Tuesday, September 6, 2011

NASCAR and the Superintendency

The following is my opening day speech to the faculty and staff of the Bethlehem Central School District. My comments were preceded by a thrilling video clip of Rascal Flatts rendition of Life is a Highway.

September 6, 2011

On behalf of the Board of Education, and the community of this school district, welcome back to what we hope will be another exciting school year at BC.
I hope you all had an opportunity to see those wonderful cartoons before we began this morning. They were created by two wonderful BC art students. Please give it up for seniors Leticia Monroe and Nathaniel Edgar.
For those of you joining us for the first time, and we will be meeting you in a few minutes, welcome as you join our ranks to be part of a truly outstanding learning community…the Bethlehem Central School District.
I love NASCAR. There is something thrilling about watching stock cars going 120 miles an hour, three wide on a 31 degree angled bank at Daytona or Talladega speedways; feeling the excitement of high performance stock car racing!
But, while I love NASCAR for the speed and the individual accomplishments of the drivers, I also love it because I believe NASCAR racing is the ultimate team sport.
It involves many people in the pursuit of winning the race.
From those people that design and build the car, the manufacturer of the parts and materials, the pit crew of 12 people the mechanics, body shop specialists.
Then there is the crew chief that oversees the pit crew and tracks conditions and advises the driver of how to manage the other cars and the track;
Then ultimately the driver, who has to sit in an uncomfortable car for up to four hours driving on an oval shaped track going 120-180 miles per hour.
So, here we are, Opening Day 2011. The Federal government has approached the abyss of total financial collapse,
• the stock market crashed again, the second time in three years,
• President Obama and Speaker Boehner don't know how to play in the sandbox very well;
• the state has passed a new teacher-principal evaluation system which we are expected to implement this year;
• the Governor has gotten his way and we now have a property tax cap;
• we have record reductions in school spending,
• we're facing new standards, heightened pressure on testing, heated rhetoric from political leaders;
• we've experienced an earthquake, a hurricane and a tornado in one week;

