Guest commentary Thoughts on making Beloit schools better

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I am worried about the future of the School District of Beloit. There are so many challenges and grim statistics.

A scenario can be imagined where things get so bleak that outside forces take over: a reaction to poor student performance combined with a net outflow of those who live in the district, but who choose to be educated elsewhere. If the trend continues, fewer tax dollars, larger classes, and diminished morale can follow and reach a dangerous tipping point.

So what to do?

INDIVIDUAL schools must be given freedom and support to flourish, and if they do this while being different from others in the district, good for them.

The principal must be an excellent teacher. All teachers must be free to develop and apply their expertise as they create classrooms that build on district goals and take advantage of district-wide resources. Schools must be free to be creative. To be entrepreneurial. To be a source of ideas for parents and other schools.

These qualities are broadly present in flourishing districts, and occur here and there in most. They are not absent in Beloit, but do not characterize our district.

I know personally and by reputation wonderful, successful teachers and principals in Beloit. As individuals, they shine. However, they - all of them - can be more empowered if they are emphatically encouraged, trusted, and allowed to function as competent, appreciated problem solvers.

SUCCESSFUL principals are key. I have been inside countless highly effective schools throughout the United States and abroad. hey vary in their size, wealth, student demographics, and challenges, but every one of them had a principal who leads, listens, and articulates the school's mission to the community. Somebody who heads a faculty of fellow educators who have pride in what they are doing and a long-term stake in their effort.

Teachers thrive in settings that give them opportunities to make a difference. There is a disturbing turnover of teachers who leave our district. By relentlessly working toward strong, autonomous schools, our community and school board can send a message that we hire, keep, and compensate teachers who are creative problem solvers.

Similar to the assumptions and leeway that govern public charter schools, this means encouraging each school to implement rules, goals, and practices that are sensitive to their learners' needs, but not necessarily to do it the same way as everyone else. This means giving individual schools more say in hiring new staff members. More flexibility in creating schedules and relating to families. More leeway in choosing a disciplinary plan that works. More influence in governing the school.

I HAVEN'T yet mentioned superintendents, other district administrators, and only in passing, the school board. These people can contribute greatly.

However, many of them have ideas and plans while serving Beloit that do not necessarily stay alive after they depart. I would hope that an effort to relentlessly support strong schools would become top priority that is passed on to all elected and hired district leaders, present and future.

Something that stays.

A strong schools initiative is necessary but not sufficient for the success of our district. Alone it guarantees little because more is needed, but my experience has shown that without it, excellence in the long run is very difficult if not impossible. Making strong schools a hallmark of a district is not easy or everyone would have done it long ago. It takes dedication and resolve from our educational leaders and citizens who stand up to support it and push back at cries of, "We've tried that before; it didn't work," or "That won't do the trick." (It is part of the trick.)

Tom Warren, a retired educator, is Emeritus Professor of Education and Youth Studies at Beloit College. He has been a public school teacher, counselor, researcher, and professor. He served many years as Education Department chair at the College and for two years as president of the [American] Association of Independent Colleges for Teacher Education. He lives in Beloit with his wife, Anna Marie, another retired teacher. Long ago he was president of the Beloit City Council.

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