and conferences and field trips. Additionally, there are items that come up seasonally. Approval of coaches, weight room supervisors, policy changes, Act 80 days approval, budget discussions and the long term maintenance fund are examples of this category from this workshop agenda. Finally, there are those items that are unusual or require the immediate attention from the Board. For example, the Board is grappling with the whether or not to have the auditor come and review the audit that had no “findings”. The Board must also review the superintendent’s evaluation in executive session this month.

I wanted to give you an overview of a “typical” workshop agenda and the process the Board uses to make decisions. I welcome you to the meeting tonight if you have the time or inclination to attend.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Press Release from Yale University for Mr. Hofmann

I am very proud to present to you the press release from Yale University announcing Mr. Hofmann as a recipient for the Distinguished Music Educator.  Again, congratulations!

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Worthwhile TV Program

For the past few Sunday nights I have found myself becoming reinvigorated by a television program. I know it seems odd to say that something on television can be reinvigorating, but I have found the program. The show is “Secret Millionaire” and it is shown on ABC at 8:00 on Sundays. The premise of this “reality” show is that a millionaire must live in a downtrodden neighborhood for a week living off the equivalent of one weeks pay on public assistance. To explain why there are television cameras following the person around, the secret millionaire tells people that he is part of a documentary centered on volunteerism. This cover works well because at the end of their week under cover the millionaire must find worthy organizations to give money to.

What I find invigorating about the show is not the millionaire giving away money…although that is wonderful. What really shows the goodness and kindness of people are the organizations and people that are volunteering their time, money, and resources to help people that are less fortunate than themselves. For example, in last night’s program, a small shopkeeper from Los Angeles gathers used clothes, sleeping bags and gives them to homeless people along with a hygiene kit that he makes. He literally fills a van with clothes and other items and passes them out to those in need on a sidewalk. What a great example of the shining light of the human spirit.

What does this mean for RASD? I believe that our curriculum must include more than just intellectual exercises. We must offer student’s experiences that allow them to give something of themselves while at the same time exploring the world to find goodness in human nature. I am very pleased that the school district requires volunteer hours for all high school students because I hear stories of students being positively changed by their volunteer experiences. The district must expand these efforts for our students. We do not have to send our students half way across the nation to find these experiences. There is enough to do in our local community that will help students experience the goodness of human nature.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"You Can't Make This Stuff Up..."

Mr. Reichard and Mr. Miklos
 Ridgway Area School District will be losing an informal institution due to the retirement of two friends in the Middle School. Mr. Miklos and Mr. Reichard have been teaching special education together for over 30 years with the last 16 in the Middle School. Combined, Mr. Miklos and Mr. Reichard have served the students at Ridgway for 75 years. They have been working across the hall from each other in the middle school for the last 16 years. I had an opportunity to sit down with them to ask them about their careers at Ridgway.

Mr. Miklos has been teaching in Ridgway for 38 years. He started at the Walnut Street school for a short while before moving into the “new” middle school. For the first 28 years Mr. Miklos worked for the Intermediate Unit and was assigned to Ridgway. When the school district took over the special education responsibilities ten years ago he officially became a Ridgway employee. A California (Pa) University graduate, Mr. Miklos grew up in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and was a substitute teacher in Pittsburgh for a short while before moving to Ridgway. When he first came to Ridgway he was teaching elementary students, “I was used to substituting in Pittsburgh school district at the high school level and when I came here I had all of these little children and I was afraid I was going to lose one of them!” The transition from an urban area to a rural area was made easier by the people he met here, “I have met a lot of nice people in this area. Everyone has been real nice”.

Mr. Reichard grew up in Milton, Pa and received his special education degree from Lock Haven University. Mr. Reichard taught for one year in Bradford and two years in St. Marys before moving permanently to Ridgway. He too worked for the Intermediate Unit until 10 years ago. He developed and taught the emotional support class in Ridgway for ten years. Mr. Reichard has also been the school district’s point person for our GED program and our incarcerated youth instructor for many years. Of his experiences in his 37 years as a teacher Mr. Reichard says “You can’t make this stuff up!”

The school district will feel a significant loss when Mr. Miklos and Mr. Reichard retire. Their presence at the end of the hall always brightened up the school. They were always ready with a story or a laugh. For example, Mr. Miklos told me, “Do you know I have eaten lunch with Mr. Reichard more than my wife?” I guess that happens when you work so closely with someone over that many years! Mr. Miklos and Mr. Reichard come from a generation of teachers that were passionate about their jobs. The caring and passion for students is still evident in the way these two do business every day. I have an incredible amount of respect for all educators that have spent their career serving the students, but I feel a special admiration for Irv and Al because of the professionalism and passion that they still show for their children. I wish you both a happy retirement…you have earned it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

May You Live in Interesting Times Continued....

How must education change and what are the opportunities for these changes? I believe there are three areas where education organization must address or risk becoming outdated.

1. Communication. We must come to the realization that communication between people and organizations has fundamentally changed. Instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook and many other platforms exist that allow a rich dialogue to develop between people. The communication that these platforms provide is not the “end”; rather, they are a means to an end. The “end” is easier access to information for everyone. Information can come from websites, blogs, or interaction with experts from around the world. The ramification for education is simple. First, teach students to be smart consumers of information. Second, incorporate these information gathering strategies into every class.

2. Transparency. All organizations, but especially public organizations, must have transparency in the way in which they conduct their business. Public school districts no longer have the luxury to say “just trust us” because there is a perception of mistrust in the public. I believe this perception is false and that the vast majority of public school districts operate under the strictest moral and ethical guidelines. However, in an effort to show everyone that school districts do operate under high ethical standards, then transparency is a must. Oftentimes community members will get upset about decisions the district makes because they are not aware of the information that was considered in making the decision. Other times, there are misconceptions about the information itself. The best way to combat this situation is to be as transparent as the law and confidentiality allows.

