Setting goals for schools chief

How do you evaluate a superintendent?

That's what Chester County school board members are grappling with.

Board members say they lack a clear, updated method of measuring the performance of Superintendent Larry Heath, who signed a three-year contract with the district in December 2006.

The evaluation form used on the previous superintendent was too subjective, board Chairwoman Denise Lawson said. Board members want specific indicators by which they can judge Heath's work.

Because the makeup of the board changed around the end of Heath's first year as superintendent, leaders are only now beginning to hammer out those goals.

This week, they chose four objectives. Heath will develop a plan for achieving those pursuits, with benchmarks for success, and he'll present that information to his bosses at the board's meeting next week.

Here are the district's goals:

Maintain school safety

Although they insist their schools are safe, leaders say security should remain a top priority.

"It must be maintained as a No.1 goal to be safe from all comers, from unpleasant influences in the classroom, from terrorists, from everything on down," said board member Dr. Laurens Fort Jr.

Leaders say Heath's role in safety can be measured by his support of the school resource officer program -- he helped bring another deputy to that program as interim superintendent in 2006 -- and his efforts to add safety measures in schools, such as a visitor identification system that was installed in some schools this year.

The computerized log allows the schools to monitor who comes and goes through their doors. All visitors are photographed. A background screening feature also allows schools to check visitors' names against a sex offender registry.

Develop a comprehensive alternative education program/b>

Chester County's alternative school shares a building with the county's adult education program.

The school serves about 100 students, and all but 18 are in middle school. That's because the high school program is strictly computer-based, meaning an instructor stays in a classroom to help students with the online courses.

Middle school students are taught in a traditional classroom setting. Because of limited space, some high school students who need to use the school can't attend.

The alternative school also is restricted to diploma-track students. But a comprehensive program would be open to students who need to take career-oriented courses.

"This is for any student that is not going to be successful in a traditional classroom setting," Lawson said. "All kids are not going to succeed on a diploma track."

Recruit and retain highly qualified staff

The board's final goal is as much about finding as it is keeping top-notch staff members.

This year, the school district retained 87 percent of its teachers. But most teachers who live in the county either grew up there or have family connections to the area.

Only five of the 75 teachers hired last year called Chester County home. Some younger teachers say they would live in the county if they had some housing options. A handful of apartments are available in the city of Chester, but some are aging, and others are in neighborhoods considered unsafe.

"People are less likely to jump up and leave on a whim, so to speak, if they're settled," Lawson said. "It makes it a little more difficult to pack up and say, 'No, I'm gonna go. The grass is greener over here.'"

Improve standardized test scores

Chester County's schools often are maligned for their poor performance on standardized exams.

Less than half of the district's students who took the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests -- which were given to elementary and middle school students -- met the basic standard for science last year.

On its most recent state report card, the school district scored "below average" in both its absolute and improvement ratings, which are mostly based on test scores.

"So much work has been done," board member Jean Westbrook said. "But we still need to see the results with improved test scores."