We like to think we’re reasonably progressive, given the
history of the Esopus Valley and its ability to tolerate both
Communist work camps and Nazi bund gatherings in neighboring
valleys, the start and continuation of numerous folk traditions
in Woodland Valley and Brown’s Station, and our being
a home to some of the nation’s top first amendment attorneys,
present and past. But those who came out last week for Bard
College President Dr. Leon Botstein’s talk on education
presented by the Onteora Central School District Board of Ed
were certainly treated to a rare and wide-ranging intellectual
experience. We commend our school board for inviting him in
what’s been promised as the first of many such sharing
of perspectives with the community.
Amongst many other things, Botstein seemed to be saying that
professional educators are really the experts on how to best
teach their subjects. The rest of us, ideally, should have limited
input and allow them to do what they do as best they see fit.
The widely held belief in the importance of standardized curriculum
and teaching for test results are fallback positions, at best;
in a more enlightened society we can certainly do better. Bard,
he noted, is a center for many such efforts — which in
general work for some kids better than others. We certainly
think such ideas are worth exploring for Onteora, even though
some questioned whether we should be inviting such “elitists,”
as so many in our nation have started taunting anyone with a
higher education these politicized days, to share their opinions
with us in the first place.
Perhaps it’s too early to speculate but it does seem our
new board majority is in basic agreement with some of Botstein’s
educational modeling, which places enormous trust in our local
education experts, our teachers. Some might argue that this
presupposes that all are equally skilled and motivated at what
they do with many quite exceptional and some not always so.
Our view is that it takes many people to run a good school system,
and everyone’s work is all equally vital. The biggest
part of the job at hand is teaching kids, but everything that
needs to get done in a school is also important.
One of Botstein’s points regarded the difficulty of the
job of district superintendent, especially in centralized conglomerates
of schools and towns as diverse as Onteora. Although we had
no reason to believe that the Bard educator knew of the difficulties
our own Leslie Ford faced when she was selected for her position,
his talk about how superintendents need to balance accountability
and a need to hold costs down as being equally relevant to issues
of educational quality hit home. As did the fact that many have
noted how, since her arrival, Dr. Ford has been in the unenviable
position of doing her job in an environment where many don’t
appear to want her to succeed.
We all know there’s practically limitless ways where tacit
resistance can make even the most routine administrative work
an ordeal. Hence, we feel it a good time to commend the superintendent’s
sense of balance and equanimity, and her receptivity to the
need for change in this wide district, even when the specifics
of such change seem to shift with each demographic, political,
or economic breeze.
Getting back to Botstein’s talk, we welcomed his talk
about how hard it can be to change things amidst such opposing
forces as economics, an aging population’s district of
anything new, uncertain demographic shifts, and deteriorating
infrastructure. Partly because it all correlated so well with
the current national discourse, but also because, even where
some questioned the appropriateness of his more laissez-faire
approach to middle school education, he showed how we can all
start to seriously look at Onteora’s future in new ways.
And need to.
Just as we commend Dr. Ford, our superintendent, for her attempts
to balance the wide concerns of our district, we commend our
new board for their willingness to explore new educational models
and new ways of seeing and doing things… including our
infrastructure problems and need for some drastic reorganization.
These are big projects ahead, but perhaps the best and most
important ones we can undertake. Because nothing we do here
in this community is more important than making our schools
the very best schools they can possibly be.
Sure, many of us are frustrated by the struggle necessary to
correct some simpler problems such as the water quality at the
Boiceville campus. Mistakes have been made, tempers have gotten
hot, and everyone agrees that they wish the problem could be
solved quicker than it’s taking. But we believe this is
all because everyone cares about handling this difficulty, and
all our districts challenges, as best they can. What we’re
seeing are passions and commitments clashing…part of the
process of democracy.
This all gets exacerbated by everyone’s tendency to make
a narrative out of life’s proceedings, the better to understand
what’s going on. And narratives require focus on the points
of friction in an ongoing tale.
In the final rounds, though, what may count more are the larger
stories we’re all working on… such as the rethinking
of Onteora that’s been at play now through at least three
board majorities. And the concerns that Dr. Botstein brought
up, and expanded so smartly upon, at his talk last week.
As we explore these ideas together, it’s critical that
we keep our eye on the bigger concerns – and the balance
necessary to keep those goals in mind — and find ways
to discuss our options as one community with a single and simple
agenda: make it work. There may be lots of ways to get where
we want to go, but also perils along the way… such as
getting too stuck on the ways we each think are best for approaching
Never forget that in the end, all things educational –
all things Onteora — are about our kids.. But that also
involves our teachers, administrators, school board, and a whole
community’s support to make it all work.
p.s. Don’t forget Homecoming Weekend, which got shifted
due to rain to Saturday, October 18. It’s a good place
to start talking over all these things.