Thomas Brewster is the superintendent for Pulaski County Public Schools in Pulaski County, Virginia. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, contributed to this post.
From 1960s “urban renewal” to 1980s crack dens and, most recently, the demolition of much of Detroit after it lost two-thirds of its residents, the scope of inner-city American poverty is clear. But we do not yet fully grasp the challenges facing today’s rural communities – what it’s like to live in small towns, and their residents’ difficulty with finding stable, sustaining employment. As part of its series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, The New York Times offered an intimate peek into the combination of rampant unemployment, hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, high incarceration rates, and lack of educational opportunities that plagues places of concentrated rural poverty like McDowell County, West Virginia.
Tabula rasa, means “blank slate” in Latin, and a new school year presents opportunities for new beginnings, new faces, new classes, new courses, and new resources. Tabula rasa cannot produce transformation. However, the new school year gives us all the opportunity to make new plans, design new strategies, and implement new ideas.
Over the past several years, we have worked hard on the implementation of the new teacher and administrator evaluation tool. We will continue to review these instruments, gather feedback, and monitor the fidelity of the instrument’s use across the district. In addition, we have organized a district-wide Multi-Agency School Safety Team that continues to assist with orchestrating mock drills, assisting crisis teams, and making security recommendations for our buildings and grounds.
We have many aspirations and visions for the district. We will seek to provide professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators related to our new Comprehensive Plan, with an emphasis on continuing our collaborating district and school level PLC teams. We will also be refocusing our efforts on encouraging and embracing creativity as part of learning, finding ways to incorporate and integrate STEM, art, music, drama, wellness, technology, and culture into our classrooms and across the curriculum. We will continue to strengthen our partnerships with the local community college by expanding dual enrollment opportunities, adding programs like Teacher Cadet and Criminal Justice.
Finally, our School Board is committed to continuing to improve salary and benefit packages for all employees. Thanks to their leadership and despite rising health care costs, employee health insurance premiums for most of our teachers and staff are actually less than they were two years ago. However, the School Board recognizes that salary increases must continue to be a priority during the upcoming year. It is important that we continue to hire, retain, and reward our quality employees.
As we all know, there are many challenges with each new school year. Unfunded state and federal mandates, continued upkeep of school facilities, and seeking the resources to continue our technology upgrades are just a few of the issues facing our district. However, we can all be proud of what we achieve in Pulaski County Schools.
Our improvement rests on our dedicated staff’s effort to “challenge the process” each year. Our staff is always looking for ways to unite behind our common vision – reach each child with the culminating activity being student graduation and success in life. Have a great school year, and see you at Convocation on Wednesday, August 13!
Reconnecting McDowell County officials recently announced that two structures have been acquired in an effort to create new housing for teachers and other professionals who want to work in McDowell County. Referred to as a “teacher’s village” the housing would assist McDowell County officials with the recruitment and retention of teachers. However, one would only have to look at the coal-mining communities of the last century to understand the origins of such an idea.
In an effort to secure the most capable teachers, the coal company supplemented teachers’ salaries and built houses called “teacherages” for the female teachers to occupy. Mining community studies have identified the larger mining communities as providing so called clubhouses for their clerical, medical, and teaching staffs. The Pocahontas Fuel Company built a boarding house on West Water Street for the female teachers to occupy. These buildings were described as comfortable, well arranged, with modern conveniences available at a fair boarding price. The houses were equipped with bedroom suites, kitchen- dinette furniture, and a living area.
The “Teacher’s Clubhouse” was built in 1922 in order to provide adequate housing for teachers arriving in Pocahontas. The home was reported by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph to be “the most modern and complete building of its kind in this section of the State.” The coal company hired a hostess to clean the house, prepare meals, and watch over the teachers. The teachers shared the rent, utilities, and housekeeping expenses. The food was purchased at the company store where the teachers enjoyed a nice discount. The final bill was then divided up among all the clubhouse occupants. The coal company paid the electric bill. Pocahontas High School teacher Hannah Haga recalled $25 of her $110 a month salary going to pay her share of the expenses at the clubhouse.
The coal companies guarded the reputation of their teachers. Their conduct was closely observed and high moral standards were demanded. In most mining communities, teachers were expected to do social work, teach Sunday school, and assist with community activities. Wayne Wright, a Pocahontas High School graduate of 1944, recalled the strict dating policy enforced by the company.
