Empowering Teachers and Students

I’m attending the NYSCATE conference in Rochester, arrived yesterday morning and leaving tomorrow afternoon. I’ve been coming to this conference about technology in education off and on for many years, the first of which was as a teacher for Pine Valley. Why do I come? To stretch my thinking, learn something new, talk with others who have similar interests. What am I leaving with? A renewed sense of commitment that we can do more and we can do it better.

I started yesterday as I expected, attending sessions that left me with notes like, “consider Fablevision’s Animation-ish for Mrs. Griffith, it looks better than the software she’s got; Starboard vs. Smartboard–what’s the cost? Any promos on quantity purchase?; check out more about Qwizdom as a flexible student response system; look at the Lumens document cameras, with a 5 yr. warranty, for Science teachers; ask if anyone is using Brainpop’s digital citizenship piece.”

That’s what I signed up for–ideas about smart technology. What I got next ramped this conference up considerably for me. Chris Lehmann. I’ve been reading Chris for at least three years, he’s the principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, a magnet school. When I started blogging in 2006, Chris was also out there writing and along with Christian Long we had some of the best conversations of my early blog learning. To finally meet Chris face to face reminded me why those conversations were so helpful to me.

I want to leave education when my time is done having done something important and meaningful that benefits our kids, our teachers and our community. I don’t think it’s my job to keep everything just as it’s always been–that’s how we will eventually become obsolete and I’m not game for sailing into retirement knowing I did nothing to change, that I didn’t lead our organization. We can do this better. Not that we aren’t doing it well, just that we can do it better. School can have more meaning and purpose for our students than it does now. And here’s why attending Chris Lehmann’s afternoon session and key note last night left my brain spinning early this morning. Chris talked about how they have made the entire learning experience different at Science Leadership Academy and on every point I thought, “why can’t we do that?” It wasn’t that he’s a magnet school and we’re not. It’s that they have a vision and goals and a plan–a system of student learning to which  every member of the organization is committed, focused on, and working.

Too many people in our educational system are comfortable and happy with the way things are to the point that they don’t make anything better happen. As Chris said last night, then it’s all about them not the kids. And what did Chris say that I’m most considering? “It’s not about engagement. A TV show can be engaging. It’s about empowerment and meaningful work.”

From Wikipedia we can learn what the Science Leadership Academy is about and what they are committed to,

The Science Leadership Academy, or SLA, is a magnet high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that opened in September 2006. The school is a partnership between The Franklin Institute and the School District of Philadelphia. SLA is a 1:1 laptop school where all students and teachers use Macintosh laptops as their primary learning tool. This is the first year with a full house of students, grades 9-12, with approximately 500 students in the school. The first class of seniors will graduate from the Science Leadership Academy in June 2010.

The Science Leadership Academy is an understanding-driven, project-based school where the learning is centered around the five core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. Students do benchmark projects every quarter to demonstrate the application of their learning.

In Spring 2009, SLA was named an Apple Distinguished School, one of only 33 schools in the nation with that distinction[1]. In addition, SLA was featured in the April 2007 Edutopia Magazine article, “My School, Meet MySpace” where the school is called “… [John] Dewey for the digital age, old-fashioned progressive education with a technological twist.”[2]

Inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. Exactly what I hope my own kids will  do well as adults. Empower my kid and give him meaningful work. He isn’t going to get anywhere in life by being a good test taker. Better yet, empower our kindergarten students and first graders and let’s give them those experiences all the way through–let’s make their education relevant and a part of their lives that they can’t wait to get to each day. I’m not saying we have to be SLA, but why can’t we be RCS, just better? Why can’t we give our kids meaningful work in our classrooms and empower them? Lots of our teachers are already doing that, from Kindergarten through the Senior year. We need more work as a system to make it happen consistently and with planning and for every child in every classroom. And that’s the same thing just about every other public school needs too. Let’s not wait for them. Let’s make it happen in Randolph.

And why is Randolph any different, why can we make it happen? Because we already do this better than any other public school district I’ve been in–our kids are learning in meaningful ways in classrooms throughout this district every day. Let’s plan for it to happen as a system.

Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership.

Randolph Central School Facebook Page

Randolph Central School District now has a Facebook page. This is a place where Facebook members can connect, communicate and collaborate. If you’re a Facebook member and are interested in the Randolph school district, please join us. The group name is Randolph Central School District, Randolph, New York.

I could just leave this post at that, right? An announcement of a relatively benign new media source. After all–this blog, the Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube videos, our school website with some amazing teacher webpages–are all on-line sources for members of our school community to COMMUNICATE. A quicker, more real time version of the good old fashioned school newsletter–a source those connected can go to for information, to ask questions, to offer opinions. And now with the Facebook page, a place to announce reunions or to find old friends, to talk about the game Friday night and how to get tickets, or to announce upcoming events.

