About 20 years ago, Thomas Moats – a 37-year resident of the Mohawk Valley – had just started working as a technology coordinator for Madison Oneida BOCES after doing similar work for Syracuse University, where he also earned his Masters degree. He and his wife, a Mohawk Valley native who “brought him home” from Pennsylvania to her hometown of Westmoreland, were raising their three daughters in the pastoral village of Vernon. At the time, he barely knew what a Board of Education was.
“I was very impressed with the elementary school my daughters attended,” said Moats. “So, one year, after the Christmas concert, I was talking to the principal and I said, ‘Tony, if there’s ever anything I can do for the district, you let me know!”
And so it began …
“He immediately replied, ‘Tom, why don’t you run for the school board?”
Moats remembered having attended exactly one VVS school board meeting at that time.
“The parents were upset about a program at the high school, so they were yelling and screaming. The teachers hadn’t signed their contract yet, so they were yelling and screaming,” recalled Moats. “I said to the principal, ‘Tony, are you crazy???”
The principal appealed to Moats to give it one more meeting? Moats agreed.
“It was far more civilized,” laughed Moats, “as were every meeting I have attended or presided over ever since.”
Moats ran for a seat on the Vernon Verona Sherrill Board of Education and was seated for his first term in July of 2002. He currently serves as President of the VVS Board of Education in his 20th year of service to the community as one of its nine members.
Moats considers one of his greatest accomplishments to be collaborating with 20 different VVS Boards, nine members each, where each Board had a different combination of members, so each Board had its own character.
“I’ve had the privilege and honor to work with a lot of good people,” said Moats, “who, like me, truly had the best interests of the students at heart.”
Moats remembers entering into his first year of volunteering as a member of the VVS Board of Education with what he now knows to be a common point of view held by new Board member.
“I thought my role was to FIX things,” Moats shared as he reflected on that “rookie year,” “Sports agendas, extracurricular activities, et cetera; lots of things I disagreed with? I was going to come in and fix the things that I thought were wrong.”
Moats pauses to smile at the memory, able to laugh to himself at his naivete’ from his vantage point as now the most veteran Board member.
From his now decades of experience, Moats shares that a good school board provides leadership and leaves the execution up to the district’s administration.
“There’s management and there’s leadership, and those are very different things,” distinguished Moats. “The Board is leadership.”
Moats sees the most important responsibility of a school board member to be representing the interests of the community they serve.
“We’ve been very lucky that our voters have elected members from different parts of our community – geography, profession, et cetera – and each member brings the views of their family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to the Board table. This is a public school,” said Moats. “After we all discuss the different views, we vote to represent the best interests of the ENTIRE community. That’s a good healthy board.”
Moats concedes that there are “plenty of disagreements,” but that, in the end, he believes the Board of Education has to do what’s best for the community and its kids.
“The most important resource of any community is its children,” said Moats, “so, I understand and respect the passion with which people come to us.”
Vernon Verona Sherrill School District – “Then and Now”
Moats recalls that, in his early years as a member, the school board was very concerned about what students needed to KNOW to be successful. He offers the example of knowing that a lot of students hoped to go into the medical profession, so the Board put a high school Latin course in place to help them better understand the terminology.
“20 years ago,” reflected Moats, “when I walked into a classroom, I expected the students to be orderly, with the majority of content coming from the teacher and no discipline problems.”
20 years later, Moats has evolved with the district, its leaders and its community from goals around WHAT students needed to KNOW to goals around WHO students needed to BE.
“What the students are going to know is still important,” Moats clarified. “But, we now prioritize how we can help students become problem-solvers, critical thinkers, be perseverant … what VVS calls GRIT.”
Moat is “a huge proponent” of extracurricular activities for this reason. He believes that giving students a choice helps their motivation.
“Whether it be sports or music or art, it is where students are often taught that there is positive relationship between effort and achievement,” said Moats. “The more you work at trying to kick the ball the better you become at it. The more you work on the piece of music the better you become at it. It is a very important life skill.”
In line with that thinking VVS is transitioning to more project-based learning. Robotics, for example, are now integrated into the classroom. Project-based learning is being similarly incorporated into a lot of different disciplines.
