January 27, 2015

Op-Ed: An educator's view of selecting a new Norfolk School Board

We cannot rely on Norfolk City Council to fix problems that they themselves created or allowed to happen. Their selection of school board members has been flawed, and their oversight of the Norfolk School Board has not been effective. The  column by Vivian J. Paige (Virginian-Pilot 01-22-2015) suggesting that the ward system be dropped from the process of selecting a new Norfolk School Board is on target. 

When I worked within Norfolk's public schools in 1994-2000 as executive director of the Tidewater Scholarship Foundation, a free-standing college access program [501 (c) (3)] that served five public high schools in Norfolk, the schools were at or above average in most categories, and won several national awards. Morale seemed high, and the teachers and students appeared engaged and productive. We of the ACCESS program were in the schools every day.

Providing a college access program under these conditions, especially to students from inner city families that had little or no previous experience with college attendance, was a remarkable, inspiring enterprise that each year reached new levels of success in numbers of students served and diversity of colleges to which students were admitted. (The remarkable success of the ACCESS College Foundation continues throughout South Hampton Roads.)

Sometime after June 2000 (when I retired), Norfolk City Council and the Norfolk School Board lost track of the schools and they began to decline. Thereafter, several attempts — and superintendents — have failed to bring them back to accreditable, acceptable levels. Thus today, changes in leadership must be achieved, without political agendas. A new Norfolk School Board is job one.

Students deserve rigorous education, accountable administrators, and evaluated, encouraged teachers; not failed programs and outmoded leadership styles. We, the taxpayers — whether we have students in the schools or not — also deserve to have schools that are active, accountable and successful. The economic viability and domestic tranquility of our neighborhoods depend upon public schools that meet education standards of the state of Virginia and the regional accrediting agency (SACS).

As Vivian Paige wrote regarding community meetings, "The support for an at-large system over wards was overwhelming - and from nearly every corner of Norfolk." We, the people of Norfolk are speaking; if we are ignored by Norfolk City Council, we must not tolerate the exclusion.

Thank goodness for Ms. Paige's independent voice, especially now when journalistic scrutiny and straightforwardness are most needed in Norfolk's public life. Clearly new leadership and fresh approaches are required in Norfolk's public schools — a good place to start. 

Let us continue to speak and assert our rights and concerns as citizens. It's what we were taught to do in a democracy. Only with strong public schools may we continue that tradition. And, as in most successful organizations, it all begins with a strong, diverse governing board — a new Norfolk School Board, not a retread.

Gerald L. Cooper