Nobody’s Perfect

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to reflect on the past years’ events and debates. As we embark on a new world in which we hopefully recognize more that unites us than divides, it’s important that we consider where we have been and take responsibility for the future. Placing blame solely on previous administrations relieves us from the responsibility of learning from the past to plan for the future. Likewise, idealizing past leaders creates an unrealistic standard for current leadership and decisions. This is as true locally as it is at the national level.

Too often, valid criticisms of the current school committee have been met only with the claim that it was all the fault of the previous administration or that teacher morale has improved, as if that is the only metric that matters. Recently, the chair of the school committee stated that those at the table in the past were responsible for a “monstrous” special education system and should be ashamed. Nothing constructive can come from this revisionist history and the loss of the wisdom of the past is crippling. Our leaders should be tapping the wisdom of our many community members who sat at the table, not tweet-shaming them. Throughout the past 2 years, members of the school committee’s ruling majority have repeatedly minimized concerns by citing teacher morale, shaming the very act of complaining as anti-teacher, anti-union, or worse, anti-children, and if all else fails, blaming Kristen Stringfellow. None of these bestow responsibility for fixing problems at the feet of anyone who could make a difference.

Kristen Stringfellow was not perfect, but she was also not the devil incarnate. Some of her initiatives fell flat, but she did some really great things for this district that are being ignored at our peril. Take for instance her push for 1 to 1 technology that has enabled our successful distance learning plan. When Dr Stringfellow pushed 1 to 1, there was loud vocal dissent in many pockets of the community from the very people who are now praising the current administration for these advances. In fact some of those who were loudest in opposition currently sit on the school committee. I hope our next school committee will look back on the challenges and successes of the previous administration as they chart what the future of education looks like. This is how the past can inform the future if we are willing to take an honest look back.

Another focus of Stringfellow’s tenure was a push to create integrated classrooms for children with learning and behavioral difficulties. Prior to the Stringfellow era, SK routinely placed large numbers of students in out-placement (schools focused specifically on special ed). Between 40 and 80 students per year were located in these facilities from 2005 – 2009. Stringfellow worked to reduce that total to 15 by 2015. The current administration has begun to reverse this trend. At the beginning of the 2019/20 school year, 20 students were out-placed, and another 9 had been placed into the program by year end. The current level is higher than any year this decade. Are we heading back to the days of the first Bob Hicks’ administration, where dozens of our children were taught at special ed schools? Are we giving up on the notion that an integrated educational experience is in the best interest of all our children? If we attempt to answer these questions without looking back at both the successes and challenges of Stringfellow (and Hicks)’s time, we will be doing our children a disservice.

By the same token, those of us who have been critical of the current school committee should recognize that we have sometimes made the mistake of looking back at an idealized version of the past. Our problems weren’t born on November 8, 2018 and although we may disagree with decisions made since, we shouldn’t ignore the challenges that all new leadership faces when inheriting long term systemic issues. For instance, the facility plan in development (option B ) was not perfect and the DLI initiative had major problems from the start. Over her time here, Stringfellow moved the ball forward in improving some racial disparities (such as removing A and B level classes at the high school) but much more is needed, and hopefully the current national dialogue over Black Lives Matter gives us the opportunity to address them with a fresh perspective.

Neither Hicks, Stringfellow nor Savastano are/were perfect, but I truly believe they all have/had the best interests of the students at heart. When we eventually return to some sense of normalcy, I truly hope that our leadership changes course and deals with legitimate criticisms without reaching for a gaslit past, and we all move forward with an honest, sober understanding of where we have been and where we are going. I honor and appreciate every person who has ever been “at the table,” working to improve the educational system for our children. This district has a rich history, full of both successes and missteps. We owe it to ourselves and our children to learn from both.

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