During his 26 years as superintendent of the Mars Area School District, William Pettigrew has seen enrollment double and development boom in a district that may not be considered rural much longer.
For now, however, Mr. Pettigrew has been named Pennsylvania Rural Educator of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural & Small Schools.
Mr. Pettigrew, 64, of Adams, will receive his award today.
His practice of always putting students first and focusing on developing positive relationships with his colleagues earned him the award, said Arnie Hillman, consultant with the rural schools association.
The honor brings a $2,000 Hillman Scholarship that the association will give to a Mars Area High School student in need.
"I am very happy and pleased about this award," said Mr. Pettigrew, who will retire as superintendent by Dec. 1.
The school district, which serves Mars, Valencia, Adams and Middlesex, has seen development along Route 228 in Adams that has brought businesses and homes into the district. Sewer upgrades in Middlesex have opened up that township to development.
The result has been a doubling of enrollment, from 1,680 students when Mr. Pettigrew arrived to 3,300 today. That has necessitated an ambitious building program, with seven construction projects -- a new school and additions and renovations to the others -- during the past few years.
And, as more professionals move into the district, the educational focus has changed, Mr. Pettigrew said.
"You can see that the population has changed over the last 20-plus years," he said. "Expectations were high back when I first started, but now I think they're even higher."
Other changes have been the growth of technology and standardized tests. Mars Area officials have embraced technology, placing interactive whiteboards in classrooms and wireless technology in buildings and undertaking a recent initiative to provide a laptop to every high school student in a move toward a "paperless classroom."
Mr. Pettigrew has not, however, embraced standardized testing. In his early years at Mars Area, the district developed its own standardized test that took three days.
Now, students can have more than 10 days of state-mandated testing, depending on their grade level.
"Personally, it has taken away from the education of our students because so much time has been taken for these state tests," he said. "I still haven't seen the benefit."
He said the biggest challenge in a district such as Mars Area is keeping up with the growth while spending "within our means."
"You've had the construction. You've had the curriculum improvements over the years," he said. "I think boards of the past 20-plus years have done a nice job in maintaining the balance."
J. Dayle Ferguson, president of the Mars Area school board, praised Mr. Pettigrew's leadership.
"Dr. Pettigrew, despite his sometimes gruff manner, is really a very kind, fair and principled leader who cares deeply about our students and school district," she said. "He has steadily guided our district through tremendous growth, countless layers of government mandates and turbulent economic scenarios. While managing the big issues, he purposely remains close to the instructional program, mentors his staff and engages with the students and the community. He has dedicated his career to our district, leaving it academically respected, financially stable and strategically poised for continued growth and success. I know that when he hands the keys to the next guy, he will be leaving behind a piece of his heart, too."
Mr. Pettigrew, a native of Jeannette, previously was superintendent and assistant superintendent of the Penncrest School District and formerly was an elementary principal in the Shippensburg Area and Tussey Mountain school districts and an elementary teacher in the Hempfield Area School District.
He holds a doctorate in education, a master's degree and administrative certification from Penn State University and a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
He sits on a number of education-related boards and serves on the Breakneck Creek Water Authority board of directors in Adams.
Mr. Pettigrew has coached a number of Mars Area teams over the years, and the memorabilia from those teams are on display in his office.
The decor has plenty of golf items, a reminder that he coached the girls golf team for many years. A photo of the 2005-06 team -- his favorite photo of the many on his walls -- is a reminder of the team's victory in the WPIAL golf tournament.
He also coached girls and boys tennis for more than 15 years as well as middle school baseball and he was the first girls soccer coach at Mars Area.
Other mementos in his office show his loyalty to the 1960-65 Pittsburgh Pirates and include items given to him as jokes, such as a life-size cardboard cutout of himself and a Darth Vader helmet that someone suggested he wear to negotiate with the unions.
He said he intends to remain in the district after he retires.
"I hope that the district will continue to strive, to never be satisfied and to continue to improve the quality education" it currently offers, he said.
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.