3. Flexible Organizations. In today’s fast paced world, organizations must respond to threats and opportunities in a quick, efficient manner. Bureaucracy often prevents organizations from responding efficiently. An entrenched, inflexible bureaucracy is the hallmark of an organization that is dying on the vine. An example for many organizations is the standing committee structure. Although there is a need for some standing committees, there is a tendency to try to “fit” a decision into a one of these committees when it may not belong there. The better way to respond is to have systems within the organizations that allow for efficient use of decision making resources. For example, at RASD the school board has moved away from some of their standing committees and has formed more ad hoc committees that address specific issues. These ad hoc committees are very specific in scope and time and can make good decisions in less time than a general committee.

Monday, March 21, 2011

May You Live in Interesting Times...

Yes indeed, we are living the age old curse in the education world. The highlights of what makes this time “interesting” are overwhelming in a lot of respects. Perhaps the most overwhelming highlight for public education is the increased “business model” of education reform. These reform ideas (i.e. increased accountability, attempting to calculate “return on investment” in education) lead to an increased skepticism of education institutions and the important work they do. Skepticism of the intensity currently propagated makes it difficult for educational institutions to defend themselves and continue the morally important work required of all of us. Yes, interesting times.

I see a problem and an opportunity resulting from living in these interesting times. The problem is obvious…less financial, political and community support for the work that we do. But why is there less support for education? Is it possible that the ground has moved beneath our feet and we in education have not recognized the movement yet while our communities have made this recognition? Are we holding onto the past in a last gasp effort to keep everything the status quo? These are the types of questions that can (and do) keep me up at night. Without a doubt, there are thousands of educators across the country who are doing marvelous things for the kids in their communities. Overall, our field is filled with people that are truly dedicated to helping students learn; but what if we are working in a system that is outdated and needs to adjust to a new reality. I think society is in a historic, transformation stage and education must seize this opportunity to change. The alternative is to disappear. Tomorrow I will discuss how public schools can adapt to a new reality.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PSSA Testing has Started in the School District

The annual rite of Spring is underway in the school district. Over the next four weeks students will take PSSA tests in Reading, Math, Science and Writing. These tests are meant to reflect what students have learned during this school year. The tests also serve as a basis for accountability measures as laid out in the No Child Left Behind law. Only two of the tests actually “count” toward these accountability measures, Math and Reading. However, the other tests allow the school to compare how our students perform versus other schools in the area. The tests results usually come back to the school district in a “rough draft” form in early June. This allows the school districts to review the data and find any mistakes that may have occurred in the processing of the tests. The public presentation of the tests scores are released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in August. RASD has made many improvements in instruction and curriculum during the past few years and we are confident that our students will continue to do well on any test that is given them. After all, good instruction from a good curriculum will allow students to perform well on any test given to them.

Finally, I want to make sure that RASD is known for more than just test scores. The PSSA tests are important because they form the basis for what the school is publically judged so we cannot ignore them. However, a well rounded education for all of our students involves more than just test scores. In the coming month I will form a committee that will discuss alternative ways for the school district to measure success. Yes, tests are one way to measure success, but we need to develop other measures of success that truly reflect an outstanding education. As our school district starts on the road toward becoming the best school district in the State, the community and district must make sure that there are other measures of success for which to judge the school district.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Great Honor for Mr. Hofmann

I would like to share some great news about our band director, Mr. Hofmann.  Mr. Hofmann has been selected to receive the Yale Distinguished Music Educator Award. Last Fall I nominated Shawn to receive this award and attend the music symposium at Yale University this summer. The symposium was looking for music instructors that use guest conductors to help their students and teachers that teach in different schools. Mr. Hofmann was also required to submit a resume and complete an application. This is a real honor. Mr. Hofmann will also attend ththe symposium at no cost to the district because of the award. I am so excited for Mr. Hofmann, our kids and the school. Our district is well on our way to becoming the best school district in the State!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Governor's Proposed Education Budget

The proposed Governor’s budget is a shock to the education community. Funding for public education is not a top priority ( to say the least). Ridgway Area School District is being affected by the resulting lower amount of State aid that is available to the school districts. I will discuss some of the bleak numbers in this blog post, but I will also discuss areas of opportunities that I believe are available to our schools and community.

The school district has been preparing for the day when less money is available for two years. We have watched the State funding for education being supported by Federal stimulus money for the last two budget cycles. Knowing that the federal money was going to go away in two years, we started to prepare for lower State funding in the 2011-2012 school year. As I have mentioned before, the school district has offered an early retirement option for all employees. 10% of our employees took advantage of the incentive with a resulting savings of over 2 million dollars over five years. The preliminary budget for the school district that was passed in January also assumed State Basic Education Funding (BEF) at the 2008-2009 school year. In addition, the budget also included $331,000.00 in budget cuts (2.1% from previous year). In other words, this was a very conservative budget that did not include any “frills”. We were also not under any delusions that the type of funding that education enjoyed in the previous years was going to continue.

Having said all of that, the Governor’s proposed budget cut a little deeper than we anticipated. State funding for education is at the 2007-2008 funding levels (not the 2008-09 level the school district budgeted). The proposal also eliminates various grants and other programs that the school district included in the preliminary budget. The addition of these new cuts created an additional $345,000 that needs to be cut from the budget. The School Board and the administration will work to make these further cuts. When you add the total that was already cut, with the total that must be cut further, then the school district's budget is $676,000 less than in the previous year (a 5% decrease). I am not panicked about these numbers. Cutting more is going to force the school district to make some uncomfortable decisions, but they will not be devastating cuts. There are other school districts and government entities that are worse off than we are. We will strive to keep the public informed of these decisions. Again, the school district is in better shape than most because of the fiscal constraint that the district has operated under for the past 20 years or so. The district also has no debt which allows flexibility in financial matters.