The VVS just completed a broad building project, where it redesigned the learning spaces to be more flexible. Now, a science teacher can work with an english teacher to teach science principles, then communicate to students how those principles apply to problem-solving; to analysis.
“When I walk into a classroom now,” said Moats, “I expect it to be loud; I expect students to be out of their seats, engaging with each other and with the teacher; and I expect the teacher to be informing and supporting that engagement.”
Moats acknowledged the shift of effective public education from a “teacher-centric environment” to a “student centric-environment.”
Observed Moats, “It is not enough anymore to sit in a seat, pass the test and move on.”
Moats acknowledges that there is risk and challenge involved in effecting sweeping change. On behalf of the Board, he understands that teachers from traditional teachers programs were taught a primarily a teacher-centric view – they were rewarded for maintaining classroom order. So, to promote what can seem like coordinated chaos can feel counter-intuitive for them.
“But not every student learns sitting in a row; some students need to get up and move,” said Moats. “We have to be aware of that.”
Moats shared that the leadership and administration are committed to helping the VVS faculty Now – “make this leap” together to this student-centered environment.
“It’s tough, we know, but we’re in progress on this,” said Moats, “absolutely in process.”
The VVS district today
VVS currently adopts a “three-prong” approach to educating its students. “Prong #1” – SUPPORT – informs one the district’s two primary goals – to provide training and support. This prong calls for many more supports – education, emotional, and career – to be provided to students.
“Students don’t always know how to ask for help,” said Moats, “so we’ve given the teachers training in how to approach the kids. Relationships are what it’s all about.”
“Prong #2 is ACCELERATION. Moats shared that the first reaction educators often have upon identifying that a student is “behind” is that they need REMEDIATION. VVS recognizes that this word carries a negative connotation for kids and their families. So they focus on the concept of “moving forward.” They give the students a more active, positive key word to wrap themselves around – ACCELERATION – and the kids “move forward” together, while additional support is provided to the students who need it in order to keep up.
Moats shares a fun fact to demonstrate that a traditional way of doing things may have been designed for reasons that are now outdated.
“I was on a panel back in the late 1900s where I stood up and said, ‘I’m pretty certain that by 2000, current computer keyboards will be obsolete,” said Moats.
While he was wrong about when they would become obsolete, his prediction was sound in his knowledge that the traditional keyboard was designed to “slow people down.”
“Where most typing was performed then by women, it was discovered that women have better digital dexterity than men,” said Moats.
Typewriters were designed and tested by men, but women typed significantly faster because of that superior dexterity and their speed was jamming the typewriter keys. So, the “home row” was designed to be placed centrally and comprised of lesser-used keys, such as F, J and K, in order to slow typing speed in order to prevent disabling the machines.
It makes one wonder, now that keyboards are no longer manual and men now spend a significant amount of time keyboarding, why Moats was off in his prediction and that design has not also changed?
“Prong #3” is ENGAGEMENT .
“To me,” said Moats, as he reminded of what he now expects when he walks into a VVS classroom, “the most critical thing is to concentrate much more on ENGAGEMENT.”
Moats sees engagement as helping with acceleration. The more engaged students are, the less challenged they are by social issues. He sees the district’s role as inspiring that motivation in its students to engage with curriculum.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
The growing commitment on the part of organizations nationwide – including schools – to foster a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is often boiled down in the understanding of it to focus primarily on race. While the actual efforts are far broader, that understanding can render DEI to be an odd undertaking for a district where all three communities that convene to comprise it are inherently 98% white. Yet, while the trend toward DEI has proven challenging for some and uncomfortable for many, Moats takes on the topic on behalf of the district’s Board.
“Diversity is extremely important for the 21st Century Worker,” said Moats. “However, the importance of diversity lies in the ways that different people THINK about things.”
Moats argued that there is a great deal of diversity in the VVS community when you consider its diversity of experience and perspective and he believes that example can work to provide VVS students with healthy view and skills for navigating a diverse world in and equitable and inclusive way.
“A 5th grader has a very different world view than a 40 year-old mechanic in our community,” offered Moats. “If we can get that 5th grader and that mechanic to appreciate and consider each other’s world views, then we have led them to be inherently more equitable and inclusive.”
