The superintendent and mayor want to strengthen the partnership between city hall and the schools.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- New city schools Superintendent Dr. Kathryn Hellweg believes every pupil can learn successfully.
"We have an overall goal to provide improved instructional opportunities for all students," said Hellweg, who took charge Aug. 1. "We want them to be successful lifelong learners," and economically self-sufficient.
The board of education unanimously hired her under a three-year contract from a pool of 34 applicants.
She arrives as the school district is embarking on a $170 million construction project, which will replace the 13 school buildings with a new high school and four new kindergarten through eighth-grade buildings. The project is being funded 81 percent by the state, with the remainder of the money coming from a bond issue the district's voters approved in November 2003.
"There is lots of potential here. We have incredible opportunities to help improve student learning in this district. And we have an attitude of wanting to make things happen and a willingness on the part of the board [of education] to allow for making some changes" to improve student achievement, Hellweg said.
Both Hellweg and Mayor Michael O'Brien want to strengthen the partnership between city hall and the school district to enhance economic development. The mayor said he looks to the new schools construction to make the schools "a vital key to the development of the city in the future."
The schools can help revitalize the city's downtown, he added. "It's important how the schools will be impacting the neighborhoods."
When developers or leaders of prospective new businesses come to the Mahoning Valley, the first thing they ask about is the quality of the schools, O'Brien said.
"One of the key factors in economic development of the community has to do with the quality of the educational system," Hellweg said. Decisions on where businesses are located may hinge on that, she added.
In the school system, she also expects a team effort.
"I expect everyone to do the very best job they can. I expect them to believe that every student can learn,'' she said of the district's faculty and staff. "Unless they start with that belief, we're not going to be successful."
It's also important for faculty and staff to help students "develop that confidence and belief in themselves that they can learn," she added. Parents and guardians must also share this philosophy, she said.
"The bottom line question in every decision has to be: 'How is this going to help us improve student learning?'" Hellweg said.
The district is expecting just over 6,600 pupils to enroll for classes, which start Aug. 29. Last school year, 63 percent of the district's pupils qualified for free or reduced price lunches, an increase of 11 percent from the previous school year. Minority pupils comprise 49 percent of the enrollment.
Almost 72 percent of the district's $36 million annual operating budget comes from the state, with the remainder coming from local sources, including property tax levies. The district, as a whole, is in academic watch, with individual buildings ranging from academic emergency to excellent on the state's report card. The report card is based on proficiency test scores, attendance and graduation rates.
The district will develop a department of teaching and learning and reorganize its instructional program to align the curriculum toward improved pupil performance, Hellweg said.
The district launched some excellent initiatives in literacy and math last school year, but significant change typically takes three to five years, she said. "We certainly have some foundation in those areas, but we have a lot more work to do."
Hellweg received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and did postdoctoral work at Ohio State, Ashland and Western Carolina universities. She has taught English, speech, drama, journalism, creative writing and multiethnic education. She has also taught stress physiology and management.
She has been a teacher, department chair and administrator in the Lincoln, Neb., public schools and an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska. She was a high school principal in Richmond, Ind., and Ithaca, N.Y., before becoming assistant superintendent of the Rochester, Minn., public schools.
In Lincoln, the high school was renovated and expanded under her leadership. In Ithaca, she helped with a $29 million redesign of the nine-building high school campus. While she was in Rochester, Minn., a furniture store was converted into a middle school; a new high school was built; and an old elementary school was renovated into a community education and English-as-a-second language instruction center.
"I can read a blueprint with the best of them," Hellweg said.
Where she came from
Most recently she was superintendent of the Northwest Local School District just outside Cincinnati, having been the first superintendent to come from outside the district. Under her leadership that district advanced from continuous improvement to effective status on the state's academic performance report card, with several schools earning excellent ratings.
Warren school board members knew when they hired her that Hellweg had been placed on paid administrative leave from Northwest in February 2005. Hellweg said that was because new board members didn't endorse the same leadership agenda as the board members who hired her. Four of the five Northwest board seats changed hands while she was superintendent, she said.
"She is a highly knowledgeable professional who has demonstrated that she cares deeply about all children, about building a quality education environment and about building collaborative relationships with all employee groups," wrote Phyllis Bell, president of the Northwest Association of Educators, the teachers union, in the letter of recommendation to the Warren school board.
Hellweg enjoys playing dulcimers, perennial gardening, jewelry design, reading, travel, quilting, writing, gourmet cooking, golf, hiking and refinishing antique furniture.
"It's important that you have other interests, that you connect with people outside of the school district, because that only enriches our experience that we bring to the table in working with our students," she said.