But all is not gloom in the school district. I am so confident in the ability of our school district to thrive in the upcoming years. We have laid a solid foundation that will serve as a starting point for great opportunities for our students. I see no reason that RASD cannot become one of the top 10 school districts in the State (if not the best school district in the State). As results from our recent school district celebration attest, our students have the resources and support needed to accomplish whatever their post secondary goals may include. The school district will have to become more focused over the next few years as support for public education at the state policy level dwindles. However, a continued, laser focus on our core mission will lead the school district to become an elite school district within the next four years. Please join us with your support and encouragement as we continue down the path toward become the best!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Children Living in Poverty

60 Minutes ran a disturbing story last night about children in poverty. Nationwide, 20% of children live in poverty (14,657,000 children). To be considered living in “poverty” a family of four must be making less than $22,000 a year. So let’s think about this. In the United States of America, arguably the most prosperous nation that has ever existed, we allow 20% (over 14 million) of our children to live in poverty. I think it is even more instructive to look at different levels of poverty, after all, $22,000 for a family of four is a very low threshold. If we were to look at families that make 150% of the poverty level ($32,000 a year for a family of four) then a staggering 31% of children are living in poverty (23 million). 

In Pennsylvania, 8% of children live in extreme poverty (extreme poverty is anyone that lives within 50% of the poverty line [household income of $10,800 for a family of two] and in the United States 9% of children live in extreme poverty) 17% live at or below the poverty line, and about 27% live between the poverty limit and 150% of the poverty limit. In Elk County, 12% of our children live below the poverty line while 25% live between the poverty line and 150% of the poverty line. In Pennsylvania the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour which comes out to just over $15,000 a year in earnings. If a couple with two children were working two minimum wage jobs, their combined income would still have them considered "poverty" because they make less than 150% of the poverty limit.

In our school district we aim to provide education and opportunities that will help all children (including those living in poverty) a chance to move ahead in society.  This is a daunting task but one that schools must undertake.

Friday, March 4, 2011

High School Award

Tuesday night at the free senior citizen supper, Larry Persing from Senator Scarnati's office presented a "Keystone Award" to the high school. Mr. Persing presented the award to students who were helping at the senior citizen supper.  The Keystone Award is given to high schools in Pennsylvania who have met "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) for two or more years.  AYP is determined by meeting the requirements set forth in "No Child Left Behind".  Along with the Keystone Award the high school has also been recognized by "school" as the 6th most improved high school in Pennsylvania last year based on test scores.  The improvement places the high school 116 of over 600 high schools in the State.  Great job to the students and staff at the high school!  The senior supper and presentation were part of the RASD Celebration which is wrapping up this week.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Freshman Podcast

I want to share with you a "podcast" created by two of our freshman.  A podcast is a recording that is saved in digital format.  This particular podcast was created as part of the Microsoft Word/PowerPoint class.  The topic is "The difference between 8th grade and 9th grade".  I think you will find it interesting.  The students, Jenni Thomas and Taylor Ross, did a fabulous job.  Please be patient as it may take a little while for the audio file to load.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Second Grade Student-Made Videos

I have included two examples of student-made videos here and here.  These videos were created by second grade students with the help of Mrs. Buhite's high school "21st Century Skills" class.  Every student had a chance to create a video and the theme was penguins.  After the videos were made, all of the second grade watched them on the "big screen" in the high school auditorium.  This was a great project and I would like to congratulate all of the second grade students and teachers and Mrs. Buhite and her class on a GREAT JOB!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pep Rally at FSG

Rep. Gabler presents awards to FSG students

Today a Pep Rally was held at FSG to help the students get excited about taking the PSSA tests.  Representative Matt Gabler was the featured speaker for the day.  Rep. Gabler encouraged the kids to do their best on the upcoming state tests and also led the entire school in cheers! Mr. Gabler also presented some FSG students with “Keystone Award”.  The Keystone Award is given to schools in the state that have met adequate yearly progress for two years in a row.  Rep. Gabler also had the opportunity to present the students with a “Title I” award recognizing FSG as one of the best Title I elementary schools in the State.  The school board and administration want to thank Matt for coming to our school and being such a good sport.
The pep rally was a part of the "RASD Celebration" that is happening over the next two weeks.
The FSG pep rally cheerleaders perform

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Parent in the School Day" at FSG

Mrs. Herzing and Mrs. Daghir welcoming parents
 Today was "Parent in the School Day" at FSG.  Today's celebration is part of the RASD Celebration occurring throughout the school district over the next two weeks.  Today over 100 parents had the opportunity to spend some time with their children in their classrooms.  Parents signed up to come in the morning or afternoon and spend up to an hour and half with their children.  The school district is excited to have parents and community involved in the school.  We are thrilled about all of the great things that happen in the school district and we are always happy to share these experiences.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Visit From Congressman Thompson

Today a group of students from the high school met with Congressman Thompson and discussed agriculture policy with him. The idea of meeting with the Congressman started in December when a group of students watched the movie Food Inc. The movie is an expose about how the food that Americans consumes is produced and the companies that control the production. The goal of this project is to get students involved in the democratic process and learn how to attempt to change the world in which they live. Immediately after the movie, students were debriefed in small groups and given a chance to discuss what they had just watched. Following the movie, a second meeting was arranged for the students to meet with local farmers and discuss how farmers on a “small scale” produce their commodities. Last week the students met with four local farmers and asked them questions about small-scale food production. Since the students have raised many questions about how the Federal government can impact food production, Congressman Thompson was invited to talk to the group. The Congressman graciously accepted.

