Portland Public Schools Superintendent William Heath recently agreed to an email interview with The Portland Beacon.
According to the district website, Mr. Heath is serving in his second year as district Superintendent. He earned his Bachelors of Science Degree from Michigan State University in Biological Science Interdepartmental. After his completion of this degree, he spent five years teaching science at Owosso High School. His Master's degree is from Grand Valley State University in Secondary Education Administration. Mr. Heath served for a total of 16 years in the U.S. Navy (five years on active duty and 11 years as a reservist) as both a flight engineer and leadership instructor. For the past six years he worked for Morrice Area Schools as the Jr./Sr. High Principal and Superintendent.
Mr. Heath lived in Portland for nine years and recently moved to Eagle, where he grew up, with his wife Jamie and three girls Bella, Anna, and Sammy-J. "It is an absolute honor to be the Superintendent of Portland Public Schools. I believe strongly in this school district and the community. There is no other place that I would rather work and no other place that I would have educate my own children. I look forward to working with everyone to make Portland Public Schools the best place to go to work and to go to school."
Below are the questions we asked Mr. Heath, as well as his responses.
The Portland Beacon (TPB): As a parent in the district, it seems that both teachers and the district as a whole moved towards using more technology to communicate with and engage parents in 2016-2017. Can you tell us what changes occurred last year, and what parents can expect this year?
William Heath (WH): Last year Portland started the process to put an emphasis on using technology not just as a communication tool but also as dedicated curriculum for our students from developmental kindergarten through their senior year. I am glad to hear that our early stages of this work was noticed! This year we will continue to make strides toward more technology use and increased instruction. The biggest communication change this year is our new website. We continue to add information to the site and hope that it will be more user friendly and provides timely information. We are also working on our Facebook and Twitter feeds which will connect to the new site. The district has a professional learning committee for technology which is made up of representatives from each of our buildings and administration. The goal of the committee is to help make the decisions involving technology curriculum, equipment, and professional development. A big change for this year is having a technology teacher for the elementary. Bob Powers has graciously accepted this position and will be working with students and teachers in Oakwood, Westwood, and St. Pats. Bob has a true passion for technology and we look forward to the growth we will see in both student and teacher technology use. We have also increased our class offerings at the Middle School and High School this year. We are very excited to offer the new AP Computer Science Principles course at the High School.
TPB: What you your individual goals as a second-year superintendent in the district?
WH: Every year my goal is to increase student opportunities and increase communication. As the district leader, it is critical that I communicate important topics about the district. My focus is to use our new school website and School Messenger system to keep parents up to date with important and timely
information. I am passionate about increasing opportunities for our students. This year I will be working on two big projects that will directly influence the opportunities that we are able to offer our students in the future. Next week, we start the process of getting approved as an Early College Program. Early College will allow our students to stay for a 5th year of high school in order to continue to take advantage of dual enrollment courses that earn college credit. Our plan will be set up so that the district covers the cost of tuition for all of our dual enrollment courses and students can obtain an associate’s degree or a program certification before graduation. This program will start with this year’s sophomore class but all of our current students are benefiting from the High School Advantage classes that we started this year with Lansing Community College.
The other big project is a potential bond vote in May of 2018. This vote would not increase the current tax rate that our citizens are currently paying. What it would do is add the voted amount to the end of our current bonds which are set to expire in six years, essentially extending the current bond. This vote will allow us to make the needed changes across the district so that our facilities do not limit the opportunities that will be available for our students in the future. Also, there are much needed repairs throughout the district that if taken out of the general budget will limit our abilities to continue to provide our current programs and drastically decrease any new opportunities that we may offer students. We have established a community bond committee to look at the needed changes across the district. This committee will determine what the district will take to the voters in May. We are in the beginning stages of this process and will provide the community with all the information in the near future. Our goal is to leave no question or concern unanswered.
TPB: What are the primary focuses of the district this year?
WH: There are a lot of things going on in the district and it is difficult to list all of them. Some of the biggest ticket items include, standardizing our policies and practices throughout the district, increasing communication and collaboration between buildings, implementation of our Positive Behavior Support system (Raider PRIDE), starting our new homeschool partnership and getting approved to be an early college program.
TPB: Are there any concerns that you see the district facing in the near future that you think the community should know about?
WH: School funding should always be a concern for our community. Our funding is based on the number of students that attend PPS. The State sets a per pupil foundation allowance each year. As we gain students we gain funds and as we lose students we lose funds. There are very few ways for the district to generate additional funds to run our district beyond those generated from our per pupil allotment. Enrollment is always a concern. The district, as well as the county and State, have seen a steady decline in the number of students in our schools. Fortunately, we have seen an increase this year at Oakwood, but the rest of our district is down in students. Our hope is that this is a trend for the future and we are starting the path back to our more traditional enrollment numbers.
