Finding true north: RNESU asks community input

Foreground, from left, Richard Reardon, director of Education at Castleton University; Ann Singhiser, president of the Mendon Historical Society and former Barstow School Board member, and Tony Lamair Burks II, senior associate at Great Schools Partnership, discuss redefining terms in the RNESU's mission and vision for the upcoming school year with attendees at a forum with community members Thursday evening at Otter Valley Union High School. (Kate Barcellos / Staff Photo)

BRANDON — Jeanne Collins called on the community to take part in crafting a messages that would provide a new foundation for education in the coming year. And 25 people answered. "This is my job, but I can't do this alone," said Collins, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. "The world our kids graduate into is constantly evolving...we need to think about how (the mission and vision at RNESU) is going to create a global citizen." Parents and grandparents of students from Barstow Memorial, Neshobe Elementary and the Lothrop School were joined by school board members, parents of alumni, local attorneys, school administrators and community members who sacrificed their dinner hour Thursday for a discussion around the bright blue cafeteria tables at Otter Valley Union High School. "The goal of education is not to dazzle the students," said Tony Lamair Burks II, co-host and senior associate at Great Schools Partnership. "It's to effectively communicate. You need to make it simple. That's when it comes alive." Burks began the interactive evening with a social experiment. "Everyone close their eyes and on the count of three, point north," he said. When the audience opened their eyes and looked around, each person had an arm extended in a different direction, and many smiled at their inaccuracy. So began the 90-minute mission to find RNESU's inner compass, to redefine its purpose as a supervisory union for the sake of its students. "What helps you point north?" Burks said. "When you’re off track, you should be able to point north where you need to go." He passed out double-sided worksheets. The RNESU vision was printed on one side, and the mission on the other, and the individual groups set to work redefining specific buzzwords included in the mission — such as "resources," "knowledge," "global society" and "character" — before coming up with a collection of one or two sentences to replace the words. Burks bounced animatedly around the room helping the groups brainstorm the messages — which Collins said she hopes to have hanging in every classroom, office and cafeteria in each of the seven schools serving the eight RNESU towns. The messages produced by the night's work groups were scheduled to be presented to 270 teachers and para-educators at 8 a.m. Friday, when Collins and Burks would conduct the exercise again and collect a faculty perspective. “We are ultimately responsible," Burks said. "We must make sure we do things to provide for them. ... We’re preparing this in such a way that a fifth-grader can read it." Pittsford Selectwoman Alicia Malay, a parent of two Otter Valley students, took the term "global society" to mean "knowledge that community is part of a bigger picture." "Our schools are important," Malay said. "Everything that happens with our students directly affects how well they do at their jobs, and that affects our communities." Collins knew the model would be successful. Before coming to RNESU, she served as superintendent for the Burlington School District, where the exercise resulted in the formation of two new school systems. "We did this exercise three times with 200 people while I was in Burlington," Collins said. "It took three years, but it resulted in the Integrated Arts Academy and the Sustainability Academy opening in 2009." Lisa Berry, Neshobe parent and para-educator, said she was pleasantly surprised by the presentation, and felt ready for a second round the next morning. "I think it was great that they got so many definitions," Berry said. "They'll reach a broader audience with this, because each student has different needs." Rick Reardon, director of education at Castleton University, said he admired Collins' initiative and was inspired for his own role at the university. "This is fantastic," Reardon said. "This is what every administrator needs to be doing. There's more ownership in the process. This is a perfect model for real leadership." Reardon said he teaches mostly graduate leadership courses, and he'll bring Burks' model and exercise back to Castleton University for implementation in his own courses. "The community should be involved even if they don't have kids in the school system," Reardon said. "The kids in the schools will impact their lives, too. If you turn out good, strong, confident adults, it benefits everyone." Michele Dube, whose two sons went to Barstow Memorial School, said the evening was full of valuable information, and a great start toward strengthening parent, student, and faculty networks. "It's important to hear from the students and faculty too," Dube said. "Making the process more manageable is really important; if it's too high level, people won't connect with it."

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