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Superintendent says facilities will be among priorities in '09

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 4, 2009 2:00 AM

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Dr. Steven Taylor, shown in this 2008 file photo, says building and continued improvement in student achievement, are among his goals for 2009.

Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor is looking back at what he sees as a pivotal and successful year for the Wayne County Public Schools.

And as he looks ahead to 2009, construction is on his mind.

In 2008, progress was made in several areas, he said -- the facilities plan, districtwide accreditation and efforts toward workforce development, to name a few.

The next steps, he said, revolve around improving school facilities.

Despite the economic situation, Taylor said he hopes construction projects can begin during 2009, with an eye on opening the buildings to students by the fall of 2010.

"We absolutely want to have everything done and completed by the summer of 2010," he said. "I think that's been moving along as quickly as we can move it along."

Finding the money to make that plan a reality -- as well as to continue to improve the educational offerings for students in the district -- will continue to be a challenge.

And after a surprise request from the state for school systems to return unused funds -- of which Wayne County's portion was $759,977, Taylor said officials are watching closely and budgeting carefully to make sure nothing interferes with that goal.

"We were caught off-guard at mid-year, which we had to scramble to figure out ways to cut out to maintain the integrity of our program," he said. "We were able, fortunately, to not have to cut personnel. That's just something we want to avoid if possible."

So far, the cuts have not required any staff cuts -- any savings were gained through attrition -- retirements and resignations. The positions simply were not refilled.

That doesn't mean, Taylor said, that the staff positions were unnecessary or that losing them does not affect the educational process -- or that the school system has money to spare.

He said the school system's coffers are not full and the fund balance would not hold up if it had to take another hit.

"I don't know what's going to happen in the future," Taylor said. "Certainly I think the state will keep schools as a priority. I don't think we're going to close the schools, but at the same time, budget cuts hurt in various ways."

Even though money remains a concern, Taylor said the schools continue to work on the quality of the education offered to Wayne County students.

In 2008, the school system handily passed its five-year accreditation -- a major achievement considering the strict format and tough requirements, Taylor said.

"That's a very big deal and our approach this year was different than it has been in the past because it was districtwide," he said. "We have worked very hard for many years now to put strategies in place for school improvement. ... It was gratifying that when they finalized every report, the recommendations were not anything new, it was really enhancing everything we already had in place."

Taylor also points to the recently implimented kitchen table conversations as an example of school officials continuing to seek new ways of improving educational opportunities for students -- this time with an emphasis on community and parent involvement.

The open forum allowed the community to weigh in on different topics relating to the school system. Two sessions have already been held, with two more planned before the school year ends.

"I like the format, and I think it allows people to speak without fear of someone taking issue with their comments," Taylor said. "We can gather all those various and different ideas and bring them back to our board and to our staff."

Dialogue with business leaders about workforce development ideas has also been a plus, Taylor said.

"I think we're one of five districts that I'm aware of that even has our kids tested on the Work Keys, so that puts us ahead in that other districts are looking at what we're doing in Wayne County," he said.

Work Keys allows schools to assess a student's employability as it relates to a certain set of skills employers identify as the ones they are looking for .

Reflecting on overall progress in the school system, Taylor said he counts the year among the best in terms of accountability -- citing good news regarding ABCs, AYPs, graduation rate, dropout rate and SAT scores.

There is still work to do, however, he said, as officials continue to strive to improve student and school performance.

"Obviously the reading (test) was revamped for this coming year and last year and we'll have to go back and put into place what we need to meet those standards," he said. "We were in line with the state, but at the same time we'll improve with them because we know what they're looking for. I think we did very well. I'm very pleased with the hard work of our staff in getting the job done."

Efforts like a summer school program at the elementary school level turned out well, and demonstrate the need for making sure the youngest Wayne County residents have the skills they need to succeed in school, Taylor said.

"We want those youngsters to be prepared not only to start school but to be math (and reading) proficient by the time they reach third and fourth grade," he said.

With that in mind, Taylor also hopes to be able to address the need for an additional mobile preschool bus. A second one was added earlier this year, but based on the numbers and the waiting list, he said he anticipates at least one more will be helpful once funding can be secured.

Every effort should be made to prepare children for school, Taylor said, since starting early will later pay off in terms of lowering the dropout rate.

"I think sometimes people want to look at the wrong end of the scale," he said. "You need to front-load the process."

In the meantime, high school reform remains a priority. Introducing schools like Wayne Early/Middle College High School and the School of Engineering, as well as the various technical and vocational academies in the county's high schools, offers options for students, particularly those not college-bound.

The school system also remains focused on raising the achievement and closing the gap for student success, with task forces formed to address that concern, Taylor said.

But even with all the work ahead, Taylor said recent improvement in the relationship between the school board and county commission as well as the increased involvement of the business community mean 2009 will be another year of progress toward maintaining a solid -- and continuallly improving -- school district.

The collaboration is vital, and lets the public know that Wayne County cares, the superintendent said.

And that will also mean that soon, other communities will look at Wayne County for ideas on how to improve their schools -- making this county an example of what happens when leaders and citizens come together and make education a priority.

"We don't just want to go elsewhere for ideas," he said. "We want people coming here for ideas of what we're doing."

As for 2009, Taylor's goals center around continuing to build -- literally and figuratively.

"Our goal for this year is to start construction," he said. "We have done a lot of talking, a lot of planning, looking at designs. I want some dirt dug, some foundations, some actual work that people in the community can actually go by and see. That really, after all these years, we can actually start, give people hope, have new facilities for these kids."

Taylor said he wants to alleviate overcrowded conditions in the schools, move the facilities plan into Phase 2 and to get funding in place before costs go even higher.

'We don't want to have to start cutting any of that plan out because the board has approved this $90 million (construction and renovation plan)," he said. "We want to make sure that all the communities that expect something will have it."