I wonder how many people won’t think it’s benign. There are still a lot of people who don’t participate, who don’t understand and who therefore, may fear these types of media. But if I don’t step up and use them productively, how will they ever know? How will they ever see it as anything other than what they perceive?

I know on-line sources of information can’t replace more traditional media/communication tools (at least not yet)–we have members of our school community who aren’t connected here. But many of my teachers, parents and students are connected on Facebook–so why not join the conversation?

I need to lead as a superintendent. I want to step up and use the tools I hope our teachers are using. Why not a facebook page created with your class to communicate about that night’s homework assignment? Or for a sports team where all of the parents and students can join and share photos?

I know, I know. Because it’s DANGEROUS. (Read sarcasm here please.) People may do bad things on there. They may make disparaging remarks or connect in inappropriate ways. But you know what? Our fear of what could go wrong should not prohibit us from using these tools for the 99% of the community members who will do so appropriately and productively.

Are we going to make all of our decisions based on what can go wrong? Or are we going to make them based on what we make go right? And if we’re not leading the way, if we’re not stepping out as role models and as teachers to show kids the appropriate way to create content and to use these tools, who will? Who’s going to show them, through example and discussion, how to leave a digital footprint that will help them get a job, instead of telling them later that their posted content wasn’t as private as they thought and actually hurt their chances?

And if you’re worried the teachers won’t use it correctly or appropriately, please remember that we trust them with our kids every day, can’t we trust them with collaborative communication tools too? I want our teachers leading learning and out here is one of the best places to learn to lead. Let me be one of the first to raise my hand so you know it’s safe to raise yours too.

Saying Goodbye

In my twenty years in education, I’ve had to say goodbye to treasured colleagues more than once. Either because someone took another job or because I was moving to a new district, it’s always bittersweet. While I wish the person well, I often miss our daily contact. If you think about it, we often spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our own family members. Friendships are formed through the difficult decisions, challenges, and laughs that we share together.

So here I am saying goodbye again this week. Our middle school principal, Bill Caldwell, has been selected to lead an outstanding elementary school in a neighboring district. He’s an excellent selection for them; he’s outgoing, positive, wonderful with children, and enthusiastic. It’s a great move for him personally and professionally. I truly believe that a move to a new district can be an incredible opportunity for administrators as we learn new ways of doing things and face new challenges. I absolutely know that this is the best move for Mr. Caldwell.

And yet today, I’m very sad to see him go. Bill and I have known each other since our days as teachers at Pine Valley Central School. I remember when he would come into my classroom as a special ed teacher to help my business students better understand disabilities. He was warm and funny and really reached my kids, helping them to gain understanding and compassion. I also remember chaperoning a senior class trip together to NYC. Bill was the one I had to turn to at dinner and say, “Um, Bill, we just let the bus go and I didn’t make arrangements to get these 54 kids from here to the broadway show we booked.” Bill calmly (as always) pointed out that he and I had better skip dinner and walk to a pay phone (days before cell phones, if you can believe it) to arrange the transportation. Problem solved.

While I can sometimes go from 0-60 faster than a Corvette ZR1, Bill  keeps it steady at just the right speed. He did it then, he was that same guy as assistant principal here when I was the principal, and he’s right there keeping the pace for me now. So this time, I’m saying goodbye to a dear and treasured friend, not just a work colleague. Someone who can look me in the eye on a bad day and when I reply as the superintendent that everything is great, he gets past that to ask what’s really wrong. He’s a great friend because he doesn’t just ask to ask, he then listens intently. I don’t take that for granted because in my job, most of my time is spent listening to others, problem solving and responding.

Bill’s also a great friend because he’s got a terrific sense of humor. My sarcasm is never lost on him, he never misinterprets me or thinks I mean something other than what I just said. His intellect allows him to remember every person he’s ever met. This is great at those times when I say, “remember that kid we had trouble with when I was here as principal? you know, the one with the funny haircut who loved Rob Zombie?” and Bill knows exactly who I mean and remembers his name. Who’s going to do that for me now? I’ll be calling him at Southwestern asking, “what was that. . . ?” The good thing is knowing that Bill will know what I’m talking about–that’s only possible with friends who go ‘way back’.

I wish you the very best my friend. I know we’ll say things like, “Derek and I will meet you and Amy for dinner some night” and that with both of our busy lives and kids we’ll never get around to it. My best hope now is that we end up working together in some capacity for the last ten years of our careers, just like we did during the first and then second ten years. Go make a difference!

