Presentation To The Retired Teachers
By Alex Saitta
September 22, 2013
There are five major functions of the school district: 1) Education, 2) Personnel, 3) Finance, 4) Buildings, and 5) Communication.
Education is the core of what we do. That core starts with the Superintendent, then the Curriculum Director, the Principals and Teachers. Everything else supports that effort -- beit personnel management, finance, buildings, communication, food service, bus service and the school board.
Personnel is the hiring, training and compensating of thosepeople in that core and their support groups.
Finance is getting and managing the money to pay for it all.
Buildings are needed to house the education effort and their support groups.
Communication is to communicate internally so everyone is moving in the right direction and aware of system goals and strategies, and also communication with the public (the owners) to tell them what their school district is doing, how and why.
Eye Taken Off The Education Ball:
In 2009 most of these functions were in a mess, so the districtís focus was on dealing with thos problems and not on the educational effort. That was a major problem.
Buildings: In 2009 the building program was two years old, and all the DíAndrea administration and the board did was buy some land, push around a lot of dirt and draw and redraw plans wasting millions of dollars. The program was stalled and the building program budget was being eaten up by contractors. The district lacked expertise at the top when it came to the building plan.
Personnel: Dr. DíAndrea purged the district office leadership and outsiders were brought in from all over the state. New blood is helpful in small doses, but it went too far. Since the new department heads had different backgrounds, when they barked out orders, commands were going this way and that a-way. With all the change forced down on the system (new technology, scope and sequence, building renovations), it was chaos and little was moving forward and most were just plan confused.
Finance: Massive deficits occurred because of overspending from the DíAndrea administration and the liberal board, and the economy was entering the Great Recession. From 2008 to 2010, employees were focused on and worrying about being laid-off, bumped to another school or having their staffs cut. Cuts were made to the budget, but most were temporary (e.g., furloughs), so the next year when revenue didnít bounce back as hoped, the district was faced with another deficit. This set off another six months of worry during the annual budget process. As I called it the district suffered from the annual cycle of worry in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. Again, the focus was on budgets, not academic performance.
The boards of 2008 and 2010 realized buildings, budgets, and all the changes were causing problems, and that was taking the system's eye off the education ball. The board then made a series of decisions that solved each of those problems. This allowed the system to get its eye back on the educational effort and the results are paying off now in rising academic performance.
Superintendent: When Dr. DíAndrea left, the board hired Dr. Mendel Stewart as interim superintendent. It was a great decision, and the start of the ascent the district continues to ride on. Dr. Stewart was the finance director at one time, so he knew the budget inside and out. He also was superintendent when the board did all those building studies (e.g., FJ Clark, CCC and the Citizen Study), so he knew the buildings and their needs. He was well liked and respected and that immediately gave the district a shot in the arm morale-wise (much needed after Hurricane Lee). The decision also put Dr. Hunt on center stage, putting him in place to become the next superintendent (the right guy at the right time). He had a very steady hand, and as years as the assistant superintendent of administration, he knew a lot about the non-educational areas that needed tending to.
Buildings: The building program had a budget of $354 million. When Dr. Stewart came back in 2009 he uncovered the cost to complete the plans in place was $450 million. Stewart, Hunt and Jim Shelton (who became the board chairmanin 2009 and knew a lot about building and project management), hired Bob Folkman who managed plans of this size before. In my opinion the previous building plan manager was overwhelmed. Those four put the building program on the right track and it is now 98% complete. Buildings are not longer consuming everyoneís time and focus.
Personnel: To deal with the drastic change Dr. DíAndrea made with the management, in 2010 the board and the Hunt administration focused on promoting managers from with -- department heads, principals, APís, and even the superintendent. This preserved the district's winning educational culture and raised the morale of employees who were looking to advance. Just this year we have new young principals at DMS, PMS, CTC, Clemson and McKissick. It is adding a lot of energy to the system.
Finance: As I mentioned above the district was suffering from chronic deficits and this created an annual cycle of worry for employees. In 2011 the board made permanent spending reductions that were focused on non-classroom expenditures. This not only balanced the budget for 2012, but also 2013 and 2014. The position eliminations ended and so did the annual cycle of worry. Instead, the district/ board started adding things back, mainly focused in the classroom.
