Gloversville superintendent focused on graduation rate

GLOVERSVILLE – Gloversville Enlarged School District Superintendent Michael Vanyo is approaching his one-year anniversary with the district Sept. 1 and is still as focused as the day he arrived on improving the graduation rate with a district-wide kindergarten through 12th grade approach.

Vanyo and the Board of Education have said the top priority for the district is to focus on improving the graduation rate.

Vanyo said this will be accomplished by implementing new strategies and support systems that focus on student achievement, attendance and accountability. He said the graduation of students is the responsibility of everyone in the district, and it starts in elementary school, not when a student reaches his or her senior year.

Vanyo said when he first arrived in Gloversville, he challenged the faculty members to ask themselves each day, “what can I do to help improve the graduation rate of our students?”

By focusing on a kindergarten through 12th-grade initiative to address the issue, he is confident the district will be successful.

“We can and will reach our academic goals at Gloversville, but it will require commitment by students, support by parents and continued dedication and hard work by our faculty and staff,” Vanyo said.

Gloversville’s graduation rate is among the lowest at schools in Fulton and Montgomery counties. The district’s graduation rate was 61 percent in 2012 and 56.3 percent in 2011, according to the state Education Department. Those rates are based on students who graduated after four years of high school as of August of the fourth year.

The district has been facing many challenges this year, with the implementation of the new required teacher and principal evaluation system and the implementation of Common Core. The district has been identified by the state Education Department as a FOCUS district, which requires changes to academic programs to improve student achievement.

However, Vanyo – who had been superintendent at the Liberty Central School District in Sullivan County – is no stranger to repairing graduation rates.

In 2009, the graduation rate in the Liberty district was “around 50 percent.” In the next three years under Vanyo’s supervision, the district’s graduation rate increased 20 points, to 70 percent.

However, he said that was accomplished as a district and not something he was able to do alone.

“It took all of us at Liberty to get that done, and it is going to take all of us here in Gloversville as well,” Vanyo said.

Vanyo said a lot has already been done in a year’s time, but realistically it will take the district a period of three to five years to be where it would like.

“We need to embrace change because it is unavoidable if we want to make improvements,” Vanyo said.

Changing the culture

The district last year worked to ease the transition from 5th to 6th grade with the Bridges to Transition ceremony which, Vanyo said, built district unity, celebrated student achievement and eased students’ fears about middle school through a district-wide ceremony that will be repeated this year.

Vanyo said when he came to the district, each building was trying to make improvements in each individual school but wouldn’t share the improvements from one building to the next to improve the district as a whole.

“Graduation is the end point, and that has become the responsibility of every grade level, so the elementary and middle school has become just as important as what happens at the high school,” Vanyo said. “We are focusing on graduation before they even come into the middle school or high school and how important that is to them.”

He said the district will continue what former principal Steve Pavone started at Park Terrace with FM Bound, a program across all elementary schools to get kids thinking about high school graduation, college and future career opportunities.

The city school district also plans to reward students’ positive behavior with an eye toward improving the graduation rate.

Officials said suspensions and absenteeism hurt student performance and make the district’s goal of increasing the graduation rate more difficult. District officials say promoting positive behavior can produce positive results.

Vanyo plans to launch the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program during the 2013-14 school year.

This summer, some district faculty and staff participated in training for PBIS.

Vanyo said training will continue in the coming months once program details are finalized and approved by the school board.

School officials have not yet decided what type of behavior will be rewarded in each grade level and what type of rewards the students will receive.

Establishing the standards also will allow students transfering between one elementary school in the city to another to have an easier transition and provide the same expectations throughout the district, Vanyo said.

One issue hampering the district’s efforts to increase its graduation rate is truancy.

Students who are frequently absent miss instructional time and are less likely to graduate, the district says.

A major focus of PBIS will be to encourage students to attend school.

District leaders are confident reducing suspensions and increasing student attendance through the PBIS program and other district initiatives will result in better outcomes for students.

The city school district, along with many others across the country, have refocused on school safety and anti-bullying in the wake of several school shootings over a number of years.

The district promoted bully-free, safe school environments with Point Break, Bridges Peer-to-Peer mentoring and Rachel’s Challenge at the high school and middle school.

Parents, also starting this school year, will be able to register into the “Parent Portal” on the School Tools system that will allow them to check their child’s attendance, grades and any referrals.

The district this year added keyboarding, art and music classes and brought back instrumental music lessons to the fifth graders, and also will provide reading teachers in the sixth grade that will help with reading in all aspects, not just English language arts.

These are examples of early intervention to produce future results, Vanyo said.

Also, students will have the opportunity to earn five high school credits by the time they reach eighth grade, which could allow students to take more electives in high school.

Along with those elective classes, the district also provides a number of college-preparatory curriculum at the high school including University in the High School through the University at Albany, Syracuse University Project Advance (math and social studies), Project Lead the Way through the Rochester Institute of Technology, Fulton-Montgomery Community College (pre-calculus) and a number of Advanced Placement courses.

Technology instruction

The 2013-14 budget promised to infuse more technology into students’ education, and Vanyo said the district is acting on that promise by investing in iPads for elementary and middle school students.

The iPads use the eSpark program that teaches reading and writing skills that are important not just for passing state tests, Vanyo said, but also for getting students on a path toward graduation and success later in life.

Kindergarten and seventh-grade students in the district have been using mobile learning devices over the last two years.

In 2011, six Apple iPad 2 tablets were made available in each kindergarten classroom as part of the classes’ learning stations.

At Meco Elementary School, Principal Jim Crawford said the students are able to practice basic letter recognition, math problems, phonics and letter-sound instruction on iPads. Students also do reading, writing and math activities on the devices.

Vanyo said the iPad through eSpark program can be tailored for each child based on his or her level that was determined through assessments.

“We started with a pilot and the stations for Kindergarten, but now every teacher that takes the training with eSpark will have iPads with the eSpark program to improve students knowledge of [English,]” Vanyo said. “Once we are up and going we will move to math.”

He said using technology engages students and keeps them focused in a way that traditional instruction doesn’t. Since the activities are often games, he said, the students will work on a subject they struggle in without realizing they are learning.

Summer academy

Some students were making an extra effort to keep their minds sharp this summer by attending the Summer Learning Academy at the middle school.

“Not all students learn at the same level or the same time so what we did with the academy is tried to eliminate the summer learning loss,” Vanyo said.

The four-week academy, which was in its first year, aimed to motivate students and improve their reading and math skills.

About 100 district children, either in elementary school or going into sixth-grade, attended the academy. District officials said they hope to offer the program again next year.

The afternoon recreation part of the academy is what made it unique.

The academy used technology, recreation and both physical and mental activity throughout the day to get students’ attention to learn, work together and spend the summer break improving their academic skills.

The students polished their reading and math skills while working in small groups and used iPad apps such as eSpark to improve their math and reading abilities.

Vanyo envisioned the Summer Learning Academy as a way to ensure all students are ready for the school year.

“It is so important that our students’ summers aren’t wasted. The academy motivates students to be lifelong learners – a crucial component of our strategy to improve our graduation rate with a district wide approach,” he said.