The Congressman began by giving the students an overview of his work on the Agricultural Committee in the House of Representatives. He discussed the process involved in learning about farm policy and some of the bigger issues facing the government as it relates to farm policy. The Congressman then took questions from the students. The “Q&A” was a great opportunity for the students to interact with someone that will help shape agricultural policy. Finally, the Congressman encouraged the students to become involved in our great democracy. He offered specific suggestions on how students can (and should) become involved in letting their politicians know their view on different subjects.

Today’s event is part of the “RASD Celebration” that is occurring over the next two weeks. The school district thanks the Congressman for coming to the school to talk with the students. I would also like to thank the adults in the school that have been instrumental in providing this opportunity for our students. Rena Urmann, Mrs. Vargas, Ms. Schaut and Amy Goode have spearheaded this project and have done a wonderful job. Great job!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Awards and Honors in the School District

As the school district enters into "RASD Celebration" I thought you might be interested in some of the awards that our high school students have won in the last few days.  (This is a copy from the high school web site)

Congratulations to Logan Feronti for placing at District Chorus and moving on to Regional Chorus in Blairsville, where she will compete for a position in the State Chorus Competition! Way to sing it Logan!

Congratulations to Danielle Carlson who earned 1st Chair for percussion in last weeks District Band competition. Way to "beat" out your competition Danielle! Good Luck at Regionals in March!
Congratulations to the Ridgway High School Mock Trial Team and their advisors, Mrs. Viglione and Mrs. Cortina. RHS's prosecution and defense team both took first place at Friday's District Competition! Way to go RHS Mock Trial!

Members of the Mock Trial Team include: Katie Oknefski, Jenni Thomas, Bryanna Harvey, Katie Fields, Claire Grazioli, Sam Kovalyak, Ellie Woodford, Mike Knarr, Sarah McClain, Kaitlin Johnson, Ben Thompson and Veronica Colson.

The wrestling team won the District IX team championships two weeks ago.  Great job!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Repurposing in Education

I have written recently about how the state of Pennsylvania will be 1 billion dollars short in education funding in the upcoming school year. The ramifications of this shortfall are immense, but today I am not going to dwell on all of the possible negatives; today I want to discuss the possibilities that will open up in school districts across the State. Granted, the changes in schools that will result in a lack of funding will be extremely difficult to contemplate but our duty as educators and taxpayers is to move forward and continue to make sure that our children are receiving the best education possible. Today I will discuss repurposing in education.

Repurposing (according to Howard Bloom) is a word to describe the “radical change in the use of something”. For example, using a dictionary as a doorstop is a radical change from the original intended use of a dictionary. I believe that public education organizations will have to use repurposing in their relationship with the funds they receive from the State. Currently, the relationship (or purpose) of the money is to provide much the same education as has been in existence for close to 100 years. Academic programs “A,B, and C” are continued along with extracurricular programs “X,Y, and Z”. Over the years there have been minor changes and adjustments to the academic and extracurricular offerings, but there has never been a seismic jolt to this system. After all, the State provides money for “A, B, C and X, Y, Z”. In other words, the purpose of the money from the State is to keep the status quo and not change too much. I propose that public schools repurpose their relationship with State funds and view the money as a transformational tool. In Pennsylvania, the basic funding a school district receives from the State is called the “basic education funding” (which accounts for about 56% of funding for RASD). A repurposing look at school funding would call this “basic transformational education funding”. Let’s look at funding and all decisions that schools make as a chance to change the way schools provide education; where schools will provide education; to what purpose are they providing education; and how will the school organization change to meet these new needs. In a nutshell, this is the repurposing of school’s relationship with education funding.

At RASD the process of repurposing has started. Repurposing is grounded in the non-negotiable goals for student’s achievement and instruction set by the School Board one year ago. The school district has started to address the what, how, and where of education for the students of Ridgway. The Ridgway Virtual Academy is an example of how the school district will transform how students will be able to access the school district’s curriculum. The school district is also adjusting the curriculum and instruction to match the skills that students will need to become effective citizens in the 21st Century. Although I am worried about the ramifications of the 1 billion dollar shortfall in educational funding, I believe that our duty as educators is to attempt to change the framework from one of “deficit” into one of “surplus”.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Literacy Training

Today I want to discuss literacy. When I use the word “literacy” I mean the ability to read and to understand what you read. Every school district must assure that its students can read well and understand what they have read. Reading is a “gatekeeper” skill that affects every curricular area “life skill” of students. Literacy curriculum and instruction can be conceptualized in the following framework.

In K-3, schools must make sure that students have the foundation to be able to read. Foundational skills include letter and word recognition and lots of practice reading in the curriculum. At RASD, teachers at this level make sure that students are receiving rigorous reading instruction, but that the students are also receiving all of the help they need if they are struggling. Teacher teams pour over data to identify students that may need help and then design interventions that will assist the students in improving their reading skill.

In grades 4-8 (now that a solid foundation is in place) students must have the ability to “immerse themselves in the text” and be able to interpret text. In other words, they need to be able to understand what the text is saying at a deeper level. The students must also start to develop critical thinking skills at this time. School districts must make sure that children are “thinking for themselves” and not looking for the answers to problems that they think the adults in the room want them to say. I believe that schools must encourage writing at this level because putting words and ideas to paper is one skill that can help students become better critical thinkers. The RASD middle school is starting to make sure that all curricular areas are focusing on reading and understanding text.

