Dear White Plains Families and Colleagues,
As I complete my final year as the superintendent of schools here, I am pleased with the many, very positive changes that I have been a part of in White Plains.
Last month the Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns voted to select me as their superintendent of schools beginning July 1, 2013. For a number of reasons I have accepted their offer.
Finishing my fourth year as chief of the White Plains City School District, it is with mixed emotions that I reflect on my service here. I will miss White Plains.
As a young boy I very much admired New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy –or RFK- was never timid about speaking up about issues that made many feel uncomfortable. He spoke about the unfairness of the military draft to college students; he used his media following to shine the light on poverty in our nation. He was honest about racism. He paraphrased the great Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, when he said,“Some men see things as they are and ask – why? Others dream of things that never were and ask – why not?”In my humble way I have tried to live by the call to action Kennedy modeled.
The last several years have been a period of unparalleled change in public schools across the state --characterized primarily by New York’s successful application for U.S. Department of EducationRace to the Top (RTTT)funds and the many implications that followed. The combination of adopting the Common Core Learning Standards (and related assessments) and a profoundly new set of requirements for the evaluation of teachers and principals (known as APPR) is truly a major shift for educators and for students. Added to those significant changes was the dramatic contraction of the economy associated with the collapse of the housing market, and a big increase in the unemployment rate. I arrived here along with the “Great Recession”.
Before knowing of the New York’s RTTT application and the extent to which the recession would make the battle for limited funds rather acrimonious –at least in the media (a 2% tax levy cap was enacted in 2011 by the State Legislature) - I was hired in order to maintain the excellence of the district’s many exemplary programsandto address complex issues often loosely defined as the “achievement gap” between students with parents who have high incomes and high levels of educational attainment and those who are less fortunate. In White Plains that is approximately a 50/50 split among the student body.
Through this tumultuous period, with the support of a top- notch team as well as community support, I have led the district to successfully pass three consecutive budgets as well as a major bond referendum for capital projects. In addition, we were able to successfully organize the community to resist the imposition of a charter school in White Plains. Community partners supporting the school district –including the Mayor, the Youth Bureau, the Public Library, Centro Hispano, the NAACP, the African American Men of Westchester, the Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters, the Education Foundation, Youth Sports leagues, the ecumenical community, the Pace Center for Literacy, White Plains Hospital --and so many others- are all crucial to what makes this a vibrant city.
In spite of fiscal and regulatory challenges, there have been many positive changes in recent years. On my watch we introduced online courses for high school students, and several communications tools including a Parent Portal for families of secondary students, and a text-messaging feature for parents.
We added engineering courses to the high school, and a rigorous college prep course (AVID) for selected middle school students –which is already a part of MS redesign. We redesigned aspects of the elementary school schedule to include dynamic regrouping so that students in need of more academic challenge would be introduced to theJr. Great Booksprogram while at the same time struggling students would receive needed support. We also introduced a new elementary Math program, which is aligned with the Common Core standards. In contrast to most districts, we continue to offer enrichment opportunities for elementary students in the Arts, Math and ELA. There are many other initiatives we have undertaken, as well.
With Board support, we are ready to roll out a redesigned middle school next year. Based on very solid research (much of which is posted on our website), and recognized by the State Department of Education by way of a multi-million dollar grant to support our work, and after many discussions with students, staff and parents, a team of dedicated teachers and administrators have developed a new, engaging way to make our middle school even more successful for all students. This redesign, combined with several other changes mentioned, will help our students –over time—to adjust to the new, significantly more rigorous battery of assessment tests that will measure their academic progress.
I am aware that there are some people who feel that since I am leaving for another post the redesign project ought to be shelved, but it is not about me, or about Mr. Brown, or any individual. It is a programmatic shift designed by a team who will implement it well and enhance the middle school experience for our students.
Also on my watch, we were able to upgrade digital media opportunities for middle and high school students, develop school gardens, expand our sister school relationships with schools in China, and provide more in-district services for students with special needs. I led the efforts to hire a grants writer, which has proven to be a prudent decision.
All of the above was accomplished while the student enrollment of the district has grown each year while we kept our operating budget under a 2% tax levy increase, even before there was any state mandate to do so.
I want to thank all of the students, teachers, administrators, other staff members, parents, and community leaders who have supported the work during these difficult and challenging times. This is not easy work. Please know the words of kindness and encouragement many of you have communicated to me have been important to me. I am grateful for that.
To those who have taken issue with my approach, please know that at the heart of my work is the need to challenge, to engage, and to support all students in order to prepare them for the future.
I mentioned that one of the things RFK did in his short life was to make visible the reality of poverty in our nation. Today that remains a monumental issue. In Westchester and across the country the rate of childhood poverty is growing. But aside from an occasional article or report it is rarely discussed. During the recent presidential election cycle it was hardly mentioned. It seems almost taboo to bring it up. Many people who are fortunate seem to view the poor among us as somehow “undeserving” or “second class”; as a threat to the quality of a community or a school. That kind of thinking is not consistent with the premise of our nation –E PLURIBUS UNUM.
The rock artist and philosopher Bruce Springsteen wrote in a song: “Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it's hard to find, Down here it's just winners and losers and don't Get caught on the wrong side of that line”
No one wants their child on the wrong side of the line. I understand the anxiety all parents have about the kind of future their children will have in a rapidly changing global society. I too am a parent, and grandparent. In the face of that societal anxiety I encourage the Board of Education –as elected community leaders to lead on this issue, to bring peopletogether, to be a collective, recognized voice for people who have no voice, and to make visible that which is too often unseen and misunderstood, so that creative solutions can be developed and nurtured. I ask them to constantly nudge and encourage our fine teachers and school leaders to continually improve and update our curricula and instructional strategies so that the achievement gap is no more.
Finally …White Plains is a good place to raise children. The solid public schools here are a cornerstone of this community.
I have been privileged to work with a high quality team here. It has been an honor to serve the children of White Plains.
Remember, the future is not a place we go, the future is something we create. I encourage the Board, and all of you, to be optimistic and confident as you continue to create a just and forward-thinking future for our 21stCentury school children.