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Thursday, May 2, 2013 06:55 am

Leak questions remain, but there are deeper problems

Many questions remain unanswered regarding the unlawful release by School District 186 of student data from the Capital College Preparatory Academy (CCPA), and the official apology issued by the Springfield Board of Education rings hollow.  The police and district investigation did uncover much of the mystery – the who and how. Even a motive – to discredit CCPA claims of high performance – has been established.  

What the investigation failed to answer is what gain the suspects sought from their actions, what conditions led them to act and whether they alone concocted the scheme.  What, for instance, would two school employees, seemingly unconnected to the debate, achieve by unlawfully acquiring and secretly releasing CCPA student data?  What circumstances impacted their decisions to act? Were the employees named actually the instigators of the plan? Or did they just carry it out?  

Instead, the police report documents only the most obvious leads, and ties the mystery up prematurely with a neat bow.  If district leaders know the answers to these broader questions, they remain mum.  Absent involvement from federal or state authorities or further school board inquiries – both unlikely – Springfield may never understand what led these employees to risk their careers.

The district is satisfied with the explanations revealed in the police investigation and its internal review.  Authorities have meted out punishment to those directly involved, issued an obligatory apology and announced a good will school tour to try to repair a so-called “trust deficit” with its parents and students.

Perhaps it is time to move on, but the school district is going to have to do a lot more to repair the damage and dysfunction of the past 12 months than conduct good will tours. The district’s problems run deeper than a loss of trust with its stakeholders.  CCPA’s future, the fate of other district specialty schools and Springfield’s overall commitment to school reform must be addressed.     

For a lasting cure, the school board needs to look into its fragmented system where “working together to achieve outstanding results” is merely a slogan repeated when answering the phones.  Behind the scenes, Springfield’s public education system often operates more like a fraternity or sorority where popularity, loyalty and favoritism guide decision-making rather than the interests of students, parents and the community.

CCPA parents upset the applecart when they did not quietly accept their fate and formed a vocal and visible advocacy effort to save their school.  As the CCPA advocacy blossomed and gained momentum, it became a nuisance to the status quo, threatening to derail plans for an orderly budget cutting process.  After losing the budget battle to save their school, the group turned its attention to the fast-approaching school board elections to seek redress for their loss. This really crossed the line of acceptable agitation and set the stage for much of what came next.  

All the while, long-simmering discontent from the “regular” school establishment rose to the surface.  Some among these teachers and staff view specialty schools as a competitive threat and an unwelcome reminder of their inability to meet the needs of all children.  Traditional school staff, often demoralized from ever-rising challenges despite their best efforts, can resent specialty schools, feeling shortchanged by their smaller class sizes, increased technology or other advancements.  In response, they periodically rally to demand a redistribution of resources back toward conventional approaches.          

This response is rational and should be anticipated, especially in economic hard times.  Yet, to avoid this protectionist mindset and school-against-school antagonism, the school board must clearly outline district priorities, continuously cultivate and support a culture that recognizes all schools for advancing important district goals, and provide pathways for collective success.  At the same time, if the board and administration believe specialty schools meet vital needs, they must stand firm against pressure to abandon them, instead reaffirming their important role in meeting the district’s core mission.   

While the vision for achieving systemic excellence must be established at the top, it must be implemented by the bottom.  Therefore, all parts of the system and all staff must feel integral to the plan or an “us vs. them” mentality will prevail. This has occurred repeatedly since 186 began to experiment with specialty schools, yet the issue has been left to fester.

In May, as the school board welcomes four new members, it should reflect on its role in recent mistakes and start anew by establishing clear standards of excellence that everyone in the system is expected to advance.  Creating an educational system stamped by cooperation, openness to new ways of meeting student needs and solid results will rebuild the trust gap faster and more effectively than even the best good will tour could ever accomplish.

Sheila Stocks-Smith was education liaison for the City of Springfield from 2003-2010, is a strong supporter of public education and has been active in school improvement advocacy for nearly 20 years. 
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