In Grades 9-12 students must deepen their critical thinking ability and start to have action based on what they read. If society wants the United States to become a vibrant democracy then citizens must have the ability to read, reflect and act. At the very least, society should not want citizens to become easily hoodwinked by multi-national marketing ploys or government. This is an ideal framework that I hope will help you understand literacy training better.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What does a Billion Dollars Buy? Pennsylvania School Districts Will Soon Find Out

The Harrisburg Patriot-News has an article that all parents and community members of the Ridgway Area School District should read. The Corbett administration is telling school districts that there will be a 1 billion dollar “hole” in education funding for the next school year. Yes folks, that a billion with a capital B! In other words, the money that the Commonwealth gives the school districts as part of the “basic education funding” will be 1 billion dollars less. The ramifications for education across the state, and in Elk County, are enormous. Basically, the Commonwealth will be funding school districts at the 2006-2007 school year level. The reason for the enormous shortfall is explained in detail in the article, but can be summed up easily.

1. The Commonwealth has been using “stimulus” funds for the past two years to supplant State aid in education funding. That stimulus funding is now gone and is not being replaced.

2. The mismanagement of the pension fund by the State government is now impacting the school districts with school district contributions to the fund increasing from approximately 5% to over 20% in the upcoming years. For my blog about the pension “crisis”, please follow this link.

3. State revenues are down because of the poor economy. (As an aside, it is repugnant to me that the current lawmakers in Harrisburg will not consider a tax on natural gas extraction but would rather cut services to citizens of the State. Oh by the way, Pennsylvania is the only state without an extraction tax.)

The school district has been preparing for the day when the stimulus funds “go away”. What does this mean for RASD? The numbers are interesting. The school district gets about 56% of its total budget from the State. Our budget for the current year included $5,176,702 of basic education funding. The basic education funding for 2006-2007 was $4,599,000 and that is what we are being told to expect for the upcoming budget year. That difference, my friends, is large. The district has prepared for this day in the following ways:

1. The district has no debt service and is not planning any building projects in the future.

2. The district has been using a 5 year budget projection model to guide financial decisions for the past two budget cycles. By following the budget projections, the school district has

a. Reduced teaching staff by five positions in the last year.

b. Offered an early retirement incentive that is saving the school district over 2.2 million dollars over the course of five years.

3. The school district budget is 4% smaller than it was two years ago.

4. The school district has reduced spending across all levels of the budget including professional development, supplies, and many other areas.

What does the future hold? “Sacred cows” will have to be on the table for consideration during budget talks. Although Ridgway is not to this level of concern yet, many school districts in Pennsylvania will be forced to consider the following items or they will not be able to stay open. These items include:

1. Class size policies limiting the number of children in the classroom will have to be reconsidered

2. The role of athletics in the school system (“pay to play” or deleting them all together).

3. Art, music, technology or any other class work that is not required for graduation must be looked at.

4. Limit or eliminate all A.P. classes

5. Library services reconsidered

6. World language offerings reconsidered

7. Transportation requirements reconsidered

Again, RASD is NOT to this level of concern yet, but rest assured, there will be school districts in Pennsylvania forced into these types of decisions in the upcoming months. Ridgway Area School District is not in debt and has been planning for this event for two years which puts us in a better situation than most schools in the State. RASD and the school Board never believed that there would be some magical "fix" for the funding crisis after the stimulus money was gone. So the district is in better shape then most. However, the school district is heading into some uncharted territory over the next few years. The political climate in Harrisburg is one that is not sympathetic toward helping public service organizations (large multi-national corporations are another matter). I am confident that RASD will weather the storm, but I anticipate that our educational program will look considerably different at “the other end” of this trying period.

Friday, February 4, 2011

RASD Celebration

The Ridgway Area School District will have a district celebration during the weeks of February 21st and 28th. The celebration is an opportunity for the school district to share with the community all of the positive programs and initiatives that are taking place in the school district. RASD has always had a focus on students and “what is best for the children”. This focus has been the driving force behind the school district’s new mission statement (RASD: Where students will discover their purpose for today and their passion for tomorrow) and the school board’s five year non-negotiable goals for instruction and achievement. The celebration involves various events welcoming the community into the schools. So far the following events are planned:

1. February 22nd Congressman Thompson will meet with a group of 60 high school students who have questions about his work on the agricultural committee

2. February 24th representative Gabler will be at the elementary school to present students with the “Keystone” award for making “Adequate Yearly Progress” for two years in a row. (AYP is based on the requirements of No Child Left Behind) Representative Gabler will then spend some time talking to the students about doing well in school. The public is invited to this event. Please check out the elementary web site for specific details pertaining to the event.

3. February 28th will be a school board reception. Individual school board members will invite people for a private tour of the schools and enjoy a light lunch.

4. March 1st (my favorite) the school district will sponsor a free senior citizen dinner at the high school cafeteria from 4-6:30. Students will wait on tables and the senior citizens will have an opportunity to ask teachers, administrators and students questions about the schools. Immediately following the dinner the school board will conduct their March workshop meeting in the high school library.

There are more events that will take place at the schools so please check out the school web sites for information about those events! I am very excited about the prospect of showing off our school district. RASD is focused on providing the education our children need to thrive in the 21st century!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teacher Evaluations and Camera Use

I read with some interest a proposal by some Wyoming lawmakers to place cameras in classrooms as a way to evaluate teachers. Sponsors of the Bill believe that it will make it easier to evaluate teachers in this fashion (a principal can just watch some tapes) and will lead to better teaching. Although I have some grave concerns about this proposal on privacy grounds, I have a greater concern because of what it says about how teachers are currently evaluated in Wyoming. According to the article, teachers in Wyoming are only observed by their principal or supervisor once a year. If this is true, then this is a big problem. However, the problem does not need to be fixed by expensive cameras in the classroom and “Big Brother” watching over a classroom. The solution is deceptively simple: have principals observe teachers more often. I will explain RASD’s evaluation plan which will help you understand a good teacher evaluation system. This system is based on the work of Charlotte Danielson.

