I badly misjudged how long it would take me to do my “early voting.” I was in-and-out in no time so I got to the Hamilton County School Board’s agenda meeting well enough beforehand to have an “educational forum” with board member David Testerman. If you haven’t noticed, forums and summits and “community enlightenment” groups are the new rage and, as my friend David laughed, “They talk about the same things they have for the last 50 years.”
Seriously! Student engagement, teacher’s pay (i.e., more cash equals better teachers), senseless text book “improvements” (two-plus-two still equals four,) bullying, core curriculum, block classes, and classes beginning at 7 a.m. The list goes on and on and the simple solution? Strong leadership, or a marked lack of it, and – believe you me -- we’ve got jumbo jars of both.
The refreshing theme of our Testerman Forum is seldom-used and unique in our public schools: “The Application of Common Sense.” What separates the Testerman Forum from all the rest of the foundations, focus groups, initiatives and pie-in-the-sky efforts is that 50 percent of those who attended the Testerman Forum last Thursday have an actual vote on the school board. Yes, to date it is the only one of its kind that can actually do something.
My friend the professor has spent his life teaching children so we began our quest for academic excellence with the fact it takes 28 credits to graduate from the HCDE but the state standard is 22. “I’d have never gotten out of school,” he quipped. “I am all for setting the standard high – quality is better than quantity – but every high school in our district needs to have the same plan towards graduation,” he said. “There is no explainable reason to demand 28 credits.”
SOLUTION: One school board member makes the motion to drop the 28-credit requirement to the state standard of 22. Another school board member seconds it. Five votes on the plus side of the ledger and – ka-WHAM – the only remaining problem is finding the blackboard eraser.
Now, talk about block scheduling. “If either one of us was forced to sit through a 90-minute class we would go crazy,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t expect for most kids to learn one thing after 60 minutes,” he reasoned,” but you need to understand a teacher will have three classes a day under a block schedule but must teach five a day under a traditional schedule.”
I told him of one girl who, in her first year of high school, was taking a course in “film studies” because it was all that was still available. The child wants to go into the medical field yet some “educator” has placed her in film studies. “That is embarrassing and I can tell you that will do nothing to help the child become a doctor or a nurse. It is absolute foolishness,” was the unanimous finding of the Testerman Forum.
What’s worse? It appears every high school in HCDE has its own zany method of mixing block scheduling with traditional classes. Any business, little or big, will tell you there needs to be a uniform plan in the school district that each will follow. It is simply common sense. The word Toyota and IBM use is “standardization” so the pieces are interchangeable. What’s more, it would be an easy fix.
SOLUTION: A school board member makes a motion for HCDE to come up with a complete solution within 30 days so a method can be chosen at the next school board meeting. It is seconded and a vote is taken. With five votes, the central office must perform and execute the task. A motion and vote the next month will settle the problem, one way or another.
“That is what the central office can fix. The other thing the central office must do is rid the system of bureaucracy. Any principal will tell you the unnecessary paperwork and hoop-jumping is ridiculous. Our principals should have a much greater role in their school’s success. We have great people – really talented -- and we make them take a day a week to sit in meetings instead of guiding their ship? That has no reasoning at all when you could send a blanket email four or five times a week instead.”
SOLUTION: Expedite the process of a permanent superintendent but – under no condition – should we stall so our new leader will be heaped with problems we should fix now. Make the motion to do away with senseless meetings, reports no one reads and procedures that are mundane. Task the Central Office to have six examples of eliminating examples of idiocy by the next school board meeting. Second it, vote, and warn there will be a demand for six more streamlining items after the first report is presented.
Let’s get the order right – the HCDE works under the direction of the school board. The school board has failed in the past because it did not tell the HCDE what it wanted done. The central office, as a result, acted like it didn’t do anything. The school board should demand, tell, instruct and expect the central office to perform at its top level. We must quit coddling those who should be held accountable, according to the Testerman Forum.
We proceeded into other areas. “Do you know we no longer teach summer school?” David said. “Somebody thought it was too expensive. I went to summer school every year when I was in high school … a student’s learning ability isn’t like a light switch … some of our students should go to summer school instead of being left behind.”
Funding summer school is easy. By eliminating unnecessary graduation credits and ridding the system of block scheduling, we take the extra teachers and extra money we save and – bingo – we’re in business. The Testerman Forum unanimously believes there are way too few innovators in the Central Office and that the system suffers from the Good Ole Boy belief: “This is the way we’ve always done it…”
I told the professor I was a big proponent of Saturday school for our lagging elementary schools, of year-round school in our poor iZone areas where our less-fortunate should be fed, safe, and have an entire year to get their reading skills where they are higher than anywhere else in the state. “I totally agree,” said David. “If you opened our inner-city schools all year, I can guarantee you they would be full. Our poor children would thrive with constant supervision and encouragement.” (Heavy applause.)
