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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 15, 2012

FMS named an Essential Elements School to Watch

GUILDERLAND — For the principal of Farnsworth Middle School, a national honor is not a reason to rest on her laurels but rather an inspiration to improve further.

The school — one of fewer than 300 nationwide — has been named an Essential Elements School to Watch by the New York State Education Department and the Essential Elements Schools to Watch leadership team. Farnsworth will be formally recognized as both a State and National School to Watch at the upcoming National Schools to Watch Conference in Washington, D.C. this June.

“It’s not about the award,” said Principal Mary Summermatter. “It’s about becoming better about what we do.”

When Summermatter became Farnsworth’s principal seven years ago, she recalled this week, “I wanted to get a clear picture of how our school operates…I found the self-evaluation form the Schools To Watch program puts out, allowing middle schools to examine themselves.”

She said, at that point, “We weren’t going to send it in.”

Summermatter went on, referring to the school’s shared decision-making team, “I worked with the building cabinet to help me learn….Every two weeks, we’d put out questions to the staff…We found out about a lot of good things going on in the building.”

The team also started asking staff to evaluate, on a scale of 1 to 4, particular areas of the school. “We’d get staff feedback,” said Summermatter. “It took five years to gather and refine that information. Then we wrote a narrative on all of the components. We sent that in to a New York State committee. They reviewed our data and decided to visit.”

A team of seven professionals spent three days at Farnsworth. “They looked under every rock,” said Summermatter, talking to parents, students, teachers, and other staff members.

State teams also look at school achievement data, suspension rates, quality of lessons, and student work to help inform their selection process.

In a letter sent to the district by the State Education Department, Farnsworth was commended for developing a model educational program in New York State that is consistent with the Regents Policy Statement on Middle Level Education, the Essential Elements of a Standards Focused Middle Level School, and the National Forum’s Schools to Watch criteria.

EESTW recognizes schools that demonstrate continuous improvement and excel in four domains: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organizational structure. Farnsworth — like all designated schools — was proven to show strong leadership, teachers who work together to improve curriculum and instruction, and a commitment to assessment and accountability to bring about continuous improvement.

Selected schools are recognized for a three-year period, and at the end of three years must repeat the process in order to be re-designated.

“It’s been a guiding tool and an inspiration,” said Summermatter of the process.

At last week’s school board meeting, when the designation was announced, board member Richard Weisz commented, “It is sad to hear FMS identified as exemplary while we’re changing some off the hallmarks….”

To help close a $2.6 million budget gap, the middle-school day is being reconfigured, eliminating the tutorial period, and leaving teachers with a greater student load.

Asked if the cuts will affect the quality of education at Farnsworth, Summermatter told The Enterprise, “It certainly will be more difficult to make it happen. But we have an outstanding staff who give their heart and soul to the students.”

She went on, “The entire staff — the teachers, the secretaries, the custodians, everyone, along with the wonderful community that supports us, is what made this happen.

“We certainly were identified because of the great things that we do,” concluded Summermatter. “But we will continue to do great things.”

— By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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