In my courting days, I went with one of the teachers who lived at the clubhouse. When you dated a teacher, they would allow you to go into the parlor. There, a “lady of the house” would sit around watching you. They were very protective of the teachers who lived there.
Mrs. Hannah Haga also recalled the coal company being protective of the reputations of teachers living in the clubhouse:
When you came to work here you had to live at the clubhouse. Every night the hostess would lock the door at 11:00 P.M. You couldn’t marry. The men teachers stayed at Mr. Ellett’s place, but they ate their meals at the clubhouse. And some of the employees of the Pocahontas Fuel Company were allowed to eat there.
In Tazewell County, the school board was also protective of their employee’s image. The school board ordered that no married female applicants would be contracted for the 1932-33 school year. If a teacher married or was found to be secretly married, then her contract was automatically canceled. However, many of the teachers who came to Pocahontas met eligible bachelors, married, and decided to make the coalfields their home. The Teacher’s Clubhouse still stands on West Water Street in Pocahontas today.
Thomas Brewster – 2000, 2014
Pulaski Superintenent Thomas Brewster, Law professor Peter Edelman of Georgetown Law School Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, and Elaine Weiss, National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education are our guests.
The closing exercise in Pocahontas was a special time when the school and community would celebrate the accomplishments and successes of the school year. The purpose of this exercise was to stimulate educational pride, demonstrate the quality of work done in the schools, and to rally citizens to think more highly of schooling within the community.
The ceremony was held in the Pocahontas Opera House until 1928 when it was moved to the newly constructed Pocahontas High School gymnasium and auditorium. The Opera House, built in 1895, was the first theatre in the Pocahontas Coalfields and attracted Broadway plays and Vaudeville acts as well as educational presentations. A baccalaureate sermon was delivered there on the Sunday prior to the closing ceremony.
The exercises consisted of many awards, presentations, and accolades. The large crowds present would be provided with entertainment prepared by the students and teachers at the school. The students sang songs, recited poetry and children’s stories, and played piano solos. The program often included plays and performances. Plays such as “Aunt Diana’s Quilting Party” or “A Kentucky Belle”, a three-act comedy, were performed. There were even debates presented by members of the two rival debate clubs within the school. The issue of women’s suffrage was debated during the closing exercises of 1909 and 1914. The two rival debate clubs were the Chautauqua Literary Society and the Ciceronian Literary Society.
During the proceedings, many awards and presentations were given. Students that achieved the A-B honor roll or made improvements in writing were the recipients of $5.00 in gold. Awards were also given to the top achievers in English, Latin, Composition, Math, and Debate. Certificates of promotion were also disseminated among students who successfully completed the previous grade.
With so many activities planned, the closing exercises sometimes lasted over a period of several evenings. The opera house would be filled to capacity for each night’s performance. An admission fee, ranging from five cents to twenty-five cents was charged to pay for the ceremony’s expenses. The graduation exercise was held on the final night. Critics of the closing exercise complained that the two or three evening performances and ceremonies were costly affairs that added strain and pressure for teachers and a loss of instructional time for the students. The Virginia Journal of Education described the process of having a sequence of ceremonies at the end of the school year as being “obnoxious.” The Virginia Journal of Education recommended that the exercises be cut short for the benefit of the teachers.
Within a few years, the closing exercises became a commencement or graduation ceremony. During these ceremonies, graduating students were each presented a high school diploma for the successful completion of the required schooling. The principal delivered a short address to the class of graduates, reported on the progress of the school to the community, and handed out diplomas. Attire for these early ceremonies did not include the traditional caps and gowns that are worn today. Ellett, a 1924 graduate of Pocahontas High School, recalled purchasing a new suit for graduation, while Elizabeth Bailey Hughes, a 1928 graduate, described her father purchasing her special dress in New York City. “At the time I graduated we didn’t have caps and gowns. We wore dresses and suits. My father, who traveled to New York City regularly on buying trips for Pocahontas Fuel Company, brought a dress special for graduation. It was made in Paris, France.” The faculty would soon depart at the conclusion of the school term leaving a void in the social life of the community, causing regret among their many friends and acquaintances. Each year, large crowds would gather at the train station to bid the teachers farewell. Some of those teachers would return to spend their summer vacations in Pocahontas.
Though the tradition of wearing suits and dresses would eventually be transformed to caps and gowns, the entertainment of the large crowds in attendance and celebrating the students of Pocahontas High School continued until closure in 2008.
