Thursday, 20 June 2019 13:28
By Vincent L'Hommedieu, SMARTACUS Creative Group | Lifestyle
Even though his father was a teacher, principal, and  eventually superintendent of schools for the Waterford Halfmoon School District, Michael Patton did not see education as the career for him. He saw himself in private industry, a path for which he prepared by majoring in Labor and Industrial Relations at Penn State. When General Electric offered him a job in human resources at its big plant in Schenectady, he viewed it as all part of the plan. 

Patton was single then with extra time on his hands. Having played varsity lacrosse at Penn State, he wanted to stay involved in the game. So, he worked out an arrangement that allowed him to coach lacrosse at Siena College while working full time at GE. So long as he came in early each morning, he could leave early every afternoon to join his team on the practice field. 

It wasn't long before Patton felt his passion shifting from human resources to coaching and working with young people. He started wondering: How do I make this a career? 

Patton found his answer in educational administration. Named superintendent of the Saratoga Springs School District on Jan. 1, 2018, Patton is now 18 months into a job in which he's responsible for managing 500 teachers and 600 support staff in their efforts to educate 6,300 students in eight buildings. 

"Any job is about relationships, and that's especially true in education," he says. "It's about getting to know people and being visible, getting out there and learning how things work. 

"Every school district is unique, with its own culture and traditions," he continues. "Each day, I try to carve out some time in my schedule to be in a building, to see students, and to see what impact our teachers are having in the classroom. My job is to make sure we're providing the support that's necessary for effective teaching and learning to take place." 


A Proactive Role
Twenty-three years ago, Patton's first step was to quit his GE job and go straight for a graduate degree at the College of St. Rose, which he was able to earn while still coaching at Siena. Upon earning his master's degree in school counseling, he was hired by Ballston Spa High School. There he also coached three sports, launching the varsity lacrosse program that finally would win its first section title last year. 

"When you're a school counselor, you're an advocate," he continues. "We had case loads of 350 kids at Ballston Spa. I knew kids from the time they entered as ninth graders to the time they graduated as seniors. You go to college to learn all of the theoretical aspects of counseling, but you graduate and find out that so much of it is connecting with kids and developing relationships. I had the opportunity to establish really close relationships, not just with the students, but with their families as well.

"I've always seen the counselor as being in a proactive role," Patton explains. "You're working with kids who need extra help in overcoming challenges and obstacles. You're also helping them develop a career and college focus, thinking about the courses they're taking and the opportunities they're creating for their future. So long as students have a goal in mind, we have the responsibility to provide them the experiences that will help them achieve it. When they graduate, we want them to be able to live independently from their families and enter the workforce. We want them to be doing something they're passionate about and have the skills and knowledge to do so.”

"I loved that job because every day was something different," he says. "I really enjoyed being the cheerleader for kids who didn't come from a lot." 

Four jobs later — assistant principal at Ballston Spa High School, principal of Queensbury High School, superintendent of the South Glens Falls School District, and superintendent of the Saratoga Springs School District — Patton sees himself in much the same role. 

"Instead of having an impact on 350 kids as a counselor, I now have 6,300 students I am responsible for." 


Opportunities for Improvement
Patton knew from his experience in South Glens Falls that he should not attempt to institute sweeping changes in his first year. His focus had to be on listening and establishing effective relationships. 

"It's important in any school district to recognize and celebrate the great things that have happened, and to get feedback from all stakeholders, meeting with kids, teachers and parents," he says. "I wanted to get out and listen and provide opportunities for people to provide feedback, identifying areas that were strong and where improvements could be made.” 

"I call these 'opportunities for improvement,'" he continues. "If we can instill in everybody the will to improve, we can become a really strong system. We're already one of the top school districts in the Capital Region, but we can always get better. 

"We listen to the feedback from our graduates who have gone off to college or entered the workforce and look for ways that we can improve programs and services for our current students.”  

"We gather this feedback not only from our students and parents, but from our business partners as well. We're always looking for emerging trends that have an impact on education, making sure we're doing everything we can to better prepare kids.

"When you graduate from high school, we want make sure you have the skills, knowledge and experience to be as successful as you possibly can be."


New Challenges
As a school superintendent, Patton says he must deal with issues today that he could not have imagined 20 years ago when he was a school counselor. 

"For example, social media has become a major area for discipline," he says. "Consequently, we have to teach kids how to be appropriate and the serious implications of not thinking things through."

"Everything used to happen pretty much in the open," Patton notes. "Now students are on their phones, and mom and dad don't necessarily know what's going on, nor do teachers. The kids see each other the next day and suddenly there's an altercation that no one saw coming because it was all developing online. This is one of the big things we must keep up with as a school community. How do we educate parents, teachers, and students on the signs we all need to be looking out for?" 

School safety is another major source of concern that Patton says was scarcely imaginable 20 years ago -- until the events at Columbine High School woke the nation to the threat posed by active shooters in schools. 

In their effort to make their classrooms and hallways safer, schools necessarily are broadening their focus beyond academics to focus on the whole child, says Patton. 

"We have a lot more kids coming from challenging financial or family situations. While our focus used to be mostly on the academic side, the needs of our students and their families have completely changed, and so we're taking on a much larger role in providing mental health and family support services.

"Just five years ago, our district didn't have a single social worker. Now we have eight social workers and 13 school psychologists. We also have partnerships with Parsons Child and Family Center for mental health clinics and partnerships with the Prevention Council both for substance abuse and alcohol prevention programming and direct assistance to students who are struggling with those issues.

"We're figuring out how to take care of these essential human needs first," Patton continues. "The only way we can do that is to partner with parents and help provide educational opportunities for parents so they can figure out how to connect with them when their kids are prepared to learn. Overall, we've put more resources into mental health and student support services over the last five years than any other area. 

"There are 700 public school systems in New York, and we're all committed to providing a learning environment where students feel connected and safe at school.  Our goal is to continue on that path, but we also have to be honest and realize that things have changed. We'll continue to update our policies and procedures, but we also need to make sure that everyone shares in the responsibility to keep our students safe. We'll find our best solutions when people understand that it's best to work together and look to continuously improve."

VinceLHommedieu 

The SMARTACUS Creative Group is a student-driven creative agency dedicated to supporting the economic development of Upstate New York. A senior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Vincent L'Hommedieu is a fast learner who hopes to leave his mark on the world. 
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