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A school trustee responds
SoVaNow.com / August 13, 2014
Over the last thirty days, our school division has been the center of attention in the news media. Never has it been more important, in my opinion, to respond to the wealth of information that has been circulated, most of it seemingly intentionally distorted and or absolutely false. I am writing this letter with three objectives to your readers: to share my personal reaction to the gross misinformation recently reported in the news media; to express my own experience as a parent of students served by MCPS and to increase understanding of the reason I supported the extension of the superintendent’s contract. I believe the people of Mecklenburg County deserve the truth and as a result, I have chosen to speak out.
As a school board member, I am a “show me” type person. I need facts, examples and specifics and I am definitely not going to make any decisions based on vague accusations and blatant misinformation. So many rumors have been reported lately and they are simply untrue. For example, to my knowledge, not one person has been fired, demoted or moved for speaking out and no one has ever given me one example of intimidation. I have been to every meeting and have seen no evidence of any rumors being true. I often follow up with the superintendent when critical information is shared so that I am fully informed and can evaluate both sides of each and every story. Not one has been substantiated as of yet. I am choosing this forum to respond individually to a number of issues that have been reported inaccurately as of late.
Mecklenburg became very good at teaching to a test a few years ago because we had to get the schools accredited. It took 8 years to get all schools fully accredited. During this time (of accreditation) colleges were saying students were not prepared for higher-level classes and large percentages were being required to take remedial courses. Employers were saying students did not have the skills to make it in the work force, but our SOL scores were great. I believe some parents got a false sense of security thinking if their children passed the SOLs they were fine and ready to take on the real world. We know now that this was not true. The SOLs were a minimum competency test and did not measure the real skills our children are going to need to be successful in life.
There is so much research to support my assertion that we are heading in the right direction with PBL and our Deeper Learning initiative. I have asked detractors to “Show Me” research that supports doing the same thing we have done for years is going to prepare our children for the future. Not one person has been able to do this. This is not a Mecklenburg agenda; this is a national crisis and response. It is no one’s fault. Our teachers have done what our state and nation required them to do…teach to a test. And, they did a great job at it. But now we know we must do differently….we must change…and organizational change is never easy.
Major change inevitably makes some people unhappy. Millions of dollars in lost funding necessitating difficult decisions also makes people unhappy. Put both of these scenarios together and the sad result is a perfect firestorm breeding rumors and misinformation. I feel like I am playing “Whack-A-Mole” game because I think one rumor is dealt with only to see it pop up again. The rumors definitely have a life of their own and the fact that we have worked to become more transparent than any previous school board is a testament to their incredible power. Every meeting and every transaction is online. My heartfelt request and challenge for every citizen of Mecklenburg County is to please take the rumors to the next level and follow up with Dr. Thornton and his team. There are always two sides to every story, and I have personally witnessed repeated examples of blatant mistruths being reported and circulated when the real truth never gets spoken. I am not saying we don‘t need to consider every single complaint or concern; we do. But every citizen deserves to know the full story to every situation…not just a one-sided report that appears consistently motivated to discredit our school division, its administration, its dedicated teachers and employees and ultimately its children. We can do better than this.
