A new superintendent will not sprinkle pixie dust and fix your issues.
THE SCHOOL BOARD soon will be making one of Beloit's most important decisions in years, when it extends an offer of employment for a new superintendent.
Last week board members finalized what might be called a "want list" for traits a new leader would exhibit. It's pretty much boilerplate, as these things tend to be, with the board looking for a visionary, a change agent, a collaborator, and so on.
More important, and illuminating, are issues turned up by the executive search firm during discussions with various individuals and groups in Beloit. District issues identified included weak academic performance, disciplinary problems, low staff morale and high turnover, staff expressing lack of administrative support, racial tensions, along with budget challenges and other more typical situations hardly unique to Beloit.
THE INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY of the Beloit Daily News is long and guides this observation: We have been writing about these very same deep issues in the School District of Beloit for decades, without solutions. In fact, the situation has worsened.
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That aphorism generally is attributed to renowned scientist Albert Einstein, though there's no definitive evidence he ever really said it. Whether he did or didn't, the sentiment rings true and applies to the district's direction.
Beloit is a challenged community, from a social standpoint. All the statistical evidence is present - the city is poorer, less educated, lower paid, more kids in poverty, with lower housing values and more cultural division than most Wisconsin cities. The school district reflects the social dynamic, and is the front line for either change or decline. The stakes are enormous, and obvious, since Beloit has created thousands of new jobs the past decade while the population has remained stagnant. Potential residents are looking elsewhere, and a challenged school district is a significant contributor.
No superintendent will arrive wearing blue tights and a red cape and fix all that single-handedly.
THAT DOESN'T MEAN the situation is hopeless. Far from it. The first thing to remember is that Beloit's issues are common for urban school districts all across America. The second thing to remember is that Beloit is a small city. This is not New York, or Chicago, or Milwaukee, or even Rockford. This is a smaller scale. This is fixable.
But only if the community as a whole accepts full responsibility as the difference-maker.
People have to understand problems will not be fixed by a great superintendent, members of the school board or district faculty. They can help, but nothing less than a community-wide commitment is required.
And it cannot come just from a collective class of do-gooders, often privileged folks gathering to support the latest well-intentioned educational initiative. The challenge always is to extend outreach and remediation to the street level, where the most stubborn social conditions exist. That's where the community at-large must make a difference, by getting involved at the granular level not only to get services where services are most needed, but also to get past excuses and raise expectations of responsibility and accountability for the well-being of children.
MAKE NO MISTAKE. That is the underlying root cause of urban districts' struggles with academic progress. Educators have kids for a fraction of their waking hours each year. Yet educators are tasked with undoing the harm occurring in the rest of kids' lives. That hasn't worked before. It won't work now. The commitment must go big, or face more failure.
There are positive signs - a community-driven early childhood literacy initiative leaps to mind. But that's not enough. Turning this around will take a devotion to improving human capital, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.
The right superintendent certainly will be critical to the effort. Beloit needs a strong leader, a no-nonsense take-charge turnaround agent with a proven track record somewhere else - outside the current troubled system - a bold individual not looking for a new job, lured instead by the very size of the challenge. If he or she costs more, pay it.
Then the school board should take a very long look in the mirror. It has been part of the problem, collectively, for years, not part of the solution. A bold leader will fail if that individual is forced constantly to watch his or her back and fend off meddlesome intrusions. The board's job is to see the big picture, set reachable goals and insist on accountability and measured performance. It's not to lead or run the district. The kind of leader Beloit wants and needs - the one identified by those traits outlined last week - would want no part of this district unless the board ceases its constant bickering and back-biting.
THIS IS AN opportunity, a chance to put past failures behind and embark on a new journey of positive energy and innovation.
The board, administrative staff, faculty, the business community, nonprofit agencies, social service providers, taxpayers, municipal government and, most of all, parents and students, can start over with renewed commitment to alter the trajectory of mediocrity that has marked the Beloit district. In a real sense, the response from all those groups and more will determine not only the next superintendent's success or failure, but the long-term direction of the community writ large.
Take responsibility for your city.