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Reframing The Issue On Systemic Change

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Dear Marc,

Your response to my last post really got me thinking. One of the main problems with a discussion like this is that we are in the midst of a crisis as we are trying to make sense of the issues. This is very hard to do when long-standing schools are being closed all around us, lives uprooted, hard-fought-for union negotiated policies challenged, budgets dwindling and our neediest student populations growing. And yes, I do think we are in the midst of an educational crisis in New York City, New York State and this country. As educational systems we are not successful at educating all of the young people under our care.

Now, before all the comments pour in on this statement, please know that 1) I recognize that there are many schools, even failing schools, that educate students who succeed academically and 2) I most certainly understand that the issues of poverty and the broader social disadvantages make our jobs much, much harder to do. Still, we cannot and should not allow these to become excuses for our not doing all we can to fight for the neediest students’ success. I would find it hard to believe that there is anyone who would say that our system in New York City is working the way we want it to. However, if there is someone, I would love to hear from that person.

I do believe in our accountability as educational professionals and organizations. On a personal note regarding accountability, I believe that every child that fails in my school is my failure. And the reverse is also true — every child that succeeds is my success. I think every educational professional should feel this responsibility. I also firmly support parental accountability. It is only with the collective responsibility that we can make the shift from individualized success to systemic success. This is why education is more than a profession in so many ways — it is a mission. This is also why some of the arguments out there that attack the many hard-working, dedicated and mission-driven professionals — teachers, school staff, administrators — need to stop. But conversations around what our effectiveness should look need to be expanded and moved from blame to action. And with this action plan must come the infrastructure necessary to support success.

I would like to ask you for a moment to pretend that we had the advantage of knowing all we know right now about the school systems we work in and we were starting from scratch to set-up the best infrastructure to support a system of great schools. Sure, it is the perfect fantasy: 20/20 hindsight, no emotions, no change, no PEP meetings, no constant blame-game interviews of why we are where we are today. I’m getting tired of it all and believe it is stifling the much-needed work that is urgently waiting to get done while we fight.

Here are the questions I would ask:

  1. Would we limit the size of schools?
  2. Would we prioritize balancing our highest needs students over parents desires to have schools close to their homes?
  3. What support model for schools work best? Districts, Public School Support Organizations, Wrap-around support programs, school choice of model?
  4. What should our labor contracts emphasize and deemphasize?
  5. What training and supports do our teachers and school administrators need to be well-prepared to work with the population we know we will be charged with educating?
  6. What are the best ways to measure that we are successful?
  7. What should be the mayor’s and chancellor’s role in guiding and supporting the system’s success?
  8. What role should the private sector play in public education?

I don’t think any of these questions have simple answers. Many of them are downright scary and will challenge our standard operating procedures of many years.

Unfortunately, if we were able to trudge through this exercise and reach some consensus (and this means getting around the table all of parties currently fighting), it would require undoing some of our past mistakes and making changes that these new times require. Please note this is in no way an absolute endorsement of all the recent changes made or in any support for the status quo.

So, I am tossing this ball to you. You now have the ability to build a school system from scratch knowing all you know now. What would you do?


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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