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Rossi Boosts New Curriculum Director, Sees Online Grade Access in 2012

New schools chief marshalling a number of projects and initiatives.

A little more than a month after he moved into the Madison schools superintendent’s office, Dr. Michael Rossi offers a succinct progress report.

“Things are going along great,” he said. “Things are falling into place.”

No surprise, really, from the energetic former basketball coach who came over after six years as Roxbury schools chief armed with more than a few ideas on moving the district forward.

Rossi is looking forward to checking off one critical task tonight when the Board of Education is expected to approve the hiring on his recommendation of Lee Nittel as the new director of curriculum.

“Lee currently is a middle school principal in Roxbury,” said Rossi. “He’ll be coming over [tonight], meeting with the Board, and if everything goes as expected, be appointed.”

Rossi said representatives of schools staff, parents, the Board, and schools administration worked together on replacing Dr. Barbara Sargent as curriculum chief. “We had a really great committee, and I am pleased with how it functioned, it was really good,” Rossi said.

In conjunction with the Board, Rossi has established a number of district-level goals:

Complete the sale of the sale of the Green Village Road school property; pass the budget; continue to enhance shared services with the borough, and increase public understanding of how the board conducts business.

Rossi’s goals as superintendent include developing a plan to allocate the money from the GVR sale; increase two-way communications with stakeholders in the district, and find ways to generate revenue for the district as well as cost savings.

Digital projects are a key component in Rossi’s larger vision. These include a digital portfolio for every student from K-12 with a portal for parents with access to homework assignments and grades; a new district e-mail system, and an upgrade of the district website—a priority, he says.

On the revenue said, the district has established a Madison Educational Seminar series. It will kick-off with a public session Sept. 1 from 10-11:30 a.m. at the high school with Dr. Todd Whitaker of Indiana State University. On Jan. 19 the series continues with speakers Rick and Becky Dafour, leading authors and researchers on professional learning communities (PLCs), a Level 2 workshop to which district staff will be invited in order to put people together by grade level.

“The lifeblood of any school district is professional development,” Rossi says. “If we are not looking at ways to continue to improve, we run the risk of stagnation.
“Education and teaching is a craft that needs to be practiced continuously. Either you’re getting better at it or you’re not.”

Rossi said a similar program at Roxbury brought in well-known speakers, covered its costs, and cleared more than $100,000. “The idea is to create forums of the best and brightest, and find ways to cover costs and generate some revenue,” he said.

Less clear is deciding how best to allocate additional state state aid of $349,000.

“It is a difficult balance to strike,” Rossi observed. “If you invest in recurring costs, it becomes a situation where if you bring back some teachers [whose positions had been eliminated], you run the risk of laying them off again next year.

“We may want to invest in non-recurring costs: a roof project at Central Avenue School, or look at new technology. But in personnel, those line items need to be funded going into next year. We are looking at bringing back a couple of positions. We may also choose to apply some money to the 2012-13 budget, probably a combination of those three.”

Rossi said teaching positions to be restored—“if we’re able to”—would be in elementary school music, and guidance. “I’m not as comfortable with staffing in those areas,” he said. “We’d like to get more part-time help in there, especially in guidance at the elementary level.”

Also on the revenue side of the ledger, the district is considering sponsorships/naming rights of certain on-campus assets, such as the high school football field. “We recognize the need to generate alternative sources of revenue,” Rossi said, “and we need to do that this year. It can’t wait and it’s a priority for us right now.”

The district is working with community marketer Advantage3 of Maplewood to help attract sponsorships. There are no revenue estimates yet.

“As far as sponsorships, we are aware of the delicate nature of how this needs to be handled,” said Rossi. “There are bedrock names in community and we don’t want to be disrespectful. We also have to make sure that the message is an educational message, not tacky. We don’t want to send the wrong message.”

Among the projects in the planning stages, Rossi plans a big push to get the parent portal up and running.
 
“We want to have parent access to online gradebooks this [school] year,” he said. “To do that, we are going to needs teacher training and the setting of expectations. I am hopeful the parent portal can be open by early 2012.”

Rossi noted that the district has the technical capacity for the portal right now, as it is part of the student information system. Therefore, there will be no additional cost for development, which will be handled by district personnel.

“The system houses all kinds of data,” Rossi said. “Teachers have to get in the habit of inputting data promptly. I’ve done this in two other districts (Lopatcong and Roxbury) and it reduces miscommunication while increasing student achievement because parents are able to much more readily stay on top of their sons’ and daughters’ work with progress and assignments.“

“This system will eliminate the traditional progress report which wastes teachers time, leads to frustration, and is just not timely. We need to get assignments and grades up in real time and put it all just a click away for parents.”

Discussion with teachers regarding training for the new system will start in the fall, and Rossi expects grades to be available online by January or February.

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