John King, commissioner of education for New York State, recently visited Buffalo to meet with business and philanthropic leaders to discuss the state of our education system. He was vocal in his criticism of our leadership's ability to deal with the challenges facing our schools, a fact made evident by the state's outright rejection of the district's plans to improve Buffalo's lowest performing schools.
King did not mince words when discussing the increasing number of failing schools in the district: "That's a death sentence for the community -- a community can't survive with failing schools. People ought to be outraged. People ought to be camping out in parks over the performance of their schools."
If the commissioner's intent was to instill within our school leadership and community a sense of urgency, his message was received. If, however, his intent was to help improve our schools, then why did he not engage our local leadership during his visit? Judging from his statements, King believes that the administration and board lack the capacity to properly oversee and implement a drastic improvement of our school system. His priority then, should be to provide our leadership with the tools, support and assistance they need to get the job done.
Engaging the business and philanthropic community is a worthwhile endeavor only if those meetings translate to results for students. It is clear that those responsible for the fate of our schools have been left out of the conversation. Rather than sit in closed-door meetings with Buffalo's power players, King should work to bring board members, administrators and labor leaders together to tackle these issues head on; he should urge our leadership to reach across the divide, and make decisions with people, rather than for them.
King thinks our community ought to be outraged; we are. We have demonstrated that outrage through boycotts, stakeholder meetings and public forums. But rather than camping out in parks, we are advocating for our community to be meaningfully involved in the plans to improve our lowest achieving schools.
If we have learned anything from the turmoil of the last school year, it is that when those who have the most at stake (parents and students) are left out of the conversation, special interests take root, and decisions are made that negatively impact our students. When the turnaround plans were rejected, it was the students, not the administrators or local and state officials, who lost.
King is right: "It isn't rocket science." There are an abundance of resources and human capital at the district's disposal; groups and individuals from higher education to block clubs are ready and willing to be a part of the change. All the district has to do is ask.
Hannya Boulos is director of BuffaloReformED.