Voices, a Podcast from the Seneca Valley School District

Episode 62: A Look Back on 2021-22 with Dr. Tracy Vitale

July 12, 2022 Seneca Valley School District Season 3 Episode 62
Voices, a Podcast from the Seneca Valley School District
Episode 62: A Look Back on 2021-22 with Dr. Tracy Vitale
Show Notes Transcript

A Look Back on 2021-22 with Dr. Tracy Vitale

Dr. Tracy Vitale, Seneca Valley Superintendent of Schools

Dr. Tracy Vitale proudly serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Seneca Valley, which is one of the largest public school districts in Western Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming Superintendent in 2011, she was an Assistant Superintendent, Principal and Teacher in urban, rural and suburban environments in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. She has a strong understanding and experience in community relations, public education advocacy, business partnerships and workforce development. She also has an extensive background in personnel selection, training & supervision.


• Seneca Valley 2021-22 successes 

 File Name: Voices E62 Tracy Vitale.mp3

File Length: 00:29:59

FULL TRANSCRIPT (with timecode)


00:00:02:26 - 00:00:10:05

Introduction: Welcome to Voices, a national award-winning podcast brought to you by the Seneca Valley School District. 


00:00:11:11 - 00:00:18:14

Jeff Krakoff: This is Jeff Krakoff. Today we're talking with Dr. Tracy Vitale, superintendent of schools at Seneca Valley. Welcome. 


00:00:19:20 - 00:00:21:10

Tracy Vitale: Thank you, Jeff. Thanks for having me. 


00:00:21:18 - 00:00:38:02

Jeff Krakoff: So, you know, a lot of things happened in any given school year, but when you look back at the 2021-22 school year, if you had to pick your top five, six, seven success stories, what would those be? 


00:00:39:11 - 00:01:27:14

Tracy Vitale: You know, it's interesting. I think sometimes the general public, they have an attitude or they because their children are home, they think schools are closed and everyone is at home in July and especially in June, you know, once the last student day occurs. And then when teachers go home for the summer, the general public does not realize that administration is still working. So I'd like to start by saying that in June, I want the public to know that that's a time when we are closing out our fiscal year, when we are taking the budget that the school board has recently approved, and we're closing out the current school year so that we can ramp up for the next school year, which involves many moving parts. 


00:01:27:27 - 00:02:04:21

Tracy Vitale: But in regards to budget, the school board in June approved almost a $167 million budget. It's a very large budget for a school district in the state of Pennsylvania. We are one of the larger school districts. And so when you look at student expenses, we are one of the larger budgets. So that is certainly no easy task and it takes a lot of thoughtfulness and deliberate planning. And I'm proud to say that our school board and our leadership team working together passed a budget with no tax increase. 


00:02:05:06 - 00:02:23:04

Tracy Vitale: And so that is definitely a huge success from my office, from the school board seats in trying to, when we can, giving our taxpayers a break in, trying not to increase taxes, trying to balance all of our competing demands. 


00:02:23:12 - 00:02:23:27

Jeff Krakoff: Right. 


00:02:23:29 - 00:02:57:26

Tracy Vitale: And then in addition, doing some deliberate planning with our school district in in regards to capital improvements, because Seneca Valley is a growing district, we are growing modestly. But and and the growth is growth that we can plan for, which is great. So we're not growing so fast, we can't plan for it. But we're also not seeing declining enrollment like most school districts are across the Commonwealth we are seeing modest growth and we are seeing that in all of our townships, in all of our boroughs. 


00:02:57:28 - 00:03:22:22

Tracy Vitale: And so we're we're very pleased to see that the growth in our school district is also helping us to balance our budget so that we don't need to increase taxes, and then we can diligently plan for capital improvements. So that is passing no tax increases is always a cheer from everybody. 


00:03:22:24 - 00:03:23:09

Jeff Krakoff: Oh yeah. 


00:03:23:12 - 00:03:57:23

Tracy Vitale: Illustration. No one wants to increase taxes so that that's a big success. When I look back and you know, in June, we're not we're not completely as administrators reflecting and processing everything that just happened. That really happens at the beginning of July. And so when I told one of the other administrators, I was doing this podcast this morning as a look back, they said, well, aren't we looking forward? Certainly we're looking forward. But July is a great time for administration to reflect on what happened in the last school year, good and bad. 


