Western PA Superintendent’s Forum Hits the Road

Q&A with Tom Ralston, Director of The Forum

In his role as director of the Forum for Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents, Tom Ralston often seeks out new professional development opportunities for the 55 regional school district superintendents who comprise the Forum.

“I think it is really important in my role as the director of the Forum to find ways to connect people and to push their thinking,” Ralston says.

Ralston recently took a group of 50 school administrators and teachers from Western Pennsylvania to visit two schools in the Cleveland area: Shaker Heights High School and Mayfield High School. According to Ralston, “Both schools are leaders in innovative practices including personalized learning, project-based learning, and innovative learning spaces.”

In this Q&A, Ralston shares more about the Cleveland trip and the ways in which the Forum engages school leaders. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to organize this trip to Cleveland?  

“Several years ago, we had a session during our Spring Forum focused on reimagining what school could be. Out of that meeting, several school districts wanted to focus on their high schools, which are traditionally the most difficult nut to crack when it comes to school reform. I found that the Cleveland area was fairly innovative and they have some schools that have taken bold steps to do things differently.”

Why were Shaker Heights High School and Mayfield High School chosen? 

“Shaker Heights is a suburb of Cleveland that has a really interesting community and a lot of pretty rich history. Back in the fifties, it was in the midst of a lot of things happening with civil rights in the United States. Shaker Heights High School recommended that we also visit Mayfield High School. Both schools have a pretty diverse school population, with a nice mix of race and social economics as well.” 

What are some examples of their innovative practices?

“There were a number of things. When we visited Mayfield in particular, they were focused on personalizing learning for their students, recognizing that all students learn differently and have preferences for how they learn. Mayfield has taken some really innovative steps. There are a lot of couches and tables –  no desks. The students actually learn through a project-based environment. There is also a program called Learn and Earn, which is focused on learning through apprenticeships with employers in their community.”

What were some lessons that school administrators and teachers gained from this experience?

“One of the big takeaways for our folks was that school can look different. It doesn’t necessarily have to look one certain way, and if it looks different, it doesn’t mean it is wrong. These visits are about inspiration. You may not be able to replicate exactly what they’ve done, but you may be able to take that idea, and with some creativity and consideration for the resources that you have, you can make it your own.”

Is the Superintendent’s Forum planning other trips like this in the future?

“I think it is really important in my role as the director of the Forum to find ways to connect people and to push their thinking. We’re finding ways to connect with some school districts in the region who are new and who need support with English language learners. In March, I’m going to take a group of about 30 professors and students to the South by Southwest Education Conference in Austin, Texas. Students and faculty are going to have a chance to see some things that they normally wouldn’t see.”