Amherst Bulletin, published on July 31, 2009
Excellence for all. At his first meeting with the Amherst School Committee as superintendent, Alberto Rodriguez signaled a need for reforms we hope can mobilize and unify support from stakeholders throughout the school system.
In a debut that caught committee members by surprise, Rodriguez read aloud last week from a report he commissioned about Amherst's schools - a study that gives him an outsider's reading of weaknesses in Amherst public education, as he digs in.
The substance of that report, by Tennessee educator Irving Hamer, is detailed in a story on Page A1 of today's Amherst Bulletin. (Text of the full report is available at amherstbulletin.com.) Rodriguez and Hamer, who once worked together in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, has many people thinking, talking and blogging.
Even before school starts for his first year, Rodriguez is making it clear he is here to lead. "I wasn't hired to be a maintenance man," he says, "but a change agent."
Rodriguez plans to work with the School Committee to set three or four top goals for the coming year. Given the findings in Hamer's report, it will be hard for the new superintendent to delay tackling the need to lift the bar on excellence for all students in Amherst classrooms.
In a move that's politically astute, whether intended or not, the report Rodriguez read word by word to committee members highlights current barriers to both excellence and to educational access. In doing so, it can energize important blocs of activists within the system.
People in Amherst committed to achieving greater excellence for individual learners are listening. And so are those who have called for greater educational access for low-income students. Those groups, while not always working shoulder to shoulder, have new reason to ally with one another and help push for results.
Hamer's report, based on 10 days of interviewing and data analysis, found that Amherst schools are not doing enough for lower-performing students. Migration into town from urban centers in western Massachusetts is widening family income gaps here. It cited an achievement gap that is masked by how well most Amherst students do on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. And it said not enough is done to support students who struggle to master their material.
Pointedly, Hamer's report takes aim at the lack of a pre-kindergarten program for students from families living in poverty. When they arrive in classrooms, they should receive help to bring their skills up to those of classmates. Otherwise, Hamer noted, they may never catch up.
Some interviewed by Hamer raised questions about the depth and rigor of teaching in the system. He believes the system uses too many study halls. He faulted Amherst for not already employing a strategy to recruit new teachers able to "advance student achievement."
Rodriguez's arrival creates an opportunity that must not be missed.
Even before he starts in earnest, those who helped provide information to Hamer deserve everyone's thanks. His inquiry gave them an opportunity to tell the truth about a system they know from the inside out. Their knowledge allows change to start from the way things actually are.
Many of those same people will also be asked to push, at the classroom level, for improvements that Rodriguez and other administrators will seek. We hope they take the new superintendent at his word that Hamer's report not be used "as a club to bash staff over the head."
Because of tight budgets, the evolving Rodriguez agenda will need to find traction even as the system absorbs the loss of 55 full-time equivalent positions. Rodriguez must persuade school employees to step up to his challenges. These times demand the firm and purposeful leadership he is already beginning to exhibit.
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.