Monthly Archives: November 2010

I Don’t Care (but I Do, and It’s All about Trust)

I’ve been happily telling colleagues about the recent controversy concerning Cathie Black, Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for New York City schools chancellor, “I don’t care!”  It goes against my core principles to say those three words about, really, anything, but in this case I felt a profound joy in being insulated from the opposition, the defense and the general vitriol that defines the tone in this conversation. 

Did the mayor abuse his authority in choosing one of his publishing friends without consulting or even previewing this choice with the public?  Is a private-sector executive without even a modicum of public school experience (and even a questionable role in school nutrition as a corporate board member) an appropriate appointee to lead the nation’s largest school system?  Is a ‘world class management’ skill set needed to shepherd the $22 billion system through the remains of the financial crisis?  Is she really the Harriet Miers of education and if so, what looms beyond?  And perhaps most importantly, what reforms from the Joel Klein era and prior administrations would Black as chancellor undo, and what impact would her decision making have on the day to day life of school staff, students and families?   

I’ve been telling my colleagues, “None of those questions matter to charter schools (except maybe DOE-authorized charter schools, but my school isn’t one of those!).”  In fact, most of my charter colleagues and I left the system purposely to insulate ourselves from the swing of the pendulum on all things governance-related and political.  Why should the whim of the mayor (or for that matter, the commissioner, or even the mood of the public) force our teachers to change what they teach or the way they teach?  We have not only a competent staff but a learned one; our team is loaded with burgeoning experts in the various disciplines that make up elementary instruction.  We don’t need Cathie Black, Joel Klein, Harold Levy, Rudy Crew, or any of them, for all their good or ill intentions, telling us otherwise.  The public need not worry about these outlandish claims; their accountability is written into our charter and our school will be closed by SUNY if we don’t meet the expectations we set together.

The truth is, I can’t help but care.  Of course I consume all of the news articles that come out, and wait with bated breath for the next development in the commissioner’s advisory panel, the celebrities for and against Ms. Black, the protests and petitions, the polls, the mayor’s response to disappointing results. 

Why?  Because the mayor’s decision and the public reaction is a window into the relationship between home and school within individual school communities.  And it’s all about trust. 

In a perfect world, the mayor would make the right decision and the candidate would be perfect.  Everyone would agree and see the mayor’s logic, but if they didn’t, they would have enough faith in the administration to make the right call and suspend judgment until they see the Black chancellorship unfold.  Dreaming that dream is similar to dreaming of one day running a school without any parent complaints.  But the truth is, despite our school’s overt and sometimes extraordinary efforts to bring families into the building (through monthly meetings, weekly celebrations, open door policy, curriculum nights, special events, and more), I have still had a couple of parents tell me they did not feel they had sufficient opportunities to get involved in the school.  I can only assume that there is a trust gap and we are not doing enough, yet, to overcome it.  I’ve been a teacher in this community, and I’ve seen some of the things that parents and children are told by colleagues who are less than scrupulous and hold lower expectations than any of us would want for our own kids.  After years of that treatment, I have seen some families become hardened to the idea that, even if seeking out an alternative like a charter school, “that’s the way schools treat us.”  It’s all about trust.

In a sense, this so-far-six-year journey of opening and operating a high performing charter school in Harlem has been a journey about repairing trust with families.  It takes that extraordinary effort to build bridges in a community where in recent memory, corrupt school board members were elected, resources were unevenly distributed and the most vulnerable students were shunted aside.  And the message, “All of the children in this school deserve the opportunity to go to the college of their choice” was nowhere to be found.  It takes time, but I’m still learning.  Clearly the mayor is, as well.  Reading the headlines, I think I’m doing a little better than he is in this category right now.  But no matter how much I pretend not to care, for better or for worse we are all in the same effort, and each conversation I have with a parent who doesn’t yet understand that our arms are open and not crossed is a microcosm of the mayor’s appointee debate.

I wish more people were talking about the achievement gap in terms of the trust gap.  If we named this problem, we could avoid some of the unproductive vitriol and set down to doing this important work for children together.

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