After 5 years, so much for everyone to be proud of
Greetings! This is Punxsutawney Bill predicting that spring is right around the corner! Maybe I need to change my overly optimistic crystal ball, but I am hoping Mother Nature will be kind to us in March. Even The Morning Call and The Intelligencer have been kind to us superintendents across the region about our weather calls so far! The safety of your child(ren) and our employees is job #1 for us! In the meantime, to repeat what you may already know, the last snow and ice day we had on February 20 will be made up on Monday, April 22, which is now a regular school day for students and staff.
Last month, I celebrated my fifth anniversary as the Superintendent of Quakertown Community School District. A little more than half of you were district parents with me back then and might remember that you first got to know me by voice through the 5 a.m. telephone call that cancelled school seven times. It was a brutal winter when the snow did not melt for more than a month and roads were treacherous. I started blogging to you the next month, to tell you what I was learning about Quakertown’s story through my eyes and ears. What I found I shared with you through my blogs, the good and great news and the things that we needed to work on. I immediately learned that we had a wonderful team of administrators, teachers and support staff and a committed parent community who wanted to be involved in the “heavy lifts” of the district, such as the elimination of “open areas” for student assignments. It was an ideal situation for enabling the empowerment of the entire school-community family in policy and systems development, and we have benefited greatly from your feedback all along the way.
For those of you who joined the QCSD family more recently, most of our school community did not realize that back in 2014, less than 20 percent of Quakertown graduates were completing a college or university degree in four years. This data matched a survey taken by the Class of 2013, where the vast majority of graduating students said they felt they were not prepared for college. With our core purpose being about creating college and career readiness, and less than 15 percent of a Quakertown graduating class successfully completing a Upper Bucks County Technical School job/career program, that left a lot of work for students who were caught in the middle. Many of our graduates who attended Bucks County Community College had to take remedial courses before beginning a two-year program of studies. On average, our athletic teams won fewer than 20 percent of their competitions. There was much work to do!
There were no systems-thinking or processes across the district in instructional and operational areas - such as curriculum and professional development, facilities, finance, and transportation. At my first administrative staff meeting in February 2014, every administrator, e.g. principals and district staff, said that they thought about leaving the school district. With K-12 education being people intensive, and culture being everything for an organization, one area we immediately looked to was the distribution of staffing.
We found a serious imbalance of staffing - our smallest class sizes were at the high school level versus being at the elementary level. Also, we found the $70 million High School Renovation project without executive oversight and our transportation system inefficient. At the outset, there were only two overarching specified tasks for me. The most important was taking care of our faculty and staff. (No one has been furloughed over the past five years.) The other was financial - living within the Act I Index. This was a high bar given that the cost for the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) has jumped from 5.64 percent of employee salaries to 34.29 percent between 2011 and 2020.
Let’s fast forward to today! With the support of our Board, the administrative team, our faculty and staff, and you, we have moved mountains for our students and community. We empowered teachers to participate in designing curriculum, selecting programs and textbooks, and offered the opportunity to participate in professional development. Parent committees have worked tirelessly to study and make recommendations to the Board on redistricting and the elimination of open areas, facilities maintenance and planning, redesign of the elementary report card, the reassignment of students resulting from the closing of Tohickon Valley, and a plan to renovate and expand Neidig Elementary. Next month, the Parent Safety Committee will present to the Board its recommendations for moving the district forward and improving student safety. Thank you to all who have served on one or more of these vital community committees.
With our core purpose of preparing college and career ready students, we have come a long way. We took a three-level approach simultaneously - elementary, middle and high school. Through the implementation of a multi-year restaffing plan, we now have a Full-Day Kindergarten program to support our at-risk learners, full-time guidance counselors, and Spanish and coding at all elementary schools. Through a state grant we have had a Pre-K program for the past three years. In the middle school we added world languages - German, Spanish and Mandarin, pre-engineering courses, and brought back accelerated and enriched core course options. At the high school level, while completely renovating the building, we added 13 additional Advanced Placement (college level) courses, expanded our performing arts program by adding dance and theater, and popular elective courses such as chefs. We also opened up attendance to Upper Bucks County Technical School to 9th graders, allowing them to receive more clock time in their chosen program toward industry credentials. We upgraded our curriculum to meet PA core standards. Finally, we also created a structure and regular evaluation cycle for all of our curriculum development so that what our students are learning is current, relevant, meets state standards, and financially resourced.