Mechanics Bay Lift–Again

On Monday morning I met with Gary Sandburg from Sandburg Oil Co., Inc. in regard to the safety inspection of our bus lift. I’ve written about this problem previously on this blog–this is one of the reasons we put forth our proposition to the voters on May 19 for a project to construct a two mechanics bay addition to our current bus garage. We need a bigger space with a new lift to effectively and safely complete work on our fleet. As frequent readers know, the proposition was defeated by one vote.

I spoke publicly about the problems with our current garage including the unsafe lift. It seemed prudent to meet with an expert to consider our next best option. After all, we were still using the lift daily and if I know that it’s endangering the safety of my employees, it’s my obligation to either remedy that problem or to prohibit the activity that’s unsafe.

Well the conversation didn’t take long. Gary said that he’s been telling us we shouldn’t be using it for years. I asked him if he would service a bus under this lift and his emphatic response was “NO”. He told me that we’ve been telling him for years that we just needed to keep the lift going until we could build a new bus garage or mechanics bay. Here’s what Mr. Sandburg sent me in writing to follow up on our conversation:

Subject: Safety Inspection of Bus Lift, Rotary Model #T110A (circa 1960)

It is my opinion that this lift does not meet the current safety regulations for the following reasons: 

  1. Age of the lift and wear of the parts. All parts are obsolete.
  2. Lift does not have incremental locking positions and can not be retrofitted.
  3. Lift does not meet Automotive Lift Institute specifications (which he enclosed for me in his letter).

What choice did I have at this point? I closed down the lift and directed the mechanics to stop using it. They’ve since taken the bolts out and removed the lift that was above the ground. We have hydraulic jack stands and the mechanics will perform all possible work with the use of the jack stands but I know darn well that it’s going to take them longer to complete work on their backs than it would under an adequate lift.

I’ve also asked them to document everything that they’re doing–what work can they do without the lift? And naturally, I want to see all of the bills from work we’re now forced to send to Jamestown. And don’t forget I still need these two guys to ready and then transport the vehicles for inspections in Falconer or repairs in Jamestown. I also need them to do all routine maintenance possible without outsourcing, keep the buses that transport our 950 students safe, handle all routing, answer questions and calls from the parents, and supervise the drivers, sometimes driving when we’re short.

What still fries me about the whole issue is the fact that this is going to cost us more. Because we didn’t pass the project, which would have been state aided at 83% with the other 17% paid from our capital reserve, we will now pay more for service and repairs–at our taxpayers’ expense. I’m proud of the fact that we’re at a 0% increase to the tax levy in 2009-10, which means no increase in school taxes for our community next year. If we’ve got a chance of delivering that again in 2010-11, I already know I’ll either have to increase because this cost goes up or cut somewhere else to sustain it. I had a good solid solution to our problem with no taxpayer cost impact and now I’ve got this. Frustrating, to say the least.

Business First Rankings

Randolph Central may be in the middle of the pack for the school rankings for our elementary, middle school and high school but check this out—#3:

The following are the top 50 high school sports programs in Section VI, based on Business First’s analysis of competition in 18 team sports from the spring season of 2005 through the winter season of 2008-2009.

The sports included in the study were: baseball (boys), basketball (boys and girls), bowling (boys and girls), cross country (boys and girls), field hockey (girls), football (boys), lacrosse (boys and girls), rifle (coed), soccer (boys and girls), softball (girls), volleyball (boys and girls) and wrestling (boys).

Champions in all size classifications were counted equally. Champions from the most recent year (spring 2008 through winter 2008-2009) were awarded four points each, down to one point each for the most distant champions (spring 2005 through winter 2005-2006). Ties above were broken by the total number of sectional champions.

The following rankings do not include public high schools from Section V or any private high schools:

• 1. East Aurora (17 sectional titles, 42 points)

• 2. Orchard Park (12 sectional titles, 30 points)

• 3. Randolph (13 sectional titles, 29 points)

• 4. Clarence (11 sectional titles, 29 points)

• 5. Maple Grove (9 sectional titles, 29 points)

• 6. Fredonia (11 sectional titles, 28 points)

• 7. Lancaster (10 sectional titles, 23 points)

• 8. Hamburg (7 sectional titles, 22 points)

• 9. Forestville (8 sectional titles, 21 points)

• 10. Amherst (9 sectional titles, 19 points)

What a wonderful distinction for all of our athletes, coaches and families! We are constantly striving to do better in our instructional program, studying the data and working hard. I know our rankings will improve over the next several years for academics as we incorporate new strategies to meet the needs identified in our analysis of the data. But for today, June 4, 2009, with our Lady Cardinals Girls Softball team headed to a Class C Section 6 title–I’ll take it! Success comes in any number of ways.

Let’s do what we do best Ladies, go get ’em!



Why Do We Do It This Way?

