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School Board Brainstorms Future

Members gather for an informal session to discuss the rest of their terms.

Some suggestions were specific, like Yvonne Folkerts’ idea to make Algebra open to all eighth-grade students. Others were broad outlines for the future, like Blanche Maness’ proposal to increase student achievement by setting high standards. All of them were collected by School Board Vice Chairman Charles Wilson, who oversaw the session in absence of Chairwoman Claire Eberwein, who was out of town for the Aug. 2 session. Billed as a "strategic planning work session," the two-hour meeting gave each board member an opportunity to think out loud about the future and their priorities.

"We should focus on the short term," said Wilson at the outset of the meeting. "From now until the end of your term, what kinds of goals do you have?"

As each School Board member attempted to answer the question, an array of goals and priorities emerged from members who have frequently been in disagreement since taking office a year ago. Each agreed with Scott Newsham’s suggestion that improving customer service would create an environment that could benefit the school system in numerous ways.

"I want to look at customer service in a broad sense," said Newsham. "Everybody is a valued person, and they should be treated that way."

Several board members said they have heard anecdotal evidence of school visitors being told to wait for long periods of time before being attended to. They said that several parents had expressed frustration at school administrators who they said seemed indifferent. And they said a renewed sense of universal respect could transform the city’s public schools and imbue the division with a sense of purpose.

"If people are turned away when they walk in the door, that doesn’t make us look good," said board member Ronnie Campbell. "It’s an image we need to change."

AS THE SESSION continued, each member presented his or her own list of priorities. Folkerts had the most detailed list, with several very specific policy proposals: incorporate a stronger writing curriculum in all grades, closely monitor the newly opened honors classes in middle school, initiate focus groups to determine what members of the community wanted and overhaul the annual budget document.

"I think we all agree that the budget document needs revamping," said Folkerts. "It needs to be user friendly."

Maness said she wanted to recruit and maintain highly qualified teachers. Newsham said he wanted to promote excellence, not merely competence. Campbell said that she wanted to see more focus on improving the division’s special-education program, which she said has suffered from a lack of attention. Eileen Cassidy Rivera said that the city’s schools needed to do a better job improving minority achievement.

"I think this is the most important issue facing our school system," said Rivera. "And it needs laser beam attention."

Noting that 22 percent of the city’s talented students are black and nine percent are Hispanic, Rivera said that the disparity of outcome was distressing to her. She said it was the reason why she chose to run for office last year, citing more statistics about the low number of minority students who earn advanced diplomas and the high percentage of minority students who are suspended.

"That’s what we call unjustified disproportionality," responded Wilson. "And addressing it is a big goal."

Sheryl Gorsuch had her own list: conducting a public and accessible superintendent search; conducting a School Board self-evaluation; improving test scores for students who speak English as a second language; procuring adequate funding from City Hall; ensuring that general education classes don’t become what she called a "dumping ground" for those who are not in honors middle-school classes; and formulating a long-range plan for Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, which has long been plagued with low test scores and federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

"We’re kind of stuck in the starting gate at Jefferson-Houston," said Gorsuch. "There are a lot of issues there that we need to address."

WILSON SAVED HIS agenda until the end. Agreeing with Rivera, Wilson said that focussing attention on low-performing students should be a goal for the School Board. But he took issue with the term "achievement gap."

"The expression ‘achievement gap’ is misleading," said Wilson. "The truth is that we’ve got a preparation gap."

Wilson said that the school system has got to do a better job preparing young children for school, a goal that he said must be addressed by all city agencies and nonprofit organizations. Furthermore, he said, the school division could find excellent teachers by recruiting from Hampton University and George Washington University because their colleges of education promote an understanding of what Wilson called "cultural competence." By understanding how students of different cultures react to different situations, Wilson said, teachers could bridge the preparation gap he says stalls the progress of many of the city’s students. But the teachers must also have to be invested in success, Wilson added.

"First of all, they have to give a damn," he said. "The best way to overcome the preparation gap is to have effective teachers."