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School chief taking charge

NORTH TONAWANDA -- Since he arrived in the city Sept. 18, North Tonawanda School Superintendent Vincent J. Vecchiarella has been a man on a mission.

He came with a plan to develop "a system" that will give North Tonawanda the most efficient, effective school district a community could hope for.

In essence, Vecchiarella said he wants to set up "a process" that will make North Tonawanda "a premier school district in Western New York."

The system will take all district operations into account, from central administration and facilities right down to each classroom and every student.

It won't be easy.

The district is dealing with declining enrollment, older school buildings that need work and an academic achievement gap between traditionally well-performing students and others who don't do so well for a variety of reasons, a situation common in many city school districts across the state.

Vecchiarella aims to address those and other key issues. In a wide-ranging interview last week with The Buffalo News, he outlined his goals, which include:

*Helping all students achieve at the highest possible level.

*Upgrading schools to be safe and well-equipped.

*Reorganizing the administration to make the district run more effectively, with clear communications between all levels of staff and the community.

To do that, Vecchiarella has been probing the district's every nook and cranny, every aspect of operations.

This has been apparent at recent School Board meetings, which have lasted late into the night because Vecchiarella has had district administrators make presentations about what's going on in their area of operations.

Last month, the board heard North Tonawanda High School Principal James Fisher describe his school operations in great detail, including a report on academic academies that have been started within the school to provide students focus in fields of study that hold their interest. One example is the Academy for International Studies -- with 22 students -- which is like a school within the high school.

At that same meeting, Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Steven Scordato provided a report on his division, which included details on a program he's implementing in January to improve the way buildings are cleaned and maintained.

That session was pressing the midnight hour when the board finally adjourned.

The month before, Richard Gehring, the district's architect, reported on some $70 million in capital improvements the district should be thinking about. Of that, he outlined $20 million worth of projects that should be done within a reasonable amount of time, to make sure each school is operating in a safe and satisfactory manner, and bring the buildings into compliance with state Education Department standards.

Currently, the state ranks all school buildings in the district as unsatisfactory for one reason or another.

Vecchiarella is looking at everything.

He said it's important to do the hard work of "breaking down and digesting what's going on in every aspect of district operations [in order] to come up with ways to do things better."

Here for less than 90 days, he is well on his way to conjuring up a system that will address problems and provide methods to achieve his goals.

It's not that he finds North Tonawanda's schools bad or deficient.

"This is a quality school district . . . with highly qualified teachers and motivated students," Vecchiarella said. But he added that he is never satisfied.

"We can always do better," he said.

His philosophy of sorts: "If you're not looking forward to continually making improvements, you are falling behind."

Vecchiarella came to North Tonawanda with an impressive resume. He's been an educator for 34 years, more than 20 of them as a superintendent.

He relishes the challenges before him.

>Academic performance

Vecchiarella said his main focus, and the reason he got into education, is to provide students the environment and the encouragement they need to perform at their best, despite any disabilities or personal backgrounds that might throw roadblocks in their way.

"We want to improve academic achievement for all students and close the achievement gaps" between students who traditionally perform at a high level and those that haven't, he said.

There are many things that have to take place to make sure that happens, he said.

"We need to make sure teachers get the staff development they need to help students," Vecchiarella said.

That means teachers may have to find different methods and techniques to make sure they address individual needs of each student. While some students might do fine in the traditional classroom lecture format, others may be more visual or hands-on in the way they learn, Vecchiarella said. He said he wants teachers to be able to tailor the way they teach.

The district also needs to analyze assessment tests isolate and identify problems students are having, Vecchiarella said, then come up with solutions to find ways to help them learn more efficiently.

To boost performance, Vecchiarella also said he has to look at curriculum and make sure it's aligned at all levels, so students are getting everything they need year after year. That means there can be no gaps in any student's knowledge.

For example, he said the children in one third grade should be able to move to another school in the district and be taught the same materials without skipping a beat.

"We want to make sure there's a progression so kids don't miss a step and lose out," he said.

For example, he said, "Math is sequential, so you have to spend time on staff development to make sure you have teachers passing on the materials to their students on time." This ensures that students don't miss something that could hurt their progress the following year.

He said it is important for teachers, guidance counselors, coaches and extracurricular activity moderators and other staff to observe children, note if specific individuals have challenges that might be interfering with their performance and talk to teachers about it.

>Capital improvements

Vecchiarella said the district has a lot of work to do on its buildings but must approach that work in a fiscally responsible way.

The district is entitled to more than $1.3 million in aid from the state Expanding Our Children's Education and Learning program and has a voter-approved capital reserve fund containing $900,000.

The new superintendent said the School Board could start off doing a $10 million-plus technology project next year to fulfill one very important district need. The state would reimburse the district for the lion's share of the costs, so its impact on property owners would be minimal at best, Vecchiarella said.

He said he plans to recommend this to the board early next year.

"We are behind in technology," he said. "We even need to put in the infrastructure to run an updated technology program in our schools [and offices]. We'll have to train our staff on how to utilize new equipment. . . . We have computers in our schools, but we are very limited in what we have. . . . We don't even have computers in every classroom for student use. That has to be addressed."

Otherwise, he said, students will be at a competitive disadvantage against those from other districts.

Many other capital projects are currently being assessed by the district staff and the School Board, Vecchiarella said.

The board appears to have a lot of confidence that Vecchiarella can achieve the goals he has set for the district. Recently, board member Christina Porto said that from what she has heard, he already is developing a reputation as "a can-do superintendent."

Her comment came during a meeting in which board members were told that security systems had been installed in five elementary schools within a month after the district received parent complaints that school doors were not locked and monitored during the school day, leaving student safety in question.

Vecchiarella said that the new security systems are not the centralized type he would like to see, but he added that the electronic door monitoring systems -- which cost the district just over $11,000 -- prevent people from entering the buildings until they are seen and identified by the office staff.

Enrollment issues

In addition to his investigation of district operations, Vecchiarella also is having an enrollment study done. It will include projections of what the district has to look forward to in the future in regard to student population.

He said that enrollment is declining and that the report will help the board and administration evaluate and determine what will need to be done to have district operations run efficiently and effectively in the future.

Based on current enrollment figures for the district's six elementary schools, which have gone down, Vecchiarella said it appears the high school will be serving 1,200 students in five years, compared with 1,600 today.

He said the study will help the district decide if schools are being used efficiently, how many students the district will be dealing with, and how it will affect the district.

Vecchiarella said all possible options "would be on the table," once projections are available, "whether it's redistricting, reorganization of some fashion or even closing a school. Anything will be open for discussion."

He said he believes all district staff works very hard and his job is to come up with a system to make it easier for district workers to do their jobs more effectively.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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Vincent J. Vecchiarella

Title: North Tonawanda schools superintendent

Age: 56

Salary: $152,000

Family: Single

Education: The Salamanca High School graduate is also a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, from which he received a bachelor's degree in education, master's in guidance, and certificate of advanced specialization in administration.

First job in education: 1972, as a sixth-grade teacher and sports coach for the Little Valley Central School District, Cattaraugus County.

First administrative post: 1974, as director of guidance for the Narrowsburg School District, Sullivan County.

Other posts: Superintendent of McGraw Central Schools, Cortland County, 1980-85; superintendent of Pawling Central Schools, Dutchess County 1985-91; superintendent-principal of Buckeye Union High School, Buckeye, Ariz., 1992-97; principal of Salt River Junior-Senior High School, Scottsdale, Ariz., 1997-99; superintendent of Pine Valley Central Schools, Chautauqua County, 1999-2006.

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