Anyone attempting to tackle the overwhelming problems facing the Buffalo Public Schools would be in for a rough ride. The chronic problems of underachievement, absenteeism, low graduation rates and lack of parental support are issues that any concerned community would meet with impatience.
Let's be honest -- any district that graduates less than half of its students from high school is a district in crisis.
But in the aftermath of James A. Williams and his failed my-way-or-the-highway approach to school leadership, Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon has been a welcome relief. Since her appointment in August, she's been forced to navigate treacherous waters and done so with unpretentious skill, diplomacy and collaboration.
Elevated from her prior position as the district's executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives, Dixon set the tone early on. As noted in The News story by education reporter Mary Pasciak, Dixon willingly gave up district perks and pay that her predecessor enjoyed, banned out-of-state travel for staff, and no longer permits taxpayer money to be spent on food for staff meetings.
Beyond that, she has worked with the community to reform the district's trigger-happy suspension policies, trimmed down administrative ranks and looked to the teachers and administrators on her front lines for help in addressing some of the district's most difficult challenges.
What she hasn't done is equally important. She hasn't lobbed any verbal grenades or cast aspersions on the stakeholders whose buy-in she needs to turn the district around. That's been quite evident in the ongoing negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation over the thorny issue of teacher evaluations.
With $5.6 million in state education money at stake, Dixon clearly outlined her worries, her sense of urgency and her attempts to reach a workable solution without the kind of blame-laying language that breeds resentment and defensiveness.
Regardless, it's clear that collaboration only works when all sides are willing to do it. If there's one thing Dixon's approach will make clear to us as a community, it is who is willing to be a partner in finding solutions and who isn't.
Short of possessing superhuman qualities, Dixon will likely continue to face roadblocks. But to the extent she can lay the groundwork and open lines of communication, she has proven herself capable.
Are there still huge issues facing the city schools that Dixon can and should move faster to address? Yes. Is it realistic to believe Dixon can turn around long-standing problems in half a year's time? Maybe not.
Does she have the long-term vision, strength of character, insight and commitment to be successful as the permanent superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools? We don't know. There are pros and cons to keeping someone "on the inside" as a long-term leader for such an ailing district. For that reason, the search for a permanent superintendent needs to continue -- with Dixon in the mix.
What we do know is that, for right now, Dixon has been a breath of fresh air who possesses some admirable leadership qualities that any future superintendent will need to reform this district for the better.