Pryor Public School Superintendent Don Raleigh spoke to Pryor teachers and staff Monday morning as the countdown to the first day of school narrowed.
Raleigh was there to provide insight, inspiration, updates and even a laugh or two to both the returning faculty and the many new faces.
The opening picture in Raleigh's slide show said simply, “Pryor Public Schools, breakthrough.”
The word ‘breakthrough’ would become the mantra for the rally in hopes it will carry through the school year.
The next slide listed the challenges faced by the school district; financial challenges, attack on public education, lack of support, reforms, public education’s crossroads and curriculum changes.
“It's important to identify our challenges. I thought about putting a picture of the state department and playing the song 'Don't Bring Me Down,' but thought better of it,” said Raleigh, who spoke about Legislative and financial changes.
“I don't think teachers will get a raise unless they get involved and advocate themselves,” he said.
Moving past the challenges, Raleigh discussed the opportunities for students. He said the school district strives for excellence for all students in every area.
“We want to help students reach their fullest potential,” said Raleigh. “So, how do we get there? We create a culture of leadership and responsibility.”
He said the teachers create an environment where students, staff and parents work together to assume responsibility for their role in student learning. “We are not going to use the excuse of parents not getting engaged. Truthfully, we will do our very best for these students with or without the parents’ involvement.”
Another way to help students reach their fullest potential, he said, is to embrace an enhanced use of technology to foster learning.
“Technology is a part of our students' futures. So it is our job to help prepare them, which means we'll have to adapt a little.”
The slide show said this means simply meeting the challenges of the changing times and that this generation of students has a different definition of technology than generations before them.
“We've been building some new buildings and undertaking some projects that change the environment (of our schools)” said Raleigh. “And I promise you that matters.”
He said students should be taught the need to take care of the facilities, new and old, which goes along with one of the seven habits of highly effective people.
“Everyone is working very hard on these construction projects. We may not be doing things perfectly but it's not from a lack of effort or heart. I've heard a lot of people saying this is terrible, but let's consider the difference between terrible and simply inconvenient,” said Raleigh.
Construction crews were given the 84 days of summer break to complete the projects, which left very little time for mistakes or problems. The construction project employed local crews, many of which have children in the school district, so the crews were devoted to getting the project done well and in a timely manner.
Raleigh spoke to the faculty about the Leader in Me program utilized in all Pryor Schools, which is based on the best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Steven Covey.
“This is a day-to-day thing. It's not something we teach once and then move on. Imagine what our kids will look like if we keep holding them accountable,” said Raleigh.
He said this program is taught from pre-K through high school, which is something few school districts do. Raleigh said this way students aren't introduced to the concept in elementary school only to forget it all before they graduate and enter the workforce.
“Teachers often complain about new initiatives that are forgotten after a while and then are replaced by even more new initiatives. That's not the case with this one. The school board is behind it and I am behind it. So as long as I'm here, this Leader in Me program will be too,” he said.
Raleigh said the difference the program makes in the children is undeniable.
“The framework is set, the kids have been introduced to it. I implore you to do your part. I have no control over what you do in your classroom once that door is shut,” said Raleigh. “But why would you not want students to enhance their leadership skills, improve their decision-making skills and enhance their interpersonal skills?”
In addition, Raleigh said the program reduces discipline and bullying problems, creates a sense of pride and ownership while being teacher-driven and consistent.
The superintendent was given the opportunity to meet Covey, the book's author, over the summer.
“I was there with representatives of these huge companies. I got to thinking if Fortune 300, 400 and 500 companies buy into this program for the health of their company, think how much further ahead our kids are, learning these skills now,” said Raleigh.
He then spoke about the “Culture of Wellness” in the school district. He said the challenges are childhood obesity and the federal and state child nutrition requirements which are changing the way cafeteria staff operate.
“But we've had huge opportunities through this physical education grant. We've been able to do things that other school districts only dream of. You all know Laura Holloway, she's been our champion. She is tenacious and will not take no for an answer, but look at the amazing changes we've been able to make with her help,” Raleigh said, referring to the Pryor Public School Director of Health and Wellness.
As a result of the physical education grant, the district has seen professional development, curriculum enhancements and equipment/facility upgrades. Pryor Schools have one year remaining in the grant.
“What would it look like if we only preached what we practiced? Ouch,” the slideshow continued.
Raleigh commended the faculty for embracing the wellness concepts. He said many of them have begun diet, nutrition and exercise programs themselves and as a result have lost weight and gained better health.
“These programs are changing your lives, and you are changing students' lives,” he said.
He then spoke about authentic learning. He said it does not matter how great the lesson plan is if the students don't understand it. He said having a great song and dance does not ensure student's will “get it.”
“You all know what Glamour Shots are? They work some magic in those, they make everything look good. If you don't look good in Glamour Shots, it's Jesus Take the Wheel time because there's no hope,” said Raleigh.
The faculty laughed while Raleigh explained that an impressive facade does not always translate to an impressive school.
“It's not about just looking good but having no substance. People cannot drive by and think 'wow, that's a great looking building, I bet that's a great school,’” said Raleigh.
“Many people think public education is broken, but I don't think that. I think there's way too much politics in the decision making, but we'll fight what we need to. But let's focus on us. All the politics are is a distraction from what's important, doing what we need to do for our kids,” said Raleigh. “Let's break through, which is our catch-phrase for this year.”
Raleigh said there is a difference between construction being done, and being able to start school. He challenged the faculty to break through the obstacles and start the year with a positive attitude.