With the building, personnel and finance problems solved, the district was able to put its eye back on the education ball. That coupled with the boardís decision to hire curriculum-minded leaders at the top of the district (Dr. Pew, as the superintendent, Sharon Huff as curriculum director and Stephanie Lackey as personnel director), the district is moving steady with a focus on curriculum/ the education of the children. The effort of the district leadership, cirrculum department, principals and teachers is showing.
In 2013, 86.1% of the students passed the math and English parts of the high school exit exam on the first attempt. Thatís our highest score since the test was instituted. The on-time graduation rate has risen from 72.6% in 2011, to 75.2% in 2012 and it rose significantly this past school year as the district marches toward its 5 year goal of 80%. High school performance is rising.
In 2013, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level on the PASS fell 0.5% of a point. That slight pull back followed a 2 point gain in 2012, so the current level is above 2011, 2010 and 2009. Elementary and middle school performance is rising too.
Let me give you an example of how the board and the new district leadership is working together. The low graduation rate has been a problem for the district for years. In response to this, some schools developed their own unique plans to at-risk students. Some schools were doing a lot. Some were doing a little. Others were doing nothing.
Clearly raising the graduation rate was a need, and the district administration needed to create a systemic approach that insured all schools were striving toward a higher rate, and employing the same effective strategies. The first step was to create a 80% graduation rate goal within the next 5 years. Then the board challenged the administration to come up with a first wave of initiatives. The plan Dr. Pew came up with was putting reading interventionists at all elementary schools (teachers who work exclusively with students reading below grade level in small groups. We now have more reading interventionists then ever. Next was expanding 4K (that selected students most at-risk of dropping out). We now have more 4K students than ever. The administration proposed Ignite Classes or 2nd grade classes of 12 students who are behind in reading and the focus is on reading and math. Science and Social Studies are addressed in the context of reading lessons. The district now has more Ignite Classes than ever. Finally, the district hired graduation coaches for our middle and high schools. They are mentors for the students at-risk of dropping out, sort of like life-coaches. They just donít discuss academics, but the coaches help them out in many other aspects of their lives.
Like I mentioned above, we leaned out our budget, so when the economy came back the district had surplus revenue. That extra money was put into initiatives like these.
The second year, we challenged the district to do more. Most principals were unhappy with the alternative school and how exclusive the vocational school was (it didnít take at-risk students or students less than 10th grade). We asked Dr. Pew to take the existing resources of alternative program, the vocational school and its new $35 million building, the middle and high schools along with outside resources like Tri-County Tech and structure it in such a way to maximize the graduation rate. And the catch was, you had not additional money. The district leadership responded by restructur ing all those resources, moving the alternative school to the Career Center, 8th graders are now attending the vocational school, middle and high schools at-risk programs are evolving under the direction of Pew, Huff and Lackey, and the vocational school is working together with Tri-County Tech teaching students down there as well.
Next year I would like the next initiative in the graduation plan to be the following... First let me identify the problem. Teachers are trained to give students a lesson who are prepared to accept the lesson. However, if a students life is upside down because his parent is a crack addict, he/she doesnít have friends they fit in with or coming in crying every day because they canít understand what they are reading because their parents never read with them, they arenít going to be in the emotional/ psychological state to accept a lesson. Nor, giving that teacher a better Pro-Board, textbook or a new laptop, isnít going to help that teacher reach that student. To get that student in the state of mind and heart where the students are ready to take in a lesson, we first have to help that student sort out and settle those things in their mind/ heart.
To this end, I would like to expand what we are doing with our graduation coaches. That is, challenging the district leadership to come up with a district wide mentoring program that is geared toward further boosting the graduation rate. At every school we have students at-risk of dropping out due to issues beyond academic (social issues, psy chological issues, family issues, etc.). Have each school identify those at-risk students. Then have the district leadership nominate a point person at each school to create some kind of mentoring or life coaching program for these students using church volunteers or other volunteers like retired teachers.
AR Lewis already has a fantastic mentor program with 30 parents/ students who are really life coaches. They got their volunteers from The Reserve. We had an instruction committee meeting on this idea, and the idea was reported out of committee favorably.