B-W Superintendent Discusses Hot Topics at 'Coffee Talk'
Standardized testing, ARAMARK, extracurricular eligibility and other issues.
Nearing the end of his time as the superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, Dr. Lawrence C. Korchnak sat down for an informal "Coffee Talk" with the public at the district offices on Wednesday morning.
Korchnak, in his last school year with Baldwin-Whitehall, sipped coffee from a plastic foam cup along with a few district parents in attendance. The superintendent didn't give much of an opening speech, instead diving into an open Q-and-A session.
"This is your chance to say what you want to say," Korchnak said, "and no animus."
The nearly two-hour discussion ranged from concerns over standardized testing to the district's switch to an in-house food service to a recently debated policy that calls for stricter academic requirements for students in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
Policy Seeks to Raise Bar for Athletes, Others
When questioned about a proposed policy that would place stricter academic requirements on students in athletics and other extracurricular activities, Korchnak defended the measure as one consistent with the district's goals.
Earlier this month, the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board decided to review and to possibly rewrite that policy before implementing it next school year. As it is written, the policy requires students to maintain a 70-percent grade in all core subjects—math, English, social studies and science—in order to participate in any extracurricular activities.
No matter what decision its leaders ultimately make, the district must still at least follow the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association's policy for sports. That policy specifies that student-athletes "must be passing at least four full-credit subjects, or the equivalent," with no mention of core subjects.
But in Baldwin-Whitehall right now, students participating in the yearbook or German clubs, for examples, have no academic eligibility requirements.
"We should be tougher than the PIAA," Korchnak said about all students in all activities. "I don't want kids participating that do not succeed in the classroom. That should be the least expectation we have for our children."
Jerry Pantone, a Baldwin-Whitehall Council of PTA member, who has two daughters enrolled in B-W schools, said that he worries that the district's currently suspended policy—which could be enforced next school year according to averages calculated for each student during each week of a grading term—would unfairly punish students for academic slips.
Said Pantone, "The only real concern I think most people have is, the first nine weeks, the student gets an 'A' in math. The second nine weeks, the student gets an 'A' in math. The first assessment of the third period—whether it be a quiz, a test, whatever—they fail. Then, they are going to not be able to perform (participate)?"
Korchnak confirmed that a student such as the one in Pantone's example would, in fact, be forbidden to participate in all school activities until further grades brought his or her average back to at least 70 percent in that subject.
"That's right," Korchnak said. "There's nothing wrong with that," arguing that it's more important to impose high standards than to make exceptions for unusual test performances.
"No system's perfect," Korchnak said, "but this system's perfect enough."
Since the school board will likely resolve this issue after Korchnak's departure, though, it is unclear to what extent Korchnak's views will shape a final policy decision.
"It's their school," Korchnak said. "I'm only a steward.
"I'll probably have far less influence on what they do come August and September."
District Cans ARAMARK, Develops In-House Food Service
With the school board recently voting, 8-0, to drop ARAMARK as its food service provider come July 1, questions lingered over whether and how the district can improve the efficiency of a service that has been hemorrhaging money for years.
School officials have noted that ARAMARK hasn't brought Baldwin-Whitehall's food service into the black—an audit from last school year shows more than $15,000 in losses for that department—but the company has decreased the amount of losses each year. And Korchnak noted in a 2011 letter to the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch that food services ran at a loss of more than $300,000 during the year before ARAMARK even came into the district.
Tammy Caponi, B-W's assistant for finance and operations, will take over as the district's food service director starting July 1. Caponi, who has experience in school food service, will oversee all aspects of the department.
"I do believe, by taking over the management, we can get a real genuine assessment of what's going on," Korchnak said. "That was one of the reasons why we went totally in-house.
"I was surprised that we had the hybrid (model): We had a management system over people that they didn't have any control over."
Over the next few years, Korchnak hopes that Baldwin-Whitehall will be able to better manage food service employees and expenses.
"I believe we have a legitimate cause to take it over," he said, "because I'm not happy with how ARAMARK is running it."
Assessment Tests Try Parent's Patience
State officials have delayed implementing Keystone Exams, an alternative to the current Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, for schools until at least the 2013-14 school year, Korchnak said.
Korchnak is a supporter of the Keystone Exams, which he believes are a sensible update to the PSSAs.
At the state level, there is still debate over how many and which subjects to include on the Keystone Exams, but how they will be administered seems likely to remain: Students will be tested according to when they take core courses rather than when they reach a certain grade level.
The Keystone Exams are designed to find out which students are deficient—rather than proficient—in a given range of subjects. One exam could have more algebra questions, while another could have more geometry questions, Korchnak said.
"I think the Keystone Exams make all of us accountable—not just the kids but the teachers and the school districts," he said. "I think we owe them that."
Pantone said that he hopes that the Keystone Exams will change what he sees as disruption in curriculum.
Holding up a plastic bag containing cards that read "Rock the PSSA," Pantone said that too much time is wasted on preparing students for standardized testing.
"I have no problem with the PSSA test," Pantone said. "Now, I have a huge problem with everything that goes on around the PSSA."
Some schools hold pep rallies, Pantone said, and his fourth-grade daughter recently hadn't had homework in at least a week. Rather than utilizing the rest of a school day, he said, teachers are worried about rewarding students for taking the PSSAs.
"This has gone on for years," Pantone said. "This isn't a new problem."
Korchnak said that he will talk to the B-W schools' principals and agreed that instructional time should not be wasted.
Later in the meeting, Korchnak talked about "teaching to the test"—a phrase the makes him cringe, he said, whenever someone uses it negatively.
"We all teach to the test," Korchnak said, adding that assessment tests are designed to reflect knowledge deemed valuable by educators. "We determine what's important, what our children should know, and we teach that."
At the same time, he added, teachers shouldn't have to make special preparations for standardized tests.
"Preparation for the PSSAs is teaching well from Day One,” Korchnak said. "It's a moral responsibility, to me."
District Looks for Assistant Superintendent
With Baldwin-Whitehall's Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Dr. John D. Wilkinson accepting the head superintendent's position in the Belle Vernon Area School District, B-W is seeking Wilkinson's replacement.
Fielding a question from Pantone, Korchnak said that he doesn't think that the district will have trouble finding a good fit.
Baldwin-Whitehall is an attractive environment, he said, and a thorough interview process weeds out "fly-by-nighters."
"My recommendation is to look for someone who is an experienced assistant," Korchnak said, "if not someone who has curriculum and other background experiences that we need."
Korchnak said that assistant superintendents often take on specified duties, depending on the needs of a district. But Korchnak added that the job description for Wilkinson's replacement hasn't yet been completely hashed out.
As for a deadline on the new hire, Korchnak said that he's hoping for July 1. But more important is finding the right candidate.
"We'll hire as fast as we can," he said.
Does the District Need More Bus Drivers?
Pantone questioned the number of bus drivers that Baldwin-Whitehall employs, noting that district Transportation Manager Kenneth Pokorny has had to take over routes when drivers call off.
"I've seen Kenny out on a route," Pantone said, "and in my opinion, the transportation manager should not be driving."
Korchnak said that that's a matter of management stepping in when a need presents itself and declined to give an indication of whether or not the district would hire more drivers for next school year.
"When I see people moving chairs in here (district offices), I take my coat off, and I move it with them," Korchnak said. "That's what a good organization does."
He also said that the district pays its drivers the second-best rate in Allegheny County, adding that it's hard to find dedicated, part-time drivers who are willing to bookend their workdays with two relatively short shifts.
"It takes a special person to drive a bus."
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