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COMMUNITY VOICE

Why not ask teachers, community what makes a successful school?

Friday, November 22, 2013 - 12:01 am

We all know that labels are important. In fact, as consumers, we demand truth in labeling. However, when it comes to labeling our children that is indeed another story.

Let me give you an example. When I first moved to Fort Wayne in the 1970s, South Side High School was a storied old school, heavily laden with tradition and with a great amount of community pride. By the time I began teaching at South Side in the late 1970s, the neighborhood was beginning to change, and the area was rapidly being viewed as “an inner city school.”

Despite being in an area of high poverty, a sense of community, of family and of tradition was alive and well at our school. However, even back then, whenever some horrific news event happened on the south side of town — whether it was a car accident, a shooting or a robbery — the media was always quick to display the stately old columns of the South Side facade as the backdrop for the story.

At that time many of my students were so incensed by seeing the reputation of their alma mater besmirched by the association of the image of South Side High School with criminal activity that they indignantly wrote letters of protest to the newspapers, and I proudly posted their letters on my bulletin board.

Recently I was reminded of this when a shooting occurred on the south side of town. When I turned on the news that evening, I was once again greeted with an image of the South Side facade as a backdrop even though there was no connection between the school and the crime. Interestingly enough, I was heartened to see that former students of mine were once again expressing their outrage (but this time on Facebook) at having the school they loved labeled in such an unfair manner.

On a similar note, even though the A-F bipartisan panel has done an excellent job of wrestling with the difficult question of how to measure student growth against fixed standards, there are still fatal flaws in this system that determines winners and losers among schools, teachers and students. While I know that the A-F accountability letter grade rating system is now a part of Indiana state law, I am still bothered by the labeling of schools, of students, of teachers and of neighborhoods.

All of this leads me to ask this question. Why in the world do we need another label to decide what the quality of a school is? Do we really want to punish and reward schools and teachers according to demographics?

Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago Indiana Sen. Dennis Kruse (chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Education) expressed his concern about testing at the Faith and Politics Forum here in Fort Wayne. He said he never really liked either the A-F grading system or the ISTEP tests. So, let me get this straight: If the chairman of the Education Select Committee is skeptical of these measurements, shouldn’t the State Board and the General Assembly consider slowing down this process or at the very least consider creating a pilot program to study the effects of these programs?

Having said all of the above, do we really want a system that measures dubious data? Of course, we can change it and rearrange it, but such a system leaves much to be desired. We can slap a fresh coat of paint on a broken- down car, and the car still won’t run, or, in the words of the philosopher Sarah Palin: “You can put lipstick on a pig, and it is still a pig.”

Rather than making a seriously flawed system only marginally less so, why not ask teachers and community members what they think makes a successful school? Why not measure the qualities that we value rather than meaningless numbers that can be quantified.

Phyllis A. Bush is a resident of Fort Wayne. This was taken from her testimony at the state school board meeting on Nov. 8.