Thursday, March 7, 2019

Presidential Scholar Program Participant

Good day, below I want to share an email sent to one of my high school students, Theo, in response to learning he is under consideration for a prestigious recognition award, the United States Presidential Scholars Program. This program is by invitation only. It was established in 1964 by executive order of the President to recognize and honor some of our nation's most distinguished graduating high school seniors. In 1979 the program was extended to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative and performing arts. In 2015 the program was again extended to recognize students who demonstrate ability and accomplishment in career and technical education fields. Each year, up to 161 students are named as Presidential Scholars, one of the nation's highest honors for high school students. I am so proud of him for being among those invited to apply. 

Roughly 4,000 students are currently approved for application and consideration. To put this in the proper frame, in Fall of 2018, about 50 million students began enrollment (2018-2019 School Year) in a public school across the United States (elementary through 12th grade).  To find that he is among the 4,000 seniors being considered for the ultimate recognition is truly awe-inspiring. For me as a public school superintendent, I love all of my students. Truly, each student's story pulls me in and tugs at my heart for many different reasons. When it comes to caring for each of them, ultimately it does not matter if they are at the top of the class or the bottom. I really do not have favorites when it comes what part of the journey they find themselves on. Rather, I look to see what, if anything, can I do to add value to this young person's life. Superintendents make countless decisions each day that shape, mold, and have an impact on the students entrusted in our care. In addition, we interact on a more personal level every single day with various students and their families. With a student like "Theo", there is not much he really needs from me. If I am being honest, and I am, I was not even close academically to him. Knowing that, I always think share something of value for him to reflect on. In that spirit, please enjoy the email message below. 

Greetings Theo,

I want to take a moment to send this note of congratulations regarding your pursuit of Presidential Scholar recognition. We are all very excited and proud of you. I requested a copy of your resume for my review after learning about this exciting news. You have an impressive resume. You are clearly a scholar of the highest caliber, a current GPA of 4.59, among the top of your peers (among 478), advanced placement course work, and outstanding standardized test scores! I am literally a bit in awe of your accomplishments thus far. I mean a 1590 SAT score, and ACT score of 35 are two tremendous accomplishments. While typing this email to you, I have my thesaurus open to the word tremendous since so much of what you have accomplished so far in the classroom is simply, well... tremendous or (astounding, colossal, exceptional, extraordinary, fabulous, and prodigious among my favorite synonyms). 

I have met some amazing students over my 20 plus years in education. Some of them have similar academic accomplishments, however, when I look beyond the classroom there are few extracurricular experiences. This is not the case for you, which is why I am most impressed by you. You have been a successful marching band member, a member of the jazz band, worked to support the theater productions, and excelled in the engineering and robotics club just to mention a few. In addition, you are a swimmer. You have already demonstrated that you recognize the importance and value of employment. You have held part-time jobs in addition to all of your other interests. Also, you are a community service volunteer who has actively given back to your City. I recognize that each one of the accomplishments listed above came with a set of demands. I know you had to sacrifice enjoying experiences that would have been simply ‘fun’ for buckling down to study. You likely exchanged time with your family and friends for your school work or practicing your instrument. I want to convey that your efforts are recognized and appreciated. More importantly though, you are not the person you are because you desire recognition but you have dreams of a future lived a certain way. You have family who have supported you and raised you to be the hard-worker that you have developed into. At times, you may privately wonder ‘is this really worth it’ when you are feeling particularly overwhelmed. The easy thing for me to say is yes. Yes it will all work out the way you want it to. All of your hard work will lead to unlocking every door you want to enter. I really - really want to tell you that. However, that would be irresponsible of me. The truth is, time will tell. You will find out if this has been a worthy endeavor down the road. That may not feel overly uplifting or encouraging. That is ok, because a student like you does not need a ‘pep talk’ from me. You are self-motivated - Driven. 

