Saturday, November 7, 2015

Themes from Entry Plan Interviews

I have been on the job as the Superintendent of Schools here in Gorham for four full months now.  Hard to believe a quarter of the year is already gone!  Time sure does move quickly when your having fun!  

During the past four months, part of my entry plan was to take the time to listen and learn about this great community and the school system that has so aptly served it for so many years.  Over the course of the past four months I have conducted 200 interviews with folks from the community that break out as follows:

·      School Administration – 16
·      School Committee – 7
·      School Staff – 39
·      School Parents – 45
·      School Students – 51
·      Community Members – 42

Total Interviews Conducted - 200

During each interview conducted, I generally asked three guiding questions:  (1)  What do you see as perceived strengths of the Gorham Schools and/or the community of Gorham? (2) What do you see as perceived challenges of the Gorham schools and/or the community of Gorham?  (3) If I were able to give you a couple  million dollars to spend on fixing 1-2 things within the school system, or the community, what would you spend it on?

The information I have gathered thus far through these interviews has been invaluable to me as a new leader here in Gorham.  Although I will absolutely continue to meet with people, and to listen and learn about the school system and the community, my goal was that once I got to 200 interviews, I would take the time to articulate the themes of information that I have heard by conducting these interviews and to share them with all of you.  Before I do, I would like to say that the themes I am about to share do not come from any formal qualitative research study approach.  I have not created matrixes or response protocol sheets, in order to come up with these themes.  These themes come from simply listening and it is with that spirit that I share what I have found thus far with all of you.  Here goes…

Themes Regarding Perceived Challenges – The Gorham Community

·      *  Although the population of Gorham is growing, it is not growing its industry and businesses at the same rate as its population.  Businesses and industry help reduce the overall tax burden within a community.  Instead, the population that is growing is more residential, which requires more services (schools, trash, police, fire, etc.).  This means that the required costs to provide these services goes up more quickly than the primarily residential taxes can support them.  This creates challenges in funding across all municipal services including the school. 

·      *  Although we have a beautiful Downtown area, which is at the center of our village– it needs some “TLC” to address issues such as traffic, parking, and quality of buildings, that will energize our Downtown and stoke further development.

·      *  Constant Change is an issue.  As our community continues to grow and grow it changes.  Thirty years ago, this community was considered very rural.  Today, with increased residential populations, that “rurality” is fading and our economic structures are changing.  We now have more affluent residents, but we also still have residents that are socio-economically disadvantaged and/or on fixed incomes.  This diversity stretches the need for our tax dollars to be spent in lots of different ways, stressing our infrastructure and making it difficult to serve any individual constituency well.

Themes Regarding Perceived Challenges – Gorham Schools

·      *  There are real pockets “at risk” students within our schools that are often not talked about or focused on.  Issues of food insecurity do exist, issues of poor attendance, drug and alcohol use and abuse, and other issues related to disadvantaged populations do exist within our schools.  These populations often have a stigma attached to them and we tend not to emphasize the need for programming to address these specific issues as much as we could.  Programs aimed at increasing aspirations and addressing these unique learning populations should be strengthened.  Right now, students often don’t really start thinking about what they will be doing after HS until sophomore or junior year.  The need to strengthen job shadowing opportunities, internships, and co-ops, etc., especially within the local community and bring more local businesses in to help students see what their options are needs to start at an earlier age.

·      *  We don’t budget enough each year to maintain and take care of the existing facilities we have and we have not had a clear plan with the Town that outlines how we fund our capital renovations needs over time.  The Maine Department of Education recommends setting aside 2% of your overall replacement costs for buildings each year to pay for Capital Renovations.  For Gorham, the total replacement costs for our school buildings is about $89,700,000.00, which would mean we should be setting aside approximately $1,794,000.00 annually for capital improvements.  This past year, we set aside $441,000.00 in our Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) budget.  We have some significant needs coming up (GHS location of admin. Offices, GHS HVAC systems, GHS classroom space issues, athletic fields, etc).  How do we address these needs in a way that people will approve funding them, especially as state funding to support public education continues to decrease?

·      *  Although Gorham has lots of different choices, services and programs for students, more work needs to be done to strengthen multiple pathway offerings for students to reach standards.  Whether that means increased G&T programming, or increased Alt. Ed. programming and all things in between – more work needs to be done to strengthen already existing pathways for our students to succeed in multiple ways.

·      *  Seemingly too many initiatives, not enough time. Within the last year or so, the Gorham schools have taken on some pretty big initiatives such as Proficiency Based Learning, and a complete overhaul of our Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems.  In addition to those large items, we’ve also been working on implementing JumpRope (a new grading software system) in grades K-5, implementing new substitute software called AESOP, reviewing and adjusting implementation of Reading Street and Everyday Math Curricula at the K-5 level, and we had to implement a new state testing process last spring (Smarter Balanced Testing) that we will no longer be doing for this spring.  Instead we will be replacing that test with an entirely different test and having to re-learn all of that again.  It seems that we are going from one thing to another to another, not doing any of them as well as we could be, or sticking with them long enough to see what is working or what isn’t working.  Additionally, there is not enough time built into the regular teacher’s day to collaborate with other teachers, especially K-5 across all three schools.  It is difficult to operate a true K-12 system without providing appropriate time for professionals to meet together and to work on the work both vertically (K-12) and horizontally (across like grade levels and/or content areas).