In RASD, the teacher evaluation plan is called the “Differentiated Supervision Plan”. The goal of the supervision plan is give teachers the resources and professional development they need to improve student achievement. This is accomplished in the evaluation system by having three “tiers” of teachers. The first tier is called the “Differentiated Professional Development”. This tier is only for teachers who are excellent at their craft. The teacher and principal meet at the beginning of the year to set goals for the upcoming year. The teacher is the most important person in this scenario since they know what they need to work on to become better and their goals will reflect action steps and resources needed to reach the goals. The district’s job is to provide a culture where the teachers can access the resources to improve in areas they identify. In this tier, teachers are informally observed twice a year. There are three meetings (at the start of the year, the mid-point of the year, and the end of the year) to review and update progress on the goals. There are rubrics and self assessments used throughout this process and you can access them in the plan.

The next tier is called the “General” level. In this level teachers are observed twice a year and they are working toward goals that are set at the start of the year. This is a more traditional evaluation tool as it requires two observations and pre and post observation meetings between the principal and teacher. At RASD, every teacher “cycles” through this level at least once a year. This level is also meant for teachers that may have had difficulty in the top tier, or have improved from the bottom tier.

The last tier is called “Structured”. This tier has two parts to it. The first is meant for new teacher and the second is meant for “at-risk” teachers. I will not go into too much detail about this plan but I will highlight a few things. First, everyone in this tier is observed four times a year. The observations are meant to monitor progress toward goals set at the beginning of the school year with the principal. There are numerous pre and post observation meetings and use of rubrics all meant to closely monitor the teacher. The purpose of this tier is to make sure that new teachers have the ability to perform well and that at-risk teachers have the resources they need to improve. There is a very detailed procedure for at-risk teachers that involve committees and improvement plans crafted with the teacher and the principal. If these plans are not followed then the teacher is will not work for the school district. I cannot stress enough how important it is that the school district administration realize that it is the duty of the school district to help teachers improve. Once the district has provided the training and resources that the teacher has identified as necessary to improve, and they do not improve, then the duty now shifts to the teacher’s union to help the district weed these poor teachers out of the system.

As you can see the goal of the evaluation system at RASD is to help teachers reach goals and improve. Even our best teachers know that they can always improve in some area. Instead of putting cameras in the classroom, put principals in the classrooms, they should be there anyway.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson

This is a fabulous talk about the current state of education in our society.  The way the lecture is presented is equally fascinating.  For anyone that is interested in education, creativity and improving the school experience for all children, this video is a must watch.  What he says about the decline of divergent tihnking in kids as they move through the school system is very disheartening.

Article on Education in Finland

I have just read a very good article given to me by Mr. Jared Kuleck, one of our fifth grade teachers. I appreciate (and enjoy) the professional conversations that result from sharing articles and books with colleagues. This particular article discusses the educational system in Finland. For those of you who have a life and don’t read about educational issues all of the time, Finland is every educational policy maker’s “darling” right now. Regardless of where one comes from the political field, it seems that all agree about what a great job Finland is doing educating it’s kids. This particular article attempts to understand the “why” of Finland’s success.

The article is written by a famous educator, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University. In the article she posits that two areas of reform within the educational system created the Finnish success. The first area was that the government decentralized education. Finland went from a highly centralized system where a national curriculum must be followed to a system where the national curriculum is simply a guide for the local areas to follow. In a related policy change, Finland also deemphasized mass testing of students (you do not need the testing if you do not have to “check” on the curriculum). These two policy changes were implemented to give more local control of education to communities. The second area of change was to create a teaching cadre that is well trained. The government encouraged college graduates to go into teaching by paying for graduate school and giving the teachers a stipend while they continued their education. Educators also have much more say in their continued professional development. In other words, the teachers help decide what they will learn from year to year to help students achieve. The end result of this professionalization of teaching was that decentralization was more effective. The government trusted the local schools to make good educational decisions and the government did not have to monitor the system. This is a refreshing idea which is NOT the way in which the United States operates its school system.

There is a lot that all of us can learn from good examples. Finland does many things right. Here at RASD the school district has spent a lot of energy to align professional development with needs expressed by teachers. These needs are focused on improving student achievement. Although the school system must operate in a educational system that is increasingly centralized and “top down”, the district attempts to create a local imprint everything that we are required to do by the state and national educational policy makers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mr. Connelly and Mrs. Hanes

The school district offered a retirement incentive this year as part of the 5 year budget plan. Fifteen employees took advantage of the incentive. I will spend the next month or so profiling the people that took advantage of the incentive and have served the students and community of the Ridgway Area School District.

The first two people have spent a combined 76 years working for the school district. Sandi Hanes and Bill Connelly have been an integral part of the school community for many years. Mr. Connelly started teaching English at the high school in 1971 with Mr. Jim Donavan his first principal. Throughout his 28 years in the classroom he taught everything from English Literature to Stage Design. Mr. Connelly also directed many student plays and musicals at Ridgway with his most memorable being “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. After 28 years in the classroom, Mr. Connelly moved into the principal’s chair where he served as a high school and middle school principal for 12 years. It is difficult for anyone to condense a 40 year career, but I asked Mr. Connelly what was his fondest memory of his time at Ridgway. Although there are many, he told me about one time in particular:

“One of my fondest memories was when I was high school principal and I had the opportunity to present a World War II veteran with his diploma. He had enlisted before graduation and never received his diploma. The veteran’s family contacted me and requested that he receive his diploma. Dr. Grandinetti authorized the diploma. Signatures were obtained, and I presented him with his diploma on stage during graduation. The expression on his face as he received his diploma was priceless.”

