Dear Superintendent (From Say Yes “Letters to the Superintendent” Book Project)

May 24, 2012

Dear Superintendent,

It is with somewhat conflicted emotions that I welcome you to our schools and community. Like my fellow Buffalonians, I have anticipated your arrival with great hope and urgency and a clear understanding that the future of our youth and city lies largely in your hands. But as I welcome you I must also share a sense of caution and a need to prepare you for the darker side of our community’s embrace. You will find that like other cities across the nation, we too are experiencing a heightened need for accountability and change; a need that has grown over the years into an almost ravenous impatience, making us both fickle and self-destructive, and most desperately in need of leadership.

I pray you recognize that these two emotions- hope and impatience- have a common root; the realization that our children are our most precious resource and a fear that we have irreparably failed them. Of course this fear manifests itself in many forms- activism, policies and panaceas- and many voices, each colored by politics, ideologies, and agendas, all clashing and competing in a cacophony of noise.

But fortunately it is not only fear that binds us. Our community is connected by a bounty of riches that we collectively guard and admire, but have yet to unlock.  And while we celebrate our grand history, world renowned architecture, and cultural assets, few realize that our schools are among our greatest riches, offering treasure more abundant than we know.

You see, Buffalo is in the midst of a most extraordinary experiment, one worthy of the country’s most careful attention.  Today, there are no fewer than five major reform initiatives underway across the district- each supported by federal and/or local investments.  They include the coveted Promise Neighborhood grant modeled after the Harlem Children Zone; Say Yes to Education; Choice Neighborhoods, funded by HUD; a $10 million NSF Math Science Partnership grant; and an initiative on the West Side sponsored by Buffalo State College.  While these programs all share a common focus on student and community supports and evidence-based interventions, they also represent important differences, with each initiative testing a fundamentally different approach to school and neighborhood reform.  And at the center of these diverse approaches firmly stands the Buffalo School District, keepers of the participating schools, students, and their respective data.

Indeed, in no other city across the country is the problem of Urban Education being studied in such a fully developed quasi-experiment. The collective data, if compiled and analyzed within a comprehensive research design, could inform not only our own efforts but the future shape of policy and implementation with implications for districts and students across the country.  It should be noted that in Buffalo these efforts are already underway, with each initiative in varying stages of funding and implementation, with its own management and leadership teams.   All that is missing is a champion to rally us around the work and a process to weave together these disparate approaches into a thoughtful and comprehensive vision.

As Superintendent you will be a primary keeper of this vision, but since it has yet to be created there is still nothing to be kept.  We cannot skip the exercise of defining our beliefs, promises, and expectations. Our vision must be powerful, clear, and shared in a way that is meaningful and real- so real that with time we will all know it, dream it, and begin to make it happen- for our students, ourselves, and for future generations.  Clearly, this exercise and our resulting efforts will not excuse us from external mandates or performance expectations.  But it will provide a more meaningful frame through which to address and interpret related metrics.  If done correctly, this vision and its components will provide the clarity necessary for us to be nimble, deliberate, and collaborative- all signs of a healthy dynamic system able to thrive and sustain itself while adapting within an ever-changing world.

It is indeed an interesting and important time to assume your new role as our Superintendent of Schools.  But as you prepare for the many challenges and opportunities ahead, please know that we are ready for your leadership and eager to contribute our own resources and contributions toward the collective good.

I look forward to meeting you and working together in the months ahead,

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