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With her sights set high, superintendent steers a course for Gateway School District

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 5:21 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
Nina Zetty, superintendent, Gateway School District.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
Nina Zetty, superintendent, Gateway School District.

After one year on the job, Gateway Superintendent Nina Zetty has spearheaded changes to curriculum, technology and community relations.

Zetty and her administration have set their sights nationally, with a plan to achieve the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which is presented annually by the president of the United States.

Zetty also has emphasized technology in the classroom and helped propose a three-year technology plan costing nearly $1 million, which the school board approved over the summer.

Her initiatives mark a distinct shift in focus for a district that made headlines for much of 2012 because of a prolonged dispute involving the athletic department.

Hundreds of people — including students and community leaders — had packed the high school auditorium to protest the school board's decision to reduce the athletic director's position to part-time status and prohibit an athletic director from coaching a team. The move resulted in the resignation of former athletic director and head football coach Terry Smith, who is African American.

Some officials said the personnel moves were an effort to reduce spending on athletics and ensure that all sports were afforded a fair amount of attention.

Smith supporters argued the move was personal and racially motivated.

Zetty is charged with leading Gateway through a set of challenges that include declining enrollment due to an aging population, competition from cyber schools and charter schools such as Propel Pitcairn, and an achievement gap between black students and other students.

During the first month of the 2013-14 school year — her first full school year as Gateway superintendent — Zetty sat down with Times Express reporter Kyle Lawson to discuss the issues facing the district and her vision for Gateway:

Q : How might district officials maintain or increase student enrollment next school year?

A: We have a few different initiatives, and our hope is to do a better job with communicating that to the public — our local public and the public in general. So, hopefully, that will be reflected in (standardized) test scores because that's one of the places that people moving in to systems look. I think it was last year that 15 percent of the schools in the state that were low performing were (publicized by the state Department of Education) ... so I would imagine there are some parents trying to get their children out of those schools and into better-performing school districts. Not that I want to take students from other school districts, but if we can help them in a better way than the system they're in, we're here for them.

Q : Are there aspects of Gateway School District that are better than Propel charter schools?

A: I certainly hope so. But charter schools were designed to go out and experiment and try some things that you can't necessarily do that easily in the regular school system, and I think Propel has made a great effort to do that. In fact, we went to Propel this summer for some professional development on culturally responsive practices, which is something we're going to be infusing within the school system because of the diversity we have here. They received a grant from the Heinz Foundation to put that program in place, so we went to them and said, “OK, what are you doing differently?” So, we'll start taking some of the great things they're doing and infusing them into our system.

Q : Are there aspects of the charter school system — i.e. the way they're funded and operated — that you think might be hurting the educational process for Pennsylvania students as a whole?

A: I believe that certainly (for) some charter schools – because the (state) expectations aren't there and the restrictions aren't there that are placed on public schools — the accountability is not there for student performance. So if we're spending taxpayer dollars on paying salaries of teachers and putting curriculum in place so students will do well, I would expect that the same expectations are there for all charter schools, as well. There are some charter schools that are doing well and raising student achievement and serving the students well, and there are others that are not.

Until the state has a system in place for accountability for all charter and cyber schools, they need to stop (giving) taxpayer money to them.

Q : What is the Malcolm Baldrige award, and how might Gateway achieve that status?

A: It's a prestigious award that began with businesses, so there's a process that you go through in order to achieve this level of performance excellence, and then about 10 years ago, it expanded in to health care and in to education. Think of the Blue Ribbon Award on steroids. This will take years for us to have all the systems in place, but we've started that process, and that will be the umbrella for changes you'll see throughout the district.

Q : What are your thoughts on standardized education statewide and nationwide?

A: The bottom line is this, our children are so mobile and global today that to think that we set a curriculum here in Monroeville and students are expected to meet this here, and then they move to someplace in Connecticut and standards are very different there, that makes no sense to me. I do believe that there should be a common set of standards across the nation that are high expectations for all students, so it doesn't matter where I live in the country, those expectations are still there, so there's a quality education provided for any U.S. student. Even in Pennsylvania, to think that there are 500 different curriculum coordinators meeting with 500 different curriculum teams every year, rewriting curriculum — I think (that) is a model we should revisit and consider, given the mobile, global society. We do have a set of Pennsylvania standards, but we don't have a set curriculum. And I know there are people who are opposed to that, but as an educator, I don't support their opposition. It doesn't mean that you can't have a more rigorous curriculum than the basic curriculum that is expected across the board, but I think that it should be a common foundation in all school districts.

