Thursday, November 2
MANCHESTER — One of the state's longest continuously serving school superintendents is stepping down at the end of this school year.

Gregory Scieszka Jr., 58, the superintendant of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, announced that the current school year will be his final one. He became the superintendent in January 1990, making him third only to William Mathis of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and Alice Angney, a superintendent of the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, based in Stowe, in terms of seniority among the state's 63 superintendents. The BRSU covers the school districts of Dorset, Manchester, Rupert, Sunderland, Danby, Mount Tabor and Pawlet.

Scieszka said he decided to retire from his present post to pursue other interests that had been on hold.

"I've always wanted to retire before I reached 60, and it's time to move on," he said. "There are tons of things I've been exploring and looking at for a long time."

He expects to continue working in several volunteer capacities as well as other occasional part time work, he said.

For the past seven years he has worked during the weekends at Hildene, the former country estate of Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, in Manchester as a volunteer tour guide.

He has also been a volunteer with the Bromley Outing Club, a outdoor exploration group based at the Bromley Mountain ski area in Peru, for the past 27 years, he said.


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Early in his education career, he took two years away from his first teaching job, at Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire, Mass., to spend two years with his wife in the Peace Corps, teaching math and history in Lesotho, a nation completely surrounded by South Africa, at a time before the earlier apartheid regime was displaced by the present government.

He'll have served as a superintendent for more than 17 years by the time he formally steps down in June 2007, leaving big shoes to fill, said Jacquelyne Parks, the principal of Manchester Elementary Middle School.

"As a superintendent he was always very supportive of us," she said. "It wasn't a top down approach — it was a collaborative approach and you don't always find that."

What was even more remarkable was that Scieszka was able to pull that off while running a district that didn't have its own secondary school, and that sent a significant number of students acrosss state lines to high school in New York, she said.

Scieszka never forgot to put the students first when it came to education, and even after he moved into an administrative position he would look forward to going into a classroom to teach, said Ann Smith, a former Manchester school director.

He also had a remarkable ability to recall facts and numbers that was helpful when boards were crafting school budgets, she said.

An emphasis on what student's are actually learning, instead of looking solely at what teacher's are supposed to be teaching, is one of the biggest shifts in educational practice he has overseen during his tenure, Scieszka said.

Simply including certain educational content in a curriculum isn't enough to ensure that students have actually absorbed the material and proven themselves ready to move on to the next level. The challenge for teachers now is to demonstrate their students are reaching accepted standards of competency at each grade level, and not to pass students up the system assuming they will learn it the following year, he said.

"We're not looking at what you covered and what you taught, but when you were doing that were the students really learning," he said.

Assessing whether that's going on is an ongoing process, but most people outside of educational circles think of that as ocurring through annual mandated tests that have sprung from the "No Child Left Behind" legislation passed by Congress in 2002. But the mandated tests have their drawbacks, he said.

More testing

With testing now covering students from the second grade through the eighth, state-required testing soaks up a tremendous amount of time that could otherwise be spent teaching. Secondly, assessment results can easily be misunderstood by the public, making schools seem stronger or weaker than they really are, he said.

One year a school, particularly one with a relatively small enrollment, might earn low marks in the testing process, in part because one grade struggles with one of the tests. The next year, with a new group of students in that particular grade might pass with flying colors, but that doesn't necessarily mean the entire school was better or worse from one year to the next, he said.

"You don't want to mislead the public that everything's great or everything's bad, but that's what happens a lot," he said. "People generalize when some scores are down."

With school costs a perenial hot topic, especially with property taxes rising as school enrollment declines, school district and supervisory union consolidation is being looked at as a possible way to reduce adminisrative costs without cutting into instruction quality. There are pros and cons to that, Scieszka said.

Much of a superintendent's time is spent traveling to school board meetings of the school districts contained within a supervisory union — Scieszka said it was not uncommon for him to be out two or three nights on a typical week. Consolidation of school districts would in theory lighten that burden, but runs up against a deep seated desire on the part of many communities to hang on to their own elected school board, he said. But that also breeds a complexity to the job that is one of the main reasons the average tenure of a school superintendent in Vermont is only about three years, he said.

Scieszka, who said he always knew he wanted a career in education, as far back as his own days in elementary school, first began teaching in 1969. Since then he taught math at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, was a principal at Sunderland Elementary School, and served as an assistant superintendent with the BRSU from 1984 to 1989, before being named superintendent in 1990.

Building close relationships with other people affiliated with the BRSU is obe of the accomplishments he feels good about as he prepares to step down, he said. By and large, the amount of staff turnover has been fairly small, he said.

"I think I'm leaving the BRSU in a good light," he said. "People see it in a positive way and we've been able to attract and keep good people."