Thomas W. Ralston, former superintendent of Avonworth School District in Allegheny County, has been hired as a visiting assistant professor and the next director of the Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
A native of Chester, West Virginia, Ralston has worked in K-12 public education for more than 30 years. Before serving as Avonworth’s superintendent, he worked as a middle school principal at Avonworth and at the South Side Area School District in Beaver County and Oak Glen Middle School in West Virginia. He began his education career as a middle school science teacher at Hancock County Schools in West Virginia.
“I am happy to welcome Dr. Tom Ralston to our School of Education as the new Director of the Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents and as Assistant Professor of Practice,” says Valerie Kinloch, Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of Pitt Education. “Dr. Ralston is an exceptional school leader who is notable for his commitments to ensuring that students experience engaging, equitable, and joyful learning. I am looking forward to seeing the positive impact he will have on the superintendent’s forum and on our academic programs in school leadership and teacher education.”
The Power of Action-Oriented Collaboration
Among the oldest regional superintendent’s forums in the nation, the Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents is an organization for chief executive officers from public school districts, intermediate units, charter school districts, and parochial school districts.
The organization draws on the expertise of Pitt Education’s Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leading to provide customized professional development experiences for school superintendents and hosts annual conferences for networking and training exercises among school leaders.
As a former superintendent, Ralston understands firsthand the value of the superintendent’s forum.
“I was a member of the forum for a long time,” says Ralston, “and, through it, I was fortunate to interact with people who helped me to grow as an educator. There’s a lot of power in collaboration and in bringing together school leaders who are innovative, critical thinkers and action-oriented. That’s how you make a difference in the lives of children.”
Although Ralston is still transitioning into the director role, he has already established some initial goals for the superintendent’s forum.
“One thing I hope to bring to the forum is reframing our focus on the future of education. Just think about how much education has changed in the last 16 months due to the pandemic. We were forced to change, but if we weren’t forced to change, would we have changed?” says Ralston.
Most of all, he believes that the pandemic exposed the inequality in resources across the public education sector.
“The pandemic accentuated inequity,” says Ralston. “In Pennsylvania, we have a unique educational structure. There are over 500 individual school districts. That means there are over 500 school leaders. You don’t find that in other states where there usually are larger systems.”
Creating Student-Centered Change
Ralston holds a Doctorate of Education from Youngstown State University, a Master of Arts from West Virginia University, and a Bachelor of Arts from West Liberty University. He earned his Superintendent’s Letter of Eligibility from Westminster College.
Ralston received the 2020 Superintendent of the Year Award from the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, the 2017 Distinguished Educator Award from the Tri-State Area School Study Council, and the 2010 Administrator of the Year Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Middle Level Education.
As director of the superintendent’s forum, Ralston can draw on his experiences from leading the Avonworth School District.
The district was performing well at the time he became superintendent. Yet, he instituted changes to further enhance the school.
The common thread to the changes was two-fold. Ralston sought to shift the emphasis to student-centered learning and wanted to create an environment that gave all students a sense of belonging.
His schools accomplished this by adopting more project-based assignments that drew on experiences in the real-world; creating a new interdisciplinary course that blended together English/Language Arts, Social Studies, and Art into an integrated class; and changing the physical spaces in ways that encouraged greater collaboration, such as knocking down walls and replacing individual desks with shared tables.
“You only get to go through school one time, and I want students to enjoy it,” says Ralston.
As director of the superintendent’s forum, Ralston will lead an organization that will support its members in delivering on that promise for their students.
The Pitt School of Education offers Education and School Leadership programs, including the following: