Kelahan: Learning, advocating for students
WATKINS GLEN--Seven months into his new position as Watkins Glen School District Superintendent, Greg Kelahan is transitioning from his formative role of observer and listener to facilitator of change.
His presence in and around the district has been noticed by students, teachers and parents. He attends classes, attends sporting events and makes it a point to call students by name.
The data-driven Kelahan is intent on understanding just how the district's successes are achieved and what practices stymie learning and growth. From classroom learning, building and grounds upkeep and improvement, transportation safety and efficiency, cafeteria functions, and field trip engagement, Kelahan is taking it all in.
Board of Education President Gloria Brubaker credits former superintendent Tom Phillips for leaving the district in good financial shape, a completed building project, and the development of the current building project. She says the district is now focused on improving the curriculum with academics at the cornerstone of the school's vision. She says Kelahan was chosen to lead the district because of his successes and experience in previous positions from classroom teacher, to curriculum leader, to superintendent of Oriskany School District and that his expertise with curriculum was key in his selection. The board chose not to utilize the BOCES search process, but hired Dr. Vincent J. Coppola, a leadership search consultant to conduct a confidential search, screen applications and recommend a group of final candidates to the board. The board was the sole decision maker in the appointment of Kelahan and there was some criticism about omission of staff and community participation in the interview and selection process. Although staff and community members were consulted as to the qualities and skills necessary for a successful superintendent. Brubaker said while opinions varied greatly, a common thread of the input was the new superintendent should not have established family or community ties to the district.
The closing of the middle school in 2014 catapulted the WGCS administrative team into major changes. Elementary school principal Rod Weeden was replaced by former middle school principal Kristine Somerville and Weeden was transitioned into director of data and athletics. Upon the 2016 retirement of Nan Woodworth-Shaw, Somerville was then moved to director of student services and instruction and new hire, Rebecca Trank took the helm of the elementary school. Former administrative intern Kelsey Delaney was hired as assistant principal for the pre K-6 grade program. Kai D'Alleva, former social studies teacher for the district, became 7-12 principal after two years as Spencer-Van Etten elementary principal and one year as the principal of the middle school.
Kelahan has already made his first major change in school leadership.
In the first reorganization of his administrative team, Kelahan moved Somerville to a non-association independent position. No longer is Somerville a member of the administrative bargaining unit, a change that was put into place to leverage her ability to make decisions and enhance her authority. Kelahan sees Somerville as a partner whose extensive experience makes her a key player in formulating a plan towards excellence. Kelahan is intent upon establishing a clear curriculum process that allows teachers to bring their knowledge, experience and best practices into the classroom. Somerville is at the helm of that movement and the newly established curriculum committee is seen as a vehicle of significant change. Kelahan says Somerville has both the big picture vision and organization to be effective in such a leadership role.
Union President Travis Durfee said he is encouraged by the formulation of the curriculum committee and the collaborative processes that Kelahan embraces. It was in 2014 the teaching staff in Watkins was alarmed to find the board had approved curriculum decisions locking teachers into a laborious, untenable curriculum process or adherence to the controversial and rigid common core curriculum. In another action, the board, voted on replacing classroom grades with higher Regents scores if a student has an 85 average or above. Durfee, like Kelahan, believes teachers must have a seat at the table when creating the curriculum and the process must be collaborative and transparent. He credits Kelahan with trying to diversify leadership within the district and empowering the staff in decision making. Identifying the process of choosing curriculum leaders in the school and how they should be chosen was a joint process between the faculty executive committee and the administration. The curriculum committee is now in operation and Durfee said he finds the new framework promising.
Kelahan said after arriving in Watkins Glen he was impressed by the "palpable and clear intent to love children." He said, "I am impressed by the rapport the staff has with the students and the understanding of the challenges families face." At the same time, Kelahan notes it is also necessary to develop perseverance and grit. He said it is the mission of the school to grow thinkers and referenced the five values the district has developed to do so. He said he wants to honor all that Watkins Glen is while expanding student experiences. Kelahan acknowledges the economic disparity of some students in the district and the role that disparity can play in education. Kelahan said he envisions a school where economics, gender and geography do not determine the opportunities and successes of students. He said the staff is already having conversations concerning the impact of economic disparity and open discussions are the first step in creating equity.
Kelahan said literacy is the core of the school's mission and he is looking at a March deadline for the review of practices, establishment of teacher leadership and the framing of what will become a deeply rooted professional development framework. Kelahan said, "While the district's English Regents results are consistently good, I would like to see us strengthen early literacy in a mission towards excellence." The English department has already approached him concerning the establishment of a school-wide writing model. Kelahan also believes it is necessary for the district to embrace a common vision that becomes its identity. He wants to establish consistent norms of operation and a core of consistency. Kelahan believes those norms can and must co-exist with teachers using research and development to take risks in improving education practices.
Both Brubaker and Durfee are optimistic about the direction of the district and both commend Kelahan for his visibility and engagement.
Kelahan summed up his early thoughts about the district, " We can do some miracles in Watkins Glen."