Q : Why is new technology important for Gateway students, both now and in their careers after high school?

A: Because a lot of the technology we had in place was becoming antiquated, so the educational process was being stymied by the fact that the technologies we did have were not functioning properly. In addition to that, technology changes hourly — or at least frequently — and there are many more opportunities for our students to learn through the use of technology than simply a teacher standing in front of the classroom and imparting whatever is in his or her head to the students. So, we'll be working to make students more independent in their learning, asking them what they would like to learn. It's not that we won't have curriculum and standards, but, as a motivation piece, we'll use that technology to become critical thinkers, to analyze. So if we teach you that this happened in 1864 and here's why it happened, we want students to think, “I wonder what else happened,” or “I wonder if that is true.” And so, instead of going to the teacher and saying, “What else happened? Is that true?” — they can do research on their own and come together and have discussion. It makes for a different approach to learning.

Q : In light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other mass shootings in recent years, what steps have been taken since you arrived to improve security throughout the district?

A: I would say there was a good system in place when I got here, so it was great to start there. We scheduled walk-throughs of all of the buildings with the state police and first responders to determine, from a physical-plan perspective, what changes needed to be made, and so we've started that process. In the technology plan, we have swipe cards for the buildings, so we'll eventually eliminate keys. We've put door alarms on the exterior. We just finished the high school and are working through the rest of the district right now. The technology plan entails systems, safety and student achievement.

Also, the license swipe that we have at the high school will be installed in all of the buildings so we can check for criminal sexual predators as they come in to all of the buildings. (We are) increasing cameras and walkie-talkies. We've also looked at the human side of it; we provided professional development. For staff in February, we produced internally a video on safety because it was important for everyone to understand how to respond if there was an intruder in the building or, God forbid, a shooter. So we provided that for all staff, not just the teachers. And that will be ongoing, so every year there will be continual updates.

Q : Since the time you were hired, have there been steps taken to ease the minds of some district stakeholders who were upset with changes in the athletic department?

A: I would say, maybe not as directly as you just suggested. We still have a part-time athletic director in place, so we've been able to show that it is possible to run the department with a part-time athletic director and that part-time position is not a coaching position.

When you think of all the work that goes into being an effective athletic director, it is not possible, in my opinion — and I know it exists in some places — to be effective part-time AD and full-time football coach, essentially because football consumes a great deal of time and effort.

We have, as part of our culturally responsive practices, reached out to our African American community within Monroeville. We've had two town hall meetings so far, and during those meetings, we talked about what are some of the barriers that we, as a school director, may have put up that are affecting African American students' performance, that being the racial achievement gap that we've talked about. And maybe any other issues where we're not being culturally responsive, where we're being perceived as racially insensitive. We have met with the African American community to have those discussions and to gather some of that data and to invite all individuals within the school district to be a part of our decision making.

I believe we've reached out and things are a little better.

Q : Will there be new educational practices this year in an attempt to close the achievement gap — according to 2012-13 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores — that exists between African American students and the rest of the student body?

A: We've created in each of the buildings professional learning communities that will be reading literature on culturally responsive practices and examining student data to see where are the gaps; trying some of the practices we're reading about in the literature and some of the recommendations we had from Propel; and then checking the data to see, did that have an impact on their individual teaching; and then, hopefully, overall on standardized testing. We have support from a professor at Duquesne University – Dr. Gretchen Generett – who will be working with our professional learning communities because this is her field of study, to help us recognize not only the barricades that the parents told us about but internal barriers that we may be subconsciously setting up. So this year will be a year of research, data gathering and professional development.

As we write our curriculum — I believe language arts is in the process this year — we'll be looking at the literature selections. Are they culturally responsive? Is our literature more diverse? Is it addressing the needs, so this is not just the black-white community, but we have 22 different languages being spoken here in the school district, through our English-language learners, so we want to celebrate that diversity, and that's another piece of what we'll be doing this year.

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or

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