By NICK GRABBE
Saturday, July 25, 2009
AMHERST - To Alberto Rodriguez, the new superintendent of schools, this town where education is paramount has gotten a little too comfortable.
"That's reasonable, because the building's not on fire," he said in an interview. "We're doing OK, but my position is that we can do a lot better. We have all the ingredients to blow the roof off the system."
The Amherst schools aren't doing enough to help struggling students, and aren't pushing capable children either, Rodriguez said.
"A town like this should have National Merit Scholarship finalists coming out of the woodwork," he said. "It's not the teachers' fault; it's the culture of 'everything is fine.' I see a lot of lost potential. We have a well-educated populace, involved parents, little crime, no huge poverty and good schools, so why are we misfiring?"
Rodriguez comes from the rough political landscape of Miami, so he's not a timid soul. As he arrives, the Amherst schools are reducing staff by the equivalent of 55 positions and facing hot-button issues like the closure of Mark's Meadow moving the sixth grade to the Regional Middle School and regionalization.
He's got opinions
He has opinions on all of them. And he has views about education that challenge the status quo.
Rodriguez, 49, has lived in Miami almost his whole life, and has been a history teacher, principal and assistant superintendent there.
His wife, a school guidance counselor, and his two daughters, 19 and 20, still live there. He and his wife communicate regularly using online video and see each other in person every two weeks.
"Leaving Miami was not just a career change for me; it was a life change," he said. "I'm taking this position at great personal sacrifice." Lifting two framed photographs, he said, "This is all I have of my daughters."
Asked who his role models are, he cites his father, who left Cuba in 1955, and Ronald Reagan, with whom he shares a belief in limited government. But he resists political pigeonholing and said his beliefs come from both sides of the spectrum.
He saw Amherst's ad for a superintendent in Education Week magazine, and got a call about the job from the head of a search firm. "I felt I could create greater change as a superintendent," he said. "I was looking for a larger, bigger challenge."
Rodriguez is transitioning from a city where parents are not so involved in their children's schools to a town where every decision is scrutinized. The superintendent has a more hands-on role here, and he has to adopt a different mind set, he said.
"It's a small ship compared to a trans-Atlantic ocean liner," he said. "Which can turn more quickly?"
Graduate schools of education are not equipping tomorrow's teachers to teach today's youths, Rodriguez said. They're not teaching future educators that today's students need to be engaged and won over, he said.
"You need to sell (students) on the fact that they need to learn what you're teaching them," he said.
"If we keep addressing them the way we were taught, we're doomed to fail. We need to be probing, seeing what it is that awakens this spirit of curiosity, and it's not the same for every child."
Amherst teachers care deeply about students, but he wants to "change the conversation," he said.
"We need to use data to inform instruction," Rodriguez said. "We need to be mindful that this is a new generation, able to process information at many levels. We need to be at the top of our game on how the brain works. There are so many other media that teachers have to compete against."
Narrow the gap
He also wants to narrow the gap between low-achieving and high-achieving students. He favors frequent assessments, immediate return of data back to teachers, and monitoring of student progress.
Rodriguez had lunch with Town Manager Larry Shaffer Thursday, and has met with University of Massachusetts Chancellor Robert Holub. He said he wants to have closer ties with UMass and the area colleges in terms of mentoring teachers and learning about the latest instructional technology, he said.
The Amherst schools' staff cuts require a different approach to teaching, he said. But he also noted that he "won't dump more work on teachers."
At the same time, school supporters need to prepare for an anticipated tax override vote next year.
"We need to decide as a community what kind of education we want," he said. "If we need to go through another round of cuts, the kind of educational system we will provide will not be the same. It will be unrecognizable. We need to have a heart-to-heart with the community. Do we want bare-bones schools, with no frills and increased class sizes, or diverse and inclusive schools, the kind of quality system Amherst residents have come to love?"
Further cuts would impair the schools' ability to recruit, he said. "No one runs into a burning building," he said.
Rodriguez said moving the sixth grade to the middle school would enable children to start algebra and literature sooner. "If we want to push the envelope, the current configuration doesn't lend itself to that," he said.
He said he intends to visit Mark's Meadow frequently in its last year "to give parents assurance we haven't forgotten them." This year "counts very much" for students, and the time to pack up is next summer, he said.
A four-town committee has been looking at K-12 regionalization. Rodriguez said this could be more efficient in terms of aligning the curriculum and "getting all the systems talking to each other."
He called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System a valuable data source, but said it shouldn't be the only one. "To use one indicator of the quality of a school is wrong," he said.
Rodriguez said he knows he has to pick his battles. He's looking at three or four goals for his first year, but declined to name them before he can talk to the School Committee.
He hopes to be a consensus-builder in the highly charged political environment of Amherst where, as the T-shirts say, "only the H is silent."
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.