Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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Graham, NC 27253
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Situation normal: school system wastes time, effort, and money

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We wonder, do the Academy Awards, or even the Emmys, give an award for the most serious performance in a silly role?

If so, we’d like to nominate ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson, who this week made a road show of dual appearances before the county commissioners and Burlington city council to tout what he seriously portrayed as an important – yea, to hear him, almost life-changing – new strategic vision for the school system.

The capstone of this earth-shattering new vision is. . . wait for it. . . a new name for the school system (Alamance-Burlington Public Schools instead of Alamance-Burlington School System), complete with a nifty, new logo.

We kid you not.

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They paid someone for that?

If all of that seems strangely familiar, it’s because it is. In September 2017, ABSS received a $98,000 grant from Impact Alamance (who else but the school system’s favorite benefactor?) to hire Ethos Creative, a marketing firm with an office in Burlington, to revamp the logo and develop new “branding materials” for “Alamance Public Schools,” as then-superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison had proposed changing the name to at that time.

It was a fine, albeit brief, diversion from a controversial high school redistricting plan but also led nowhere, after Harrison and the school board caught enough flak, including some from former Burlington city schools administrators, at an October 23, 2017 meeting. The proposed name change never came up for discussion again prior to Harrison’s departure in May 2018.

With all the challenges and difficulties that the local school system – by whatever name – is experiencing, this is what the organization’s top official was consumed with this week.
Is it any wonder the school system is in such disarray?

And that the county’s school children are consistently underperforming compared to other counties across the state.

Instead of substance, the school system – and its leader – is consumed with a so-called “marketing” and “branding” strategy.

We can hardly think of more misplaced priorities.

ABSS students and their counterparts across the state were failing classes at record rates in 2020-21 — which is why the General Assembly mandated that all N.C. public school systems offer in-person instruction, five days a week, this summer. We can hardly assume all of those pandemic-induced academic losses were made up in six weeks.

We also acknowledge, we’re not much of a fan of strategic plans, vision plans, or other grandiose “master plans” in the first place.

But we’ve noticed a fairly consistent common denominator when these gimmicks typically surface.

They are most frequently deployed when the substance isn’t good.

It’s a great diversion. (They must teach this formula in superintendent conferences or conventions somewhere.)

Let’s talk about “where we want to be,” officials seem to think, rather than where we actually are. They throw in a few of the latest buzzwords, education jargon, or popular new trends to make it sound “up to date,” acting as though there’s something new and substantive when, unfortunately, it’s very much old, stale, and dull.

We’ve also noticed that there is rarely, if ever, any measurement of “how we’re doing” on any existing vision plan – much less how we’ve actually done.

No, vision plans must always be called “new” – even if they don’t actually have anything new in them.

The old plan is usually ditched with little fanfare, while a big hullabaloo is made over the “new” plan, much like Benson did this week before both elected bodies.

But most of his happy talk about the future is meaningless.

And we guess we’d have to express particular disappointment because we had been so hopeful when he was hired a few years back that he would represent a new approach – minus the vacuous platitudes that have so often characterized local school superintendents.

But, alas, he’s apparently been to enough of the superintendent conferences to become just like most of his predecessors: full of dull, uninspiring comments without any semblance of a focus on academic achievement or how to attain it.

Meanwhile, thousands of parents and their students are stuck with the reality of the substandard performance they’re dealing with every single school day.

Alamance-Burlington schools have the same problems they’ve had for decades: a failure to improve – or even give a high priority on trying to improve – the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics.

For teachers, too, there is a fundamental failure. It is most often a failure by administrators to ensure that school officials will back teachers who try to exercise discipline in their classrooms.

(We’ve noticed that often buried in most surveys among teachers is that they’re most concerned with the lack of discipline and the school administration’s inability or unwillingness to exercise, or support, “tough love” in the classroom. Not working conditions. Not their workload. Not even salaries. They just want to have order in their classrooms and a principal and other officials up the line who will back their attempts to enforce it.)

Benson practically put both the city council and the commissioners to sleep with his meaningless recitation of the “vision plan” for the future.

They could at least understand the logic – though shallow and vapid – of a name change and a new logo.

Benson could hardly contain his own oohs and aahs over his presentation of his plan – or that developed, no doubt, by some consultant. For who knows how much money.

But this week was just another example that it doesn’t matter what name the school system has.

If its leadership and focus don’t change (with or without some purported “strategic plan”) Alamance County’s parents, teachers, and taxpayers are just in for more failure – by whatever name the latest consultant has recommended.

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