Moats believes that the district has to help students to understand that they have to listen to what the other person is saying and try to understand their point of view before they can work together to solve problems and face challenges.
“You help students to recognize the legitimacy of someone else’s perspective by helping them to understand that their perspective is based upon THEIR life experience,” said Moats. “You have to consider and respect that.”
“Covid has really forced the hand of school districts,” acknowledged Moats, “but it has also created an opportunity to say, ‘we need to do things differently.’”
Moats and Group lamented the unique challenge remote learning presented to the VVS district, which is largely rural, where wifi access is not consistent, and where students are already often geographically isolated, relying on their school day for critical social engagement and connection to community.
Moats noted concerns around “social norming.”
“Kids figure out a specific set of standards by a certain age to define for them how they should be behaving,” said Moats. “Covid eliminated social interaction and replaced it with social media.”
Moats concurs with many peers across districts that one of the greatest challenges they face as try to emerge, but continue to face the challenges of the pandemic, is the socio-emotional damage it has done to students.
At a recent forum of area superintendents, Martha Group, Superintendent of VVS, shared some of the innovative ways that VVS had faced the challenges presented by the pandemic, including “driveway visits” to support students who had dropped of the radar during fully remote learning. To eliminate “screen fatigue” during that time, students could spend “screen off” chips and engage with their classes audio-only, which led to increased attendance. The district carved “social hours” during each school day, dedicated just to students virtually socializing with each other in an informal way and designated a “free block” on Wednesdays to allow students to seek needed assistance from faculty or staff.
While challenges remain, Moats joins Group in seeing the silver linings revealed by the Covid crisis. They join leaders from neighboring districts in appreciating the support and collaboration that emerged between them as a result of the pandemic. It has served as a foundation for the second of the VVS district’s primary goals, building those relationships and enhancing that collaboration.
“Partnerships were forged” and the VVS district looks forward to building on the independence and ownership that developed in its students and on the sound of “the student voices” that they want to hear.
The future of the VVS district
VVS has been a big proponent of STEAM education – Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture/Arts and Mathematics. STEAM programs had already been integrated into the high school and had expanded into the middle school. The district was just rolling out an elementary level introduction to STEAM when COVID halted that progress.
At that same gathering of area superintendents engaged in by VVS’s Martha Group, Dr. Kevin Levatino, Superintendent of the Little Falls district, participated. Levatino, whose district is erecting two state-of-the-art STEAM centers on its campuses, called out VVS for their preeminent area chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA), which operates a successful sugar mill and maple products business. Levatino, whose small city district serves over 1000 students, floated during the forum to the VVS district, which combines three rural communities to form a blended district serving just under 1600 students, the idea of joining forces to provide more options to all of their students, where VVS students who may want to take a deeper dive into STEAM might take advantage of programs at Little Falls, while Little Falls students with a passion for agricultural disciplines could participate in programs at VVS.
The idea further manifests the VVS district’s goal to build those relationships between neighbor school districts.
While Moats conceded that local districts have not traditionally done much of that kind of collaboration – instead leaving such merging of their students to BOCES programs – he sees a shift emerging.
“I think there’s a trend toward it,” said Moats. “More schools are going to explore regional partnerships to provide more opportunities for their students.”
Where Moats recalls supporting students by adding a Latin course to enhance their understanding of medical terms, he recognized that, today, there are jobs in the healthcare sector that the Board 20 years ago could not ever have imagined.
Moats shared the VVS district’s awareness of an emerging sector called “agri-tourism,” which he credits as evolving into a very important component of the local economy in the VVS district.
“It is a big industry in our area,” said Moats, “pumpkin patches, Christmas tree farms – we are now tasking farmers not only with farming, but now with educating and entertaining the public.”
Moats’ wheels are turning in terms of how to engage VVS students in that emerging hybrid of agriculture.
“When students are engaged in something they enjoy doing, whatever that may be,” said Moats, “they are motivated so much more.”
Reflection on 20 years – changes and challenges remaining
Moats views the most important change he’s seen during his tenure in serving the VVS district is a “much stronger connection between the schools and the community.”
