3 Superintendents Explain Their Leaving
"We need to stand up for what we are supposed to be doing in public education."
Three of Westchester's high-profile superintendents have or will abandon public schools, taking about 100 years of experience to private schools and the policy arena.
In one way or another, the federal No Child Left Behind Act plays into their thinking. Of the three, Tom Kelly directly blames the act for driving him out. And Bruce Dennis admits to enjoying life without the state on his back. Sherry King is, as always, the most circumspect.
Valhalla's Kelly, 40, says he's moving on because public school "reform" is, in his opinion, more of a regression, and he can't remain on the inside and fight "the naysayers and chuckleheads who look at numbers and throw mud." He'll be head of school at the prestigious and private Horace Mann School in Riverdale, where students don't take state tests but go on to colleges anyway, he said.
"I am going to a place where there is greater flexibility to take risks grounded in instruction, where there isn't the rigidity of somebody in Albany saying 'You have to do this!' " he said.
That is indeed what he'll find if his experience is anything like that of Dennis, formerly of the Bedford schools. As the new head of school at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, "the absence of a focus on standardized tests allows for a lot more creativity in the classroom, and we can employ people who have wonderful talents but lack paper certification," he said.
Kelly will get to do some teaching and will have a better chance to make himself heard. Within the public system, "your voice is automatically muffled and labeled as making excuses," he said.
Mamaroneck's King also wants to work at changing the system, though she has chosen a different route. Working for a national education organization, King said, she's "going to try to figure out how to take legislation that is well-intended — and in my estimation not well implemented or adequately funded — and make sure that we stay true to the intent, to help more kids perform at higher levels."
Kelly prefers to take on the politicos from his podium as adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Kelly, a man who can bring passion to the most pragmatic statement, is very nearly off his own scale of amused verbosity when it comes to government-reported test scores.
"At what point did we define a successful public school experience by a finite set of data points called state assessments?" he said. "In New York state they are reported with a level of arrogance and never correlated with a community's income!
"There is not a single public school in Westchester County that is not experiencing great success with caring teachers, caring parents and caring community members. Regretfully, we have a level of accountability that defines good as the absence of bad."
Even as a school make strides, Kelly said, as more of its students take more difficult courses and pass Regent's tests, nobody is looking at anything but the scores. We no longer show respect to students who succeed at the trades, and we cast intelligent, hard-working immigrants to community colleges because they can't pass tests in English in the given high school time frame, he said.
"We need to stand up for what we are supposed to be doing in public education. Some of the best life lessons don't come out of straight A's acquired with ease," Kelly said. "It's the nose-to-the-grindstone, the kids with straight C's who volunteer, the nice kids with maybe no accolades at all who found the Fortune 500 companies. But with a blink of an eye we've forgotten that."
Despite all that commentary, and a lot more to say, he has no plans to go into politics. "I don't think I have the political wherewithal to keep my mouth shut," he said.
King, 54, ever measured in her speech and demeanor, said she is going to a place where she can help even more students: America's Choice, a subsidiary of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
The move is "very exciting and also anxiety provoking," she said, offering a rare glimpse into her emotions.
"I feel wonderful about where we are as a district. I think if you don't have some difficult issues on the docket, that you aren't doing the important work that needs to be done. The hard part is leaving the rhythm of school, of parents and of kids growing up together."
Dennis, 56, doesn't seem to have any regrets, though he took a little grief for doing the human thing last year: taking retirement in Bedford and taking on the salary at Packer. He figured he shouldn't work in New York while collecting the pension — but he really liked Packer.
"I spent 35 wonderful years in public education," he said. In many respects, the private arena "is more similar than different."
"High expectations come directly from parents paying directly," he said, "and there is a really high quality staff so that is very similar to Bedford. But the mission is more narrowly defined. In public school we pride ourselves on serving all kids with a whole array of services that independent schools are typically not set up to provide. It sounds almost corny, but serving all the kids was important to me."
Clearly pleased with the change, he can now unleash the great good humor he sometimes seemed to abruptly check.
"The most pleasant difference is that the Packer board meets five times a year for two hours. The last meeting was over at 8 o'clock and the time before that the president apologized because it ended at five-to-nine," he said. "I've talked to the lawyer maybe three times since July 1. I could do that three times a day at Bedford.
"And there is the other thing, but I haven't put it into practice. In public school most families are wonderful, there are a million great ones. But some are extraordinarily difficult. You never blame the kid for who their parents are. But in private school you can solve an array of problems by not renewing a kid's contract. I had to admit I smiled when I heard that."
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