Urban Public Education and Community Control
Democratically elected school boards offer the promise of representing the families and students they serve. It is true that powerful forces seek to dismantle democratic decision-making structures, to disrupt neighborhood public schools and to divert dollars from public institutions to private management companies and charter schools. These very real forces make the work of school boards difficult and seriously constrained. However there are strategies that we can pursue to more authentically represent our constituents and implement transformative changes to benefit our children. In order to do that we need systemic analyses, serious collaboration at the school and district level by all stakeholders, and the guts to move from compliance to emancipatory education.
My experience as a fully committed parent activist began during the time that Jean-Claude Brizard pushed an agenda in Rochester that was accepted by the school board without much questioning, critique or discussion, and certainly without taking into account vocal community opinions. In fact, he called us a name. He said we were “CAVE” or Citizens Against Virtually Everything. As a new board member it was difficult to hear our current superintendent, Dr. Vargas, deflect calls for a more reasonable approach to facilities policy with the rationale that he is implementing the school board’s directive. I think many, including myself, believe that the costly and ill-conceived “portfolio” plan inherited from JC Brizard should have been stopped and comprehensively re-examined immediately. While my colleagues on the board agreed that the board should reassess and articulate an updated district-wide plan, this discussion never really happened in an assertive or comprehensive way. However, the sudden proposal to close School 16 in 2012 spurred the board to address questions of building quality and the value of neighborhood schools to families and the broader community. School 16 will not close, but instead will be fully renovated as a K-6 neighborhood school. In 2012 the Superintendent and the School Board stated that a district priority is to strengthen neighborhood schools, and this commitment continues to appear as a highlight in strategic planning and public relations materials.
Excellent academic content and pedagogy is as important, if not more important, than ensuring that every neighborhood has a community school. While public schools are required to operate under federal and state laws and regulations, we clearly have deep responsibility for curriculum, materials and instructional approaches. My view is that local control of education would go a long way to improve the learning and lifelong outcomes for our students. Basic elements of local control would entail acknowledging head on the fact that the large majority of our school population is composed of children of color. Specifically, we have a majority of African American children, large numbers of Latino/a children and an amazing diversity from all over the world, including Native Americans as well as children of European ancestry. It is inexcusable that RCSD continues to “work around the edges” of cultural excellence and historical accuracy. ALL children will benefit from a truly inclusive, scholarly and rich curriculum taught by educators who are universally prepared to embrace and develop knowledge of their students and their families.
Work has been advanced for a long time, by highly qualified contributors from our local community, that is foundational to transforming our schools both in terms of control and content. By this I mean there are examples of how strong school communities can develop and sustain highly successful and connected programs for students. Parental, family, student, alumni, and neighborhood investment in making sure decisions support, rather than undermine, effective programs are key. There is local control at the decision-making table, and attempts to circumvent parents and school community are not tolerated. In terms of high quality content and pedagogy that demonstrates principles of excellence in teaching children of color, it is time to move from pockets of excellence to dissemination and continued development district wide. Local control should entail institutions that not only look like the populations they serve (recruitment and retention of more educators or color), but offer content that is supportive, relevant and actively shaped and accepted by the community.