Roundtable pushes for change in Pontiac district
Of The Oakland Press
The issue of whether the Pontiac school district will need new administrators to oversee sweeping reforms has sparked spirited discussion among members of the Oakland Press Educational Roundtable.
About two dozen group members discussed findings and recommendations of the Chartwell Report at Baker College of Auburn Hills on Wednesday. The 292-page document was compiled after a five-month study of district management practices.
Some participants felt that numerous "brutal facts" outlined in the report suggest that the current administration - particularly Superintendent Mildred Mason - is not capable of reversing poor student achievement levels, staff and student safety concerns, questionable district management practices, lacking community involvement and other problems.
"In any other district in this country, if they had this report, the superintendent would be fired," said Caroll Turpin, co-founder of the Truth for Children advocacy group.
Other roundtable participants suggested, however, that replacing top administrators will not guarantee that conditions improve.
"What I'm concerned about is that our movement forward is not seen as just a change of personnel," said Oakland Circuit Judge Fred Mester, founder of the Pontiac Alumni Foundation. He argued that efforts must incorporate systemwide changes.
Developments outside the roundtable discussion on Wednesday suggest Mester is not alone. The Northern Oakland County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a letter to Pontiac Board of Education members suggesting that all current staff should keep their positions until the district determines the most effective way to implement reform measures.
"Any action on the part of the board or the school district to terminate individuals will be considered retaliation," the letter states. It is signed by branch President Eugene Rogers and Chief Legal Counsel H. Wallace Parker.
Not having seen the letter, board President Letyna Roberts said she could not comment specifically on its content.
Generally speaking, however, she said: "I still firmly believe that new direction is needed in district leadership. Whether it happens now or later is yet to be determined, but it does need to happen."
Some roundtable members said that before Pontiac can begin implementing reforms, leaders must establish a specific set of goals.
"It seems to me, there needs to be some direction," said Patricia Dolly, president of the Auburn Hills Campus of Oakland Community College. "Where do you want to head?"
Roberts said the goal is to have every student in the district succeed. "I don't believe there is any reason that any child in the Pontiac school district should be failing," she argued.
Joan Vestrand, assistant dean of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Oakland University, said community involvement will be critical to any plan targeting improved student achievement. The problem, as the Chartwell Report suggests, is that most district residents have little confidence in the school system. Two-thirds, in fact, believe it is failing or beyond repair.
"We need to have something happen quickly if you want to restore the trust and confidence," Vestrand said. "No one will believe unless they see change."
Some of Wednesday's discussion focused on a distinct rift between not only district administrators and some board members, but among board members themselves. Chartwell consultant Scott Jenkins said this dynamic has been shown to compromise administrative effectiveness.
Oakland County Commissioner Mattie McKinney Hatchett agreed. "If you have a cart with horses pulling in two different directions, you will go nowhere," she argued.
Joan Lessen-Firestone, director of early childhood education at Oakland Schools, said she saw this firsthand several years ago when the intermediate school district struggled with its own management crisis - one that resulted in the firing of former Superintendent James Redmond and the resignations of nearly all sitting board members.
"What that leads to is a staff that feels very anxious," Lessen-Firestone said. "When they don't feel safe, when they don't feel supported, they can't move toward a better future."
Pontiac resident and Baker College human services student Sara Spurgeon suggested that dissension at the top also trickles down to students. "Adults in conflict means kids in conflict," she said.
Many roundtable participants said mobilizing district parents and concerned community members will be key to cultivating belief in positive change to help facilitate numerous reforms suggested in the Chartwell report.
While many have suggested both a readiness and willingness to support reforms, Jenkins said advocates must maintain a realistic view of both the challenges and the drastic measures needed to overcome them.
"The community is going to like some things. The community is not going to like some things," he said. "It's going to be a long, hard slog."
Contact staff writer Dave Groves at (248) 745-4633 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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