With all of the different roles and responsibilities we have as administrators, I have to say that one of the meetings I had today is a great example of my absolute favorite part of my job. It wasn’t the kind of meeting where everyone sits there and listens to one person pontificate or the kind where you feel like you’re just meeting to meet. Neither was it the kind of meeting where everyone shows up physically but few are engaged mentally. Nope. Not that kind of meeting.

So what was so great about it? It was cooking–the energy was flowing and everyone was actively engaged. Two principals, a guidance counselor and me, the superintendent, talking about one of our programs. Evaluating what we do now. Examining how we make decisions. Identifying areas of strength and those of weakness. Solving problems and making improvements. Answering every question I threw at them without hesitation.

How did it happen? Everyone knew ahead of time what the topic was and what I needed from him. Everyone came ready to work, we were in and out in 60 minutes, no wasted time. I asked questions that got to the heart of our practices and questioned why we do things the way that we do. And every time we realized that we did it that way because “it’s the way we’ve always done it”, we reevaluated and planned a better approach. We reviewed every one’s role moving forward before we left and clarified what we’d decided.

Sounds good, right? But what really made it work? I’ve finally been here long enough to establish trust on this particular team. The three men in the room with me all know that I’m just asking to ask; I want solid answers based on data; I don’t want everyone to agree with me just because I’m the “boss”; I love a good argument; and it’s okay to uncover mistakes. It’s how we learn and grow. I love that I’ve reached this with this team in six months. I don’t take it lightly because I know it takes time for us to understand one another and for them to trust me enough to share openly.

Too often people are afraid to have that open exchange of ideas about where we are because they don’t want to be blamed for it. If we can just take an approach that says “it is what it is” now “how can it be better?” we’ll be able to brainstorm and IMPROVE. Fear of reproach is how we end up closing the doors to our classrooms and offices and doing the same things year after year–fear of reproach for doing it the only way we knew how in the first place.

The best part of this job is taking the time to watch people work through all of the analysis and come out on the other side with a better plan than the one we walked in with–and then empowering them to make it happen. Asking the right questions. Once we leave our egos outside and trust one another, now that’s when we can really get cooking and make real change in our schools. Change that’s so slow so often because so many people are afraid of exposing the problems. Unless we get messy and really look at the parts that aren’t working–bring them out into the light and evaluate them–how does anything ever get better?

That’s the part that makes being an administrator such a blast in the first place–the chance to make something better than it was when we got there. Otherwise, what the heck are we here for?

Please note: this entry is cross posted at  Leader Talk, the online version of the national education journal Education Week. Leader Talk is the first group blog by school leaders for school leaders, it expresses the voice of the administrator in this era of school reform. I am one of the contributing authors to Leader Talk.”

My Own Chance to Learn

I’m currently attending two days of training for the superintendents of the Joint Management Team which encompasses Erie 1, Erie 2, and Catt/Alle BOCES. The session today was focused on Capacity Building, Moodle, and MUVE. Moodle is a very efficient and thorough way to offer course content to students on-line. I’ve seen teachers do such a terrific job with Moodle that their students became completely dependent on finding all of the content and resources in one spot any time they need it. Pretty cool stuff. For MUVE we got to have a look around in Second Life, a virtual world in which we could go to receive professional development opportunities–and a whole lot more is going on there than that but today we focused on the possible educational purpose.

I’ve been interested in Second Life for a while but I doubt I’ve got the patience to mess around in there long enough to see the value. It’s sort of like Twitter was for me, intriguing, but not sure how it enhances my learning or functions as a meaningful tool for my work life. The jury is still out for me on this one.

This is a relatively new group for me and I’m hoping to form relationships with the superintendents from our BOCES and strengthen the relationships I have with colleagues from Erie 1 and 2 BOCES. The amount of expertise and experience in the room is invaluable to a first year superintendent like me. Our hosts, the Western New York Regional Information Center (WNYRIC) particularly the Chief Technology Officer Carol Barber, are hoping that they can build our capacity as leaders to use 21st century tools. As Carol says in her welcome message to us,

A password-secure Superintendent’s Community resource is being provided to you as a 21st Century tool. It is a place to hone your 21st Century skills in a safe, secure environment; collaborate with your peers on topics of relevance across the WNY region; and receive up-to-date technology news and best practices.

I love this endeavor and commend Carol for her efforts. I wonder, will it be any easier to get superintendents to share ideas, ask questions, collaborate and LISTEN to each other than it is to get teachers to do the same?

After all, we’re just as used to going back to our schools and doing it our way as our teachers are used to doing the same in their classrooms. I’m ready for the collaboration, would definitely benefit from the knowledge and input of my colleagues, just questioning if we’ll actually take the necessary time to listen to one another and respond. Can we afford that kind of time? Can we afford NOT to take the time to work together, especially if it makes us all better? Hmmm. Just like what I want from my teachers, sharing ideas, learning from each other, strengthening all of us.