“That first board meeting I went to, there was a view that the school district didn’t listen to the community. Older board members talked about the ‘bad old days’ – before the Board and Administration were not as welcoming to community input. It was a ‘we know what’s best’ culture,” reflected Moats. “We now recognize that having a strong community connection is in the best interest of the children.”
The VVS Vision Statement reads: “The Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School District aspires to be valued as a district of distinction by our community.”
Moats boasts that VVS has been recognized nationally as a “district to watch.” The VVS music program ranks among the top 5% nationwide and the renowned VVS chapter of Future Farmers of America has earned national chapter status. But he is quick to confirm that this is not their target as they aspire to be a “district of distinction.”
“Those things are nice and we are proud of them, but they don’t hold a candle to the importance of what our COMMUNITY thinks of our district,” said Moats.
Examples that manifest that VVS vision include a program called “Thought Exchange” which invites any member of the community to listen, learn and engage in whatever the focus of a given meeting or conversation might be … “to contribute.”
Moats noted that over 70% of the residents in the combined communities of Vernon, Verona and Sherrill do not have students attending school in the district.
“But they pay taxes,” reminded Moats, “so we want their input.”
Another initiative intended to strengthen that connection is the a requirement of VVS High School seniors to perform community service within the district’s boundaries.
“We now recognize that having a strong community connection is in the best interest of our children,” said Moats, “and that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen … a change I’m proud of.”
When asked if there was a problem Moats hoped to solve that yet remains an issue challenging the VVS district today, he did not hesitate in his reply – “Student Safety.”
“I never imagined that we would need to approve the presence of safety officers in our schools,” said Moats, where the VVS district now employs four of them.
Moats also noted Bullying as “something we’re concerned about.” He shared that VVS has had to shut its schools down several times in response to social media threats.
“And there is certainly the national news,” said Moats. “Our kids hear that.”
Moats reminisced about the days when his own daughters were students in the district.
“I would ask my kids’ friends if they felt safe in the schools,” recalled Moats, “and they didn’t even understand the question?”
Moats recognized that, unfortunately, we now have far too many students who do feel anxious. Fearful.
“When kids are anxious; when kids are fearful,” said Moats, “It doesn’t matter how good the curriculum is…”
After a poignant pause, Moats concluded, “It’s just vitally important to deal with safety issues.”
Moats was also discouraged that, 20 years later, he doesn’t believe that the VVS district gets “a fair shake” from the state.
“Some districts are able to offer far more resources than we are able to offer, despite the needs of our students,” said Moats. “It’s unfortunate that the quality of your education is too often determined by your zip code.”
But Moats does not linger long on factors he cannot control, instead choosing to focus on the change he and the Board can work to effect.
“The district is almost always asking for an increase in the assessment to fund the school budget, but we try to keep it as low as we possibly can. We try to be very very respectful of the community,” said Moats. “But, we’re a board of education, not a board of taxation, and our primary job is to provide the best education for our students that we think our community can support.”
Moats reminds of the priority the Board places on the community perceiving its school district as one of distinction, but is clear that district’s job – his job – is to “give our children the best education we can give them.”
As Moats reflects on that call to action advanced by his daughters’ elementary school principal 20 years ago – a call he gladly answered – he expresses his disappointment that more members of his community don’t “step up” to be members of the Board of Education.
“There have been years I’ve run unopposed – not because I’m Tom Moats – but because no one wanted to step up,” recalled Moats.
He estimates that the commitment averages about 10 to 15 hours a week. It can often be a thankless job, but is always an important one.
“I say we don’t get paid – and we don’t,” said Moats, “but I love graduations. To see those kids and hear their accomplishments and know you were a small part of that … it just makes you feel really good.”
Does Moats enjoy being a school board member?
“Honest to goodness, I don’t enjoy being a Board member,” confessed Moats, offering that it is a lot of work, “but it is so fulfilling.”
Moats counts himself “very very fortunate” to work in a district where there are so many talented teachers and administrators that work so incredibly hard and – like him – just CARE so much about the kids.
Concludes Moats, “That’s what it’s really all about.”