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A simple plan; Fixing dysfunctional urban schools doesn't have to be complex; it requires leadership, accountability and empowerment

It is way past time to stop the craziness.

When was the last time we read that school boards, administrations and teachers were united in putting the needs of children first?

When was the last time we read that school boards, administrations and teachers were eagerly crafting a plan to create schools as learning communities?

All I ever read or hear about are school board/administration disagreements about debt, budgetary shortfalls, salaries, "intractable" unions, test score failure, school closings, finger pointing, cosmetic surgery riders, teacher retirement as a drain on the future, charter schools as either the panacea or the root of the "problem."

The list of adult issues is endless. The effects on children are immense.

Meanwhile, teachers labor to hold together classrooms with inadequate resources and facilities. Teachers, principals, coaches and counselors work to meet the ever-increasing expectation that they substitute for absentee or disinterested parents -- all of this within a local economy on a seemingly perpetual down-slide.

On-site school employees have to address abuse, malnutrition, parental neglect, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and test score expectations.

Given all that they are expected to do, their efforts are nothing short of heroic. Even the most "burned out," cynical teacher shows up every day and puts his or her fingers in a dam that has already burst.

Meanwhile, elected and appointed school leaders continue to argue over interpersonal issues, perceived slights and lack of trust.

Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, they are pontificating while children's lives -- and the health of a community -- become toast.

After all, without great schools and an educated work force, what company executive in his or her right mind will locate in Buffalo? How can we develop a regionwide culture of entrepreneurship if our schools reflect an attitude of "benign neglect"?

Buffalo News education reporter Mary Pasciak continues to hold up the mirror to this nightmare in the Buffalo Public School District. Her telling piece in The News on March 11 is one more example of systemic dysfunction inside the halls of Buffalo's educational leadership.

Let's see -- a projected deficit of $62 million, the doubling of central office employees, teacher layoffs, administrative requirements for Race to the Top money, consistently poor test scores.

Is anyone willing to look for a simple answer instead of a complex one? Isn't the definition of insanity repeating the same answer to the same questions and expecting a different outcome?

Responses to failing schools are always couched in the negative. "Let me tell you why this won't work." Alternatively: "My hands are tied."

The blame is always placed elsewhere: poor parenting, overcrowded schools, inadequate facilities, wrong-headed expectations from Washington or Albany, pages and pages of regulations, inadequate funding, paralyzed leadership pant, pant, pant.

Here are some simple suggestions from a lifelong educator:

*Empower each school principal to collaborate with her/his faculty and staff to create their own mission, vision and curriculum. The superintendent's responsibility is to work with principals to ensure that individual schools are creative, fulfill their missions and that they address state and federal test score expectations. The superintendent, principals and teachers could co-create an evaluation instrument that would be used to determine school and individual teacher success.

*Redistribute central office staff into school support roles (counseling, parent education, etc).

*Empower teachers to create expansive, interesting and differentiated curriculum that reflect their skills and interests.

*Allow principals and teachers the joy of creation and the satisfaction of responsibility.

*Offer each school community a three-year window to improve test scores and create a warm and inviting culture.

*Survey parents, teachers and students.

*Insist the Board of Education be required to visit schools, understand their missions and cultures and report their findings to the greater community. And, oh, by the way, ask them to visit successful schools around the country, learn about best practices education and become experts.

*Give principals budgeting responsibilities.

*Decentralize, support and monitor.

*Ask teachers what they think and give them the freedom to create.

We know the common threads among successful schools -- be they public, independent, parochial or charter -- are leadership, independence and accountability.

Do we respect our principals and teachers enough to allow them the leeway to solve our educational problems?

The situation here is pretty bad. Is it time to try something new? Are decentralization, empowerment and trust too radical?

Perhaps Buffalo could model school community building.

Perhaps Buffalo could model what it means to trust teachers as educational professionals and allow them to collaborate with principals to develop and be responsible for curriculum.

Perhaps Buffalo could model putting children first.

Brace yourself for a chorus of "why we can'ts."

Listen carefully to hear adults protecting themselves, with the best interests of children not in the conversation.

***

Arthur Scott is a Buffalo-based education consultant who has served as head of school, academic dean, teacher and coach in K-12 schools across the United States.

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