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by Robert Green

Quality Achievements

Student satisfaction has increased from 70 percent in 1998 to 92 percent in 2001; parent satisfaction has increased from 62 percent in 1996 to 96 percent in 2001.

The percentage of students graduating from PRSD with a Regents diploma, a key objective, increased from 63 percent in 1996 to 86 percent in 2001.

PRSD's "balanced scorecard"--a scannable composite of progress indicators--provides continuous, up-to-date tracking of district performance.

Seventy-five percent of PRSD's special education students take the SAT I exam, as compared with 3 percent statewide and 2 percent nationwide.

On March 7, 2002, President George W. Bush and Commerce Secretary Don Evans presented five organizations with Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards in recognition of their performance excellence and quality achievements. Among the winners was Pearl River School District, which won in the education category. Located 20 miles north of New York City in Rockland County, New York, PRSD was one of three educational organizations to earn Baldrige Awards in 2001; previously there had been no winners in the education category.

PRSD provides education for 2,500 children, kindergarten through 12th grade. In addition, more than 1,000 adults participate in the district's continuing education program. PRSD's 203 teachers are distributed among three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

During the past eight years, spending for instruction has grown 43 percent, an increase largely achieved through savings from operational efficiencies.

Students in Pearl River can choose to attend more than 80

private and parochial schools located within free-busing range (15 miles) of PRSD schools. However, since 1990, the proportion of eligible students choosing to attend PRSD schools has risen from 71 to 90 percent. Transfers to other institutions are rare:

94 percent of students who begin their schooling in Pearl River complete their high school education within the district.

What follows is an interview with Richard Maurer, Pearl River's superintendent for the past five years. This is the final of five interviews, conducted with a representative from each 2001 Baldrige Award winner, appearing in consecutive issues of Quality Digest.

QD: How were you first introduced to the Baldrige Award?

Maurer: Our district became involved in 1995, when Baldrige piloted the education criteria. And when it became official, we applied in 1999.

QD: How was the district selected to be involved in the launch of the educational criteria?

Maurer: It started about 10 years ago, in the early 1990s. At that point, the board of education wasn't satisfied with the quality of the educational achievement of the students and the school district in total. They directed the school administration to look for models that could improve the school's academic achievement. Initially the district became involved in a national movement called Effective Schools Research to improve its instruction.

I also became involved in a number of award programs that provided outside feedback. We contacted Xerox and IBM for examples, and we used consultants to help identify some of these companies' quality tools that could be modified and used in a school setting. We also got involved with the New York State Excellence Program; it's the Baldrige model at the state level.

We used the resulting feedback to improve our performance.

The district was one of the leaders setting up the tristate educational consortium--about 30 different competitive school districts from New Jersey, Connecticut and New York to form a Baldrige-type model to evaluate curriculum. We trained folks in each school district to go to each other's district and do a critical audit on curriculum using the Baldrige model. From that we learned how to use Baldrige criteria in an education setting.


QD: Tell me about the feedback you got in 1999-2000, the first time you applied for the Baldrige Award.

Maurer: The feedback we got was to ensure that we got a line of sight. We actually did, and we had results to back it up. In the beginning, we had a lot more plans and approaches, and as we moved through this we developed implementation strategies. School districts are known for listing a whole bunch of things they've done every year, but the trick for us was to link some kind of evaluation to all these projects.

QD: What major changes did you make between then and 2001, when you won the award?

Maurer: We had a process in place to evaluate efficiencies, for example, the use of technology in the school district. We were spending millions of dollars for technology, and we would measure for overall student satisfaction. But then we added an additional efficiency measure to it--how often the system was down in the course of the school year.

QD: What was the most difficult hurdle to overcome in getting to the Baldrige level?

Maurer: There are a number of them. One was to be able to identify a world-class benchmark that we could model after. We could use similar school data or comparative schools in our region. One of things Baldrige forced us to do was to start looking at world-class benchmarks, not just for student achievement, but also for the perception of the district and class efficiency. That raised the bar.

QD: Did you have a Baldrige team working on the data together?

Maurer: We have a very lean administrative team to begin with. The administrative team became chapter champions, so one or two of them took charge of a certain chapter. It was their responsibility to really master the feedback and report on some areas of growth.

QD: Your award is for the entire district, not just one educational facility. How do you see the application of the Baldrige criteria differing for those two types of organizations--one at the district level and one at the school level?

Maurer: We decided to do it at the district level because our students go through a K-12 program. It was essential that our line of sight was the same at the lower grade levels and the high school level so that when the students entered high school they weren't entering different processes.

QD: Did you have any issues in terms of buy-in to the program? Any kind of resistance internally?

Maurer: Not really because we did it over a period of about a year, and the administration modeled the TQM behavior. We presented it in a way that adds value to the teachers in the classroom. I think if you presented it in such a way that it was just TQM, then school districts would have a problem implementing it.

QD: How do you present it as a value-added initiative and not just going through a program for program's sake?

Maurer: For example, at the secretarial levels, we did some process maps on the work orders process. We realized that a lot of people got involved in a lot of different decisions, which made the process really cumbersome. When the staff saw that they could improve the process, that mapping it would improve their job by making it easier for them, they quickly adopted it.

QD: You mentioned TQM earlier. Did the district have experience with any other formal quality programs or systems?

Maurer: The only other one was early in the 1990s with the Effective Schools Research. Researchers had identified programs similar to the Baldrige that, if implemented, would improve schools. Leadership, for example. But they weren't as well-defined by any means. We don't use the word TQM in the district, but the word Baldrige would be recognized; everybody knows what that is.

QD: Obviously it was piloted for some time, but the Baldrige educational program is still in its infancy. Is there an area in which the criteria could use an adjustment?

Maurer: I think the Baldrige has really worked hard adapting the business model to education. It took a while, but they understand that in education there are two functions; there's learning and there's the whole support process, such as the transportation and the food service. In education, we're not a revenue-producing enterprise. We are a spending enterprise. We're not looking at increasing our revenue. We don't project growth in terms of revenue.

QD: What goals of yours do you expect your Baldrige-based processes to help you attain in the future?

Maurer: We have three: to improve student achievement, to improve perception of the district and to maintain cost effectiveness and reduce noninstructional costs.

QD: Will you formally fill out an application to monitor progress over the next few years?

Maurer: I don't know. We haven't really talked about that. We just won the award, and we are still dealing with all that. We really haven't thought out five years from now. We're going to continue with the Baldrige process and continue with all our assessments and our charts. It's still a big part of our operations whether we apply or not.

QD: In the final analysis, how do you rate your entire Baldrige experience?

Maurer: I'm very positive about it. Baldrige works for us, and therefore we know it can work for public education. Lots of models have been navigated for public education improvement, but Baldrige is a model that works. I encourage school districts to get involved in it. Learn the processes. When it's applied deeply, it can change an organization.

For more information about Pearl River School District, visit www.pearlriver.k12.ny.us, call (845) 620-3932 or e-mail Maurer at maurerr@admin.prsd.lhric.org.

About the author

Robert Green is Quality Digest's managing editor. Letters to the editor regarding this piece can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.