New Franklin Regional superintendent eager to get new school year started
By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
It's the second week of August, and new Franklin Regional Superintendent Gennaro “Jamie” Piraino has a million things to do to prepare for the first day of school.
But instead of doing paperwork on the ground floor of Heritage Elementary, he's spending a morning walking through math camp at Sloan Elementary.
As he stops in each classroom, Piraino, 40, it's obvious this isn't his first visit to the week-long camp – he already knows which kids love fractions and which are struggling a bit. A father to five children, he isn't afraid to reach out to a child trying to solve an equation – and proceeds to spend more than five minutes with the young boy.
Piraino has been in charge of the day-to-day operations at Franklin Regional since April. As he prepares for his first full school year as a superintendent, Piraino sat down with Murrysville Star reporter Daveen Rae Kurutz to discuss his first few months on the job, his passion for education and what he sees in Franklin Regional's future.
Question: What expectations did you have coming into Franklin Regional this spring?
Answer: My expectations at first were to come in and begin talking to all of the stake holders. Every place has its own culture, those things that the people hold dear and sacred that really make up the fiber of who they are. The things that they feel make them special and great. They also have those perspectives of things that they feel need to change things that they need to do to move to that next level of excellence. I've done a lot of listening, a lot of working with admin team and looking at where we are right now – what does Franklin Regional look like – and where do we want to go. Every day, my personal focus is “how can I be better at what I do?” I set goals that are beyond what anyone would think possible. It's the same thing I plan to do with our administrative team, our teachers and, in turn, our kids. Set those goals, expectations and dreams beyond people's expectations or what they believe is possible and get people to strive for that. Every day, it's about reestablishing and reaffirming that vision.
Q: Have there been any surprises?
A: Nothing overly so. I don't want to say surprised, but there were things that were reaffirming to me – which was people's interest in not only honoring the rich tradition of Franklin Regional, but also having expectations to move the system forward. To continue along that road of growth and development, so that Franklin Regional reaches its fullest potential. A system like Franklin Regional, one might expect some complacency, and I actually found completely the opposite. And as a group of professionals, a group of parents, and community members, who want to see more for the students of Murrysville, Delmont and Export who attend Franklin Regional.
Q: Over the last few years, one of the things that (former superintendent Emery D‘Arcangelo) was lauded for was the stability he brought to the district. How do you plan on continuing that?
A: Stability is based upon trust and relationships, and those are only built over time. And Dr. D. had an excellent way to build that sense of trust with people and an excellent ability to communicate his expectations that the district will operate in a certain manner. I do plan to build those relationships, and think that has been the focus of my last three months – building relationships with members of the board of education, with the administrative team, with the leadership of the various associations. I've had the opportunity to meet with the custodians, had the opportunity to meet with all of our staff in some capacity. And so, it'll take time to build those relationships. One of the things you'll always get out of me, even if you don't always like it, is a straight answer. So that sense of stability I hope remains. At the same time, I challenge people to do is to be open. Be open to change. Be open to growing. Just because we've always done it that way doesn't mean that there are not ways to improve upon what we're doing. And so I need people to be open and be willing to examine our practices, our traditions, and our values and make sure they're best for kids and always best for the kids.
Q: Why did you become an administrator?
A: It's funny. My time as a teacher and a coach were the best time in my life. One of my mentors at (Greater) Latrobe said to me, “You love kids, but right now, your influence is limited to the kids that you have contact with. By moving out of that, you can impact a far wider swatch of kids. At every level I've seen that I recognize there are more challenges. One of the things that I make sure I always do is make sure I find ways to do that, to get out to be with kids to see what's happening. I view myself as that advocate for kids in terms of creating opportunities for them both within the four walls of the classroom and outside of those four walls. So important in my role to advocate for them by working with their principals and their teachers and also building those connections with outside business, industries and universities to begin creating other opportunities for them. As long as we keep kids as our central focus, we'll be OK.
Q: You very much so like to be out in the schools interacting with teachers, interacting with students. Why is that so important to you?
A: Kids are why I got into this business, and making decisions that are in the best interest of kids is paramount to what I do on a daily basis. But I also think that when I get out and I'm with kids, I'm with teachers, it communicates the importance of the education that we're providing to the students and community. It communicates those expectations of educational excellence to the parents, to the community, to our teachers and, most importantly, to our students. And so being out there does that. The other thing it does, it enables me to see what's happening and listen. So sitting in an office on the first floor of Heritage alone doesn't get me the perspective that I need to be an effective instructional leader. Superintendant obviously is a leader in the area of business for a school. But they're also the instructional leader in a district. When I was a principal, I considered myself a teacher of teachers. And now, I'm a superintendent, I'm still a lead learner. And so it's about me learning, it's about me teaching, it's about that whole environment. And I talked about continuous growth – that is continuous growth. We continue to learn and continue to move forward.
Q: What do you see going forward in terms of how your team is going to continue that tradition of excellence in Franklin Regional?
A: One of the big things we need to do is reinvest in our people. Really, with economic conditions the way they have been over the past couple of years, that focus on professional development and overall professional development hasn't been as intense. So we as an organization need to reinvest in our human capital. As administrators, as teachers, even as parents, we need to reinvest in the learning that occurs in terms of what we're doing. And so from my standpoint we need to make sure that we are current in our knowledge of best instructional practices, which include integrating technology into student learning. And so it's getting that focus on our personal growth within the system that's important.
