OCSU board picks new superintendent

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Bruce Labs.  Photo by Richard Creaser
Bruce Labs. Photo by Richard Creaser

copyright the Chronicle February 26, 2014

by Richard Creaser

The Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) school board has tendered an offer to a new superintendent.

The name is not yet being released pending the candidate’s acceptance, but two final candidates were interviewed in public Tuesday afternoon.  A decision was made after the interviews and a lengthy executive session.

On Tuesday evening OCSU school board chairman Amy Leroux of Irasburg confirmed that the board has tendered an offer to someone to replace Stephen Urgenson.  The two candidates are Bruce Labs of Piermont, New Hampshire, and Don Van Nostrand of Concord.  Ms. Leroux said after an offer is accepted and a final vetting process by the state Agency of Education is done an announcement will be made, probably by week’s end.

Members of the public comprising the seven communities in OCSU were given a first look at the two finalists on Tuesday afternoon.  The fact that very few people showed up was not lost on OCSU board vice chairman Kathy White of Barton.  Ms. White made it a point to ask both candidates, Don Van Nostrand of Concord and Bruce Labs of Piermont, New Hampshire, how the school boards could attract more participation from the community.

“Persistence,” Mr. Labs replied.  “It’s really hard but you have to keep trying.  It’s really important to keep trying.”

Mr. Van Nostrand offered a slightly different approach.  It is important to distinguish between people not being interested and people not being able to participate.  The solution may be to bring community forums to each town individually or find other means to reach them where they are at, he said.

“When I was principal at Waterford school we had our notices posted on a bulletin board at the dump,” Mr. Van Nostrand said.  “There really aren’t a lot of places in Waterford besides the school that people go to, but the dump was one of those places.  So we made the information more accessible to them.” 

Bruce Labs

Mr. Labs is a veteran educator and administrator with more than 30 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, and for the past ten years, serving as superintendent of School Administrative Unit #23 serving northwestern Grafton County, New Hampshire.  After a decade of serving that area Mr. Labs said he was ready for a change.  The demographic character of the communities served by his current position, that being largely rural and low-income, is fairly similar to that of the communities comprising the OCSU.

“I throw myself into this,” Mr. Labs said.  “I don’t take vacations.  I’ve only missed one board meeting in 11 years.”

Mr. Labs said he prefers to take a collaborative approach to administration.  His job is to facilitate consensus and then take action.

“I will never top-down something,” Mr. Labs said.  “It’s just not going to work.  If you don’t have everyone on board it will just get sabotaged from within.  Sometimes that can take years but eventually it comes.”

Lake Region Principal Andre Messier asked what actions Mr. Labs would take when schools are found to be lagging behind on accepted standards.  The first step, Mr. Labs said, would be to evaluate the data and see if the claims correspond to the data.

If there was a discrepancy it would be necessary to address the problem through professional development days.  The key is to ensure that professional development does not short-change students from necessary classroom time.

“We want to do more feeding the kids than weighing the kids,” Mr. Labs said.  “I don’t want to take away from content days.”

Heidi Whipple, a teacher at Barton Academy and Graded School, asked Mr. Labs if he felt programs or standards were more important.  Mr. Labs replied that the standard was the more important piece.

“The whole impetus behind Common Core was to have everyone, whether they are in Vermont or Missouri, on the same page,” Mr. Labs said.  “I wouldn’t want to take a cookie-cutter approach and try to change the identity of what a community wants for its kids.  As long as everyone is working on the same standard, I think it would be a crime to change the identity.”

If a school or teacher was found to be lagging, what role would Mr. Labs take as superintendent?, asked Barton Academy teacher Freddi Very.

“What kind of help would I get?” Ms. Very said.  “I could just talk louder but that wouldn’t help.”

Mr. Labs said that he would review and discuss the supporting data with both the school administration team as well as the teacher or teachers involved.

“You can’t look at data in a vacuum,” Mr. Labs said.  “We would examine the data and then try and find the right tools to deal with it.”

Mr. Labs said that he viewed the role of superintendent as one which helps guide the district to the next place.

“I don’t know what that place is yet,” he said.  “It’s got to be a collaborative process that involves not just the teachers, not just the staff but the whole community.  Everyone has a stake in this.”

Dan Van Nostrand.  Photo by Richard Creaser
Dan Van Nostrand. Photo by Richard Creaser

Don Van Nostrand

Mr. Van Nostrand began his career as a math teacher in 1996 having most recently served as assistant superintendent of the Essex-Caledonia Supervisory Union, a position he has held for the past year.  Mr. Van Nostrand pointed out that if he has a single weakness it is a lack of experience as superintendent.  Prior to his position as assistant superintendent Mr. Van Nostrand was the principal at Waterford school.

Mr. Van Nostrand said that it is important to ensure that curriculum is aligned throughout the district.  Topher Waring, a teacher at Lake Region Union High asked what Mr. Van Nostrand would do to help ensure that all students arrive at the high school with a common knowledge basis.  The implementation of Common Core standards should help, Mr. Van Nostrand said.

“When you have common standards it makes sense that you have common curriculum implementation,” Mr. Van Nostrand said.  “It’s really about figuring out where you are and then figuring out how to make it happen.”

On the issue of program versus standards, Mr. Van Nostrand supported the idea of individual programs so long as the goal was to meet a common standard.  For many small schools, implementing new programs is difficult but a consortium of schools can often accomplish what single schools cannot, he said.

“Some programs are too costly for one school,” he said.  “But something that has applications that meet a standard can be adjusted to meet the needs of many schools.  Cost is always a factor.”

On the issue of how to assist schools that are falling behind on state standards, Mr. Van Nostrand said that a careful evaluation of the data is a crucial first step.  The data alone, however, does not tell the whole story, he said.

“If you are telling me one thing and the data is showing something else, the data becomes the starting point that drives the discussion,” Mr. Van Nostrand said.  “It’s my job as superintendent to put the resources where they are needed.  The data will help get that conversation going.”

The data can only tell one part of the story, he said.  It is equally important to understand the underlying pieces that gave rise to the data.

“Sometimes I have to wonder how important those scores are in relation to what we do for kids,” Mr. Van Nostrand said about standardized tests.

Mr. Van Nostrand said that his greatest strength comes in collaborating.  While many administrators see the need to work alongside fellow administrators and the faculty, it is important not to ignore the needs of families as well, he said.

“I thrive on the opportunity to help families,” he said.  “I love working with people, with families and doing what is best for the kids.”

contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]

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