Comment to the Manassas School Board 1/10/12

Here is a written version of the comments I gave during Citizen’s time at the first Manassas City School Board meeting of 2012:

Good evening. My name is Rick Bookwalter. I am a resident, voter, and taxpayer here in our great city of Manassas. First, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year. It is a good time to step back from our routine and reflect on what has happened and look ahead to the future; this is what I will do this evening. My comments are meant to be in the best interests of this board and all its constituencies. Nothing I say tonight is meant to be personal or disparaging, but I intend to speak frankly about some hard subjects.

I speak on behalf of myself, but have been in conversation with many people about the state of our school district: our local and state elected representatives, university officials, school district staff, from the most junior teachers to the most senior administrative staff, concerned citizens, parents, and of course many students, including my own children. Five of my sons have graduated from OHS; one is currently a sophomore there. My comments are informed by all these conversations.

I have three observations for the Board’s consideration.

The first is about the Education Forward Committee. The hard truth is that this committee was formed by City Council members who were frustrated by a School Board that they saw was too slow to see and act on the decline in academic performance in our schools. After many months of meeting, the committee has developed a list of several “bold and audacious” solutions to the schools’ problems. While some have some merit, they do not address the core problems within the district and will have little effect. After observing this committee in action, I believe it is not even capable of defining the problems, and therefore should be disbanded.

Secondly, what are the core problems? Let me first say what they are not. It is not the students or the teachers. When I see the students at school events, games, or just when I stop by OHS for lunch, I see enormous good and incredible potential. In addition, it is my observation that our cadre of teachers is both dedicated and hard working under increasing difficult conditions. Some of you have pointed to a changing demographic, increasing poverty, and a lack of parental involvement. While these challenges are quite real, they are not the core problem.

The problem is you here before me – as a Board you have lost your way and your vision.

As an airline captain, I must pay attention to many details and focus on a wide array of instruments and changing conditions – but I can never lose sight of the big picture – that I have a defined destination as my goal. Even if get all the ‘technical’ aspects right, if I land in Chicago when I was supposed to land in Miami, I have failed in my job.

After attending several Education Forward meetings, I have yet to hear anyone clearly articulate what it means to have a “first class school.” I remember one meeting in particular, when Dr. Pope was asked by Councilman Mark Wolfe to describe what a top school division would look like. I was hoping for a grand exposition of her vision, but her answer was just successful test results. Is this what education has fallen to? It is my request that right now in this new year you dedicate yourselves to getting a vision for our school district. Take the time to develop a true philosophy of education. Our students and teachers do not need more programs or curriculums – they need leadership, inspiration, and a rekindling of the joy and wonder of learning.

I challenged the City Council last October to recapture this love and wonder of learning themselves, to help inspire the students and teachers of our city. Now I challenge you to do the same. It is time to light the fire in yourselves.

This brings me to my third point – the bad press of the City Schools. There is a lot of discussion about a PR campaign to enhance the image of the School District outside our city. I believe that effort is pointed in the wrong direction. The “PR campaign” should be directed at the students and teachers. They need to hear from you – and often, that you and the citizens you represent are 100% behind them, have the greatest expectations, and are available to hear any concerns and will act on them. This cannot be overemphasized. You must be leaders. Many of you have failed in this, and that is the fundamental reason the schools are struggling. Lack of leadership from the people in this room is the missing element in achieving greatness in our schools. When the schools return to greatness, you will not need a PR campaign. The word will get out!

An outstanding example of what I am talking about happened in the OHS cafeteria just last month. I was there having lunch with my son, and the new principal was walking around talking to the students. He came up to a group of Hispanic students, one of which was holding a guitar. The principal looked a bit stern, the students nervous, and I was curious what would happen. He asked for the guitar and began playing a mariachi tune – and was very good. The tone changed immediately for the students were enthralled. It was clear he had won both their admiration and respect. He had met them where they were, and now he had and will have their full attention. Simple, basic leadership.

I leave you with a closing thought. None of this is about spending more, or even less money. You have the intelligence, capability, and skill to do the job. You need to get your heads and hearts together and be the leaders Manassas deserves.

Thank you.

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One Response to Comment to the Manassas School Board 1/10/12

  1. David Core says:

    This is great, Rick. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking and indeed challenging. Alas, I don’t see much change going on — without a change in the composition of the School Board to citizens who will make difficult choices and incur the wrath of the School Establishment (the administrators, the Manassas teachers’ union) because those individuals will be called “anti-teacher” or “anti-school.” Regardless of how one may feel about the public education system in Manassas, it is where most of our children are schooled and it is a leading indicator of the success or failure of a community. It will take hard work, lots of citizen involvement, and a commitment to success (however that is defined) that will address the many problems and turn things around but it can be done.

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