Featured letter An opportunity for School District of Beloit

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Candidates for superintendent of the School District of Beloit know sobering truths about our situation like low test scores, unmet standards, challenging discipline, and an outflow of students.

They will all welcome the opportunity to turn things around. The person chosen will offer ideas that sound good, and if significant progress emerges in a year or two and the person decides to stay in Beloit, there will be rejoicing.

Unfortunately, a successful Beloit superintendent will more than likely move on too soon, courted by other districts dangling compensation packages and circumstances that Beloit cannot meet. Past experience in our district has found that all too often effective school leaders leave while their abilities are still needed.

But it's not only superintendents and students who leave the School District of Beloit. Teachers do, too, in disturbing numbers. Talented creative educators who are full of promise and experience, but who become discouraged.

So, what might the School Board and new superintendent do?

I submit that redoubling efforts to hold onto effective teachers and principals in the School District of Beloit is a critical, necessary component for long-term improvement. These people can create strong, confident schools that attract students. Such centers of learning are the rule in flourishing districts. They are not absent here, but they do not presently characterize our district. I know wonderful, successful teachers and principals in Beloit. As individuals, they shine. However, they - all of them - can be more empowered if they are emphatically encouraged, trusted, and allowed autonomy to address challenges within the uniqueness of their particular schools.

These days in the United States, all too many superintendents - good and bad - come and go quickly. Successful schools, staffed with high morale teachers and principals who stay, offer long term hope and successful learning. Stability. Community. Pride.

Principals must lead. I have been inside countless highly effective schools throughout the United States and abroad. They vary in their size, wealth, student demographics, and challenges, but every one of them had a visionary principal who listens and articulates the school's mission to the community. This is somebody who heads a faculty of colleagues who have pride in what they are doing and a long-term stake in the effort.

While responding to the values of society, individual schools must be free to demonstrate creativity. To be entrepreneurial. To be a source of ideas for parents and other schools. To tackle unwanted problems and pressing needs in ways that show their professionalism. This means addressing problems and needs including discipline, literacy, numeracy, the arts, and extra-curricular activities to name a few. When single schools succeed, others in the district learn from them.

By relentlessly working toward strong, autonomous schools, our School District of Beloit Board of Education and new superintendent can send a message that we hire, keep, value, and compensate teachers who are creative problem solvers. This means giving individual schools more say in hiring new staff members. More flexibility in creating schedules and relating to families. More leeway in tweaking a district disciplinary or literacy plan to make it work best for the students in their building.

Alas, words like mine come easily, and persistent improvement out there with the students is difficult, but I know that strong schools with entrepreneurial staffs are utterly necessary for long-term success. They do not solve all the problems, but they form a critical foundation. They provide upbeat places of success that can attract families who are choosing schools.

I hope that the school board of Beloit discusses this opportunity with candidates and works with the next superintendent to make it happen. Leaders with a dedication to these qualities can contribute enormously.

Tom Warren, a retired educator, is Emeritus Professor of Education and Youth Studies at Beloit College. He has been a public school teacher, counselor, researcher, and professor. He served many years as Education Department chair at Beloit College and for two years as president of the [American] Association of Independent Colleges for Teacher Education. He lives in Beloit with his wife, Anna Marie, another retired teacher. He also is a past president of the Beloit City Council.

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