00:03:58:13 - 00:04:06:26

Tracy Vitale: What are we proud of? Certainly with the pandemic, we could all focus on negative things, right? We could all focus on how challenging the year was. 


00:04:06:28 - 00:04:07:13

Jeff Krakoff: Yeah.


00:04:07:15 - 00:04:32:04

Tracy Vitale: But I like to focus on, in spite of the challenges, how our staff and students arose to these this really difficult time in our history and in our country and in our world. And we had many staff and students successes in spite of the challenges. So certainly applauds applaud to the business manager in the school board with no tax increase. 


00:04:32:25 - 00:05:20:28

Tracy Vitale: But then also when we look at the fall in, we've been preparing for many years now to open a new elementary building. So another great success, still keeping our fingers crossed, but we fully anticipate to open our newest elementary middle school building called Ehrman Crest Elementary/Middle School, and that was named by our students and staff. We had a contest to look at what to name the building. And in order to do that, we also had to look at boundary adjustments for our kindergarten through sixth grade attendance zones, because all of our elementaries are pretty tight in the buildings when it comes to how many students in each building, as I mentioned, this modest growth we're seeing. 


00:05:21:12 - 00:05:53:14

Tracy Vitale: So it was a time that we could begin to pull some students out of every building, current elementary, middle school building where we could place them, also in the new elementary building as a good transition time and that. Can always be a challenge when you talk about redistricting and you talk about moving your attendance zones in any district, especially large districts that can ruffle feathers. None of us like changes human beings. 


00:05:53:16 - 00:06:24:24

Tracy Vitale: We don't like change. And so I can chalk that up now as successful planning a lot of time and energy and statistics and looking at enrollment numbers and looking at our attendance zones. And that study was led by Dr. McCarty, our assistant superintendent for elementary, and Randy Miller, who is our director for Buildings and Grounds. And they put a lot of work, thoughtful work into presenting a plan to the board. 


00:06:25:07 - 00:07:02:09

Tracy Vitale: And then we sought a lot of public opinion and input on those movement of attendance zones. So, again, another huge challenge. When you talk about redistricting, most superintendents don't want to touch that, even if they need to. School boards and superintendents and administrators don't want to touch moving attendance zones for elementary children. But we had to. Not just for the short term, but for the long term. And so we did that with and I can say it was pretty smooth as compared to what it could have been. 


00:07:02:18 - 00:07:35:18

Tracy Vitale: So I chalk that up as a huge success. And if all goes well and all things better go well, we are opening that new building in the fall and we're just so excited about opening that building and how through a pandemic, two and a half years of, you know, what the business world, what the construction world saw with supply shortages that we've done so well in getting the supplies that we need, the construction supplies, getting the workers that we need. 


00:07:36:00 - 00:07:41:29

Tracy Vitale: And so we are proud to say we will be opening that new building in the fall on time and under budget. 


00:07:42:13 - 00:07:58:24

Jeff Krakoff: Well, those are your first two are big ones, Dr. Vitale. Right now, you know, passing a large budget with zero tax increase and having a building constructed and ready to go, those are huge. What are some other successes that come to mind when we think of this past school year? 


00:07:59:19 - 00:08:40:01

Tracy Vitale: Well, when I think about labor negotiations at Seneca Valley, we have three organized labor units and all three are Pennsylvania State Education Association affiliates and led by that organization. But we have union presidents in each of those labor groups who are cooperatives, who are collaborative, who are the consummate professionals. And because of that, we settled another labor contract on time and all of our labor contracts are now settled. 


00:08:40:06 - 00:09:15:13

Tracy Vitale: So we don't have any labor contracts that we'll be negotiating here in this upcoming school year. And that allows us that gives us the opportunity then to really focus on capital improvements, construction and renovations. But I do want to thank, publicly thank all of our unions for being so cooperative in the last three years. That doesn't always happen in school districts again, especially in large school districts. In large school districts, it can be difficult for school board members, upper level administrators, to connect to the front line. 


