An open letter to Dr. Belle

Published 11:15 am Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dear Dr. Michelle Rich Belle,

Welcome to our great city.

As the new superintendent of Franklin’s public schools, you inherit many ingredients for success.

Excitement about a fresh start for our city’s schools is tangible. I can’t recall a public servant whose arrival has been more anticipated. From teachers to students to the citizenry, people are hungry for leadership. Lesser people might be intimidated by such lofty expectations. Competent, successful leaders like you thrive on them.

You are blessed, as you have already discovered, with an outstanding core team. The central office staff, led by Bev Rabil, who did an admirable job of keeping the ship afloat before your arrival, is competent and experienced. Franklin has an unusual number of dedicated teachers whose commitment to their profession and their students transcends the huge challenges educators face in today’s classrooms.

The unanimous support of your school board should not be underestimated. You have united a board that has seen its share of acrimony in recent years. That was no easy task.

Attractive also is the opportunity to build your own leadership team. Principal vacancies at Franklin High School and J.P. King Middle School are timely. A CEO, ideally, is able to surround herself with top leaders whom she has selected. The exception in Franklin is veteran S.P. Morton Elementary Principal Don Spengeman, who has navigated many superintendent transitions over the years and will be a terrific partner for you. Spengeman runs an excellent school, which is a haven of stability in a sea of turmoil.

The community support structure for public education is outstanding for a small town. The Camp family foundations and Franklin-Southampton Charities have been abundantly generous over the years. Not many towns have a foundation that exists solely to support public schools. The Franklin City Educational Foundation is just that.

It will come as no surprise to you that you also inherit some significant challenges and some ingredients for failure.

Enrollment in Franklin’s public schools has been steadily declining for a decade or more – at a pace disproportionate to the city’s overall population, which has been relatively stable. This is a troubling indicator of parents’ lost confidence in their public schools.

Its schools used to be the reason families moved to Franklin. Now, many families cite the schools as their reason for leaving. Those who stay increasingly are choosing private schools or home-schooling. Others figure out creative ways to jump division lines and attend public schools in adjacent localities that are perceived to be superior to Franklin’s.

Standardized test scores, which are our imperfect but best and only objective measure of student achievement, indeed are lagging. Parents who are deciding where to educate their children want to know how other students are faring. They look strongly at statistics like test scores and dropout rates, which are embarrassingly high in Franklin.

They also are interested in a school’s environment and whether it is conducive to learning. Whether the problems are real or perceived, Franklin schools’ reputation on student discipline is poor. Based on my limited experience inside school walls, my inclination is to believe that talk of rampant disciplinary problems is exaggerated. Perception, however, is reality, and your huge task is to either correct the misperception or fix the problems.

What’s not exaggerated is parental apathy. Though not unique to Franklin, it is more pervasive here than elsewhere. A school board member infamously suggested that unless there’s food involved, most parents won’t attend a PTA meeting. He ruffled some feathers with his choice of words, but the essential message was the truth. Engaging disinterested parents in their children’s education might seem like a hopeless cause, but a successful school division must find a way.

In cases where parents are absent or refuse to participate, the community must fill the gap. Three powerful guest columns on this page in the past week eloquently challenged our citizenry to aspire to a fate greater than another generation of unemployed and incarcerated adults. Those are the elementary-age students of today. A visionary school superintendent can be the convener of a caring community to rescue a generation.

Franklin’s schools are at a crossroads. Under your capable leadership, our odds of choosing the right course have increased substantially. Welcome aboard.