Schools can be noisy places.
There are bells in between classes, excited lunchtime chatter and playground screams and hollers.
Where there are children, there is noise.
One month on the job, Whitehall City Schools' new superintendent, Brian Hamler, is talking about quieting the noise. But it's not the children's excitement that he hopes to quell. It's all of the proverbial noise surrounding today's teachers who are working hard to focus on education and the students in their classrooms. That noise could pose an unnecessary distraction, Hamler said, and he wants to make that his worry, not theirs.
There's a lot of noise going on around education, he said. Changes in the state report card are around the corner; new testing is on its way at both the lower and upper levels; teacher evaluation systems are changing and rely more on student performance; the state is providing for more education choices; and tougher performance standards are being put into place.
"What I've told our administration and staff, it's our challenge to quiet that noise so that the conversations in the buildings are not about all that I mentioned, but that they are going to be conversations about teaching and learning," he said. "Our buildings need to be focused on education ... not all that other noise."
Top on his list as new superintendent is to raise achievement, he said. Hamler, who came from South-Western City Schools, said he knows he has challenges, including an ever-growing English as a Second Language population, a high student turnover rate and students facing poverty. But Hamler has seen those challenges overcome firsthand in schools within the South-Western City School District, he said. According to South-Western's latest state report card, 56.8 percent of its population is economically disadvantaged, and 12.4 percent are ESL learners. Some individual schools, like West Franklin Elementary School, saw nearly 80 percent of its students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program last year, and 40 percent of its population are ESL learners. Yet the school achieved Excellent on its state report card last year, Hamler said.
"I told our staff the goal is to meet 12 indicators, and anything less than that is an F on the local report card. It's a failure on our part."
He said he realizes it might sound a little harsh.
"I'm not going to lie; it's not going to be easy work," he said. "Do I feel it's an unrealistic pipe dream? Absolutely not."
He applauded his predecessor, Judyth Dobbert-Meloy, for her leadership and the progress the district has made under her direction, particularly with so much "noise" over the past several years.
"I don't want to continue to offer a crutch to our teachers, that our kids can't learn at that level," he said. "I think that's holding us back."
He cited a book by Cy Wakeman, Reality Based Leadership, saying he wants to focus on hard data rather than rely on preconceived ideas and assumptions about students in Whitehall.
Hamler said he also plans to involve the community as he and his staff re-evaluate district goals. He said it has been some 13 years since the district has revisited its mission statement.
"I don't know that we've had that conversation in a long time," he said.
Communicating changes in the new state report card also will be a priority, along with increasing both autonomy and accountability amongst his staff members, he said.
"We're doing a great job here, but we want to get better," he said. "We should be proud of some of the accomplishments we've had, ... but I really feel we can achieve at a higher level."