As a parent of three children educated under the reign of the No Child Left Behind Act, I was very concerned about some of its negative effects. It forced our schools to put extreme focus on teaching to multiple choice standardized tests that limited creativity in the classroom by teachers and students and narrowed the curriculum that could be offered. Well now, it’s a different ball game. I am not saying Mecklenburg can turn on a dime but we can’t take it as slow as we have done before to be successful. We have to change the way we educate our children to meet the demands of the new SOLs — but more importantly, for their future. We have to equip them with skills to help them in college and the work force, which include the following:
Personal and social responsibility
Planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity
Strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs
Visualizing and decision-making
Know how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task
Dr. Thornton and his team of dedicated educators throughout this division have courageously responded to this difficult task and the results in the classrooms and with our children have been wonderful. Thanks to our teachers, I am seeing engaged students excited about learning. We have excellent teachers that will rise to the challenge of change again. We have to work to make sure they have support, planning time, and professional development to succeed. We have had the courage to do what is right for children even before the Virginia Department of Education recognized it, yet we have never been criticized more. I understand we must continue to strive for exceptional SOL scores and we have work to do. The reason our scores have changed from 4 years ago, is our state educational system did the same thing we are doing…they changed the SOL tests to make them more difficult and to be more representative of the deeper learning skills our children will need when they leave us. Every system in the state had their scores decrease, and just like us, they are working to rethink the way we teach our kids to get them there. This will take time, and I have the utmost confidence in our teachers and administrators to get this job done. We need to get behind them in this courageous endeavor, not continue to get in the way. Our children’s futures are depending on this difficult work. We simply cannot afford to “settle” just on the SOLs. We will get the scores up…we’ve seen wonderful gains this year. We are on the right track, but to continue to distract from the real work at hand by spreading rumors that simply are not true must stop.
I ran for the school board position because I wanted to make a difference for Mecklenburg. I did not seek office because I want power. I am not a politician. I am not here to get my family or friends a job or to help them keep jobs. My job isn’t even to make decisions that I think will get me re-elected. I believe we have major problems today because politicians put getting re-elected over actually accomplishing tasks and honestly evaluating the critical change that again, while difficult, must occur not only for our school division to succeed, but much more importantly, for our children to be adequately prepared to compete for 21st Century college admissions and jobs.
I believe this county has kicked the can down the road for too long. For me, investing in our schools and teachers is not a difficult decision. We have the lowest paid teachers and outdated money pit facilities. But I realize that it is a difficult political decision for some. My hope and prayer is that our county leaders have the courage to make the hard decisions to take Mecklenburg forward.
My job as a school board member is to research and use all factual information and vote my conscience on every issue with what is the best for our students. Student focus is the top priority. I took an oath of office to fulfill this responsibility faithfully and impartially. It is a shame to have been attacked by other board members (who took the same oath) for voting differently from them. In spite of this, I will continue to put students first and work hard to get the truth out to each and every citizen willing to listen. We need newspapers that will tell both sides of every story, and the student-focused story often never gets told. Of course it is shocking to read fabrications about me in the newspaper. But I take my oath seriously and will adhere to it. I will always vote my conscience. But politics is very much at play here — which is sad because rumors and scare tactics threaten the progress we have made and the work we have yet to do.
I voted to hire Dr. Thornton for many reasons, but the two main were to bring our school system into the 21st Century instructionally as well as updating our learning environments to a new era. He has worked tirelessly toward these goals. Doing the right thing is not always the most popular position. He has never wavered from his commitment to getting our children the skills they need to be successful in life; yet he continues to be the target of continued criticism.
Research shows student achievement is positively correlated to the length of tenure of the Superintendent. For this reason, it is the norm to renegotiate a superintendent’s contract when he has an evaluation and is showing accomplishments of goals being met by the board. The realization months ago of an intentional political agenda to get rid of Dr. Thornton also led me to advocate for an extension. People have told me I should be ashamed of voting to extend Dr. Thornton’s contract. I would be ashamed of myself for voting contrary to my knowledge and my beliefs. School divisions take major steps back during the transition of leadership. We are on the right track and need to finish this work.
When the school board next adopts our Code of Conduct, I am going to request consideration of 2 promises included in the Arlington County Code of Conduct for school board members.
I want to add:
Make decisions based on available facts and independent judgment “refusing to surrender that judgment to individuals or special interest groups.”
Not address differences in opinion in a manner that could create dissention or polarization in the organization or undermine a decision of the majority of the board.
I will enthusiastically commit to these standards and challenge my fellow board members to do the same. We must come together as a board and community on behalf of our children and it is my sincere hope and prayer that we can work with and through our superintendent and all MCPS employees to build upon the good work they have done to that end.
District 8 School Board member