Time Out

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Time out is the term that is often used to calm an unfettered or restive situation or to bring détente to fractious relations among groups of people or friends. The need for this call has been triggered by a letter to the editor in the October 12, edition of The Westbury Times by my good friend Larry Kirton, in which he recounted the contents of a letter by WTA president Christine Corbett, to the membership. Kirton quoted sections of the letter outlining plans and strategies to deal with the situation if the board of education did not grant tenure to two teachers who were eligible for this distinction.

Kirton took umbrage to some of the language that Ms. Corbett used in reference to the three recently elected trustees to the board of education, and suggested that instead of engaging in hyperbole and innuendos, she should be encouraging teachers to get back to the business of educating our children the best way possible in an effort to improve the district’s low test scores.

The sentiments cut deep on both sides of the fence; the teachers did not hold back in showing support to their colleagues who spoke on the matter at the October 20 board meeting, nor did members of the public who also addressed the issue. The impassioned speech by trustee Quintanilla stopped short of demanding an apology from Ms. Corbett, and left no doubt that this did not sit well with him. The interesting thing is that Mr. Kirton’s reference to test scores strikes a chord with some people in the community, who do not hesitate to point this out to justify their “no” whenever support is sought on ambitious plans and proposals aimed at improving the district.

It is ironic that this schism is again in the limelight (not that it is anything new) at a time when the board of education has never been more reflective of the demography of the population it serves. I have always lamented that it was inconceivable that none of the school board members were Hispanic, although the majority of the student population were of this demographic classification. Ever since Carlos Aristy left the board in 2007, there has never been a sitting board member of Hispanic extraction until Pedro Quintanilla was elected earlier this year. With the election of trustees Cadet and Quintanilla, all the major stakeholders are now represented on the board and this is a good thing for the district.

We are seeing a new sense of energy and cohesiveness at school board meetings, with the Hispanic and Haitian segments of the community turning out in impressive numbers; thanks to community activist Mateo Flores and trustee Sherley Cadet for rallying these forces. These are small incremental gains, but we still have a lot of work to do in terms addressing the factors that impact the school district as a whole. The fact that we now have a greater representation of all the stakeholders at the table; it might just make this burden a little lighter.

As stated before, these issues are nothing new to the district; in 1998, then Superintendent Dr. Robert Pickney, already five years on the job, was under increasing pressure to turn around the district or else. The student population was only 3,500 then, and comprised of 44 percent African American, 36 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Haitian and 4 percent white. These numbers are remarkably different now, but the district can still be classified as an “urbanized suburb,” with a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch, a language barrier, a large immigrant population and low test scores…the very same issues that Pickney faced at the time.

Relentless and determined to try something new, Dr. Pickney discussed various educational reform programs that were in vogue around the country at school board meetings and at PTA council meetings. The district eventually signed on to the Comer model—a concept developed by Dr. James Comer, a faculty member at Yale University, and at the time being practiced at over 700 school districts similar to ours, as the Comer Process. Comer focus on three basic principles: no-fault collaboration, communication and consensus building, and parents, teachers and school board members were encouraged to attend the four-day training at Yale.

I do not know if we are still considered a “Comer” district, or what became of this concept along the way; whether it is worth looking at again, or should it be treated as “been there, done that,” but it seems to me that at least part of the solution to the situation at hand is contained in the principles stressed by Comer.

—Chester McGibbon

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