Mrs. Hanes started working for the school district in 1975 as a substitute and a teacher aid. In 1976 she was hired as a Spanish language teacher. Throughout the years Mrs. Hanes has been very active as a sponsor for clubs and sports. She has served as the cheerleading advisor for 35 years and student council advisor for 33 years. During her time as a teacher at Ridgway Mrs. Hanes has also served as a ski club advisor and assistant National Honor Society advisor. In 1979 Mrs. Hanes started taking the Spanish Club to Mexico every year. Starting in 2002 these trips were changed to yearly trips to Spain. Both Mrs. Hanes and Mr. Connelly have become woven into the fabric of Ridgway Area school District. I wish them well next year and they will be missed. I am also confident that both Mr. Connelly and Mrs. Hanes will give over 100% to the school district and the students right up until the last day they are here!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Play and Challenge"

What does the word “challenging” mean for students and education? I recently read an article in The School Administrator that discusses the change in the philosophy behind the way schools teach Kindergarten kids. For those of you unfamiliar with Kindergarten today, let’s just say “it is not your grandma’s kindergarten”. Kids are reading small booklets and many schools have entrance requirements to kindergarten that can prevent students from enrolling. (Ridgway does not prevent students from enrolling no matter how poorly students may perform on the enrollment screening) The authors are concerned that the strategies being used to “drill” reading strategies into children in all early grades simply do not work. In fact, the authors claim, the schools are doing harm to children when you consider what is taken out of the school day to make room for these strategies----namely play. Play is important for cognitive, social and emotional development. Play is also the first casualty of increased “drill” in schools. On the other hand, supporters of a more drill oriented curriculum like to talk about the fact that “their way” is more “challenging”. The word “challenging” is what I would like to discuss.

First of all, making sure that all students have the foundation for reading proficiency in kindergarten through third grade is paramount. The biggest disservice a school system can do to a child is NOT to prepare them at this critical time to be able to read. The false dichotomy is that a school must choose between a “drill and kill” approach that is “challenging” and a total “play” approach that is not “challenging”. Here is what I would like to see in a reading curriculum at the primary grades

1. I want to see a curriculum at this age level that is challenging for students to be creative.

2. I want to see a curriculum where students are challenged to think critically. Does “drilling” reading strategies promote critical thinking and creativity?

3. I want a curriculum that challenges the schools to make reading instruction relevant to students in kindergarten and the primary grades.

4. I want a curriculum that challenges teachers to use research based approach to instruction and curriculum that is holistic and addresses the entire child’s needs.

I do not think that the preceding wish list is unattainable. The word “challenging” should apply to everything that a school district uses to help children learn regardless of whether it is “drill” or “play”. In other words, the words “play” and “challenging” can (and should) be used to describe a good, well thought out reading curriculum.  I know that is what the Ridgway Area School District is striving for.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sled Riding

I usually try to write blogs that relate either to the school district specifically or education generally.  Today I am not going to follow that script.  Today I want to talk about the unadulterated fun that is involved in sled riding through the woods with your children.  We have a nice steep hill behind our house and there is a path that winds its way through it.  In the summer we use the path for walking and in the winter for sled riding.  Yesterday the path was a sheet of ice and it was great fun.  We built a “ramp” and we took turns flying off the ramp either by ourselves or with partners.  My youngest child and I went down the hill together quite a few times.  On the last trip we hit the ramp and flew at least three feet in the air and landed ten feet down the trail before crashing. (Okay, we got about an inch of “air” and landed about a foot past the ramp, but it felt like a lot more!)  I recommend that everyone invite a neighborhood elementary student to go sled riding.  You will find your inner child and have a blast.  One caution if you do this:  you will be sore the next day!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Professional Learning Communities “Think Tanks”

Today I am going to discuss “think tanks”. In the elementary school, think tanks are grade level teams of teachers who meet every six weeks. Think tanks are a time when a group of teachers come together for a day to accomplish three things: 1. Set goals for their classrooms 2. Set goals for themselves 3. Discuss students who may need help and develop a plan to address these needs. Think tanks are a form of a “professional learning community” (PLC). PLC’s are a powerful tool in education because it allows for collaboration among colleagues. PLC’s are a form of adult professional development that builds the skills and learning capital of the teachers. This in turn benefits the students as the focus of teacher attention becomes specific students and specific learning outcomes. All schools within RASD have some form of a PLC operating. PLC's are another example of how the school district has incorporated cutting edge initiatives to benefit students.

When I listen to politicians bash public education and public educators, I wish they would come and spend some time in one of RASD’s think tanks. Teachers spend their time in think tanks intensely focused on students and student achievement outcomes. The teachers will focus on individual students and what their needs as well as what the group of students collectively need. The passion to help kids is evident during these meetings and politicians and other public education naysayers need to see this.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Curriculum Maps

Today I would like to take some time and discuss curriculum mapping. Curriculum “maps” are documents that detail what the children are learning for different subjects throughout the year. School districts develop curriculum maps to fit the needs of their district. If you compare Ridgway’s curriculum map with another school district it may look different. Usually all curriculum maps have content standards and essential questions but they may have even more information. Teachers create the curriculum maps to assist them in planning instruction and developing common assessments. Ridgway Area School District and the Ridgway School Board believe that curriculum maps that are made available to the public will lead to more transparency in school district operations.

