You can learn a lot about a school community by having heart-to-heart talks with building principals and parents, immersing yourself in notebooks full of data, introducing yourself to students in the audience of a varsity football game.
And by touring school boiler rooms.
Fred Clarke has done all of those things since taking over as superintendent of Rochester Community Schools in July. All of that, and so much more — so much that when asked how he has been spending his days he laughs and asks, "Where should I start?"
It is nine days from the start of the 2011-12 school year, a year that will be marked by changes:
- Leadership: More building administrators have been hired this year than any other in school leaders' recent memory.
- The board: Three Board of Education seats are up for election in November.
- Funding: This is the first year schools will live within the constraints of the new state administration's budget.
At the cusp of all of these changes is Clarke. Board members hired him in March, impressed by his vision, his out-of-the-box approach to education and his ability to see challenges as opportunities.
In the coming days, Patch will outline some of the changes facing the district this year while profiling many of its new leaders.
In most respects, it all starts with Clarke. We talked to him about what the Rochester school community should expect this year.
As of Friday, 14,849 students were enrolled in the Rochester school district's 22 schools. That number will most likely change — often those who transfer out of a district don't necessarily call to say they won't be attending in the fall.
Still, projections show that for the first time in three years, the district's enrollment will be up by 30-40 students. That's a good sign, Clarke said.
"The economy has started to turn and we have fewer people leaving," he said. "And we have people moving here, too. Whenever people are trying to decide where to move, they look at the schools. We are one of the top schools, academically, in the state.
"People who relocate appreciate the stability of Rochester schools. That's one of the main reasons that brought me here."
The district is equipped to handle an additional 30-40 students; it will amount to one or two extra students for each building, he said.
In addition to about 20 new teachers across the district, there are nine new principals and assistant principals. Rochester and Adams high schools have new leaders, as do Van Hoosen and Hart middle schools and Hampton, Delta Kelly and North Hill elementary schools.
Media assistants in the district were eliminated. Paraprofessionals were reassigned based on seniority and experience, a process that is still being worked out this week, as the district is hiring four part-time paraprofessionals to help with lunchtime and recess at some of the schools.
Clarke has spent time with Board of Education members during two different board retreats this summer. During the retreats, they talked collectively about goals and about shared visions.
To keep the lines of communication open, Clarke said he plans to have breakfast, lunch or dinner with a different board member each week throughout the school year.
And he has a new addition to the bimonthly Board of Education meetings. Called "Academic Spotlight," it will feature a student or student group introducing or demonstrating an academic program at their school. This feature will be on every agenda and will last about 10-15 minutes.
"It's a chance to give that school an opportunity to shine," Clarke said.
Besides new tennis courts at Rochester High School and some minor repairs to flooring in some of the schools, there were no major renovations or building projects in the district this summer.
In the span of three days last week, Clarke, along with facilities staff, walked through every building. They checked the gyms and the media centers. He counted classrooms, in part to be sure there would be room for all-day kindergarten in 2012-12; there will be, he determined.
Clarke even checked out school boiler rooms. "You can tell a lot about a school from a boiler room," he said. "There's a lot of history there in some of those buildings."
This year there will be an emphasis on literacy and nonfiction writing throughout all grade levels. It will be part of efforts to close achievement gaps in English and Language Arts overall, Clarke said.
"Every principal I've talked to, I've said, 'Tell me about your data, and tell me how you are going to close these gaps,' " he said. "I had one principal bring out a notebook with their specific plan. That is what I like to see."
Clarke acknowledged an interest in differentiation at the elementary school level, which he likened to a sort of "academic ballet," with a teacher moving from small group to small group within a classroom, teaching to targeted levels.
In January, four schools (Reuther, Rochester High, Hampton and Brooklands) will participate in Olweus, a bullying prevention program that they will help test for the district.
The first day
Clarke plans to spend the first day of school Sept. 6 traveling from school to school to will visit as many as he can. Throughout September, he has scheduled time in each school.
The district's theme this year is "Together We Are Stronger." He said the year, perhaps appropriately, will be all about building relationships.
"You can't raise student achievement without it," he said. "I will work to maximize any opportunity to involve parents or community members."
He already has a schedule of community coffee events planned, both in the district and community.
"There's a high energy level right now in Rochester," he said.