00:09:16:01 - 00:09:56:24

Tracy Vitale: And so I think we do a pretty good job of that at Seneca Valley. It's not perfect, but we come to the table with mutual respect, with the same and similar goals in mind. It's a give and take process, but in some districts that I've been in or that my colleagues are in, or their experiences aren't always as professional as what I've experienced here at Seneca Valley. So I'm proud to say that we have all of our labor negotiations settled. We have excellent working relationships with all of those groups, and all of those representatives from the unit serve rep down to the front line, maybe even an hourly worker. 


00:09:56:26 - 00:10:27:11

Tracy Vitale: I'm just so proud of how professional they have been in negotiations and focused on children. Certainly everyone wants to be paid well. It doesn't matter if you're in the business world or in the education world. No one works for free unless you're a volunteer and they just have been so reasonable and they always want things that are best for them and students and for our front line. And so I appreciate that. 


00:10:27:13 - 00:10:42:19

Tracy Vitale: When it comes to labor relations, that can be very difficult in a big district. And while it was challenging here, it was not it was not without some difficulties. It was always with mutual respect. 


00:10:42:25 - 00:11:20:13

Jeff Krakoff: And I know that's not always the case. I just read some of the headlines even in the Pittsburgh area. There have been several situations over the past few years with negotiations at other districts where they're striking. There's a lot of nastiness and contentiousness, so kudos to everybody involved. And as you said now, with all the contracts settled, you can focus on what's really important and that's providing great education for everybody. So again, those are big, big things. In one year so far, we're only at a few on your list. What else do we have? 


00:11:21:01 - 00:11:53:13

Tracy Vitale: Well, always the biggest. What are we about? We're about academics. We're about students. All the other things are important, but they are meant to support the front line. Certainly, it's difficult to support the front line if you don't have a balanced budget, if you can't pay people and you can't provide resources to students, the budget is very important. I really try to keep that off the plates of our teachers and the front line. We focus on that as administrators and as a school board, but that's usually going on behind the scenes. 


00:11:53:15 - 00:12:32:08

Tracy Vitale: And although we're very public about that budget, people don't always see that as front facing. And, you know, as I mentioned, labor relations, they don't see that as front facing. They're not thinking about that. And if you do your job as a superintendent, the public shouldn't be worried about a teacher's strike. Right. If you're doing your job in negotiating with your labor unions, they shouldn't be worried that there will be a strike. And so those are all important things that support the front line, very important things from my office. But those shouldn't be extra anxieties for our public or for all of those employees at Seneca Valley that call this their workplace. 


00:12:33:07 - 00:13:04:28

Tracy Vitale: But at the end of the day, it is about students. You know, what are our students engaged in? How are we engaged with them? What how is the community engaged with our students? And I'm just so proud of how our students have behaved and performed in the last two and a half years. And so I do want to point out that I couldn't possibly, in a ten minute podcast, talk about all of the student accolades that occurred in this past school year. 


00:13:05:15 - 00:13:21:06

Tracy Vitale: But I do want to mention that I'm just so proud of areas in academics, in the arts and in athletics. So when I look at academics, we had National Merit Scholars. We had a student who scored perfect on his SAT and the A.C.T.. 


00:13:21:10 - 00:13:22:06

Jeff Krakoff: That's impressive. 


00:13:22:15 - 00:13:53:08

Tracy Vitale: Yes. And he came to a school board meeting and talked about how he thought he did that. And he was very humble. And I and I just loved hearing from him and talking with him. And I know our board did, too. But also we had state championships in the area of academics when it came to things like the academic decathlon, academic games and several of those groups academically not only competed regionally and at the state level, but also at the national level. 


00:13:53:27 - 00:14:25:06

Tracy Vitale: And so that's very impressive. And again, sometimes we as parents or the community see academics as just when a student is performing well on a report card or looking at student progress from their report of progress at our elementary schools. Or we may evaluate as adults, we may evaluate academics through our own eyes and perceptions of what we did and how we performed in school. 


00:14:25:08 - 00:15:00:05

Tracy Vitale: So we have a view of what makes successful students academically. And so when we see students studying in a book at home, we think, Wow, that's really great. But sometimes we're missing all of the other academic achievements with the whole child. So I'm just so impressed what our students did academically over the last two and a half years and within the last year especially. And then also when we talk about the whole child, things like the performing arts, the visual arts, our music program. 


