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Opinion: Why Aren’t We In This Together? Tri-State Says it – It’s A Top Down Problem

toolboxThis letter was writting by Diane Greenwald:
There is a saying about consultants, you give them your watch, so they tell you the time. Superintendent Thomas Hagerman just learned from his focus group/survey report, prepared by Tri-State Consortium, exactly what so many in the community have been saying since the summer. We need greater transparency about the decision-making process; improved communications; and we need ongoing and creative focus on students’ structured learning time. So now what?

I am heartsick by the divisiveness that is being fostered in this community. Someone needs to say it – every single parent out here is actually saying the same thing. I wish the Superintendent would notice it. There are no bad parents versus good parents – we are all concerned parents, reasonable parents who are thirsty for information. There is no silent majority or noisy few. And no one is against the teachers. In fact, I am equally heartsick to learn that teachers feel a similar top-down disenfranchisement.

Instead of working with stakeholders, our Superintendent and Board President speak in platitudes or not at all; often leaving blame to simmer. They leave major educational decisions to committees, who should instead be bringing their recommendations to the Board for public discussion and approval. Instead of creating collaborative connections, parents, teachers and students are ill-informed and in distant silos. Stakeholders are labeled, dismissed or pitted against each other.

But there is so much common ground to work with. We can seek more structure and instruction AND value student wellness. We can value teacher autonomy AND seek stronger partnerships during this crisis. We can value our teachers’ health AND hope for more in person (or structured) learning for our students. We can trust and admire our teachers’ skills AND appreciate accountability and communications. We can challenge assumptions and decisions AND be on the same team. We can advocate for our own children AND desire the best outcomes for all children.

The fact that so many new-to-the-mike parents are speaking out at Board meetings and that some Board members want to limit the format, well, it’s concerning. I get that meetings go very late, but limiting speaking is merely dealing with the symptom, not the root problem. The open mike is among the most effective communications tools available not only for the Board, but because it’s how stakeholders can hear each other. It ensures accountability and can create solidarity and understanding. There can be reasonable limits, but usually, by the time folks come to speak at the mike, they have likely already felt dismissed (or worse.) The issue is not the speakers or the length of their comments. The issue is that it is simply too hard to be heard (and understood) by District leaders.

And let’s be clear – spending 40 minutes on Board protocols rather than speaking about children’s education during crisis is tone deaf.

There are examples of great work going on – I know kids are learning, teachers are reaching their students with herculean efforts, our building principals are just plain awesome! But there are also too many examples of the District’s rigid focus on old protocols, underutilization of the community brain trust, and truly poor communications. While I hope this can change, it would take some soul-searching by the Superintendent and Board to adjust their approach.

I believe we need our leadership to focus on broad and deep understanding of our community values, not a collection of specific opinions, which will never be fully aligned. We need open-minded and empathetic problem solving, we need honest learning from successes and challenges, and a strong focus on the children.

Scarsdale has a history of providing programs not to meet the greatest demand or the middle, but to meet each child where they are. We fund small efforts despite the numbers because that’s what excellence is. (At least we used to.) That value should be filtered through every action now, every idea, every piece of input.

I don’t need a survey to know the following:

• We need a clear but flexible plan, with benchmarks, metrics and protocols.

• We need a big toolbox, not one size fits all, and employ their use with common sense. (that means that we buy state-of-the-art equipment, have live-streaming available, have plexiglass where needed, put up some tents or cover vestibules, rent space in unusual venues, build partnerships, train in new ways, etc… Throw it all in!)

• Support teacher autonomy and foster their creativity, their intrinsic motivation, with gratitude.

• Seek out scientific solutions in support of health/safety beyond State regs. (like creating an opt-in covid-19 testing protocol, testing wastewater, etc.)

• Use all community resources and expertise.

• We need public and full-Board oversight of major educational decisions.

• Raise additional funds for teacher and building support.

• Seek out best practices from other places finding success.

• Acknowledge the humanity in this endeavor, the difficulty for each stakeholder.

• Provide support where most needed and broaden horizons through non sibi engagements.

• Focus on the children, whose developmental impact is unknown but real.

• Communicate with care and honesty, not blame, and forgo platitudes and own mistakes.

• Love this brilliant, amazing community.

• Be the District of Yes!

Sure, there are some entitled jerks, lack-luster practitioners and even some obnoxious kids in this town, but that is not who we are, and I am tired of the divisive clichés used to make Scarsdalians seem unable to be satisfied. Scarsdale has strong teachers, eager students, hard-working administrators, engaged parents and a large tax base. We all want safety, quality instruction, creative solutions, honest dealings, transparent decision-making, support for our teachers, and loving kindness focused on our kids. We are worried about the kids. We are worried about this delicate ecosystem that is our home and workplace.

We lost time this fall not maximizing the good weather and are facing a winter that seems headed toward additional challenges. And we need to do better --- with our teachers, for our students and supporting each other. We need leadership to help us feel that we are in this together. That’s what time it is.

Respectfully submitted,
Diane Greenwald

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