Otselic Valley State of the District 2019

 
March 2019 
Robert G. Berson, Superintendent of Schools
 
As I reflect on my first months as superintendent, it is clear that our district has a lot to be proud of (see Appendix 1: an Overview), and we are also well-positioned for growth. Beginning with the end in mind, together we will establish a firm foundation, purposefully implementing initiatives that enable our district to fulfill our mission.
 
 
Foundations 
 
When considering instructional, structural, collaborative, and cultural growth opportunities, the district has the footing on which to establish a firm foundation.
 
The district has a well-established curricular program and provides professional coaching to assist teachers and strengthen instructional practices. Teacher familiarity and understanding of their respective curricular programs continue to increase.
 
 
Strategic Planning 
 
Structurally, going through the Strategic Planning process was essential for charting a new, unified direction for the district. It provided the alignment, organization, and goals that will function as a "true North" for the district on a rolling three-year basis (See Appendix 2: Mission, Vision, and Core Beliefs). Future structural outcomes of Strategic Planning will include but are not limited to roles, formal relationships, tasks, rationality, and accountability.
 
 
Committee Structure 
 
Establishing the new committee structure, along with Strategic Planning, has reinforced the district's new systematic approach to increasing connectivity and inclusivity. In doing so, the district has realized, and will continue to realize, an increase in collaboration, including an organizational cultural shift that will continue to establish a new standard for effectivenes. Throughout this process, determined attention has been given to openly developing relationships.
 
 
Challenges and Opportunities 
 
Although we have made great strides forward in a unified effort, the district still faces some challenges and opportunities for substantial growth. When considering identity, instruction, accountability, reflective practitioners, facilities, resources, and professional development/technology, it is time to become courageous with the vital purposeful business of providing a first-class education to every student.
 
Since the consolidation from two buildings to one, the district has struggled to find its new identity as a P-12 school district. Lingering challenges have included a state Focus School review, previous power struggles within the district, multi-directional foci, and a divide between reflecting on the past and planning for the future. The district discussed collaboration yet, due to the aforementioned issues, lacked the ability to execute effective collaboration. The district needed to refocus, reset, and begin to build the bridges that will create a new identity for Otselic Valley.
 
 
A High Performing Rural School 
 
Strategic Planning was the process and platform to collaboratively establish a clear, consensual direction and vision for the district. This process gave rise to outcome-driven performance measures that the entire district will work to achieve. With a clear focus and expectations, the district can now move toward a new identity as a high performing rural school.
 
It is paramount that the district stay the course set forth in the Strategic Plan, bearing in mind that it will take time to continue to build inclusivity and connectivity. Furthermore, it will likely take three years to reach the State averages for E L A and mathematics performance.
 
It is also important to understand that the Strategic Plan only provides direction and systems to measure student and district growth. The true change will occur when authentic instruction and relationships coupled with the Strategic Plan provide the optimum learning environment for all students.
 
However, the district will work purposefully and diligently to increase P-12 performance and growth outcomes more expeditiously.
 
 
Pathway to High Performance 
 
The district is in year three of the curricular programming and is making small strides forward. Although the district has professional staff who are highly qualified, passionate, and have a heart for students (based on standard performance indicators overall), the district's instructional practices have lacked horizontal and vertical articulation and have not effectively reflected the capabilities of our students or professional staff.
 
Otselic Valley is composed of students who are highly compliant and eager to learn, but the district has not effectively raised the level of precision and expectations for student performance.
 
There are very few internal barriers to highly effective instruction when considering the following factors common to many school districts:
  1. Large class sizes; O V has very small class sizes 
  2. Lack of curricular programming; O V has continuity and consistency within standards-based curricular programming
  3. Lack of technology; O V has access to multiple technology platforms
  4. Lack of support; O V has a non-instructional support team
  5. Lack of professional development; O V has professional development/coaches
  6. Lack of funding; O V has financial resources
  7. Lack of community support; O V has a highly supportive community 

Otselic Valley has eliminated many barriers; however, if some barriers still exist, we will work attentively to overcome and persevere through any obstacle. As we move forward together, it is critical for instruction to include consistent, weekly progress monitoring, with an added focus on higher order thinking and supports to improve reading P-12.

Improving the district's instructional measures and outcomes will require unified determination. Implementing best practices will enable professional staff within our organization to identify and address learning gaps on a weekly basis, thereby accelerating growth and performance.

 

Accountability and Expectations 

Prior to the advent of Strategic Planning, the district did not have clearly articulated performance measures with which to ensure accountability for student learning. This burden is borne by all professional staff; however, this remains a time for confidence and enthusiasm as we have united our purpose and resolve. Our district is on a journey from a learning and instructional environment where outcome expectations set by many are too low, to an environment where high expectations exist for all. All professional staff need to be accountable for maintaining higher standards and expectations.

In the past, statements have been made about student cohort groups; labels such as "very low" or "challenging group" have been voiced. In some cases, instructional staffing and strategies have been targeted toward meeting the needs of a specific student group; however, in general, sweeping generalizations such as these can work to diminish and defeat students before they begin.

Defeatist statements are counterproductive to the growth mindset, and are long lasting and resistant to change. Sweeping generalizations often give rise to an attitude of resignation, which can provide a rationalization for lower staff and student performance.

I am confident that in the future our determination to achieve a high level of performance will eliminate the negativity of the fatalistic mindset.

 

Growth Mindset 

The district is composed of a very cordial, talented group of professionals. Growth of reflective practitioners within the district will be vital for overall district growth. Currently, however, it is difficult for professional staff to receive meaningful feedback regarding instructional best practices.

