New paradigm needed

Published 10:42 am Saturday, September 21, 2013

For decades, public education in the United States has been in an insidious, steady decline, despite all the mammoth, top-down programs concocted by federal and state governments—programs resulting in an alignment at local levels, where too many system administrators focus entirely on immediate, statistical measures of student progress at the expense of: 1) a professional work environment for teachers; 2) a holistic, future-oriented education for students; and 3) commonsense solutions to everyday problems faced in our classrooms.

Further, school systems tend now to operate in isolation within their own communities, discouraging meaningful outside involvement, and there is a coincident disinterest and aversion on the part of community members to get involved in the education of our youth. Students and teachers alike have been dropping out of the current model, literally or effectively, at unacceptable (or apparently, acceptable) levels for years.

We need to look no further than our own Franklin City Public Schools to find a perfect example of a community with solutions that go untapped year after year for want of dynamic leadership, both within the school system itself, but also across the entire community.

Let’s start with the school system leadership, which resides “at the top” in the person of the superintendent. In addition to the obviously important execution of plans (guided by a vision of holistic success for the school system’s students and our future community), there are two attributes most salient in characterizing the leadership of an effective school superintendent:

1. The use of powerful interpersonal skills and character to garner respect and pride and to inspire—through example—excitement and a commitment to positive actions on the part of all students and staff as well as stakeholders across the entire community, who accordingly buy in to bold initiatives for improvement; and

2. The making of decisions that, through collaboration (which requires lots of effective communication) and research, reflect the input of respected entities such as local teachers, building administrators, parents, the business community, and notable resources, such as colleagues in outstanding school systems and in the field of education research.

With great regret, I must voice my opinion that our current superintendent has failed to demonstrate accomplishment with either of the two attributes described above. The result has been gross shortcomings in all three areas cited in my first paragraph.

One example of a missed opportunity for the superintendent to exercise leadership rests with last year’s Success in Schools Mentoring Program, an excellent concept that languished on the vine. In short, it was designed to identify specific students in all three schools most in need of mentoring support and match them with community volunteers.

I understand the three schools identified many dozens of such students, but only a handful of citizens signed up to help, following some attempts on the part of some of the church and chamber leadership to generate interest.

While it would be easy to say that the program failed because there was a lack of community support, I would like to suggest that very few in the community even heard about the program. The fact is that the chances for success for this program would have been far greater had the superintendent led a strong promotional campaign that included a repeated use of:

• Newspaper articles (starting with one written by the superintendent);

• Presentations by the superintendent at civic club meetings;

• Local radio announcements;

• Repeated appeals to area churches;

• A presentation by the superintendent to the chamber board with an appeal for supported employee volunteerism with follow-up meetings to develop the process mechanics;

• Announcing that scheduling can be flexible and accommodate the availability of volunteers and that no special amount of education or other “credentials” are required;

• And very importantly, announcing that those who volunteer will receive an orientation so that they will feel ready to participate and comfortable with the mentoring experience (and therefore more likely to volunteer).

As it is, the schools’ time and energy identifying student participants was wasted; there are many youngsters in the system who now will not benefit from a potentially great program; a wonderful opportunity to engage the community in the schools’ work was missed; and the few who did sign up to help last year must have been really disappointed—I know that my wife and I were, with a combined 50 years of actual teaching experience—we did not even receive a reply—not even a “No, thanks” for volunteering. And if I want to understand and qualify the effectiveness of an organization’s operations, I look to the top for accountability, for the person assigned to implement this program was not supported, in my opinion, and there was effectively zero community promotion for it coming from the top.

Here is the point: The best ambassador for the school system and its goals is the superintendent, who should be out in the community—over and over again—in public and behind the scenes, informing, urging, cajoling, convincing parents and all elements of leadership across the community to take actions that will benefit the immediate goals of the school system while mindful of the vision of the school system to prepare the community’s youths for success as adults in the future.

And when we look at SOL results, our local demographics provide another easy target for blame in the minds of some for our poor showing on standardized tests, yet measures I have seen that compare systems across the state show FCPS at near-bottom, while there are many systems with stronger achievement—even in the top 20 percent statewide—representing rural areas, small systems, and similar demographics to ours.

