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Retiring Belle Vernon superintendent Russell forged a legacy

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 5:33 a.m.

Stephen V. Russell has a pretty good idea of what he'll be doing when the 2012-2013 term begins next August in the Belle Vernon Area School District.

"I'll probably sleep in, at least until six or seven o'clock," Russell said with a smile. "I've always looked forward to the first day of school with excitement and the anticipation of setting goals and making the educational process something that will benefit our students."

Russell's regular routine of long days on the job will end Friday, June 29 when he retires as superintendent of Belle Vernon Area schools. The move will end a 42-year career in education during which Russell says he has been "truly blessed."

"You never stop teaching," he said. "Just because you move from the classroom to an administrator's office doesn't mean you are no longer a teacher. Your office becomes a classroom in a sense and you have a responsibility to continue teaching others, whether it be other administrators or faculty. And we all should have a common goal of doing what is in the best interest of our students."

Russell, 62, has carried some of those ideals with him since his days as a student in the Rostraver and Belle Vernon Area school districts. Two teachers - George Estok and George Everett - instilled the basic tenets.

"Mr. Estok taught American History at Rostraver Junior High and he didn't always go by the book in terms of teaching style," Russell recalled. "He made learning fun as well as educational. He made us research the topics he taught in order that we could learn even more about them. He wanted us to know and understand who and what we were discussing"

Everett took a "more philosophical" approach to his role as a social studies teacher on the high school level.

"He offered various views on particular subjects," said Russell, a 1967 graduate of Belle Vernon Area. "It wasn't straight from a text book or a lecture. George made us think, encouraged us to use our minds and come up with our own opinions. Much of what I've practiced over the years as a classroom teacher and administrator has its genesis with those men."

Social studies teacher

Russell earned a bachelor of science degree in education from California State College (now California University of Pennsylvania) in 1970. He received a Master of Arts degree in 1974 and his secondary principal's certification in 1975, both from Duquesne University, and his superintendent paper (letter of eligibility) in 1979 at West Virginia University.

His career in education began in 1970 as a social studies teacher at Ringgold High School. He became assistant principal at Belle Vernon Area High School in 1976, served as principal at Bellmar Junior High/Middle School from 1978 to 2009, and has been superintendent the past three years.

Russell's approach to teaching has been filled with many innovations.

His Americana series of displays has gained widespread acclaim and proved popular among the students in his charge. Those exhibits focused on historic figures from myriad walks of life - politics and government, entertainment, literature and sports.

"Again, it's a matter of going beyond the traditional classroom setting," he said. "Even when I became a principal I never felt I had left the classroom. An educator's greatest accomplishment is knowing what needs to be done to make the learning process more effective. It's very satisfying working with young people who get it and appreciate what you are trying to do. That's why I feel the exhibits have had such a positive impact."

The Americana displays are "far more than just pictures or posters on the wall," Russell said.

"Because they knew how much I admired President John Kennedy, a group of students came to me when the Oliver Stone movie JFK starring Kevin Costner was released in 1991 and asked if I would come to their room to talk about Mr. Kennedy," Russell said. "I agreed to do so but I also told them I was going to prepare a study guide so they would have an even better understanding about the late president. I didn't want it to be a matter of having the children listening to me go on and on for the entire class. The idea was to have those students that were too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy acquire an understanding of the motives behind that tragedy. It was designed to go beyond a movie script."

Russell created a similar study guide for an American Literature class focusing on Nathaniel Hawthorne, novelist, short-story writer and essayist whose masterpiece, "The Scarlet Letter," established him as the leading American native fictionist of the 19th century. Students reviewed Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face" and applied the theme of the tale to their own lives.

Fostering new ideas

These and other concepts are in keeping with Russell's passion for the "metacognition process" coined by developmental psychologist and educator J.H. Flavell.

"It emphasizes thinking about thinking or knowing about knowing, when and how to use particular strategies for problem solving," Russell said of metacognition. "The application works well when trying to get students involved in reading and research to learn more and more about the subjects at hand."

The idea, Russell said, has been embraced by teachers and students alike.

"Faculty, for the most part, welcome new ideas to make the learning process more interesting and more fun, if you will, for the students," Russell said. "The children are eager to learn when you combine the traditional methods with innovations."

Russell said he has always appreciated the cooperation of his colleagues in education at Ringgold and Belle Vernon Area.

"It's certainly not a one-man show," he said. "We exchange ideas and also seek input from the students. I'm grateful to the school board for supporting our curriculum advancements and I must thank the teachers and ancillary staff for continuing to move our school district forward."

The success of Belle Vernon Area's educational programs is borne out in the success of its graduates, Russell said.

"In the nearly 47 years since the district was formed as the result of the merger between Bellmar and Rostraver in 1965 we have seen students expand their formal educations in colleges and universities across the country," he said. "They have entered and become successful in such professions as medicine, science, education, law, communications, technology, athletics and the arts. Others have distinguished themselves in the military and many own their own businesses."

Playing it forward

BVA alumni are invited to be keynote speakers at the annual commencement.

"They bring stories of inspiration to our graduating seniors as well as others in our schools," Russell said. "They represent their families and communities as well as the schools very well. We feel it is a reflection on what we offered them in ways to learn and their willingness and ability to accept those ideas."

Other influences notwithstanding, Russell, the son of the late James William (Jim) and Theresa Coreau Russell, comes by his appreciation of education naturally. His father, a Major League baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves, served on the Rostraver and Belle Vernon Area school boards for 13 years.

Russell won't be lacking for things to keep him busy in retirement, which is really a misnomer in his case.

He plans to update his Americana collection and continue making it available as an educational tool.

He also will devote more time to further organizing memorabilia and artifacts at the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame, for which he has served as general chairman for several years.

And he will likely be committed to adding to his credits as the author of books, journals and similar documents that focus on a variety of topics.

In addition to all of those aspects of his life, over the years Russell has gained recognition as a speaker and panelist at educational conferences and community and civic programs.

"I'll miss the day to day camaraderie with students and staff," he said. "I have welcomed and enjoyed the challenges of what I feel is the best job in the world - educating young minds and nurturing those boys and girls to grow and develop into good citizens and leaders. There is nothing to compare to those responsibilities and the satisfaction of realizing you have contributed to someone's life in this manner."

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