00:15:00:17 - 00:15:36:29

Tracy Vitale: And so just to name a few, again, the Seneca Valley Band, Grand Champions at the NATO Parade, Grand Champions, Gold and Silver. Key winners in the scholastic art and writing awards. This year, numerous choir, band and orchestra students were chosen to attend state and national festivals as STV Video Production Awards. I mean, the list goes on and on, but there were just so many successes with our arts and music programs. 


00:15:37:09 - 00:16:12:10

Tracy Vitale: Really a banner year for academics, for arts and athletics. So in athletics, I, I don't have enough time in a podcast to congratulate all that I should. And this year all three athletics seasons saw Seneca Valley teams earning a spot in the state championships. And we saw things like boys soccer excelling as WPIAL champions and excelling as the PIAA championship runner up boys soccer. 


00:16:13:19 - 00:16:28:02

Tracy Vitale: We saw boys swimming and diving. We saw them again, excelling at WPIALs and then going on in the swimming and diving program to be the boys state champs. 


00:16:29:05 - 00:16:30:22

Jeff Krakoff: That's no easy task. 


00:16:31:02 - 00:16:47:18

Tracy Vitale: No easy task. These are all difficult, demanding sports. Seneca Valley Girls Softball. We were looking at WPIAL champions, PIAAstate champions, state champion, runner up. I mean, they went to states. 


00:16:47:20 - 00:16:48:05

Jeff Krakoff: Right. 


00:16:48:12 - 00:17:32:21

Tracy Vitale: And, you know, Ms. Lewis, our athletic director, she was named Region IV athletic director of the year. We had four coaches of the year this year. Shout out to George Williams, boys soccer in the fall. Mark Perry, girls soccer in the fall. Brian Blackwell, boys swimming and diving in the winter and Marlese Hames recently as the girls softball coach of the year and it was her first year coaching so you know what a banner year in spite of all these challenges with COVID and other types, political challenges, right? Our public school excelled because of our students, our parents, our community and our staff. 


00:17:33:07 - 00:18:11:16

Jeff Krakoff: And as you mentioned, this is truly the tip of the iceberg. We could probably talk for an hour or two about all of the other sports programs and excellence with coaching and playing and the role parents play. That's that's some great stuff. I did want to switch gears. We've we've spoken to people on this podcast before about the Seneca Valley Foundation. It's the ten year anniversary. It's done so many good things for so many people. But I'm curious from from your perspective as superintendent, how do you look at the Foundation and how do you measure its success? 


00:18:13:15 - 00:18:54:18

Tracy Vitale: When we started the foundation back in that 07-08 time during a recession, when we wanted to find ways to funnel more revenue into the school district for some of the extras without taxing our property tax owners even further. So while that was the original kind of view and vision of where we were headed, the mission has really become how can we connect to our community, our business owners with our front line, with our teachers and our students? And it's really been a love of labor, you know, for many years. 


00:18:54:20 - 00:19:28:01

Tracy Vitale: While I'm still on as the executive director now Ms. Annie Mersing is running more of the operations of that foundation. And Ms. Burtner, our business managers the Treasurer and Lisa Mislan, my assistant and the school board secretaries, is an officer and we have a number of school personnel on this board, but we have a number of parents and community and business owners. And so I think regardless of the amount of money that we raise and we have raised almost $1,000,000 in donations in the last ten years, so that's huge. 


00:19:28:10 - 00:20:00:00

Tracy Vitale: But the bigger picture for me, how I evaluate success is how how is our work amplified in the community in connecting the dots, connecting people so that we can further prop up Seneca Valley? And I think it's interesting and I'm so proud of the Foundation and all of our board members who volunteer. No one is paid. Not even me. None of us are paid to be on this Foundation. It's really something that we're passionate about and we volunteer our time. 


00:20:00:12 - 00:20:42:14

Tracy Vitale: But this past school year, the Seneca Valley Foundation was named a 2022 community champion by the Pittsburgh North Regional Chamber. And to have that distinction, I think it shows that the Foundation is more about more about connecting our community, serving our community, and bringing the community together with our school system so that we can do things beyond raising money. So, you know, during COVID, at the onset of the pandemic, we donated PPE equipment to our local EMS when there was a shortage to the Butler Memorial Hospital early on, when there was a shortage in getting these supplies. 


