Reflections on the Year: An Interview with Dr. William Ward
by Elisabeth Clemmons
As the 2016 – 2017 school year draws to a close, Pawling Central School District Superintendent William M. Ward, Ed.D, reflects on the achievements and challenges of the Pawling Central School District (PCSD) and expresses hope for future successes and growth in excellence.
Dr. Ward grew up on the Jersey Shore and attended the University of Delaware with the intention of becoming a lawyer. While in college, after serving as a volunteer tutor to struggling children in Wilmington, DE, he was inspired, instead, to become an educator. He began his first teaching job in Ridgewood, NJ, as an elementary school teacher. He would eventually serve as a principal for several schools, and as a school superintendent in New Jersey and New York over the expanse of his career.
When asked what he was most proud of achieving in the school system this year, Dr. Ward doesn’t hesitate: “First and foremost, I’m very proud of our students who come ready to learn and striving to do their best work each day. Our students are positive and respectful to our staff and to each other.” Pawling students are a very active part of the community as well, he explained, participating in service clubs such as Peer Leadership and Interact to contribute to causes like cancer awareness and feeding the homeless. They are also high achieving, as evidenced by the high school Science Research Program’s churning out a national Siemens Semi-Finalist and two invitations to the International Sustainable World Engineering Energy Project Conference in Houston, TX. Sports are a highlight, too, he says: “Our athletic proagram has seen outstanding team and individual performances at the State level this year.”
Dr. Ward also commends the many new staff members who have been hired following the retirements of long-time faculty: “I believe the considerable resources dedicated to the search and hiring process have definitely paid off with some excellent new teachers. Students get a daily return on the time and energy invested in hiring new staff members.”
Finally, he gives large credit to Kim Fontana, Assistant Superintendent, for her efforts to work with teacher curriculum leaders to develop written units of instruction in all curriculum areas for the first time in the District.
One of the challenges of running a school district is confronting social trends that can distract students from learning. When asked how the Pawling school system handles these, Dr. Ward speaks with historical perspective: “As long as there have been schools, there have been social trends that school personnel believe distract students from learning.” From Rock and Roll in the 1950s and the length of student hair and blue jeans in the 1960s to fidget spinners today, he explains, there have always been such concerns, many of which seem trivial today. “Next year there will be something new,” he says.
Of greater concern is when students are experiencing personal problems: “While any of these social trends may be annoying in the classroom, the issues that really concern schools are family structures that don’t allow children to feel safe and secure and make it very difficult for children to learn in school. If a child is worried about what is happening at home with the adults or whether there will be food to eat, learning will be a secondary concern.”
In order to ensure every student can learn, Dr. Ward focuses on establishing a secure support system. “One of the things we know from research is that every child needs to have at least one person who is a significant positive influence in their life. Most important, of course, is the child’s parents. In situations where the immediate family is not able to be those people, other people need to step in to provide the support the child’s needs.” Whether it is a grandparent, coach, or teacher, Dr. Ward urges “all of our staff members to communicate to our students that they are important and valued, and we believe each of them can be successful through their own efforts.”
When asked about a recent online television series centering on teen suicide, Dr. Ward outlines the District’s approach to confronting the controversy, which includes awareness, parent decision making, and school support: “I didn't believe that it was our job to assess the content of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” given the length of the series, the sensitivity of the content, and how that might impact any individual student. Rather, I felt it was appropriate for us to apprise parents that we had heard a number of our middle school and high school students were watching it so that parents could make individual decisions about their child’s viewing. I believe that is a decision best left to parents based on their knowledge of their child. At the same time, we made sure parents knew our mental health professionals were available to assist if parents felt they needed help.”
“As educators, we need to be learning every day.”
One of the biggest challenges the District faces every year is creating a responsible budget. “It sometimes requires people to think differently about how we’ve been doing things and to consider alternatives. Doing things differently sometimes means increased costs, but it can also result in finding better, less costly solutions,” says Dr. Ward.
The Board of Education recently announced a 2% tax levy decrease. To achieve efficiency, the District worked with Dr. Neysa Sensenig, Assistant Superintendent of Finance, to “review all areas of the budget to limit increases and, when possible, reduce the budget.” Such a decrease was attained through reducing staff positions at the District Office, retiring teachers being replaced by lower-salaried and entry-level teachers, reduction of bus routes, and lower fuel consumption. Another efficiency was achieved by paying off bonds for money that was borrowed some years ago. “That saved us interest payments over the life of the bonds and removed that area of debt service from the annual budget.”
In fact, financing education is a challenge faced not just locally, but nationally as well. “The needs of students in our nation’s public schools are more varied today, and the expectations for educators are greater than ever. While challenging, it is heartening that most people still feel a good education is vital to every individual, our country, and our democratic way of life. Figuring out the best ways to meet the individual needs of our students means that, as educators, we need to be learning every day. Our teachers realize that their own learning is as important as their students’ learning and one leads to the other.”
Outlook for Tomorrow
Over the summer, the administration reflects on the prior school year and plans for the next. Teachers attend training sessions to bolster their certifications, or simply go on vacation. Buildings also get renovated – currently, the road between the high school and middle school is getting repaved.
When asked about what he would like residents to know most about Pawling High School, Dr. Ward urges people to reflect on the importance of education in building community. “I think everyone in a community gains from an improving school system,” says Dr. Ward. “Residents, even those without children in the school system, want to feel that the school district cares about the students and provides a quality instructional program. Most residents realize that the quality of the school district directly influences property values and the sense of pride in the community. Further, everyone wants to feel that the money they pay in school taxes is being well managed. While any individual may not agree with a particular program or purchase, we want to trust that the school board and administration are making decisions that will improve our students’ education. That's what we try to do every day.”
In 2016, Pawling High School was ranked by US News & World Report #113 out of 1,270 high schools in New York State. For more information about the mission and philosophy of the Pawling Central School District visit the PCSD website at pawlingschools.org.