TPB: What can you tell us about P.R.I.D.E?
WH: Last year the district accepted a grant to become a MiBLSi district (Michigan Behavior and Learning Support Initiative). This process will have two key components. The first is our Positive Behavior Support system which is what our community sees as Raider PRIDE. The other is a focused approach to improving student reading supports DK-12 grade.
The development of Raider PRIDE required an extensive amount of work from our entire staff last year to develop. Our goal was to create a set of expectations that exemplifies what it means to be a Portland Raider. Using the acronym PRIDE the district is emphasizing what it means to be a Raider. We will show that we are Prepared, Respectful, In Control, Determined, and Engaged. Our next step was to explain and teach what that means in all areas of our schools. We understand that all of our students come to school with varying levels of abilities and experiences. We will no longer assume that a student understands what is expected of them when they walk into a new situation. As a staff we will educate them and give them strategies to be successful. The last part of this process is to collect data on when expectations are not being met and then develop strategies to help students or groups of students. All of this is done by focusing on the positives, building relationships, understanding our students, and teaching them how to be productive and successful in and out of our schools. We had a great kick off so far this year and we are really excited to see the future of Raider PRIDE.
TPB: There are concerns that Michigan currently has a shortage of young adults entering the skilled trades (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/michigan/articles/2017-09-03/ap-interview-stabenow-worried-about-shortage-in-trades, http://www.mlive.com/business/index.ssf/2017/05/post_15.html, and http://www.wzzm13.com/news/local/grand-rapids-facing-skilled-labor-shortage/44067137).
What does PPS offer a student looking to pursue a career in skilled trades?
WH: This is an excellent question. I think it is important that we all realize that not every student that graduates Portland will go to college. What we need to focus on is making sure that every student is able to go to college and is prepared for a successful career of their choice after high school. Our community does not operate without the dedicated work of those in skilled trades. As a school district we need to do our part in focusing on the individual student and helping them make future career path choices. We then need to provide them the opportunities needed to give them a head start in that career. As far as specific offerings, the district utilizes Heartlands to provide Career Technical Education courses in a variety of skill trades.
TPB: Can you give us an overview of how PPS conducts teacher evaluations?
WH: PPS uses an evaluation tool called 5D+ which was adopted by the district in the 2015-2016 school year. This system requires teachers to self-evaluate, set student growth goals, and develop a growth plan. Our principals conduct multiple observations for every teacher throughout the year. Our year end evaluation incorporates all of these components. As a district we continue to work on making 5D+ a growth tool for all teachers. Our focus is to ensure that every teacher, as well as all staff members, makes growth every year.
TPB: What do you see for the future of PPS?
WH: I think a lot of my answers above highlighted some specific things for the future of Portland. In more global terms, I see growth for Portland. Not just growth in the number of students that we have attending but growth in how we teach, what we teach, and opportunities for both staff and students. Growth is exciting but with this growth we need to make sure we keep the small town feel of Portland.
Portland is a great community to live, work, and learn. That should never change.
TBP: If a parent has a concern they would like to discuss with you, what is the best route for
WH: I take all forms of communication. Whatever works for the community member will also work for me. I always suggest starting with the teacher or principal first. The person directly involved is always able to provide the clearest information and usually the quickest solution. I do understand that it is sometimes better to go directly to me. If you need an immediate answer, please call my office. I spend the majority of my day in the buildings so I may not be there. If you let my office know what your call is in regards to, they will get the message to me. Unfortunately for me, I spend the majority of my day working on emails. I check my email constantly. Please email me any time and I will get back to you within 48 hours. That is a standard that I have asked of all my administrators when responding to email.
TPB: During the winter months, youth athletic programs often struggle to get adequate gym time in PPS buildings due to limited space and availability. A local community group focused on building a community/rec center in Portland recently put a hold on their activities due to a lack of financial support from the community. Does the district have any short-term or long-term plans to increase gymnasium space?
WH: Unfortunately, there is no short term plan for increasing gym space. As a parent of young girls who play basketball I can completely relate to the frustrations of not getting gym time or only getting gym time that is probably too late for the age of the child. The only potential long term plan would be part of a bond project. This question has come up in our bond committee work and we will continue to look at the financial feasibility of adding a new gymnasium. Portland is a fiscally responsible community. Any request to the community should also be fiscally responsible. Our bond committee will weigh the benefits to the cost of all items in the bond request. I am open to any ideas on how to make this project a possibility as well as what role the district can play in helping develop a community rec center.
(Photo Courtesy of William Heath/Portland Public Schools Web Site)