Worse, an analysis of FCPS SOL pass rates on specific tests in the “Black,” “Students with Disabilities,” and “Economically Disadvantaged” student subgroups shows marked underperformance when compared with the state average pass rates for the same student subgroups. This seems to be comparing apples to apples, and the results are incendiary, in my view. I have often wondered what our school board members must think about this.

But what is our superintendent doing to turn things around beyond following the mandates and suggestions of the VDOE? The superintendent talks about partnering with the community, but talk is cheap. The mentoring program that would have engaged many from all walks of life across the community has had no chance to prove itself for wont of the superintendent’s leadership.

Responding to area employers concerned about increasing numbers of high school graduates with insufficient qualifications for employment, the chamber leadership sponsored for several school officials a trip to Leadership Day in Raleigh to learn about the highly acclaimed “Leader in Me” program. After much research, the business community was in favor of pursuing this program, but sadly, our school leadership did not show any follow-up interest. So much for partnering with the community!

How about examples in other communities where real actions are taken that provide good results in the face of the same government mandates, student demographics, and “poor parenting” as we? Look to rural Middlesex County with multiple similarities to our system, except that their SOL scores are in the top 10 percent statewide and their school board members are encouraged to visit the schools often and talk informally and directly with teachers and with parents. Why wouldn’t someone in our system notice what is going on in this highly successful system and launch a trip there to learn from them, gleaning ideas that can be brought back home? Geez, it’s only a couple hours away.

Look to the fully accredited An Achievable Dream Academy, a private-public partnership between Newport News Public Schools and its community. Their program focuses on at-risk children, some three-quarters of whom come from single-parent homes; and while some in our community like to blame poor parenting for our school troubles, about 60 students at Achievable Dream are considered homeless. Obviously, the superintendent there is not limited to just talking about partnering with the community. Even if the concept could not be implemented full-scale here in Franklin, many great ideas could be brought back for consideration. Heck, it’s just across the river! If our superintendent doesn’t want to go, why couldn’t a few of our board members go, along with a couple from the chamber and from city council? Doesn’t ANYONE want our school system to get better? Get in the car. The mayor and school board in Virginia Beach did. And now their school board has approved a contract for An Achievable Dream school in VBPS.

“Don’t expect improvement without change.” Look to Norfolk City Public Schools and its leader, Superintendent Samuel King, for such wisdom, absent in FCPS. Here is where another carload should trek from Franklin to Norfolk to glean ideas from his “safety nets” concept; his tactics and strategy for attracting and RETAINING qualified teachers (one of his top priorities); the “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” program in support of student discipline; his “open-campus” high school for students who cannot graduate in a traditional setting—This, not unlike the alternative school in VA Beach (Renaissance Academy). We do not have to build a new school—just get ideas that we could implement here, such as meaningful improvements that could be made to our alt-ed program. And King is moving forward with his plan to convert 10 schools into “public conversion charters,” which will allow Norfolk to retain control over the schools while having more flexibility in how they are operated. Wouldn’t our city council and school board be interested in learning about this?

The point here is that school systems serious about meaningful improvements are taking extraordinary steps to achieve results, AND they are engaging their communities in a meaningful way—They are walking the talk of “collaboration” and “partnership” with their teachers, parents, students, business partners, local organizations, and other stakeholders in the community. They are entering a new paradigm—in spite of stifling government mandates—while we in Franklin have been content to remain behind the eight ball.

I am asking our community leadership to begin considering a paradigm shift, one that uses the gross needs of the school system as a focal point to bring all the resources of the community to bear in bringing about improvement through collaboration and teamwork. Truly, this would be an investment in our future well-being.

Part of entering a new paradigm is to realize that the expression “There is no quick fix” applies perhaps best to the field of education, where innovations may take a long time before proving themselves. Thus is the critical importance of visionary ideas that are well-promoted and well-received within the community, followed by serious, coordinated investments in the here and now—and all along the way—in benefits that will not be realized for a long time.

What benefits? More success for our youths when they reach adulthood, as well as more success for our entire community in the future. Who can argue that we can and should do better than we have been? A great deal better. Who will start? Who will follow?

“Don’t expect improvement without change.” Spoken by a school superintendent. And acted upon by a city government that recruited him deliberately to do just that—initiate a much-needed paradigm change.