A Final Thought

If I Were Governor

Govenors and mayors often propose that they take over struggling schools to make them better. The problem is, all studies of such takeovers show no significant improvement no matter how that improvement is measured.

Money, of course, always plays a role in these takeover attempts. Mayors and governors may not know how to use the money better than school boards and superintendents, but they do have access to more of it. If they bring more money to the schools they take over, and use it properly, that could result in some improvement, but they seldom use it properly.

In any case, recent articles about how little takeovers do in terms of improving schools got me thinking what I would do if I were governor and took control of a local school district.

Takeovers almost invariably occur in poor urban communities, home to first generation Americans who want as much as possible for their children, but who lack the resources, language and knowledge to get it. So, as your takeover politician, I would start by looking at the needs of the community — including the school —not the school alone. A school, after all, is simply a building, a building from which many services can be provided.

I would concentrate on the youngest children, those in kindergarten, pre-kindergarten and even pre-pre-kindergarten. I would bring to those children as rich an environment as possible with small classes, lots of aides and an emphasis on learning basics that children in middle-class families usually get before they enter school — knowing colors, following directions, reading and counting, and all the other things that we expect children to know when they enter “real school.”

If that emphasis on early education meant not putting additional resources into the upper grades, I’d live with that. Next year’s test scores would not be my measure of a successful takeover; building a base for a solid educational program in the future is more important.

I would, however, add or upgrade a course for high school juniors and seniors concentrating on their roles as adult citizens. It would deal, among other things, with handling money, voting in our political system, getting and holding jobs and parenting. As part of the program, I would rotate high school juniors and seniors into the pre-school programs where they can learn how to help young children, and in that process improve their own ability to read, lead, teach, express themselves and prepare for life as young adults.

I started by suggesting that a school building can have many uses. I was thinking primarily of elementary schools and their place in their communities and what services they can provide beyond the normal.

For example, as governor, I’d put a senior center in the elementary school building, providing seniors with access to a gym, a library, the cafeteria and the services of a school nurse. Some of those seniors would probably be interested in volunteering as substitute grandparents in the early education classes.

School cafeterias once served only lunch. Now many serve breakfast and an afternoon snack. I’d have them also serve supper to children and their parents who would have the opportunity to purchase a nutritious meal with their children, rather than having to rush home and rustle up a meal or take the children to the local fast food outlet. As governor, I’d find some money to support that.

I’d make the services of the school nurse available to the community, too. Health checks, influenza vaccines, guiding adults through cold season and allergies could be part of the duties of the school nurse who could also refer patients to local doctors and hospitals. As governor, I’d ask my health commissioner to look into running a school-based community health center during after-school hours.

I’d also use the building for adult education, teaching English to parents who need it and providing courses towards a GED. If I can educate parents, and show them how to help their children at home, I would be building a strong base to support these youngsters as they make their way through the system and into the grades where taking and passing tests will, eventually, help to measure my success in taking over the local schools.

My program might not bring immediate success in terms of high school students passing standardized tests tomorrow. It wouldn’t be aimed at that. If a governor or mayor is going to step in, let him bring some money and support the schools for the long term, not just next term. That way, struggling school districts can be turned around, not just given a quick fix.

Am I just dreaming?

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management August 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."

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