The superintendent strikes again – with an emphasis on both pragmatism and academic achievement

Regular readers of this page will wonder, perhaps, if we’ve gone soft to find so many good things to say about the school system’s new superintendent – this week and in other recent editions.

We just call them as we see them.

And while we certainly can point out flaws – which are typically quite frequent in government, including within the school system – we don’t want to be reticent to commend worthy ideas and real leadership when they’re apparent.

And superintendent Dr. Dain Butler has shown an amazing aptitude to take a bold, but pragmatic, approach in several recent decisions.

The latest is this week’s recommendation that the school system jettison its five-year-old idea – proposed to be implemented next school year – to establish so-called “specialty schools” at Cummings and Graham high schools.

We’ve never thought this plan was a good idea.  In essence, it seemed to us previous ABSS officials were simply willing to abandon those two schools – which have always presented academic challenges – by putting pretty lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes, and relegating them to a second-class existence, far below the academic standards (or even expectations) of other students and high schools.

The supposed conversion of the two schools into some sort of specialty education has never attracted any enthusiasm, except from the Central Office of the school system.

Former superintendent Bill Harrison, who presided over many other duds during his tenure, came up with the idea – in our view to try to camouflage or obfuscate the dismal education performance of the two schools (and the school system as a whole under his supervision).

And let’s face it: the two schools are consistently the weakest, academically, in the school system.

About that fact there is probably a consensus.

Why is that? Probably not as much agreement.

The implied reasoning – officials usually try to disguise their language – is the “kind” of students who predominate at the two schools.

They have come up with more creative definitions, most recently referring   to those students as “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” which somehow, they believe, is a more acceptable term or concept than simply referring to the racial make-up of the two schools, which are disproportionately black and Hispanic, compared to the county’s other high schools.

Since the courts have long since established that school assignment cannot be based on race, the newest proxy for the same result is to claim making assignments based on “socioeconomic” factors.

Fundamentally, the ultimate question for educators is: can all students be educated?

Can they all be successful?

Can they all “make the grade” on academic performance tests?

The hushed response from previous ABSS officials has been, effectively, “no,” these “poor” – or black or Hispanic – children simply cannot be expected to reach or maintain the same standards as other socioeconomic (or racial) categories.

If that’s not a racist assumption, we don’t know what it is.

We think the superintendent has shown a real grasp on the reality of both education and parental preferences – as evidenced by the almost total and consistent disinterest in having their children attend a “specialty school” – in making the decision to step back from the concept as former superintendent Harrison had pushed it.

ABSS and the current superintendent were otherwise faced with the difficult reality that Cummings and Graham high schools would become almost empty next year under the existing “specialty school” scheme, while the five traditional high schools (including the newest) would fast become full, even to the point of being overcrowded.

Seven traditional high schools – and geographic attendance zones – would provide a much better balance.

In addition to equal and fair attendance zones, the school system needs to revisit the issue of student transfers.

One underlying reason that Cummings and Graham have become disproportionately minority is that, historically, minorities have often been at the forefront of seeking transfers to attend those two schools – which contributes to those being overly weighted and depleting the other high schools from any semblance of balance.

The school system needs also to ensure that curriculum offerings at the two schools are fair and comparable to what is being offered at the other schools.

Otherwise, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that those schools will have poor performance.

Our only puzzlement of the week is that school board vice chairman Patsy Simpson voted this week against the superintendent’s creative approach.

Simpson has, rightly, questioned in the past whether the two schools were being treated, effectively, as the proverbial red-headed stepchildren, never getting adequate resources compared to the other high schools.

She – more than any other school board member, past and present – has consistently questioned the premise on which the “specialty schools” was devised.

So we’re surprised by her opposition and vote.  In fact, she should question her own decision based – if nothing else – on the company she’s keeping on the vote.  School board members Allison Gant and Tony Rose – deposed almost a year ago from their positions as chairman and vice chairman, respectively – have adopted the attitude of opposing almost anything the superintendent proposes to do.  In fact, they even voted against hiring the new superintendent.  They were the other “no” votes Monday night.

They also voted against the board’s decision to scrap their leadership for Ellington-Graves’ and Simpson’s.

Fortunately, Gant’s and Rose’s tenures end in a few months (since neither is seeking re-election that they probably wouldn’t have achieved, given their own lackluster records).

We can only hope that voters will decide to bring some fresh voices to the school board who will want to encourage the superintendent and the more reasonable current members of the school board, with a focus on striving for, and hopefully achieving, an academic, results-oriented focus – rather than simply having “happy talk” about how “hard” everyone’s trying.

We have consistently urged a focus on academic achievement, a priority that previous superintendents and all too many board members appear to have given up on or dismissed as unachievable.

Fortunately, it looks to us that Butler is laser-focused on the objective of improving education for Alamance-Burlington students, which is as it should b