Technology is a tool. When I first started in teaching it was about how the teacher used technology. That has thankfully shifted now. It's about how the kids are using technology to support their learning, to really begin developing skills that are lifelong skills. Not necessarily measured on a PSSA exam or a Keystone exam, but when they go out into the real world and whether they're working in business, industry, or government, or health care, they're going to use technology. They're going to use it to collaborate, to solve problems, to create products, to design. As a school system, we have an obligation to make sure they are developing those skills here and that we use those opportunities to build those foundational skills. One of the other things you can expect is we believe that the partnerships are essential. And so one of the things that we will begin doing is really looking to partner with the local community – within the local, county and state – to develop relationships and partnerships that create partnerships with kids. But developing those partnerships create future opportunities for kids. The other thing we're going to do is we're going to continue to look at what we do and improve upon it. Franklin Regional is a great school district. A great school district that has a great community, great families, great professionals and awesome kids. We have a lot to celebrate. But we need to continue to grow and improve upon what we do. And so we will do some celebrating of our excellence as well.
Q: What do you think are the most important issues in education today?
A: That's a very broad question. And when you look at it and take it down to the classroom level, it is making sure that those people that work with our kids every single day are given the opportunity to develop the skills that they need to meet the needs of a diverse group of students who come to us from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds. And so that we're able to meet the challenge. And so, hence, part of what we need to do is continue to invest back in to people at that level.
From a more global standpoint right now, education as a whole is in a state of flux. When you look at the different demands coming from the federal and state level – increased demands with less funding, with less resources – it's those unfunded mandates that consume so much time and energy within a school system, that in some ways get in the way of what's paramount which is learning. And so it's dealing with teacher accountability, principal accountability – that piece that's coming out, where essentially the rules are being developed as we prepare to implement. And so that plan for a transition has been difficult. It's the debate around the common core standards. When we look at the common core standards, I don't think a lot has been done to prepare our communities or our schools for that implementation in terms of what that looks like. When you sit down and really get into those standards and get those standards by themselves, it's asking kids to perform real-life problem solving types of activities at higher cognitive levels. There's some professional development that needs to happen and there's some communication that needs to happen, from the state on down thru the schools. And so we need to do a good job of really grasping what that looks like in a classroom. And how we can maintain our independence in terms of our curriculum and what happens in a classroom, while at the same time making sure our kids are meeting that minimum standard. They're challenging standards, but at the same time that's the minimum. That's a narrow definition of what we need to be doing as a school system. And the reality is far greater and far wider, and so what we have to do, what educators have to do, is resist the urge just to focus on those standards, and only provide that.
Q: What would you like the parents whose children are going to be dealing with the Keystone Exams, the common core standards, to know?
A: I think the most important thing for them to realize when you talked about how schools have changed, Franklin Regional is very close to providing those standards as is, as we stand. It's not much different than what the Pennsylvania academic standards were previously. But with that being said, I do know that we have high expectations for our students and for our staff. That we will look to provide opportunities when we meet with them to demonstrate what that line looked like previously, and how it looks now, and how it changes. We do plan to communicate in small settings with families and with parents, thru our staff. I honestly don't think it's as large of a deal as everyone thinks. I look at the Keystone Exams. I look at it as an end-of-year test focused on the content that was taught that year, is far better than what it was when you did an assessment in 11th grade on multiple areas of mathematics that they may have learned in seventh and eighth grade, advanced beyond, now we're asking them to go back and do something that was five years ago. And if you think about algebra when you were in school, if you went back and had to do it now, it would be difficult. So I think in that way the Keystone Exams have improved that secondary assessment. And you look at our results in those areas, we've done pretty well. And at younger grades, what I'm seeing from that, or hearing from that, is that the assessments in terms of where we're going, they're aligned to the common core, they just piloted this year. It's asking kids to do some pretty complex things. And so we recognize that will increase in terms of rigor. And that we'll have to prepare that by raising the rigor in classrooms. When I look at that personally, I keep in perspective that that's one assessment that's given over five days, one time a year. And that it's not the sole measure of system effectiveness and student learning.
Pennsylvania is moving to a school performance profile, so I think they've realized that assessment in and of itself doesn't tell the whole story. And so there are other things they're beginning to look at to provide an overall scoring system or grade for our school systems. And so I might not agree or concur with all the components or how they're measured, but from a state system standpoint they're beginning to see that there's more.
And as a parent, when I look at a school, I look at three areas. Right now I'm just talking about the academic side. There are three essential areas, the academics are the most important, they're at the top. You look at the arts and what they provide for kids, you look at athletics and what they provide for kids. Those are very important educations for our students. So as a parent when I look at a school system, I look at everything a school system is providing, not just a test score.
And so when I look at Franklin Regional, we talk a lot about just that academic side, I look at that whole overall development, all those areas. The academics, the athletics, the arts, the activities for kids. Do we meet their academic, economic, social needs? And those two pieces are very important, as well as the academics.
Q: What do you want the community to know about you personally?
A: I'm a person who is very passionate about what I do for kids. I'm committed to excellence. That's represented in providing our students with the best academic, athletic and arts programs possible. I'm a real person – I have the same concerns that they have in regards to our kids, our community and our future.
I have five children – they mean the world to me. I'd be remiss if I also didn't mention my wife Carol, who is probably my best friend in the world and also makes for my biggest supporter and my biggest critic. She was an educator too. She looks at things through a different lens than I do at times – and it's good as a superintendent to be able to look at things through different lenses and through different perspectives.
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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