Finding Pearls of Wisdom

Finding Pearls of Wisdom

Administrators haven't analyzed this New York district to death; they analyzed it to near perfection

For discriminating parents like Susan Rutledge, there are more than 80 private and parochial schools to choose from in and around her home of Pearl River, N.Y., just some 20 miles from New York City.

"There is a lot of competition," admits Pearl River Public Schools Superintendent Richard Maurer.

But Rutledge, the mother of two boys, chooses the public school system. Most parents do.

In 2000, 90 percent of the eligible school children in Pearl River attended the public schools, up from 71 percent in 1990. The district's "market share" is one of the highest in Rockland County.

Please-don't excuse the business term. Educators in Pearl River actually credit a business model as the key to their success.

Pearl River is a devotee of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award program, started by Congress in 1987 to recognize excellence in American organizations. Only 46 organizations have received what is now considered to be the premier award for achievement in quality and performance.

Up until late last year, an educational institution had never been named, despite that congress authorized an educational category in 1999.

"This was the first year we felt we had education applicants that were of the same caliber as our business applicants," says Harry Hertz, director of the Baldrige National Quality Program. "What struck us about Pearl River were some of the outcomes. The area has a large number of private schools. They are successfully competing to bring students back to the public schools."

This school district improved its test scores while reducing its annual budget, all by paying scrupulous attention to what goes on in every classroom.

The district is one of five Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award winners for 2001. Three educational organizations were named, the other two being the Chugach School District in Alaska and the niversity of Wisconsin-Stout.

Pearl River began its quest for the Baldrige soon after it received a New York State Quality Award in 1994, Maurer says. Due to the urging of board members familiar with the award, the district applied to be part of the Baldrige pilot program.

The 50-page application and Baldrige criteria is basically a model for how to run a district, Maurer says. This past year was the fourth year the district has turned in an application.

The Baldrige's review board provides a feedback report based on 300 to 1,000 hours of outside review and a site inspection. "It is very precise," Maurer says. "Their feedback reports are excellent. They are often brutal."

The Baldrige process is deeply embedded in the district to include teachers and even parents, he says.

"I was the first parent on the building leadership team. It was very threatening to the teachers and principal," recalls Rutledge. Now, the inclusion of parents, even secretaries, does not raise eyebrows, she says.

"I don't know if anyone likes the Baldrige process. It is rigorous," says Rutledge. "But it means the district is committed to quality. I am hoping it doesn't stop."

Not likely.

"We are not the curriculum-of-the-month here," Maurer says. The school board president, Quinton Van Wynen, certainly does not foresee a change.

"It was a nice fit for us," he says. The percentage of students graduating with a Regents diploma increased from 63 percent in 1996 to 86 percent in 2001. The percentage of students in schools with similar socio-economic profiles decreased from 61 percent to 58 percent in the same period. Pearl River educators say its results are approaching the highest reporting district in New York, which is at 90 percent.

"The next 14 percent will be tough," Van Wynen says. As for the graduation rate, that is 100 percent, Maurer says. The dropout rate last school year was less than 1 percent, notes Sandy Cokeley-Pedersen, director of quality and community relations.

In 2001, the school district exceeded its benchmark on three of the eight state Regents content exams and was within three percentage points of the highest reporting district on the other five content exams. In earth science, 97 percent of the students tested passed and 78 percent achieved mastery. In Sequential I math, 96 percent of the students tested passed and 65 percent achieved mastery. All of the students tested in biology passed.

Almost all of the eligible students (94 percent last school year) take the SAT 1 exam, including most of the special education students. The district's participation rate is approaching the highest reporting district in New York and exceeds both state and national averages. The most recent mean scores are 592 in math and 567 for verbal.

While all this is impressive, taxpayers also grin over the per-pupil expenditure, which has creased 9 percent in the last 11 years from $14,563 to $13,180 in 2000-01. In the last six years, the school district's per-pupil expenditures have increased at a rate of less than half of the consumer price index (6.2 percent for the district, 13.7 for the index).

The district has reduced non-instructional expenditures an average of 21 percent during the period from 1993-2001. Instructional expenditures increased 43 percent during the same period. Maurer says the district is ever vigilant on ways to save money and is open to unusual ideas.

For example, the district loaned its bus company a computer compatible with its own so it could work out a more efficient busing system for Pearl River and neighboring towns, sometimes even combining routes from different municipalities. Maurer says the bus company found it so helpful, it has purchased its own computer.

The district is also striking for its lack of department chairs, team leaders, even reading specialists. "The responsibility for class achievement lies with the classroom teacher. We have eliminated middle management," Maurer says, noting central office is quite lean, too.

"We empower our teachers," Maurer says. This has meant an increase in staff development. Faculty development time has doubled from 21 to 42 hours since 1998.

All classroom teachers are taught how to do basic data analysis and then are expected to do such work, constantly aligning class work with the results of quizzes, tests and the Regents.

Maurer says the district motto is: "In God we trust. Everyone else bring data." The district uses a system called Cognos, which allows teachers to pinpoint performance throughout the year and see if they are on target with their goals.

Pearl River teachers create detailed curriculum maps for all levels to align them with state and national standards. The maps detail content area as well as method of instruction and assessment techniques.

The maps are adjusted quarterly based on data analysis and through benchmarking best practices of other school districts. "We can change the map in mid-course. We don't have to wait until June," Maurer says. "Nothing is static. Change is constant."

The school community support this approach. The district's overall satisfaction rate, measured by using a recognized national survey, increased from 89 percent to 98 percent for staff and 86 percent to 96 percent for faculty.

Because the staff shoulders the responsibility for academic results and is so involved in the Baldrige process, Maurer says the award affects everyone.

"This belongs to the staff," he concludes.

"Everyone was obviously thrilled," Cokeley-Pedersen adds.

The district has received bouquets of flowers, even theme baskets like one from Texas-hot sauce included. Such gifts have been raffled off to staff.

"It has been fun," Cokeley-Pedersen says.

The award is also welcome news for the community.

"Pearl River is a middle-class community and is home to many police and firemen. We were hit particularly hard" by the terrorist attacks, he says.

Amy D'Orio, wdorio@earthlink.net, is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn.


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