It’s not just that Rochester schools Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams is between a rock and a hard place; it's that the rock keeps getting bigger and the place keeps getting harder.
Deane-Williams’ presentation last night of the results of her months-long listening tour rehashed some of what’s already known about city schools. (The tour involved a barrage of surveys, interviews, and focus groups with students, teachers, administrators, and parents.)
Many city students come to school hungry and tired. Others have witnessed violence or they’ve been victims of it. Some parents don’t feel welcome and it can be a hurdle communicating with school officials.
Institutional racism continues to be a pervasive and corrosive problem for the city school district that thwarts instruction and produces a hostile school climate.
But the real takeaway last night is that the district is a dramatically uneven landscape. Some schools are doing well, partly because they have more resources. Others are not performing well partly because the funding in those schools doesn’t meet the students’ needs. Creating equity across the school district for all students is one of Deane-Williams’ central themes, and it will be her biggest challenge going forward for several reasons.
The district’s preliminary budget projections for the 2017-2018 school year show a gap of $65 million. Expenses continue to outpace revenue, and district officials do not expect a sharp increase in state funding next year. Applying for more grants may help, but grants are usually a temporary fix and a trial balloon before committing more budget money to a plan.
There are internal problems, too. Evening the playing field would most certainly require shifting at least some funds and resources away from schools that are doing well – SOTA, School 58, or School Without Walls, for example. The last superintendent who tried that unleashed a fury from parents and teachers. Maybe this time it could be done differently and with more finesse, but Deane-Williams must know that it will not be easy.
The other issue concerns school board members and their expectations. Some see expansion and exploration: giving parents more choices in the types of schools that the district offers – a military school or a SOTA II, for example – as the way forward. And while they all see equity as a goal, disrupting a SOTA, for instance, could send parents fleeing.
Given that the district doesn’t have the funds to place, let’s say, reading teachers or speech therapists in every school with students who need those services, exactly how will Deane-Williams make those difficult choices?
Still, Deane-Williams appears to be focusing her attention on some initiatives that could bring about equity while taking a different route. She wants to lift achievement in all schools by giving principals more responsibility and autonomy from central office to come up with their own individualized approaches to running their buildings. That, too, has been tried before with varying degrees of success.
The problem there is with more autonomy comes greater accountability.
And she wants to harness the power of the mountains of data the district collects on students and direct it to principals and teachers in a format that frees them up from having to find it, interpret it, and figure out how to use it. The data will already flag students who need quick intervention and provide some direction on what they need.
Much of what Deane-Williams presented will come down to implementation. Her presentation didn’t break ground with startling new revelations, nor did she offer any heady recommendations concerning closing or opening new schools. But we’ve seen those types of plans before and so have parents and board members.