(03/22/2006)
A national education magazine The School Administrator featured a March, 2006 story about Calhoun's superintendent of schools Ron Blankenship (left) who was named as West Virginia's Superintendent of the Year.

By Jay P. Goldman
The School Administrator

With 28 years of experience as a superintendent, Ron Blankenship probably could have his pick of any administrative job in education. Yet Blankenship has chosen to hold the reins of leadership in one of the most sparsely populated and economically depressed areas in West Virginia for most of his professional life.

With dogged determination to ensure his charges have a fighting chance in a global marketplace that threatens to leave behind rural outposts, Blankenship remains committed to Calhoun County, located 90 minutes north of Charleston, the state capital. It's also his birthplace and where he commenced his teaching career in 1969.

"My heart's here," he says. "I left once and came back. It's home. Always will be."

He's reminded of his personal sacrifice every time he comes to work. Blankenship has opted to operate without an administrative assistant or secretary for the past two years, ever since his longtime aide retired.

To refill the post would have meant dropping a support staffer in one of the schools because of the lack of state aid, which is based on enrollment. He's never had an assistant superintendent.

Blankenship doesn't complain even when offered the chance to do so and makes no excuses. Rather he is leading the legislative fight statewide to give students in places such as 300-square mile Calhoun County more than a promise.

Though more than two-thirds of the 1,200 students qualify for the federal lunch program, the district scores academically near the top of the state. The superintendent has compensated for the lack of fiscal and human resources by securing outside grants that brought the state's first distance learning program to his schools and enabled the district to provide one computer for every two students, the best ratio in West Virginia.

A $2 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant is supporting summer tutoring and after-school remediation and gifted activities for three years.

Blankenship regularly utters the same word to describe such gifts. In his lexicon, they're all "godsends."

He scored one of the biggest coups of the 2005 legislative season in his quest for fiscal equity though he admits his frequent forays to the capital (six times in one recent month) are among the least desirable aspects of his job.

Blankenship helped members of the state senate craft the legislation that now provides additional funds for county school systems that drop below 1,400 students in order to cover basic services. The extra money has allowed him to hire a school nurse and add a foreign language instructor.

State Sen. Larry Edgell, who co-sponsored the superintendent's proposal, praised Blankenship's "nuts and bolts insight," while Steve Paine, the state superintendent of public instruction, considers him the dean of county superintendents, noting, "He is the voice to be listened to carefully in any group discussion of his colleagues."

Blankenship's fellow leaders, wishing to recognize the landmark feat that benefits seven other small school districts in addition to Calhoun, selected him West Virginia's 2005 Superintendent of the Year.

But such professional honors can't numb the real pain he feels when adverse socioeconomic conditions force his hand. "One of the most difficult things is to face staff to say "You're going to be laid off for lack of resources,'" Blankenship says. "I had to cut 15 in one year. It tears your heart out."

With the departure of a B.F. Goodrich production plant to Arizona and the downsizing of a local gas-production company, Calhoun County has seen its school enrollment plunge over the past quarter-century.

When Blankenship began his first 16-year stretch as county superintendent in 1975, the schools had nearly 1,900 students. Today, the headcount had dropped below 1,200.

Community leaders seem genuinely pleased that Blankenship opted to return to Calhoun's top post in 1997 after working in school leadership elsewhere for six years. They see him as a forthright, politically expedient advocate for rural education in a time of serious decline.

"He's the kind of administrator who stays on track to keep a school system going," says Bob Weaver, who edits a local online newspaper, the Hur Herald. "My opinion has changed over the years. I appreciate him more."

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIOGRAPHICAL STATS: RON BLANKENSHIP

Currently: superintendent, Calhoun County, W.Va.

Previously: superintendent, Gilmer County, W.Va.

Age: 58

Greatest influence on career: The work ethic I learned growing up on a farm

Best professional day: Aug. 22, 2005 when we learned all of our schools and school districts made adequate yearly progress

Books at bedside: "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls and "The World Is Flat" by Thomas L. Friedman

Biggest blooper: Closing schools anticipating snow when the weather turned out like a spring day

Why I'm an AASA member: Staying current in all professional matters and supporting the professional organization that represents school administrators in Washington


Hur Herald ©from Sunny Cal
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