·      *  University of Southern Maine is right here, but not really connected as well as they could be.  They seem to be “up on the hill” and not as much a part of the school community as they could be.  It would be nice to do more to collaborate with them and bring them into our school community more through dual enrollment courses, or increased mentoring experiences, etc.

·      *  Although some great visioning work was done in 2010 with excellent community stakeholder involvement, the vision is not currently truly alive within our schools, nor does it incorporate our vision for Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) within the Gorham Schools.  This is an initiative that occurred after the last large-scale visioning process was conducted.  As a result, our PBL work has been ongoing but not well communicated.  Our K-12 vision needs to be “refreshed” to help guide our ongoing PBL work moving forward.

·      *  Top school leadership has not been very visible within the schools and in the community over the past several years.  This does not mean that top school leadership has not been very active, or doing a good job, it just means that the ability to make natural connections to people served  and to the people being led has been hampered.  When visibility of leadership is reduced, the tendency to drift away from a tight alignment with mission and vision is heightened.

Themes Regarding Perceived Strengths – The Gorham Community

·      *  There is a strong, positive relationship between the Town and the School System.  Shared services between the Town and the School are present to help reduce taxpayer costs such as sharing a facilities director, technology director, mechanics services for school buses and collaborations between our athletic and recreation programs, etc.).

·      *  Our community is growing – one of the fastest growing (if not the fastest) in the state of Maine! Employment is high, median income is high and a sense of optimism exists among community members regarding the future of our Town.

·      *  Our Industrial Park is the best-kept secret in Gorham.  Over 45 businesses are located in the industrial park with the potential for more growth down the road.

·      *  The presence of the University of Southern Maine, Gorham Campus offers lots of benefits to the community such as jobs, cultural experiences, and increased access to continuing education for our residents.  The potential to increase these collaborations and to strengthen our partnership with the University exists and optimism is high for potential growth in this area.

·      *  Overall, there is a strong sense of community here in Gorham.  The community really cares for one another and rallies around one another, especially in times of need.

Themes Regarding Perceived Strengths – Gorham Schools

·      *  Excellent reputation for all schools and lots of community support in terms of passing budgets and also in terms of willingness to give their time in volunteering, etc.  People perceive that things are done “the right way” with a focus on meeting the needs of each student.  Students perceive the schools as safe places, where teachers truly care about who they are and who they are becoming.  School pride is strong here, and students feel as though their voices are heard.  GO RAMS! J

·      *  Very caring and respectful students who understand the importance of giving back to their community.  Many students volunteer, or participate in Rec. programming, or school extra and co-curricular programs.  The schools “Code of Conduct” is alive and strong with the five key components of “Respect, Honesty, Courage, Compassion, and Responsibility.”

·      *  Schools provide a multitude of programs to meet the needs of all learners, whether that be accelerated learning through G&T Programming, or a large menu of AP courses, electives, or online learning at the high school level or strong access to technology with 1:1 laptops in grades 6-12 or,  high quality intervention and support systems for students such as top notch Special Education Programs, RTI processes, Interventionists positions, Learning Labs, Alternative Education Programs, and CTE programs just to name a few.

·      *  School staff has a strong reputation for being compassionate, caring, and hard working from bus drivers and cooks to ed. techs. and coaches to teachers and all the way up through school and program leadership and the School Committee.  People perceive the staff, and those that lead our schools as having their priorities in the right places – focused on doing what is best for all students.

·      *  Our learning system supports innovation and new ideas from our teachers.  The system supports teachers to continue their learning and to stay on top of new pedagogy and best practices.  As long as benefits to students are clear, change in our system is supported.  Our staff is respected as the hard working professionals that they are.

·      *  A positive relationship exists between our local businesses and our school system.  The Gorham Business Roundtable (comprised of Gorham business owners and leaders and school personnel) meets at least quarterly to talk about how this relationship can be fostered and strengthened.  Things like job shadowing, internships, and co-op opportunities for our students have come from this positive relationship with the potential to grow even more great connections in the future between our schools and our business community.

So these are the themes that I have seen pop up across my interviews thus far.  I hope that you can see through my 2015-16 Goals that my areas of focus for this school year very much align with attempting to address some of the areas of challenge that exist for the Gorham Schools.  Those areas of focus for the 2015-16 School Year will be:

-       *  To strengthen the Gorham schools district mission/vision and core documents by completing a school and community-wide “re-visioning” process involving all stakeholders;
-       To continue to move the Gorham schools towards the creation of a PBL system of education for grades K-12;

-      *   To monitor and assess 1st year pilot implementation of our new evaluation system for teachers and building administrators;

-       *  To be visibly present within the Gorham schools and the Gorham community;

-      *   To work with the school committee on addressing the capital needs of all facilities across the district; and

-       *  To create and implement a “needs based” budgeting approach for the FY 17 budget development process that will attempt to balance the needs of our school system in meeting the needs of our students with the needs of our taxpayers who support our schools.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me.  My email address is: .  I look forward to continuing to “Listen and Learn” as I work to “Lead” this great school system forward.

Thank you,

Heather J. Perry,

Superintendent of Schools