I will offer, instead of a fluffy inspirational message, my beliefs based on my 44 years on this Earth so far. I believe that you reap the effort you put forth in each and every endeavor. So if you put in a half-hearted effort you receive ho-hum outcomes. So good news for you, I believe you have demonstrated that you are extraordinary; you are willing to put your everything into all that you set to accomplish. I believe it will indeed pay off. I have come to understand that ‘pay off’ is a very tricky thing to define however. In some parts of my life, I believed the pay off would be a career or financial security. I wanted to be part of something that could make life better for others. To make a difference in the lives of people has always been part of what I wanted. Later, the pay off was finding someone who loved me as much as I loved them. Further, the pay off is the joy of fatherhood. As I watch my own children grow in front of my wife and I, the pay off has shifted to wanting their dreams to come true. I believe that as I get older, my idea of what is valuable will continue to change and evolve. It took me a long time to realize that I needed to enjoy each day, each part of the experience, to learn from every mistake and success. So the little bit of wisdom a guy like me wants to offer a superstar like you is simply -be happy or not, the choice is yours. Do not base your happiness on milestones or particular accomplishments. Avoid thoughts such as “I will be happy if I can just…”. 

Keep striving for the goals you desire…enjoy them if you are able to make them happen, but be happy during the experience too. During the ‘grind’ of working towards something….find the joy in it. Do not give up your curiosity but rather feed it. If you are curious about something – you should pursue it just for the sake of figuring it out. As all sorts of wonderful things come into your life, University – Scholarships – Grades – Career – Family try to enjoy every single second of it. Please do not become one of those old people (old like me lol) who says things like “ugh, I hate Mondays…I can’t wait until Friday”…. Each and every day is a gift, enjoy each day as if it were a Friday night. Lastly, as you go through life, you will have people who have gone before you come into your life – try to learn from them. Grow your network of connections as you go. Please feel free to consider me among that network as I would be pleased to be of any help I can in your future!

Best of luck in the Presidential Scholar recognition experience,

Regards,

Dr. David Gentile, Superintendent and President of Your Fan Club

Friday, February 8, 2019

Put on the old hardhat and grab the shovel!


The adage, the best things in life are worth waiting for comes to mind this morning. While waiting, one must remain patient, positive and be willing to sacrifice. Our current High School Principal, Stephanie DeRose, exemplifies these traits. I would like to thank her for her leadership and oversight of details during this complex multi-phased project. There are countless others who have been working behind the scenes to make this day possible. Watching this moment unfold now proves that the wait has been worth it. Everyday, we get a little closer to the end result – a facility worthy of our Bolts!

When I was first interviewed for the position of superintendent in MPSD, I was asked about my experience and ability to oversee the construction of a brand new high school. Fast-forward nearly 10 years later, after countless meetings and discussions, debates and challenges, we are not building a brand new school – instead, we are being frugal with the taxpayers’ dollars and making use of the existing framework of our Wade Blvd High School. We are renovating wherever possible, we are putting in smart additions where needed, and we are overhauling the campus with as little waste as possible. NJ’s resources are not limitless; this project is a great example of how the MPSD and SDA are honoring that. In the end, we are confident that we will be able to provide the students of this community with a state-of-the-art, comprehensive campus that will serve to inspire future generations of learners to come. This project will end the overcrowding and need to have two high school campuses. We will achieve greater economies of scale and efficiencies by finally housing all students 9th-12th grade in one location. This will serve as the beacon of opportunity to the community that our kids are valued! They are worthy of updated facilities. This community deserves only the best. Thanks to our partnership with the SDA, we are able to provide a campus worth of the Bolts!

In closing, I would like to thank my predecessors – both Dr. Larry Miller and Dr. Shelly Schneider because this vision began under their tenure. I am compelled to also mention our former Board President, Mr. William Herman “Bill”. While he unfortunately lost his battle with cancer, he won his battle to bring this community a ‘new high school worthy of our community’. He fought tirelessly while on the board to bring this project to this community. I would like to take a moment of silence to remember him at this time.