Otselic Valley has wonderful professional staff. Proportionally, the district has the same number of highly effective, effective, and developing professional staff as any other district. The problem, when viewed from a broad perspective, is that organizationally, Otselic Valley needs to expend even more energy on best practices. We also need to ensure that the feedback given to the professional staff is meaningful and proactively targeted at our desired outcomes.

Our profession is not easy, but collectively we must embrace the growth mindset. We need to become reflective practitioners and support one another to improve and grow each day.

 

Professional Development and Best Practices 

The district's strong financial position also enables ample opportunity for professional development and instructional technology. The current coaching model for professional staff is becoming increasingly effective and will continue to improve the district's instructional practices. It is critical that the district stay the course and continue to reinforce best practices districtwide.

As mentioned previously, professional development must be followed up with a higher level of accountability for all. This means all professional development must directly support the district's Strategic Plan in order to support all students. New accountability measures are currently in place and the district will have student data to demonstrate true outcomes for students in the coming weeks, months, and years. Progress monitoring will, in turn, inform professional staff of their students' standards-based learning needs, thereby informing instructional best practices.

 

Technology 

Additionally, the district must improve its instructional use of technology. The connection between improved instructional use of technology and the rigor/relevance framework isn't as clear as it needs to be. As you may recall:

Quadrant D learning is often project-based, and designed to develop critical thinking skills. Quad D lessons are characterized by a high degree of student engagement and student exploration of knowledge and concepts that go beyond the curriculum. It is Quad D learning that is most likely to give students the skills they need to be competitive in a global economy. (International Center for Leadership in Education Rigor/Relevance Framework)

 

Facilities 

Otselic Valley is fortunate to have a beautiful, safe, and functional facility. Declining enrollment would suggest that the current facility is sufficient. If enrollment were the sole factor that may be correct; however, it is not the only factor to consider.

Student instructional and behavioral health, functionality and multiplicity, and safety can always be enhanced and improved. Future work with the Board of Education and the Facilities Committee should likely be focused on a combination of completing the building additions that were eliminated from the $17M project five years ago. Reimagining current spaces to accommodate academic experiences like STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading/wRiting, English, Art, Math) should be considered as well. 

 
Financial Planning 
 
 The district continues to operate from a position of strength with regard to short- and long-term financial planning. This is a credit to the Board of Education, the Finance Committee, and administrative leadership over the decades. When considering facilities and finances, the district should strategically plan projects through the use of reserves and planning debt combined with State Aid within a 25-year vision and well into the future.
 
The $17M project debt comes off the books in 25 years. Due to the district's strong financial position, future project debt should be predictable and planned beyond the 25-year scope, effectively managing debt so as not to incur negative tax cap implications.
 
 
Looking Forward 
 
In closing, the State of the District provides reasons for much optimism. The district has all of the essential pieces in place to support meaningful growth and performance outcomes for every student. Again, the road ahead will not be easy, but our goals can be realized. With the egos and agendas in check, together we need to embrace our current circumstances.
 
As we keep a keen eye on our new mission, vision, and core beliefs, together our challenge is not to be burdened by the weight of expectation, but to be freed by the hope of opportunity. 
 
 
 
APPENDIX 1: An Overview 
 
Highlights of our focused attention and successes this year, to date:
 
1. Strategic Planning
 
Phase 1 (completed Fall 2018): Development of a consensus vision/plan, with Board of Education approval
  •  New mission and vision
  • Core values
  • Clear performance values
  • Prioritized strategies

Phase 2 (Winter/Spring 2019): Roll out, implementation, and progress monitoring 

2. Increased level of collaboration through establishing committee and council structure 

  • Policy: Policy audit, New York State School Boards Association policy service
  • Finance
  • Facilities
  • Transportation
  • Shared Decision Making
  • Athletic Advisory Council
  • Student Advisory Committee (January 2019) 

3. Finalized and signed the O V T A contract

4. Withdrawal of charge by O V T A on improper practice

5. Intentional and purposeful in-district professional coaching/development

6. Establishing biennial certification/credentialing/growth meetings with non-tenured teachers

7. Working toward a municipal share between the district and the Town of Georgetown utilizing the Georgetown facility

  • Potential opportunity to secure grant funding up to $200,000 per entity from New York State 
  • Exploring additional grant funding through the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Agency

8. Establishing a culture of inclusivity and connectivity

  • Building bridges within the school community (including but not limited to O V T A, O V E A, students, parents, community members, Town supervisors, County officials)
  • Thought Exchange (coming early 2019)

9. Long-range fiscal planning using Forecast Analytics

  • Developing a five-year financial plan
  • Developing a reserve plan (exploring investments in a manner that conforms to sections 10 and 11 of the General Municipal Law)

10. Establishing a high level of visibility at school and community events

11. Maintaining an open-door policy while reviewing tiers of communication

12. Successfully navigated crises (e.g., threat, water, gymnasium floor)  using transparency, teamwork, and communication  

 

APPENDIX 2: Mission, Vision, and Core Beliefs 

The new mission, vision, and core belief statements were written by consensus during Strategic Planning session, and approved by the Board of Education of February 11, 2019 as part of the Strategic Plan.

Mission 

Educate and inspire every student to achieve excellence.

Vision 

We aspire to be a model school that empowers all students to realize their unlimited potential.

Core Beliefs 

  • Students are our first priority.
  • Every student can learn.
  • We hold high expectations for all.
  • We cultivate creativity and innovation.
  • We create a safe, engaging learning environment that nurtures the whole child.
  • A partnership among students, staff, families, and community is necessary to achieve success.
  • We support equitable opportunity for everyone.
  • Everyone is treated with respect and dignity.
  • We foster good citizenship and public service. 

 

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