When I was invited two years ago to return to school
superintendency from retirement, I hesitated. Four decades of
experience in public education had given me perspective on its
strengths and on its weaknesses. A district like the Normandy
School District, far richer in history than in tax base, required
an energy I had hoped to reserve for spoiling grandchildren and
rereading some of the great books.
But the challenge was there: Standardized test results were at
rock bottom. Too many of the district's 5,400 children were reading
and figuring at levels far below state and regional averages. Test
scores had been declining for four years. Yet there was a tradition
of parental and community involvement in the schools in Normandy
and its girdle of tiny mun icipalities and a genuine wish for
The Board of Education charged me with improving student
achievement. And they offered me what passes for a free hand in
today's work-ruled, state-regulated, underfunded public education
Focus On The Basics
In those first weeks, I visited every school in the district.
To each of those 11 buildings, ranging from tiny Bel Ridge
Elementary to mighty Normandy Senior High School, I carried a
single message: We would improve together - immediately.
My watchword was "focus." Every member of the certified staff,
every administrator, every parent and every student in our schools
would recover the focus on improving student achievement. That
meant that a lot of worthwhile - and a few just plain silly -
programs would be placed on the back burner. Roller skating, film
appreciation, self-esteem mantras and even programs to discourage
teen-age pregnancy were to lose precedence and resources to the
task of improving basic test scores in the fundamental skills of
reading and mathematics.
All 11 building principals were required to develop a school
improvement plan and then to "sell it" to a skeptical audience of
one: me. Most of the principals immediately involved their teachers
and parents in the task. It would be at this school, not some
other, that students would actually have to learn.
A few students were already performing well. The task was to
cause the majority of students to improve their academic
performance. This required the establishment of high expectations
and demanding standards. It also required teachers and
administrators to provide for the students the appropriate
experiences to cause them to meet these more demanding standards.
Parents Must Be Involved
The parents were asked to donate their time and attention to
two things: First, to involve themselves in the rhythms of their
children's school days. They were to be reasonably certain that
their own offspring reported to school each day well rested and
carrying their completed homework.
Second, I invited (in a few cases, cajoled and threatened)
parents to volunteer time in the schools as aides, assistants and
chaperones and required their attendance at conferences with their
children's teachers. …