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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Weather" Or Not, We Are Mission Oriented

Not many years ago the Michigan Department of Education conducted a statewide exit survey of 65 retiring school superintendents to solicit feedback regarding their experiences. The goal of that effort was to discover areas in which prospective superintendents could be better prepared for the role. The departing school system leaders were asked many different questions and they provided keen insight into the challenges confronting school superintendents. However, they were unanimous on one particular point when identifying the single responsibility they would not miss as they retired. That is, they were glad to escape the decision on whether school should be delayed or cancelled, generally because of the inclement conditions of snow or freezing rain. We were lucky that the nearly 12 inches of snow that fell in our area recently was during the holiday break and did not cost us a day of school or inconvenience parents regarding child care needs.

The decision is ultimately based on safety. The only guarantee the superintendent has is that the decision will be considered wrong by some people no matter what he or she decided. Some people would claim that since they still had to go to work then school should be expected to remain open as well. Others would take a different point of view and threaten legal action against the school if their child is injured in a bus accident caused by weather so terrible that any sane person would know enough to close school.

But there's more to the impact of the decision than safety issues. Let's examine the objective of public schools as an outgrowth of this discussion on closing schools because of inclement weather. Larry Lezotte, a noted researcher of school improvement strategies, claims there are three basic missions of public schools 1.) sorting and selecting potential futures by discriminating among varied learning levels and steering learners on diverging paths to college or the workforce... 2.) custodial care of children between five and eighteen years old, and 3.) teaching and learning. He asserts that the second mission, custodial care of children, is clear every time a school announces an unexpected closing or delay. As proof, he cites the furor that produces parent complaints about the sudden and the unexpected need for childcare services if school is cancelled or delayed by inclement weather, loss of power or water, or some other calamity that prohibits school from being in session.

I'd like to discount the first proposed mission of sorting and selecting because it's not an entirely accurate process and has the potential to be somewhat value laden. I suspect that my present standing and career status did not unfold in the manner or direction that my former teachers would have predicted. My enduring persistence, intrinsic motivation, and optimistic sense of opportunity contributed to exceeding the limits that had been imposed on me as a child. As a result, I'm not in favor of schools adopting such a position of determination, nor the prospect that the general public might expect or encourage schools to perform this function for society. There are many variables that can impact the progress and the path that a child might take, or not take, as they mature as a learner.

While I acknowledge the realities of child care I do not consider that responsibility to be the singular role of schools. Public schools are not warehouses of children, nor should they be viewed as such. Although the supreme court has ruled that school staff can assume certain responsibilities in the place of a parent (the Latin term used in legal proceedings is "in loco parentis") and schools have had to accept an expanded array of services, (two examples at Heatly include the provision of breakfast and lunch to many children and an after-school child care program provided by the YMCA) there are countless other responsibilities of higher priority than simply exercising child care.

That brings us to the third of Lezotte's school missions that he acknowledged in his work - teaching and learning. I will admit that this is not the sole task of schools. It would be naive to suggest that schools don't also contend with other roles.  Nonetheless, teaching and learning - in its broadest sense as opposed to the confinements of what is and can be tested - should be the primary purpose and meaning of schools. I expand the notion of the goals of teaching and learning beyond tests because we are committed, as stated in our mission, to prepare graduates for college, career and citizenship. The achievement of such a goal is not fully captured in any Regents test or other state mandated tests. Cooperation, problem solving, interpersonal communication, and conflict resolution are among the many important traits and/or skills necessary for success in our society - and they aren't currently measured in any state test (but that's another story). Our success or lack thereof should be measured in reference to teaching and learning. Our budget should be calculated to support teaching and learning. Our allocation of resources like time, space, and materials should be expended on teaching and learning.

In the end, the staff at Heatly must address several different elements of child development across the cognitive, social, psychological and kinesthetic domains. We pursue our mission by responding to the needs of all learners while acknowledging the interests of the community we serve and complying with the requirements of the state and federal departments of education --- and ensuring a safe environment (even if it means we have to close or delay school due to inclement weather).

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