Chapel Hill: Opinion

August 8, 2014

Tom Forcella: Rethinking the public-schools paradigm

I was recently challenged to rethink my public school paradigm. Allow me to explain.

I was recently challenged to rethink my public-schools paradigm.

Allow me to explain. You see, in recent years, and probably more this year than any other, public schools have been used as a political volleyball. They seem to be the legislative hot potato that generates the most news from inside the Beltline. They also play a large part in determining which politicians get elected – at all levels.

Between school budgets, charter-school caps, teacher tenure and Common Core, educational issues are daily headlines.

Working inside the school community for nearly 40 years, and listening to politicians – many of whom have little (or no) connection with public schools – discuss the “best” course of action for our students, I often shake my head and wonder how we got to this point.

However, this political paradigm has to change. While we do have a clear responsibility to advocate for our schools, we must not get too caught up in the politics.

To that end, I have accepted the challenge to shift my thoughts about public schools – from politics to consumerism.

Consumerism is surely not a new concept. In fact, when it was presented, I quickly dismissed the notion. After all, a high percentage of school-age children residing within our school district are already attending our schools. Yes, we have competition from private schools, charter schools and home schools, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has enjoyed tremendous success and public support for decades. The school district has a sterling reputation, even beyond our community.

So, with all that success, and with the majority of children already attending our schools, one might question why we need to view our schools through the lens of consumerism?

The answer is two distinct reasons.

First, our public schools are, and have been since inception, a community hub. Strong schools drive our economy, our commerce, our kinship, and our quality of life. Thomas Jefferson suggested an educated citizenry is the basis of an indispensable democracy. Thus, it is vital that we maintain a focus on healthy and vibrant public schools.

Second, the support of our community – via both student attendance and tax funding – is crucial to the existence and well-being of our schools.

We do not want to wake up five years from now and wonder why thousands of our students have decided on other educational alternatives. This has been the reality of many of my superintendent colleagues from other parts of our state and nation. That scenario would devastate our school district and severely impede our community.

So, before that happens, we need to make sure that, as a school system, we instill confidence in our consumers. We also need to tell the stories of our schools. Amazing things happen in classrooms throughout Carrboro and Chapel Hill on a daily basis.

The school district’s unrelenting focus on instructional excellence, which emphasizes thinking, problem solving and student engagement, is making a difference. Our teachers are to be commended for their willingness to implement new instructional strategies that are aimed at reducing achievement gaps and providing rigorous learning challenges for all students.

Children graduating from our schools are prepared for future challenges. They appreciate diversity, work collaboratively to create, embrace technology, willingly take risks and welcome the notion of hard work.

I want our parents and our community to know how much I appreciate them entrusting their children’s education to our team. We are grateful for the victories of the past school year, indeed it was cause to celebrate, but we are eager to roll up the sleeves and begin the new school year on August 25.

The 2014-15 school year promises to be a dynamic learning season for all involved. I appreciate all consumers of our schools, and I am honored to be your superintendent.

Tom Forcella is the superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. His column appears monthly in The Chapel Hill News.

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