SOLUTION: Charge interim superintendent Kirk Kelly to meet with every assistant super and be ready to recommend innovative and progressive ways by the next school board meeting. Make a motion, get a second, and vote. Like the girl from Howard said at the newspaper’s Study Hall symposium or whatever it was: “Please tell me what happens next!” (And … er, Dr. Kelly … we want HCDE to create solutions instead of the old line, ‘We tried that and it failed.’ Assign people who won’t fail.)
Professor, give me another quick-fix. “Do away will all ‘fees,’” he answered. “We ‘fee’ our pupils to death. Some children are embarrassed they can’t come up with two dollars. It isn’t their fault yet we hound them because it is their responsibility? How does that work? That’s not education.”
What would it take to obliterate fees for all students? “I’m thinking maybe a million,” he replied, begging the question, “But where is that going to come from?” David sighed and answered, “With a budget of over $400 million, you and I could find it real quickly.”
SOLUTION: A school board member, duly charged by the constituents in his or her district, should make the motion that all fees should be abolished immediately in the HCDE. Somebody should make a second, and let every member of the news media help count the votes and why.
His biggest peeve? “Fund raising. These professional companies come in and claim they are going to raise money for the schools. They have all sorts of different ways but the bottom line is they get 60 percent and the school gets 40 percent. Guess what? Then the principals don’t know what to do with the money.
“And what nobody wants to talk about is the fact the children – who do all the work – get nothing in return,” he laughed in bewilderment as our education summit discovered realistic problems the school board could fix in less than 10 minutes.
SOLUTION: Make the motion that no fund-raising efforts will be allowed at the Hamilton County schools effective immediately and that no children are allowed to beg for money under any circumstances. Quarterback clubs, booster clubs, band trips and the like are restricted to adult beggars only and only with the express approval of the principals.
If Mrs. Tidwell wants to raise money for the band to play at Disney World that’s just fine but no child, including those in the band, will be allowed to pan-handle. Again, no child shall be used and professional fund-raisers are banned from HCDE buildings. Get a second, call for a vote, and assure our community children come to school for one purpose – to learn.
During the agenda session, the school calendar was mentioned and Rhonda Thurman had a brilliant suggestion. “Why are our schools and Central Office closed on Fridays in the summer? We are here to serve people and if a family comes to go house-hunting on a weekend, we have no way for them to visit a school. That’s not right. We need to drop a four-day, 10-hour workweek and get back to doing business the right way.”
SOLUTION: Call for the calendar, make the motion, get a second and vote on a return to reality.
Ironically, that was a sharp issue just moments before at the Testerman Forum. “I think the time has come in our society, with our gang problems, unemployment and so many things that threaten the neighborhoods, where our schools need to be more like community centers.
“Let people use our WiFi in our libraries, avoid the summer heat by taking common-sense classes for adults, like money management, or gardening, or utilizing our facilities for the common good. We have adults that could better themselves if they learned basic computer skills the same way their children do. When I was growing up we played basketball in the gym year around but why are our schools now locked tight?”
There is one more reason. If we could teach adults what they failed to learn in their first go-round in education, they just might learn enough to get a job. “Too many people don’t think enough about adult education and when I am told we can’t fill 15,000 jobs, what’s wrong with teaching a guy who is 35 years old what it takes to get one?”
SOLUTION: Make the motion the school board shall create an advisory committee to structure a method of turning HCDE schools into modern-day, year-round community centers that will include the dynamic medical access to Erlanger, drug abuse treatments and whatever the needs are within each school community. Involve churches, civic clubs, city and county governments – the possibilities are endless but demand a 90-day window or the fire will go out, which has historically been allowed to happen.
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At the end of the 30-minute Testerman Forum the school board held its agenda meeting and, at one painful point, there was a 10-minute discussion that defied common sense. There are three firms vying to help in finding the best candidates to present to the school board as the next superintendent. So, in selecting the one we want, do you vote for only one, or all three in descending order? The discussion was beyond belief and even Rev. Highlander, the chairman, said the group was childish. Heaven help us when it comes to voting on block classes and fees.
But at least we addressed it during the Testerman Forum. “So what happens next?” asks the Howard student.
Do something besides talk. It is past time to start doing things that will move us forward.