In addition to our changes to academic programs, we have also increased supports for students’ social and emotional needs. We know that mental health and behavioral disorders are diagnosed in 1 out of 7 children ages 2-8, the average age of depression dropped from 27 years of age to 14.5 years old over the past few decades, and 1 in 12 high school students intentionally harm themselves. With a greater number of students coming to us needing mental health support, adding the full time guidance counselors in every elementary building was invaluable. Three years ago, we added a mental health professional. This year, we added two additional Student Assistance Program (SAP) counselors and now have one dedicated SAP counselor for each level. Last year, we added a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to assist our teachers in supporting our students who are experiencing behavioral challenges in their classrooms. The Pupil Services Department provided additional training for employees on Trauma Informed Care, Functional Behavior Assessments, Positive Behavior Support Plans, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and many other topics designed to support the changing needs of our students. For parents, training has been provided on de-escalation and parenting strategies, data shared from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, Vaping, Bullying and topics related to parenting children with special needs. This year, we started The Academy at Quakertown with targeted supports to meet the needs of 8th-12th grade students who were not experiencing success in a larger school environment. So far, seven students have completed QCSD graduation requirements at the Academy, and have graduated. We plan to expand the program next year to meet the needs of additional students.
Behind the curtain in school operations we have restructured and put effective systems in place. The District has transitioned from a reactive model to a proactive model with regard to taking care of its facilities. The Facilities Study completed in 2015 documented years of neglect, to the tune of over $60 million in maintenance needs. The School Board committed to developing and maintaining a capital projects fund, currently funded at $1 million per year. In conjunction, the District hired D’Huy Engineering to conduct a detailed facilities assessment to drive the specifics of five-year capital projects planning. Each year the five-year plan will be updated so that the District is always looking forward and being proactive in caring for the community’s assets. In addition to addressing maintenance needs, we also completed four phases of the high school renovation project and have the Neidig renovation/addition project well under way.
The heavy lifts the last few years with regard to closing buildings, while stressful for many teachers and me, has resulted in a much healthier and sustainable financial situation. The Business Office team is committed to providing a greater level of detail into the district’s finances and updates the board on such each month. This includes the development of a financial/ budget reporting page which is maintained HERE. The financial reporting page will continue to evolve to keep the Board and community abreast of important financial happenings. The recent purchase of Forecast5 software, will allow the administration to further analyze the district finances for recommendations to the Board, including long range planning and in year projections. Furthermore, the district utilizes the software to benchmark against other districts.
Pundits say that leading change and transforming an organization into high performance takes four to seven years to change a culture, and longer yet to get results. Because of the hard work of our teachers and administrators, we have seen dramatic results in college and career readiness already. For example, we know predictively through our high school student performance on Advanced Placement exams that we have almost double the number of high school students who are college ready. We have had a fivefold increase in the number of AP scholars, and we earned AP Honor Roll and US News & World Report's America’s Best High School accolades. Others across the Pennsylvania have recognized the significant steps Quakertown is making toward academic excellence! Our extraordinary teachers have become Pennsylvania Teachers of the Year for Social Studies and Physical Education. Other state accolades include Trumbauersville Principal Adam Schmucker as 2018 PA Principal of the Year and Dr. Lisa Hoffman as the 2018 PA Curriculum Administrator of the Year. Currently, QE full-day kindergarten teacher Kristen Martin is a semifinalist for the 2020 PA Teacher of the Year. We are blessed with extraordinary talent across the district.
There are so many other topics that I have reflected on but not written about - our work on safety (adding two School Resource Officers and significantly ramping up our protocols and practice), our work on culture and diversity, our work on parent and community engagement through parent committees and sharing academic course guides and student portfolios with parents and improvements in the data and technology areas. Each is important, but I will save some things for another day!
To everyone who has played a role in the district’s success, I thank you. There’s still so much more to do, and with everyone’s continued efforts QCSD will accomplish even greater things in the next five years! Thanks for reading.