00:20:43:29 - 00:21:09:14

Tracy Vitale: And those things are great. What you talk about, how do I evaluate success when we have business owners and parents who come to us and say, I know families are going through a difficult time right now, and so I'd like to donate gift cards for groceries and food, and I'd like to donate restaurant gift cards, and I'd like to pay someone's rent not for one month, but for two months. 


00:21:09:17 - 00:21:10:02

Jeff Krakoff: Wow. 


00:21:10:16 - 00:21:18:08

Tracy Vitale: That is money that doesn't specifically come to the Foundation for the front line of our kids. But we're supporting our families. 


00:21:18:20 - 00:21:19:05

Jeff Krakoff: Yes. 


00:21:19:07 - 00:21:41:20

When we support our families and we engage with our community and engage with our families, we support our school system. And so that to me is success. When people step forward and say, I want to help families in need and we can do that anonymously. The people that donated these large sums of money did this anonymously. 


00:21:41:22 - 00:22:14:13

Tracy Vitale: You talk about generosity. You talk about loving on your community and loving on your children because children we know we're here for academics, but if we can't support them as a whole child; food, mental health, support systems, supporting their parents, then we can't teach until their basic needs are met. So I just I'm so proud of the Foundation and all the work that it has done and and everyone that's involved with the foundation. 


00:22:15:00 - 00:22:34:11

Jeff Krakoff: Great. And I know there are other things the Foundation supports, like with the not so long ago opened aquatic center. There was a supply donation with the mosaic. And I know there are other things being done for students and staff. Are there are a couple of other examples that come to mind? 


00:22:34:13 - 00:23:12:26

Tracy Vitale: Yes. The Foundation also raised thousands of dollars to help Seneca Valley families in need by providing gifts to our students and their families during the holidays, including the wrapping paper. Not just the gifts, but the wrapping paper, which I thought was very thoughtful, many providing many classroom grants which go straight to the front line for things like maker spaces and STEM equipment. The Aquatics Center was one of my favorite projects that the foundation linked arms with our art teachers and Ms. Elizabeth Klevens, who was the mosaic designer. 


00:23:12:28 - 00:23:49:13

Tracy Vitale: What she involved students and our students had a hand in building this mosaic with her, with our art teachers. And it was quite a large undertaking. But the Foundation paid for all the supplies, the mosaic equipment, some of the artistic fees, and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of artwork. And we have a lot of beautiful artwork at Seneca Valley because our teachers are experts, they're artists. Some of them are also professional artists. Yeah. And our students are amazing artists, a very high level artwork here at Seneca Valley. And that mosaic. 


00:23:50:00 - 00:24:23:04

Tracy Vitale: And the idea was brought to us by one of our art teachers. But that mosaic involved our swimmers. It involved parents. It involved many, many teachers. And then our students rolled up their sleeves and helped Elizabeth Klevens put this mosaic together on the wall. So for anyone who has not seen it, please check that out in our new aquatic center. It is absolutely beautiful. So you talk about athletics and arts, right? And problem solving and the whole child and a mosaic that will live on that wall and tell a story. 


00:24:23:12 - 00:25:08:18

Tracy Vitale: It was built during the pandemic. It will tell a story about Seneca Valley and our students and our art department for many, many years to come. So that's another example of what the Foundation did. And one final example that is everyone's favorite around here, food trucks. They paid for food trucks to come in on a teacher in-service day in May, and they did this again in the first year of the pandemic to show our teachers that they're appreciated. I don't think I know our community appreciates our teachers, but I don't think anyone who is not in education understands the gravity of the amount of stress and pressure that our teachers have been under for a long time, but especially in the last two and a half years. 


00:25:09:02 - 00:25:40:24

Tracy Vitale: And so just a way for our Foundation and our community and our administration to say, we see you, we appreciate you teachers and support staff. We appreciate our professionals and our classified staff. And we see what you've been through. So allow us to provide lunch for one day in a fun atmosphere. Often, teachers and support staff are lucky to get 20 to 30 minutes, where they're lucky to get their lunch during the day. We know that and or take a restroom break. 