Thomas Brewster – 2000, 2014
by Francesca Duffy
Superintendent Thomas Brewster from Pulaski, Va., identified with a documentary on rural poverty and school capacity all too well. “Kids get left behind because principals, like the one in the movie, have no student support services at schools to provide for students,” said Brewster, referring to a scene when a student with behavioral problems decides to leave school after his principal warned he would face serious consequences if he walked out. The film, “Rich Hill,” which follows three struggling, impoverished kids in a rural town in Missouri, was screened by AASA and Broader, Bolderto an audience of education professionals in an effort to ignite a discussion on the implications poverty has on students and their ability to succeed academically and personally. Brewster was one of four panelists selected to comment on the realities of the film and its relevance to his day-to-day work.
State Superintendent for Public Instruction Pat Wright recently unveiled new technology resources during a visit to Pulaski Elementary in Pulaski County. According to Dr. Wright, Pulaski County Public Schools was among the first in the state to replace traditional textbooks in some classes with tablets and Standards of Learning-aligned content, media and apps.
The Virginia Department of Education announced the availability of a new virtual astronomy course on Virginia on iTunes U and the beta release of “EduWidgets,” an online authoring application that teachers and students can use to create interactive digital content for classroom devices, tablets and the web. During the visit, Pulaski Elementary students were the first to experiment with the new “EduWidgets” and demonstrated the new product for Dr. Wright. The visit is featured in a video released yesterday by the Virginia Department of Education.
While serving on the Virginia State Board of Education, I approached the Executive Assistant to the Board, Dr. Margaret Roberts, about a situation that I viewed as a potential conflict of interest. After her consultation, she reminded me that it was her job to keep me, as well as other Board members, from “stepping in it.”
As school superintendent, there are many decisions that have to be made during the course of the school year. Many of these decisions involve unanticipated ethical dilemmas that sometimes require immediate and decisive action. In fact, one would only have to peruse local and statewide newspapers to see troubling ethical dilemmas that often develop within other school districts. Though it can be impossible to anticipate some of these situations, there are three key principles that you can follow to avoid “stepping in it.”
Define Your Ethical Standards
Each year, our local Board adopts the Virginia School Board Association’s Code of Ethics. This Code contains the framework that commits Board members to be advocates for students and public education. The document further outlines twelve (12) principles for Board members to follow in order to successfully meet the criteria of the Code. In the book The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write, “When you clarify the principles that govern your life and the ends that you will seek, you give purpose to your daily life. A personal (or organization) creed gives you a point of reference for navigating the sometimes-stormy seas of organizational life.” A leader in any field should adopt a personal or collaborative code that addresses fundamental beliefs and sets high standards. After all, the leader’s actions will be viewed and judged by the organization’s employees and the individuals served by the organization.
Anticipate Ethical Dilemmas
As mentioned earlier, it can be impossible to anticipate all ethical dilemmas. However, by using a problem-based approach, leaders have the opportunity to explore real-world problems and challenges. This means studying real-life situations relevant to your field of expertise, and asking what you would do in these situations. Anticipating ethical dilemmas using a problem-based approach will prepare leaders to do the right thing if a similar situation does arise.
Surround Yourself with Good People
As a State Board member, I was fortunate to have someone like Dr. Roberts guiding me through the maze of ethical dilemmas. As a leader, there is no reason to make decisions in isolation. My staff and I meet regularly in an offsite location within one of our schools. This regularly scheduled meeting gives us an opportunity to confidentially discuss each area of responsibility. The information shared is often useful to the entire group. However, sometimes the discussion of ethical dilemmas within each area allows members of our leadership team the opportunity to share the burden of leadership, and discuss the grey areas where policy and practice are not well defined.
Virginia High School Hall of Fame football coach Glynn Carlock and his staff would spend countless hours reviewing game film prepping for the next opponent. When asked by others why he spent so much time in preparation, the coach would simply reply, “I only know one way, and that is the right way, there are no shortcuts. “ It takes a lot of hard work to prepare oneself to face the many ethical dilemmas of one’s profession. In the book Lincoln on Leadership, Donald Phillips writes, “The architect of leadership, all theories and guidelines, falls apart without honesty and integrity. It’s the keystone that holds organizations together.” There are no shortcuts, and the leader’s decisions have a direct impact on the organization’s employees and the individuals served by the organization.