Win or Go Home

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.  Now that the turkey has settled in, it’s time to get back to business.  I want to apologize to readers in advance for those expecting the second part of my reading blog (Reading Between the Lines).  Specifically, what I did to explode Cameron’s reading.  The only reason I keep putting it off is because of the developments in the Jefferson County Public School system.  I promise I will get to it (possibly next Monday) and I hope it will be worth the wait.

The latest news is that after 3 1/2 years, the Jefferson County Board of Education by a 5-2 vote has decided not to renew Dr. Sheldon Berman’s contract.  I have several teachers as friends on Facebook and not one seemed overly disappointed about it.  What is interesting though is the former educators I have talked to have expressed some skepticism over the decision.

The reason this should be important to readers in my area and far away is due to the fact that every school district has educational problems.  Our district is in quite a bit of turmoil and now we have decided on a course of action by not renewing our superintendent’s contract.  Knowledge of the victories achieved and the mistakes made can help all of us have better schools. 

The Board of Education members gave a couple of reasons not to renew the contract.  One was our busing problem.  Kids are bused all over the city to promote diversity in the classroom.  While a noble goal; the practical application was terrible.  Kids had long bus rides passing many public schools along the way to get to their school.  Also, parents who may have participated in the classrooms were left out because schools were too far away.   Although some parents received their first choice with schools; many didn’t and that really caused a disconnect between parents and Dr. Berman’s policy. 

The second thing that really hurt Dr. Berman was student achievement.  Recent Courier Journal articles chronicled lower performing schools- specifically that 6 out of the 10 bottom high schools in Kentucky could be located in Jefferson County for the last two years.  It should be noted that the Board of Education gave Dr. Berman generally high marks on his job performance each year before the decision not to renew his contract was passed.  That struck me as very interesting.  

If you have kept up with my education blogs; you may get the impression that I am happy with this latest development.  Dr. Berman and I disagree on certain issues and now he is gone.  I should be thrilled, right?  NOT SO FAST!

Here’s a few questions which should be considered.  Anytime a superintendent is brought in, what should we expect?  This is a very important question.  I have a feeling many people would expect a leader to bring in initiatives which would lead to strong student achievement.  Also, how strong does the achievement need to be before giving the superintendent a passing score?  This is a bit murkier issue.  Finally, how much time should a superintendent receive before deciding whether his initiatives worked?

First, in taking the initiative point. Dr. Berman led a charge for “freshman academies.”  This may turn out to be one of his finer achievements.  Only time will tell.  In essence, the academies are for incoming high school to receive extra help in catching up academically to their peers.  Though I don’t know how effective they will be, I will admit the general concept seems interesting to me.  Also, if these academies prove effective, I am sure they will be implemented in greater numbers throughout the county.  If other counties in Kentucky see their success, it is possible they will implement them as well.  So here’s my question.  Do you know how many of these children who went through these academies also went through standardized exit testing by the state?  As far as I can tell, the answer would be 0.  That’s because even if these academies were implemented on Dr. Berman’s first day, the kids would only be seniors today and have not taken the exiting tests.  

Point 2: The strength of achievement goes along with point one to a certain extent.  When a kid is behind in their academics; how much time should be allotted before they catch up? This is a question to which I have no answer.  I do know the problem is one our entire nation is facing; not just Jefferson County.

For example, when I was a teacher, I tried my best to assess where the children were as quickly as possible and build them academically in my time with them.  Regardless, there were kids who didn’t progress as much as I would have liked.  There were some children who came in my class far behind and left far behind as well despite my best efforts.  Does this mean I wasn’t a good teacher overall?  Should I have been let go?  Perhaps, but I’ll bet you won’t find an honest teacher who can’t claim the exact same situation in their classroom.

If I could have given more time to my lower performers, I would have.  But I had at least 24 kids to teach with 24+ parents watching me.  These parents expected me to teach their students as well.  I also had a curriculum guide mandated by the state I had to stick to. The guide included all subject matter each student was going to be tested on- not just the lowest performing.  The schools counted on me to teach all kids and I did my best to fulfill that obligation.

Relating this point to Dr. Berman, leadership comes from the top down just like in my little classroom.  Dr. Berman is the leader of almost 100,000 students while I was the leader of 24.  Isn’t it conceivable that despite his best efforts, many children were not going to reach proficiency in three years?  His predecessor was superintendent for 14 years and couldn’t accomplish the goal.  As a matter of fact, he was never close.  I also wonder how many superintendents have taken failing districts the size of ours and has turned them around in a mere 3 1/2 years.

Initiatives take time and tweaking.  There isn’t a magic pill that turns a lower performing student into a high achiever.  To be a high achiever in the school system, it takes a skilled educators, a solid backing of parents/community, and an internal drive by the child.  If any of these things are lacking,  the odds of a kid being a high achieving proficient student are not as probable. Even a superintendent will not change this. 

Finally, on the question of time a superintendent should receive.  This is completely subjective on my part but I believe the magic number may be 6-8 years.  In that time, the community knows whether the initiatives in place are working, whether they need to be tweaked, and whether the superintendent is flexible enough to successfully adjust to problems along the way. 

The problem we may face now in Jefferson County is a qualified candidate who may be gun shy about applying due to the fate of Dr. Berman.  Lots of lesser qualified people may apply because of the money involved (Dr. Berman received around $273,000 per year) but how many of these people have a proven direction with a diverse population as large as ours?  Any candidate would have to really think about the job they currently have.  They would also have to face the possibility that they could be jobless in the next four years. Superintendent jobs aren’t exactly easy to come by.

I will leave you with this thought to consider.  No matter where you live, there will be challenges in the educational system.  My hope is our next superintendent will raise the scores of all children to have a more literate society.  Regardless, I will play a small role by raising my children with
the love and determination in being the best students they can be.  The power of solving all educational challenges is in our hands.

All the best to you and your families and I will write my next behavior blog Wednesday.  

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