A new process for identifying and turning around low-performing schools has been rocky from the get-go. Those involved should probably get their seat belts fastened.
The process isn't just new. It will be painful for those schools involved. But not yet knowing what will happen at these schools is painful in its own right.
Tulsa had just one of six schools named to a list of C3 schools that must accept significant involvement from the state Education Department in the coming school year. But McLain Junior High and High School for Science and Technology serves more than 800 students while serving only about half the students in its attendance zone, according to school district officials.
Given the reaction at a community meeting last week just days after the state's decision, change won't be easy. The Tulsa World reported shouting from those in attendance at the mention of pursuing a grant that could result in considerable staffing changes at the school.
McLain, not unlike other schools on the list, has a history of struggles with student achievement. The two traditional Oklahoma City schools on the list — Shidler Elementary and Roosevelt Middle School — have low test scores that are screaming for attention.
But no one knows what inclusion on the C3 list really means — not school officials, not teachers and certainly not parents. State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi has said the plan for each school will be different. Rightfully so. But anxiety will be high until the plans have been fleshed out. Schools don't know yet what will happen with staffing or whether significant curriculum changes will be headed their way. Parents don't know either.
The early rhetoric was about the state taking over schools. That's been replaced with discussions about partnerships. But the waiver that outlined this new process makes clear that the state ultimately will be in charge at the C3 schools. No feel-good talk of a partnership changes that. School districts “will relinquish control of all aspects of … operations that directly or indirectly relate to student achievement at the C3 school to the state Education Department,” the waiver states. It also gives authority to the state Board of Education to review the entire budget of a school district with a C3 school.
To the extent that language makes school districts uncomfortable, it should. While the state Education Department has yet to demonstrate its capacity to turn around troubled schools, the school districts in question haven't had overwhelming success either. As we've noted before, all involved should be more focused on improving student achievement than who's in charge and who gets the credit. Regardless of semantics, these struggling schools need the support of all agencies and their communities to turn things around. And all should be sensitive that in labeling schools, we need not label the children. That they have poor test scores doesn't make them bad kids — a point made time and again by school officials.
The opportunity to make things better for the children in these schools is enormous. But the opportunity could easily be squandered if pride or rhetoric or power struggles come before the best interests of children. Winning for children will mean hard choices and probably lots of pride-swallowing. But the alternative of more of the status quo simply isn't acceptable.