At RASD curriculum mapping is part of the two year curriculum action plan that the school board has adopted. Teachers and staff are creating curriculum maps this school year to help build a final curriculum this summer. The school district will start posting curriculum maps next week on the district’s web site. Although some maps will not be complete because the school year is only half over, I want to make sure that the public has the opportunity to view the documents as soon as possible. The first grade team has created a very good curriculum map for math. Please review it and keep on the lookout for the rest of them on our web site.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2011-2012 Preliminary Budget Part I

The preliminary Budget for the 2011-2012 school year is now available for public inspection. The preliminary budget calls for a 1 mill tax increase. This is the second year in a row for a tax increase but there had been no tax increase the previous 11 years. I will discuss the particulars of the budget in tomorrow’s post, but for now I want to discuss the timelines and procedures that district must follow to adopt a budget.

The budget is currently open for public inspection. You can find the budget here, at the school district’s web site, or you can come to the superintendent’s office to review it. The school board will vote on the preliminary budget at the February Board meeting. The word “preliminary” is very important. The Board is approving the budget in preliminary form this early in the year so the school district can apply for Act 1 exceptions. Act 1 does not allow school districts to raise property taxes above an “index” that the State determines. This year RASD’s index is .6 mills. However, Act 1 does allow for the school district to apply for exceptions that (if approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education) allow the school district to raise taxes above the index. This year the school district will ask for an exception because of the increase in retirement costs. I have discussed the pension “crisis” in a previous post. If PDE approves the exception then the school district can raise property taxes to the 1 mill level that is reflected in the preliminary budget. PDE will inform the district by March 23th whether or not the exception has been granted. Finally, in May the final budget will be available for public inspection and the board will approve a final budget in June. There is a lot of opportunity for public feedback during the budget process. Additionally, there can be changes made to the budget between now and June.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Board Meeting Tomorrow Night

The school Board meeting tomorrow night at the elementary cafeteria will be the opening round of building the 2011-2012 budget.  At this meeting, the Board will decide whether or not to build a “preliminary budget” What this means is that the board can make a preliminary decision to raise taxes more than the State allows (which is 1.7 mills). If they make that decision, then the meeting for the preliminary budget will be publically announced and the budget scrutinized.  The school board will then work throughout the Spring to create a budget that will meet the long term goals of the school district while at the same time preserving its financial sustainability. The final budget will be approved in June. I know that this Board is very dedicated to both the providing the best for the children while also keeping a close eye on the tax burden for the community members.  I will blog about the specifics of the budget and the budget process in the next few blogs.  I hope that these blogs will allow the community to understand the budget (and the process), and to increase the transparency of the budgeting process.  As always, please contact me through this blog or through our web site with any questions.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Adjacent Possible in Education

I would like to talk today about something that has been percolating in mind since I read Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. The idea is called “the adjacent possible”. This is basically the “space” that exists as a “next step’ in an innovation. In other words, what are the possibilities in the future for a particular innovation or good idea? As Johnson himself has written in an essay in the Wall Street Journal:

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: "the adjacent possible." The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. ….The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

What does this mean for education and Ridgway Area School District? First, I want to state that public education can be a place of innovation. I would further state that public education (and our society) must have innovation in public education if democracy is to survive. Second, I am using innovation as a term that means more than the politicized mumbo-jumbo that Federal programs like Race to the Top have turned the term into. True innovation can only come from a grass roots development of ideas that meet the needs of a local community and school.

The nature of innovation indicates that it must develop slowly and that it builds momentum as good ideas emerge and develop into the “adjacent possible”. Public school systems must start the process of building momentum by developing innovative ideas that address local needs. The first step is to ground decisions in a school district based on local values and needs. This will assure that the decisions reflect local “flavor” (something that Race to the Top failed to take into account). Once this is done, a list of issues that are threatening the values of the school district or community must be made. Solutions to address these threats are then developed. This is somewhat simplistic, but I believe that you must start at a basic, grassroots level. Action is important. You cannot move close to the adjacent possible if there is no action.

At the Ridgway Area School District the district has moved closer to an adjacent possible in a few areas and I will use one area for an example. The Ridgway Virtual Academy provides an alternative educational setting for students so they can access classes for enrichment, credit recovery for seniors, alternative placement, and use for classroom teachers. The adjacent possible for the RVA involves a “school without walls” that can complement the “brick and mortar” schools that we currently occupy. As the district continues to innovate more “doors” open to more possibilities to help the school district serve our community and students.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kindergarten Registration

Kindergarten registration is being held this Thursday and Friday at the elementary school.  The school district is having registration a little earlier so we can get a firm handle on how many students will be in kindergarten next year.  By having registration this early, the administration and school board will be able to have better data to make decisions when creating a budget.  If you or someone you know has a student that is eligible for kindergarten please register at the elementary school.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Welcome Back!

I hope everyone has enjoyed the Christmas holidays with their friends and family.  The Ridgway Area School District is starting the New Year running.  Tonight at 6:00PM in the elementary school library the school board will meet and discuss the budget for the 2011-2012 school year.  Tonight the board will have to decide whether or not to pass a resolution stating that the school district will not raise taxes above the index provided by the State.  If the board decides that raising taxes above the index is a possibility, then a preliminary budget must be adopted at next week's regular school board meeting.  If the board decides not to raise taxes above the index, then the regular budget process ensues which culminates in a first reading of a budget in May.  For perspective, the index for Ridgway this year is 1.7 mills.  In other words, the school district cannot raise taxes above this level without going to a voter referendum.

For some background about the previous budget please search for the blogs from last April.