LEWISTOWN – Measuring progress in some professions is as simple as calculating numerical data. Monthly sales numbers or a QB rating can be easily measured by simply analyzing the numbers.
For educators, the process is much more complicated. Teachers and administrators alike need to consider the human dimension when addressing issues affecting young people at a formative stage in life. Students are not numbers or equations.
Today’s educators need to be more practical to deal with societal issues that affect everyone, including the children at school. The world is a more complicated place. Events once thought impossible have become reality.
Mifflin County School District Superintendent Vance Varner understands today’s world and the importance of being on the front lines as schools and students in the district address the challenges of today’s youth.
Varner began his duties as Superintendent on September 11, 2021. For the past year, he has been actively involved in helping the school district recover from the upheaval caused by the COVID pandemic while addressing safety concerns, teacher and bus driver shortages, and a growing list of issues facing the district is faced.
He remains upbeat, positive, and extremely forthcoming when it comes to discussing the school district’s search.
“I really want to lead the district in the relentless pursuit of excellence,” Varner said recently. “I want to be a superintendent who travels with the students and staff. Someone parents and community members like to approach at events.”
Traveling with students might be an understatement. His Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts are filled with photos, videos, and posts of student activities and achievements. From prom and varsity sports to elementary school story time, Varner is a constant presence, offering enthusiastic support and often participating in activities.
“I’m here 24/7” he said. “That’s how I want to be. I want to be the #1 attorney for the Mifflin County school district. I can do that by engaging with the students.”
The students are the most important component. Your safety inside and outside of school is the top priority, according to 80% of parents.
“School safety is an ongoing focus in the district,” Varner said. “Effective this school year, the school district has increased the number of school resource officers (SROs) in schools from three to four.”
The preventive measures implemented after several decades of school violence have not only had an impact on the physical well-being of the students.
“There is a general trend in education across the country where the number of students (K-12) in school systems seeking mental health help is increasing.” Varner said. “With state and federal grants, the district has been able to support the mental health of our students. The district employs four licensed social workers, two school-based therapists and a mental health coordinator, as well as school counselors and school psychologists to support the needs of our students.”
Tax issues are a key topic in every school district, with state and federal funding at the heart of most conversations. The solar power plant project within the district is a cost-saving measure implemented to offset electricity consumption. At the Indian Valley Center, the cost savings could amount to $6,400 per year, saving taxpayers a total of $585,000 over 30 years. The solar panel project at Mifflin County High School could bring further savings.
“The project behind the high school is expected to be complete and online before winter,” Varner said. “The district is projected to save $9 million in energy costs over 30 years.”
The past year has resulted in teacher and bus driver shortages in the school district, problems shared by other Pennsylvania districts.
“We are seeing a decline in the number of applicants for teachers applying for vacant apprenticeship positions in grades Kindergarten through 12,” Varner said. “This is not just a problem in Mifflin County, it’s an ongoing problem in Pennsylvania and across the country. Over the past decade, the number of newly certified teachers in Pennsylvania has fallen from about 15,000 a year to 5,000 last year.”
The bus problem was alleviated somewhat during the summer months, but not enough to accommodate school district usage. Mifflin County uses 110 buses and vans to transport students more than 10,000 miles a day.
“Pupil transport is a very big task”, Varner said. “There is still an ongoing shortage of school bus drivers at the local and state levels. Luckily, there have been people in our community who have worked over the summer months to get their CDL to start bus driving. At the moment all of our school runs are covered, however we do not have all of our athletic runs and field/activity trips covered.
“The district still needs additional bus drivers and replacement bus drivers. If anyone is interested please contact one of the local bus operators who will help provide the necessary training.”
Traffic patterns were also changed this year to alleviate the gridlock at Mifflin County Junior High School.
“The new traffic patterns and new drop-off and pick-up locations for junior high school students have been well received by parents,” Varner said. “The new traffic patterns have helped with traffic congestion.”
Every job has advantages and disadvantages. Varner saw very few negatives in his first year as superintendent.
“The mask question ordered in September 2021 was an extremely difficult situation for the last school year”, he said. “Superintendents across the state have been frustrated by the lack of consistent information being released by various departments within the state.”
To cope with everyday life and the occasional mini-crisis, Varner draws on more than 30 years of education experience, beginning in 1991 in the Upper Dauphin Area School District. In 1995 he came to the Indian Valley Mifflin County High School as a science teacher. Varner also credits his FBI training for helping prepare him for the job.
“Being a former FBI agent has served me well as a district education officer,” he said. “Two important qualities for any position would be competent organizational skills and communication skills. In the Superintendent role, organizational skills are required to align all facets of the job and communication skills are required to keep everyone informed and transparent.”
Varner has witnessed the constant evolution of education to meet the demands of 2022 and beyond.
“Over the years I have seen many changes in educational options and improvements where the district is focused on raising the bar in all educational programs,” he said. “The school district continues to expand educational opportunities to provide students with the skills they need to be competitive in the 21st century workplace.”
Some of the notable changes include the Alpha program and MCO’s implementation of a strong online learning platform, the creation of a Maker Space in each school to encourage STEM activities, one-to-one technology available to all students in classrooms stands, the ongoing implementation of a K through 12 robotics program, and the installation of smart displays in all K through 7 classrooms. The district’s focus on a career-based approach to education has resulted in an expansion of our cooperative education program, the creation of many new and exciting courses in English, science, arts, math and technology, and a partnership between the Mifflin County Academy of Science and Technology.
As for the positives in his freshman year, Varner has seen many.
“I’ve been able to increase community engagement and visibility from the position of Superintendent and foster relationships with students, staff, parents and community members.” he said. “From day one, it was important to me to be visible as a superintendent. I see value in being in schools and part of the educational process and being approachable. Through regular visits to the schools and classrooms, I have received a lot of positive feedback. I want the students to know who their Superintendent is.”
Varner’s positive approach has impacted students and parents alike.
“I believe it’s important to attend sporting events, band and choir concerts, pep rallies, art shows, STEM fairs, school plays, band competitions, community events, etc.” he said. “These are the times when parents, guardians and community members feel comfortable reaching out to me to ask questions or even share their personal comments about the district.”
With his first year at the top of the history books, Varner looks to the future and the challenges and goals the school district faces. He sees the financing as a potential stumbling block.
“I am concerned about the lack of necessary government funding for the school district to continue to provide a quality educational program,” he said. “Our current annual budget is about 47% government funding. The county would be in a difficult position if this revenue stream dropped sharply. Increased cyber/charter school costs are also an issue. For the 2022-23 school year, the school district has budgeted $3.4 million to help fund Mifflin County students attending cyber charter schools.”
The future of education in the Mifflin County School District is the future of education in the world today. Varner tends to his role of meeting the needs of the students by focusing on five points; Increasing community engagement and visibility, building trust, improving all levels of communication, ensuring all resources are used to maximum efficiency, and collaborating with all stakeholders within the school system and community. In his own words “the relentless pursuit of excellence.”
“I’m not afraid to tell people about the great things that are happening in our district,” Varner said. “If people in the community would like to know more about all of the positive things happening in the Mifflin County School District, please feel free to follow any of my social media accounts.”
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