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Clara: Educators' pessimism doesn't help students

Published September 14, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In recent days, many oppositional voices have been raised over Utah's new school grading system. Mine was not one of them.

As a local school board member, one of my statutory responsibilities is to "use progress-based assessments as part of a plan to identify schools, teachers, and students that need remediation and determine the type and amount of federal, state, and local resources to implement remediation" (53A-3-402, Utah Code).

It is within that context that I welcome any system of measurement that will tell me the health of the schools within my purview.

I echo the words of Winston Churchill when he said "I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion's roar." Let me herein give the "lion's roar" about the state of education in my community.

The only two elementary schools within the Salt Lake City School District receiving an F letter grade are in District 2, which I represent. I take full responsibility for those failing grades.

I extend my sincere apologies to my neighbors, parents, teachers and students for the grade their school received. I say to them that this failing grade is not a reflection of their failure; it is rather a reflection of the poor leadership at the top pinnacle of this school district.

On Sept. 3, the day that this new system made its debut, school board members received a frenzied, enthusiastic email from the school district media relations specialist, Jason Olson, stating in part, "Dr. Withers is speaking on behalf of the district … in a press conference …. many of his comments are being tweeted out … I expect the superintendent's comments will receive attention from most media outlets."

One would have expected the superintendent's comments to be about the resources we were going to deploy into these so-called "failing schools" in an effort to raise student achievement. Instead of addressing that part of this equation, Superintendent McKell Withers was investing his time and energy into garnering "attention from most media outlets" in an effort to "kill the messengers" and divert attention from the fact that his lack of leadership over the years has placed my neighborhood schools in the situation they now find themselves in.

In the school board meeting later that evening we received more of the same rhetoric from him. Not one single word on what we were going to change in order to help our low-performing schools achieve success.

As I listened to his spoken and written words over the past two weeks, I was taken aback by his "once a failing school, always a failing school" type attitude and his tone that a child's "demography determines destiny." How do we expect the schools in our district to see improvement with that type of ideology at the helm?

These are the issues we are not to discuss in school board meetings. We are, instead, told to engage in "happy talk"; everyone must accentuate the positive, even if it has to be made up. This same culture dictates that the bureaucracy never takes responsibility for failures, because "the problem is always out there."

I can unabashedly commit to my neighbors that, contrary to the prevailing educational climate, I will assume my leadership role more assertively and with greater dedication as a guardian of educational excellence and equity of our neighborhood schools. Together, we can put pessimists like Superintendent Withers to shame and see this year's F-rated school become a D-rated school next year, and C-rated school the following year, all the way to an A+ school.

J. Michael Clara represents District 2 on the Salt Lake City School Board.