Crawford Central

Crawford Central Superintendent Tom Washington responds on Monday to questions from a board member about an upcoming conference that he and another district administrator are scheduled to attend.

VERNON TOWNSHIP — A board member’s question regarding an upcoming conference prompted an increasingly passionate response from the superintendent scheduled to attend the event during Crawford Central School Board’s Monday meeting.

The question from Kevin Merritt concerned the National Conference on Education organized by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Superintendent Tom Washington and Ann Noonen, the district’s director of technology education integration, are both scheduled to attend the event in Nashville from Feb. 17-20, according to agenda materials provided for the board meeting.

The board will vote to approve the conference trip, along with participation by district employees in 10 professional meeting events, at its meeting on Monday. More than $5,200 in expenses for the event are being provided by the Pittsburgh-based Grable Foundation.

“My question is, what does Grable have in it that will benefit us — there’s a payback, I guess, basically,” Merritt said after explaining that the trip “stood out" to him in reviewing the meeting’s agenda. “If Grable is paying for people to go, there’s got to be a tie-in to something at the conference that he does.”

The question comes at a time when school boards and district administrators are receiving heightened levels of attention in large part due to political controversies involving mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues. Last month in neighboring PENNCREST School District, board members cited concerns about critical race theory in voting against a teacher’s request to attend a state conference for English teachers where she was scheduled to give a presentation on “Using Audio Analysis to Maximize Independent Reading Time.”

The Grable Foundation that drew Merritt’s attention this week says on its website that it supports “programs critical to children’s successful development” with a focus on the state’s southwest region. In September, Noonen told the board that Crawford Central was among one of 33 districts in the state invited to participate in the Western Pennsylvania Learning 2025 Alliance, a Grable-supported effort to introduce innovative educational strategies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am beyond excited to learn from those that are involved in this opportunity,” Noonen told the board at the time.

On Monday, Washington assured Merritt that the focus of the conference is enabling schools to prepare students for the real world they will face upon graduation. The conference website describes the theme as “leading for student-centered, equity-focused education.”

Merritt then asked about the district’s involvement with the Learning 2025 effort. Washington described weekly meetings he has had with other superintendents through the program in which participants share effective strategies, calling it “one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in in a couple of years.”

With his voice rising, Washington gestured with both arms for emphasis as he continued his defense of the activities.

“This is about improving engagement. This is about making teacher leaders. This is about making building leaders. This is about superintendents meeting, and you can see I’m passionate about it because the fact is that they’re one of the organizations looking at education beyond what we are right now, and if we need to do anything, we need to change education. This stuff,” he said, pounding the table in front of him with one hand, “we’re doing to our kids, this is old, and this is one of the organizations nationwide that is doing something … and saying, ‘How do we engage kids?’”

In the end, Washington continued for about 12 minutes in responding to several questions from Merritt, emphasizing the need for new approaches in education.

“We’ve been doing a lot of preparing kids for our past,” he said, “and not their future.”

Saying he was stepping “off my soapbox,” Washington then asked Merritt the motivation behind his questions.

“I love to see your passion,” Merritt said. “I didn’t know the tie-in with southern PA and how that had all come about.”

Washington explained that the connection started after a Grable Foundation official had served as a beginning-of-the-year speaker for district faculty.

Merritt seemed satisfied following Washington’s explanation.

“If I didn’t ask,” he said, “I wouldn’t have known.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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