 Thank you

Thursday, March 8, 2018

School Budget; Flat Funding is Decreased Funding!

* Excerpt from weekly recognition email: if interested in full Phenomenal Friday's in MPS

Hello all,

Hope you are enjoying a wonder Friday despite the less than ideal weather. Today, I just want to share something that is really bugging me. It is that time of year where Mr. Kell, school business administrator, and I are deep into the budget process for next year. What this means for MPS (at least as it has been for the last 8 years that I have had the pleasure of leading) is we anticipate that the State Financial Aid will remain flat – same as the year before. Each year, for the past 8 years, we have seen flat funding – with the exception of last school year where we received flat funding initially, then the State took an additional $860,000 after our budget was prepared and approved. Yes, that happened but I will get back to that in a minute. First, let me spend a little time on what flat funding means for us. 

Our annual operating budget is just a bit above a hundred million dollars. Of that, approximately $10 million is provided by the local taxpayers. Easy math, over $90 million comes in the form of State Financial Aid (Federal Aid as well). Within our budget, some 70% is dedicated to 1200 or so employees and their medical benefits. The remaining 30% is used for things like technology, infrastructure, facility care, supplies, athletics and such. Each year, modest salary increases and increases to the cost of health benefits around 2 or 3% results in about an addition 2-3 million dollars. Again, pull out the old calculator and you can see that flat funding coupled with increases in labor costs (regardless of how modest) results in a 2 to 3 million dollar shortfall. Factor in the cost of operations also increasing this deficit can grow. Under the current State guidelines, the District is permitted to raise local taxes by 2% annually without the need for a public vote. This 2% provides an additional $250,000 annually, give or take. Certainly not anywhere near enough to cover the shortfall that exists when flat funding is provided.

A bit of history lesson for those who are not fully aware… The MPS District is a ‘former Abbott’ School District.  Abbott districts are school districts in New Jersey once covered by a series of New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, begun in 1985,[7] that found that the education provided to school children in poor communities was inadequate and unconstitutional and mandated that state funding for these districts be equal to that spent in the wealthiest districts in the state. (Wikipedia, 2018.)

The Court in Abbott II[8] and in subsequent rulings,[9] ordered the State to assure that these children receive an adequate education through implementation of certain reforms, including standards-based education supported by parity funding. It include various supplemental programs and school facilities improvements, including to Head Start and early education programs. The Head Start and NAACP were represented by Maxim ThorneMaxim Thorne as amici curiae in the case.[10](Wikipedia, 2018.)

The part of the state constitution that is the basis of the Abbott decisions requires that:

  1. [t]he Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.[11]
  2. The Abbott designation was formally eliminated in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, but the designation and special aid were restored in 2011 when the NJ Supreme Court blocked the Christie Administration from making any aid cuts to the Abbott districts while allowing cuts to other districts.[12]
  3. There is limited evidence that the legal actions have improved student learning outcomes in the Abbott districts.[13] (Wikipedia, 2018.)


Important to address that last bit of information. While the overall research does not show significant improvement in Abbott performance as a result of the funding, our District was cited among a few former Abbott Districts that have made significant improvement (source – Governor Chris Christie’s 2017 Budget Address). Also important to note is that improved student learning outcomes is still comparing the Abbott performance to that of the wealthiest districts. I maintain that the funding simply provides the Abbott District with the basic resource to create a comprehensive budget. Student outcomes among students of poverty must be reviewed against other students of poverty – not as the State does it as they say low socio-economics play no role in student achievement. From someone who has spent his 20 year career in districts in the lower tier of socio-economic status it does make a difference. Growing up in poverty is filled with challenges that the wealthy student never has to consider. Hunger…clean clothing…supplies and resources at home to assist in the education development of the child. There are countless studies that identify the differences, for example students of poverty begin school with a vocabulary that is 2-4 thousand words short of their middle-class classmate. 

