Eugene White, my high school principal and one of the most celebrated and controversial superintendents in Indiana, had an impassioned reminder for the guests who tuned into my radio show on urban education this week:"You can never stop...we have a long way to go.”
White, who is now schools chief in Indianapolis, was one of our guests on Tuesday's episode of Know-It-All: The ABCs of Education, during a Superintendents Roundtable discussion. He was joined by Maria Ott, a retired superintendent of the Rowland Independent School District outside Los Angeles and Ricardo Medina, a retired superintendent of the Coachella Independent School District also in Southern California. We covered a lot of ground as we explored the inner workings of the often-misunderstood superintendent's office.
We started with the concept of “reform.” All were clear in their common belief that “reform,” as the term is used today, carries the unfair implication that public education is completely broken.
New competition-based reform necessarily generates a winners vs. losers mindset, and the losers are too often our most vulnerable -- children of color, children living in poverty. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, public scrutiny that beats the mess out of traditional public education with a hammer and then accuses public educators of causing the damage. My superintendent guests, all people of color themselves, spoke with one voice, an advocate's voice, on behalf of children who often find themselves as victims in someone else's telling of their lives or as the convicted in a complicated plot rigged to set them up for failure. All of these superintendents cried foul.
Ultimately, they said, it’s not just about reform. It’s about transition. Where previously we sought access to school, we now want access to school and success in school. Transition. Navigating the proliferation of charter schools and comparisons to private and parochial schools to promote voucher programs all require transition. Even as the superintendents shared personal experiences about that one piece of criticism that has most stuck in their craw, the theme of transition carried through. Superintendents across the country are doing their absolute best to transition, for the sake of a student population that is increasingly diverse in race and ethnicity, home country, native language, and socioeconomic status.
Transition has meant the need to incorporate cultural proficiency training for teachers and staff, and the need to partner with community service providers to support students and families. To those who think school districts shouldn't have to be all things to all people, Ott says, these are all of our children "and you have to do all that you can to provide them the wraparound services that they need."
And, as we transition after the Newtown tragedy, White reminds us that, at the end of the day, the "essence of life is people, and we have to take better care of our people." This is more than a notion. Medina pointed out that at a time when we need more services and supports in schools, schools are facing tremendous budget shortfalls and spending cuts, and the nation is at the brink of sequestration. All of the superintendent guests agreed that more police in schools is not the answer. As a society and in our schools, we have to focus not solely on gun control and mental health but on how we can start to be aware of what is happening in the lives of people around us. White said we are letting technology and her deformed sister, isolation, lure us into a cocoon of oneness where we have no meaningful interaction with one another anymore.
In the midst of all of this, superintendents have to keep parents and families involved in their children's education. White said what I've heard other superintendents and school leaders say, though usually in a whisper - he cannot get black parents to engage. Studies have shown that parent engagement is a key predictor of academic success, and schools have been criticized for not making schools approachable for all families. Dr. White voiced his frustration. He has instituted a parent university, hired parent liaisons, started a parent advisory council, and despite it all, he said, black parents are not taking ownership of the schools and don't feel as though they have any power.
White, Ott, Medina bravely opened the cockpit door of the Superintendent's Office for us to see all of the dials, buttons, and controls. It's a balancing act. While diversity remains a compelling interest in education (for the moment), the reality is that schools are more and more racially isolated, and ironically, superintendents are measured by how well their "minority" students perform.
Academic success for all students remains a superintendent's highest priority with competing interests clamoring for the top position. Student discipline, school safety, student equity, budget cuts, parental involvement. And, superintendents now serve a population of students who have become unmoored from their parental foundation. More on that on next week's show.