00:25:40:26 - 00:25:58:24

Tracy Vitale: And so it was just a day where we could say, we appreciate all that you've done for our children. So those are just a few highlights of what the Foundation has to offer and what the Foundation has done beyond supporting the front line with classroom mini grants. 


00:25:59:01 - 00:26:26:16

Jeff Krakoff: Yeah. So, so when I hear about and again, these are only a short list of everything that's gone on in the last year, school year, but so many successes, so many great things that's, you know, accolades for students, staff. And we talked about the Foundation how if you were a teacher grading this year, what grade would you give the 2021-22 school year? 


00:26:28:15 - 00:26:29:08

Tracy Vitale: Oh, wow. 


00:26:31:12 - 00:27:02:23

Tracy Vitale: Academically and from an arts and athletic perspective when we look at the whole child, I would give this school year an A-plus. But if I'm a teacher, I may struggle to give it an A-plus because I see what they've been through. I can't possibly know. I was a teacher for many years, but I can't possibly know what it has been like to teach in a mask for so long. I can't possibly know and understand what it has been like, what kind of mental toll this pandemic has taken on our teachers. 


00:27:03:06 - 00:27:29:03

Tracy Vitale: But I would say in spite of all those challenges, our teachers rose to the occasion. Our support staff, our paraprofessionals, our custodians, our cafeteria staff, our bus drivers. They rose to the occasion. They put a smile on their face every day, and they tried to do the very best that they could for our children. So I give them an A-plus. I doubt they would give the school year an A-plus, because it was very demanding and very challenging. 


00:27:29:05 - 00:27:29:20

Jeff Krakoff: Sure. 


00:27:30:10 - 00:27:35:11

Tracy Vitale: But I'm very pleased as their superintendent. I'm honored to serve them. 


00:27:36:06 - 00:27:49:23

Jeff Krakoff: Well, this was a great conversation. I appreciate your time. Like you said, summer is not time off. It's busy, so I appreciate the time. Is there anything else you'd like to say to people in the community before I let you go? 


00:27:50:28 - 00:28:24:09

Tracy Vitale: Now, I would simply say while we are still building our goals, we're very close to completing the goals for the 22-23 school year. We're looking forward to next year. We will be focused on things like mental health for both our teachers and our students. We will be focused or as we call it, at Seneca Valley Mental Wellness. We will be focused and ramping up school security efforts. And I don't think that would be a surprise to anyone. And we are looking forward to a new year. 


00:28:25:12 - 00:28:42:28

Tracy Vitale: We are looking forward to new beginnings. And we're looking forward to another successful year in a very high caliber school district like Seneca Valley. I'm proud to be here. I'm proud to serve this district again in spite of the challenges. We hope not to see some of those challenges again. 


00:28:43:13 - 00:28:43:28

Jeff Krakoff: Hope not. 


00:28:44:06 - 00:29:23:27

Tracy Vitale: There will be other challenges. There will be other challenges in a large public school district. But I want to thank our parents. I want to thank our staff, our school board and everyone who had a hand at making last year so successful. And I want to thank all those new employees. And we're doing a lot of hiring right now, new employees that will be coming our way that will be joining the Seneca Valley family or have already joined us in the last month. I look forward to working with all of our new employees on the front line, and I look forward to a new class of students joining us and all all of our students moving up a grade and big things are coming to Seneca Valley. 


00:29:23:29 - 00:29:41:17

Tracy Vitale: We have lots of capital improvements in the pike and we're just so excited to open a new elementary/middle school. So I invite the public once that building is open to tours, and I think the public will be proud of how we have been so fiscally responsible with their money. 


00:29:42:01 - 00:29:51:05

Jeff Krakoff: Should be a very exciting new school year. Again, this was superintendent of schools, Dr. Tracy Vitale, thank you so much. This was a great talk. 


00:29:51:24 - 00:29:52:15

Tracy Vitale: Thank you, Jeff. 


00:29:52:26 - 00:29:53:20

Jeff Krakoff: Have a good day. 


00:29:54:08 - 00:29:54:18

Tracy Vitale: You, too.