Now, during the time we were Abbott, we were NOT permitted to raise local taxes at all. For obvious reasons, the State was subsidizing the Abbott Communities to ensure fair funding. So while an Abbott, the local share was frozen. Fast forward to last year when the State decided to take additional money from our budget after it was already board approved. There were 27 Districts total in NJ that had additional money taken from their budgets; in 2018 twenty-four of them received that money back while 3 received their money back in the form of a loan from the State. A loan, for money that was once part of our budget. In fairness, they are not charging interest (that we are aware) but we do have to pay the nearly nine hundred thousand dollars back over the next ten years. 

The only reason we have been provided is that it is because our community does not pay its fair share in local taxes! If you have been able to stick with me through this you are probably scratching your head asking huh? MPS was identified by NJ as one of the Abbott Districts, low socio-economic status…and during that time we could not raise local taxes under their rules….and now that Abbott has been removed not by our choice (how that happened is still a mystery as the finding of the court that initially created it has not changed or been overturned to my knowledge)…we are being punished because the local taxes are not high enough? 

So year after year, we come together and tighten the belts. We do more with less. We were forced to close an elementary school last year…all to attempt to make flat funding work somehow. For 8 plus years I have been warning the State and anyone who would listen in my budget address that at some point in the future, we simply will not be able to cut any further and still meet the never decreasing demands placed upon NJ School Districts (with countless unfunded mandates). I fear that time may be close. 

I remain hopeful that with the new Governor as well as an education commissioner who was a superintendent in a former Abbott District perhaps something will change for the better. I hear all the time about the importance of the ‘children’…now more than ever. The students need to be safe, they need to receive an exceptional education, become college and career ready, we must provide support services to identify signs of mental illness, provide federally mandated special education programs to help our large special needs population (something for which I support 100% - but the reality is it is expensive to provide a full host of services), we must have the latest technology…we must have the best staff…(which we do) but we are not going to provide you with the funding necessary to do that this year. Instead, make do with what we gave you 8 years ago. I am sure the bills in your house have remained the same as they were 8-10 years back right?

Normally, I want the Phenomenal Friday to strictly be positive; to celebrate our staff. However, this is an issue negatively impacting all of us and for that reason, it must be shared. I believe with my entire being that public education is and always has been the best opportunity to give kids a shot at a bright future. MPS District has some of the best staff members anywhere! We must demand that every community, from the wealthiest to the poorest has what they need to provide an exceptional education. We cannot accept that if your parents are fortunate to be able to live in the wealthiest communities you are granted a full and complete set of resources. If however, you are not, well you just have to make do with what you were given more than a decade ago.  I was the first to go to college in my family. My parents both worked extremely hard and made education a priority. Fortunately for me, I attended the MPS District at a different time when funding was not the issue it is today. I am an example of how with hard work you can accomplish your dreams. We must make sure that every student in our community has the same chance! We must provide our world-class staff with the resources of a world-class school district. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Push-ups, Breaking Boards...all in a days work

When Master Jung brought me in front of 600 plus parents, students, and community leaders I was honored. When he told me to do 10 push ups and break a board I was nervous. I have been very open that my fitness has been on the back-burner lately. I wasn't sure 10 push-ups were possible with my shoulder injury. When he replaced the thin beginner board that the children were using with what he called "the big boy board" I truly worried about letting down the kids. Thankfully, all worked out. The cheering from the students and spectators gave me the push needed to complete both tasks.

I am very proud of all the students who graduated from the 8 week long partnership Taekwondo class taught by the USTEF. Our students demonstrated strength, courage, and discipline throughout. I am proud that we were able to pack the house for the students. We had some real dignitaries in attendance as well: Assemblymen Andrejczak and Land, Senator Van Drew to name a few.

Great job kids, "Kiaaaaaah"