Why are Keene school officials sometimes so blind and tone deaf to concerns of those outside the administrative bubble?
We’re prompted to ask by the latest brouhaha between school administrators and community members — the proposal of a new bus turnaround at Symonds School that would route buses through the pocket neighborhood to the school’s east.
Last week, officials and neighborhood representatives took their arguments to the City Council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee. The neighbors — residents of Wheelock Street, Newman Street and Pine Avenue — are up in arms about the plan, under which buses would access the school via Wheelock Street instead of the Wheelock Park entrance on Park Avenue used now. Twenty-nine residents signed a letter objecting to the new route, which they say would pose safety issues for residents and, particularly, children walking to and from school on the narrow streets.
The neighbors’ concerns were echoed by Councilors Robert J. O’Connor, Philip M. Jones and Randy L. Filiault. But City Manager Elizabeth Dragon noted the council actually has little say over the plan. It’s the planning board, she said, that would give the go-ahead to use Wheelock Street as an entrance.
The planning board will next meet Nov. 25. The school district will host a meeting Thursday at Symonds School to discuss the topic — the second such meeting. At the first, administrators were clearly taken aback by the ferocious opposition to the plan, which is already nearly completed.
While they’ve since become more responsive — though notably, they haven’t committed to killing, or even changing, the plan — Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay, Unit 29 Chief Financial Officer Tim Ruehr and Symonds Principal Richard Cate admitted they didn’t expect the plan to be controversial.
“We failed miserably to foresee this initiative,” Ruehr said.
And therein lies the problem. Time and again, school officials seem to have taken the approach that since they’re professionals, steeped in educational theory and versed in rules and regulations, policy and procedure, the conclusions they reach will be acceptable to everyone.
They ought to have learned from the outcry caused when it was announced the district would be turning from traditional grading to so-called “competency-based” assessing methods of student achievement. To begin with, showing students have competently mastered the curriculum should ALWAYS have been the goal. That it somehow became adulterated by criteria based on effort or attendance or behavior is a disappointment, at the very least. But to appear either unaware or unconcerned with parents’ worries about the effects of a wholly different grading system on their children’s academic futures was an indication of being blind to the needs and concerns of others. That the school board, after Keene High Principal Jim Logan promised no changes had been set in stone, immediately turned around and voted to do away with midterms and finals said a lot.
Or consider the furor caused when students entering the military reached out to administration about wearing sashes they’d been given by their recruiters for graduation, to be told the policy doesn’t allow for individualism at graduation. In that case, Malay wisely relented, while promising to begin work on a clearer, fair policy for graduation wear.
And to be fair, in all these cases, the officials have had the interest of students at heart. Symonds’ administrators want to diffuse a confusing drop-off and pick-up situation while keeping students safe. Keene High officials want the best means of determining students have really learned what they need to before advancing them. And graduation uniformity … actually, we’re not sure what the purpose of that policy is. Let the students express themselves after 12 years or more of effort.
New Hampshire’s school officials are under a great deal of pressure these days. The Legislature has historically refused to adequately fund the state’s obligation to educate our children, creating situations where local districts have to cut corners and face irate taxpayers for having the audacity to put money toward such things as teaching students with disabilities as required by federal law.
The Sununu administration has been waging an all-out assault on public schools for several years, attempting to redirect both funding and authority from local boards and administrators. And inattentive, disruptive students have made education an increasingly frustrating, even dangerous profession.
But failing to consider how their decisions might be viewed and what effects they may have on parents, neighbors and taxpayers only exacerbates the situation.