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The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts

October 27, 2017 - Worcester Telegram & Gazette - Worcester HEARS
Sleepy school board forum is wake-up call


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Columnist Clive McFarlane

October 27, 2017


The Latino Education Institute and the Department of Urban Education Studies at Worcester State University held a community and schools forum Wednesday evening with the focus on increasing opportunities for all students in the public schools.

The community appeared not to have gotten the memo.

The six incumbent School Committee members - Dianna Biancheria, Donna Colorio, Jack Foley, Molly McCullough, John Monfredo, Brian O’Connell - and the lone challenger in this year’s school committee election - Dante Comparetto - were on hand to share their vision for improving the public schools.

But outside of representatives for the sponsors of the event, few city residents showed up.

The often monotonous nature of such political forums may have dissuaded people from attending, and Wednesday’s event was not an exception to this monotony.

The seven school committee candidates talked at length from a grab bag of recurring educational topics - minority/majority achievement gap, insufficient funding, wraparound services, early childhood education, academic rigor, dropout and graduation rates, college preparedness, testing overload, etc.

We know that the seven candidates are not all in sync with everything having to do with the needs and the direction of the city’s public schools, but we were left with that impression, not because they said so explicitly but because none of them questioned each other’s positions on anything.

Perhaps that was because of the moderator’s questions, which generated answers that were broad rather than specific.

Yet, from the mounting push for privatization to the momentous pushback against diversity that we are witnessing in the country today, these are deeply consequential times for public education, and the fact that the community seems to be sitting it out should alarm us.

How is it possible that a school board that has given the impression through its decisions over the past couple of years that issues of culture and diversity are add-ons rather than a foundation for higher learning and achievement is not being challenged at the polls?

I was told by a former school committee member Wednesday evening that the lack of challenges, at least from minority candidates, was because such candidacies are futile; that is, voters will not back minority candidates.

There may be some truth to that assessment, but it is a defeatist position. Moreover, the onus is not just on minority candidates to push for change. It is on people of all races and creeds who understand the transformative power of public education and the peril it now faces to push for change.

It is well and good to criticize the status quo, but if you take no action to influence change, your criticism ends up being a recurring whine.

At the very least, participation in the political process generates the dialogue essential to change minds, maybe not immediately, but over time.

And so on Wednesday, the candidates expressed support for the administration’s effort to enroll children fleeing the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico - efforts that include providing them with trauma-sensitive support services and temporarily easing certification requirements to allow the hiring of Puerto Rican teachers in supporting the children’s transition.

And there was no resident or school committee challenger there to note how amazing it was that they had so quickly and easily embraced the right thing to do in this case, but have for so long been so hesitant to do the same thing for the documented trauma that so many Worcester public schools students have been experiencing for so many decades.

In an increasingly diverse city, there were no challengers there to question whether the candidates’ support of student-centered learning included support for the culturally sensitive educational approach that some say could be the bedrock for higher academic growth for all students, as well as an antidote to the cultural wars being sown and abetted by the president of the United States.

By funding a number of initiatives and programs, a number of local institutions, such as the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, are doing their part to highlight and address the impact of early childhood trauma on children’s ability to succeed in the classroom.

But what happens when such funding runs out?

Well, without an engaged community, the chances of such initiatives becoming an integral part of the Worcester public schools’ educational experience are slim to none.

In these threatening times, it shouldn’t be hard to sell the importance of community engagement in the political process, and that is why the lack of challengers in this year’s school committee race and the lack of attendance at Wednesday’s forum is so troubling.