and I'm talking about my love of NASCAR, showing Rascal Flats movie clips, describing the contours of the track at Talladega. Things that have nothing to do with education.
Or do they?
That song we opened with resonates with me as both a NASCAR fanatic and a school superintendent. "Life's like a road that you travel on. There's one day here and the next day gone. Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand. Sometimes you turn your back to the wind."
Oh yes I am about to make an analogy about each school year being a highway. People that don't understand NASCAR comment that it's a boring thing watching cars going round and round in circles. But to the trained spectator, it is a sport that involves different things happening to each driver, on each lap, as each turn has a new challenge, a new competitor that is blocking or pushing or hedging their position to earn more points or even the race.
Like a race in NASCAR, each school year is a journey we maneuver through from September to June.
It's a repetitive cycle of the same seasons, holidays, faculty meetings, department meetings, safety meetings, Board of Education meetings, bus routing procedures, budget meetings, budget votes, community forums, lunch menus, report cards, conferences, assessments, exams, field trips, floors and rooms to be cleaned, and children to be taught, all year long, each and every year.
For some of us that have been working in schools for many years, it tends to be quite repetitive. (I just realized that I am beginning my 37th and final year as an educator, and since I started in kindergarten in 1958, this is my 53rd and final year in school! Talk about being retained too often!)
But, like each lap in a NASCAR race, to the trained eye each school year tends to be different from the others, despite the same calendar of events and activities. Depending on what the situations are, the climate of the community and the economic issues that are prevalent that year, the journey on the highway we call the school year will be unique and different.
So as a primer to your start of the new school year, allow me to give you some NASCAR advice to navigate with.
Andrew Cohen once said that when you are in the driver's seat you control your life and your destiny.
1) In NASCAR, the driver makes the decisions.
In schools, we are all responsible for the decisions we make; those that determine how our school year will be unique and different, and what we will be proud of at the end of the year, the end of the race.
As Stephen Covey reminds us, we are all responsible for the weather we bring into our lives. We can either be fearful of what the future school year will bring, or we can be part of an optimistic future with great experiences for ourselves and our students.
The choice is yours. You are the driver that will make the decisions to create a positive and exciting school year.
The challenge of the highway or the school year is to manage things with an open mind, and to be flexible enough to bend with the momentum of change, whether it's coming from the State of New York, the Federal Government, or a new school superintendent.
There are times when the events and dynamics of the school year tend to leave us worried about the future. But, as we know, the events are not what are scaring us, it’s how we react to those events that threatens our outlook and future success.
Take the State Education Department and their desire to test the "begeebies" out of anything that moves, crawls, breathes or smiles.
If we apply the logic of education scholar Diane Ravitch, you will note she has a NASCAR mentality when she states “Test scores … are not the purpose of education. They are a thermometer”…like the one on your car's water pump.
Of the many stories that came out of NASA's Apollo space program, one of my favorites is the story about the custodian who upon being asked by a reporter what his job was in the organization replied, "I'm helping to put a man on the Moon."
Everyone involved in that project, regardless of how large or visible their contribution was all felt a genuine and direct connection between the work they did and that moment when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the Moon.
2) In NASCAR it's how we take the initiative that determines the outcome of the race.
Waiting for other people to do the work will not make your school year interesting or easier.
Consider that we have one of the best School Transportation Departments in the State of New York. The leadership of this department each and every year has been astounding and was recognized this past summer.
Our Director of Transportation, is directly responsible for this work and he was recognized on July 17 by receiving the Art Shocky Award from the New York Association for Pupil Transportation as NYS Director of the Year.
He did not need to be told how to do his job, he demonstrated initiative over the past eleven years in creating a strong, stable organization that learns from their decision-making, and their mistakes .
How about the drive and determination that some people show in their personal well-being?
How about (MS Health Teacher) who successfully completed the "Iron Man Competition" in Lake Placid on the weekend of July 24 by completing over 140 miles in 11 hours. That included riding a bike for over 100 miles, swimming 3 miles and running a marathon. 
We have had many staff members heroically struggle with illness in recent years. Two people in particular have been models for me. Despite their illnesses, they were always focused on getting back to BC and their students, and exercising the supreme initiative to carry on and live their lives.  (HS Biology Teacher) and  (Elementary Reading Teacher); I am thrilled they are here today with us.
<Principal> came to BC to assume the post of science supervisor and in the few years he was in that position he made an impact on all of us as a leader, and a person that places students first in providing a quality education. Here is a person that exercises initiative; subject supervisor, teacher, administrator, community member, green team leader, community foundation chairperson, and now MS Principal. 
And there are many more stories of individuals in this community that go the extra demonstrating initiative to make things happen for the students of this district.
Consider all the things that happened last year that were wonderful and outstanding achievements for the school district. Things that all of you and your predecessors achieved by demonstrating your professional initiative.
1) #1 ranking in the Capital Region Business Review
2) 94% graduation rate, past three years
3) Student accomplishments in art, music, academic competitions and athletics that are too numerous to list
4) The generosity of the BC community that is too extensive to attempt to summarize: It included raising money, supplies, equipment, donations and awareness for: earthquake relief in Japan; children at the Unity House in Troy; Albany's Damien Center; service members stationed abroad and at home; local homeless shelters; the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society; "Pennies for Peace"; the local Ronald McDonald House; Coats for Kids; the Make-A-Wish Foundation; the Boys and Girls Club of Albany; Bells of Life program; the American Red Cross; the American Heart Association; Adopt-A-Family; and so many others.
5) 2/3 Passing Rate on the budget - one of the best in the Capital Region for two years in a row and a great sign of community support.
Also, consider the things that were challenging and hard to do, but needed for success on the journey. We call these the speed bumps in the road:
1) Employee salary freeze
2) Approving a new BCUEA contract
3) Accepting the State Aid problems
4) Voting on a reduced educational budget
And, also consider the tough moments or potholes in the journey that caused us concern, frustration, heart ache:
1) Losing a beloved elementary principal
2) Closing a wonderful elementary school.
3) Unfortunate attacks on public education
4) Retirement of faithful veteran employees of the district
But, in each of those circumstances we found a way to resolve the situation.
1) Replacement principal one of the unsung heroes last year at Clarksville, who with her quiet and supportive personality brought the Clarksville school community through traumatic and difficult situations in the course of 10 months.
2) Everyone that rose to the challenge of supporting, nurturing and transitioning the Clarksville children and their families to Eagle and Slingerlands. People like the Clarksville faculty and staff,  and the faculty and staffs at Eagle and Slingerlands.
3) To our BOE that had one of the toughest school years in recent memories, and had endured constant attacks, criticism and verbal abuse. But they continued to be responsive and transparent addressing all of the challenges in a constructive manner.
4) Bringing new and inspiring people into our school district.
These are the examples of the highs and lows of the journey, the highway or the race track of the school year that we encountered last year, and we dealt with by demonstrating our collective initiative. The challenge is to keep our eyes on the prize, not to be deterred from the seriousness of our mission, and the excellence we are capable of, even when some days look like this:
3) In NASCAR, when things go wrong, you have to deal with it and keep moving.
A good NASCAR driver picks himself up and tries again. Nothing is more important than to finish the race. In our schools we all know what that feels like, regardless of what the State Education Department says.
Randy Turner, an English teacher from California wrote a compelling article for the Huffington Post in April, and basically he claims that all teachers are failures:
"If we (as teachers) were doing our job, somewhere along the line we would have taught the politicians who are systematically destroying public education, … something about decency, respect, civility and developing the moral fortitude to resist the …song of the special interests."
As your superintendent, I have been affected by the actions, comments and "knee-jerk" decisions of some of these politicians. From Governor Cuomo's "perspective" on the superintendents of NYS, to the actions of our legislative leaders that, when it comes to education, can be hasty and misguided.
Amid all of this rhetoric, the challenges and pressures put on all of us from the outside, we have to remain focused on what matters most - the race that we are running.
5) And finally, in NASCAR no matter what happens keep your eye on the prize, even if you’re in last place...The prize is to win the race.
What are the goals of our race in the schools? To protect, safeguard and ensure the highest quality of educational services and programs for the children of this school district, and to ensure that they all achieve and are successful. That’s the expectation of the taxpayers of this district, and it’s also the mandate of our professional careers. I am confident that each and every one of you will continue to do just that.
So, this morning, let me assure you that the school year is beginning this week. On Thursday, 5,000 smiling faces will be pouring into our buildings and classrooms, excited and eager for an education; to begin their race on the highway of life. You all need to be the “crew chief” for each of these students seeking to wend their way through the bumps, turns and challenges of the school year, preparing them to make decisions, and guiding them through the intricacies of the race for their lives and their futures.
Make your school year a unique "journey." It has been my pleasure to serve you as superintendent these past three years, but more importantly to be your colleague as I end my career with all of you.
Happy New Year and thank you for all you do for the children of this community.
Have a great school year.