At this point, our primary focus needs to be on hiring the next superintendent for DCS. The futures of thousands of children are at stake. And, regardless of whether you currently have a child inside DCS, what happens next will impact your life on some level.
We need to start, as always, with the students. They are innocent. Yet, they will grow up in a world where a high school diploma isn’t enough to guarantee a lifetime of upward mobility and opportunity. Where a college degree isn’t enough. Where a graduate degree isn’t enough. Where tomorrow’s low-wage jobs will often require the same skill set as today’s middle-wage jobs. Disruption is an interesting topic for the conferences I attended during my time in education policy – it’s quite another thing for students who can no longer depend on the “go to school, get a degree, get a job” formula to work for them. Because it won’t. As such, we have a moral obligation to prepare our students to adapt and thrive in a fundamentally changed global economy with different rules.
They’re just kids – they deserve a chance to succeed
Equally important are the educators and staff entrusted with educating our children. Having spent a year inside the classroom teaching at-risk high school students and meeting with teachers around the country, I know the vast majority of people in education are there because they sense a call to educate young people and help shape their futures. They know their work is important and can change the course of a student’s life. But our friends inside DCS tell us if educators are not supported with professional development, technologies they actually want and need, and the occasional morale builder – if they have to spend too much time doing something other than educating – the outcome is inevitable for them, for you, for me. They burn out. The most common answer to the question, “How do we improve student outcomes?” usually relates to investing in great teachers. Many teachers, though, simply need an environment in which they can be great. We need a superintendent who can listen well and cultivate such an environment.
This teacher has a unique handshake for every student
Maybe schools aren’t on your radar screen, but you are thinking more about adding new key dimensions to our economy. Guess what – schools need to be on your radar screen. Desirable employers assess schools to determine whether the workforce they’ll need now and in 20 years will be available. They are thinking about the possibility of productive partnerships with the schools. They are thinking about what kind of education their own children will receive. Education and economic development impact each other.
Students are our future workforce
Maybe you’re less concerned with the economy but find yourself generally in the “build Decatur for the future” camp (in which case you will hopefully decide to support economic development efforts). A practical, pragmatic rationale for your support for strong schools exists, too. All other things being equal, educated students can access more opportunities, reducing the likelihood of antisocial behaviors like crime. Great schools can increase property values. They enable a city to tell the rest of its story to potential residents. As such, few things can change the trajectory of what a community views as possible for itself in the way that schools can.
In order to engage the support of people who do and do not have children inside DCS, the next superintendent needs to endorse current efforts to define the DCS narrative. We need to stop talking about other places having “better schools” – a better school/system would be able to educate a student population from another city and achieve better results. The core issue is that Decatur is willing to educate any child, even those whose parents lack college or advanced degrees. Even those who have special needs. Even those who currently only know a foreign language. We should turn this commitment to all students’ success into a positive. Meanwhile, we need to talk more about our students who are achieving top SAT/ACT test scores. We need to talk about the fact that a significant portion of DCS students score well on statewide tests and that few, if any districts our size have produced a comparable number of Rhodes, Truman, and other national scholarship winners. We need to talk about the multiple local, regional, and national awards won by DARC, The Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition. At one national competition, for example, DARC finished second – and they were the only public school program to place. We can build on these wins to create the momentum necessary to generate others.
DARC is nationally competitive
Fundamentally we have to demand excellence and support others who do. Our School Board has wisely chosen to advertise a salary range with an upper end that could make Decatur’s next superintendent one of the five best paid in the state. I have heard pros and cons about this decision, but if we want the best, then we have to pay for the best. This is the right decision, and if you look at 2016 superintendent pay in Alabama, it’s the choice made by cities with high percentages of academics who care about their kids’ education (Tuscaloosa), massive districts that include gifted and at-risk students (Jefferson County, Mobile County, Birmingham City), and smaller cities with highly educated populations (Mountain Brook). A top-tier leader, whether hired from inside or outside DCS, will also give us the best chance to build the momentum and attract the resources necessary to continue strengthening our schools over time. If we find a candidate who is willing and able to do what it takes to keep students and staff safe, achieve continuous and substantive student learning, demonstrate sound stewardship of our existing resources, improve test scores (not because they always indicate student learning but because it’s how people judge schools), incorporate workforce development efforts to provide our students with marketable skills and job/internship experience, gain the confidence of DCS educators and staff, utilize technology wisely, occasionally take a moon shot, manage the current construction and relocations, and embrace a credible and positive narrative – pay that person whatever he or she wants. It’ll be worth it.
The right leader can make all the difference
In saying “we are all DCS,” I must address the fact that parents make different and diverse educational choices for their children. Some parents want to shape the curriculum and pace of their child’s education and choose to home school. Others believe it is important for their child’s educational landscape to include a particular religious faith. Others want to see a STEM or similar focus. Still others only want a public or magnet school. Our family has friends in all these camps, and we have listened to their perspectives.
Regardless, there is no basis for any of us to make blanket pronouncements about the superiority of the educational choice we have made for our children. No basis exists to think that one type of educational choice is inherently superior to any other, because what works for one student may not work well for another. No basis exists to make across-the-board, generalized criticisms of any type of school or system. Rather, we need to acknowledge that parents must consider many factors when making educational choices, and different children have different needs. We need to remember the children are innocent in all this. Finally, we need to respect others’ educational choices and support the best possible education for every child because it is in our individual and collective interests to do so. Because it’s the right thing to do. If that happens, you’ll be shocked at what we accomplish. You’ll be shocked at what they accomplish.
Brad Tuggle – Austin High School grad, Rhodes Scholar