Moving the cheese

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The incident last week in which Suffolk school officials sent about 1,000 letters to parents by mistake is indicative of the head-spinning changes taking place in public education.

Local officials were under the impression that Elephants Fork Elementary had failed to meet No Child Left Behind standards, meaning that certain parents there would have the option of sending their children to more successful schools. Letters to that effect were sent and then closer scrutiny revealed that the school had met the achievement requirements.

Suffolk Public Schools, like public school systems throughout the nation, are in the midst of evolutionary change. Gone forever are the days when educators were pretty much free to operate as they saw fit.

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Deborah Jewell-Smith, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, tackled the new challenges recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Suffolk education officials would be wise to read and heed her remarks.

Jewell-Smith compares the challenge facing pubic schools today to Dr. Spencer Johnson’s famous book about business, &uot;Who Moved My Cheese.&uot;

&uot;I used to be afraid of change,&uot; the narrator of Johnson’s story says. &uot;When a big change came along in our business, we didn’t know what to do. So we didn’t do anything differently and we almost lost it.&uot;

Jewell Sherman notes that in the continuing national debate about public schooling, the sentiment is strong and clear: What was acceptable in the past no longer is good enough. Through external measures, such as state assessments and federal legislation, and internal forces such as the voices of parents and other citizens, there is demand for more relevant standards, greater accountability, and more efficient and effective practices in every aspect of the educational enterprise.

&uot;Today’s educational leaders have had to face the fact that in a nation where vouchers and charter schools are options, public education no longer is the only game in town. In an age of increasing accountability, public school educators have had to accept that they must do much more than &uot;teach, test, and hope for the best.&uot; And in a global economy, the mission of public schools has had to expand beyond preparing students to compete just for traditional jobs within the nation’s borders. Whether railed against or welcomed, change has become a critical factor in the world of public education.&uot;

In Richmond, the public schools recently decided to use nationally recognized business models in two areas in an effort to enhance the services provided to children and maintain the employments of the schools’ staff.

With financial assistance from Philip Morris, top school executives recently got to attend training at the University of Virginia to help them implement the best elements of business theory and management in the real-world context of educational practice.

She said the team got to examine in detail what constitutes its core mission and debate what it is that the Richmond’s schools truly can seek to do better than any other organization.

Suffolk schools could surely benefit from similar training. Our city is home to companies that are large enough to have the resources, and likely have the willingness, to help out. They have a vested interest in seeing to it that they do all that they can to help the city’s schools turn out the best qualified workforce available.

&uot;It will take the wise use of knowledge and resources from all sectors and all participants to successfully face the changes inherent in the future of public schooling,&uot; Jewell-Smith concludes. &uot;At times it will be daunting. Like it or not, however, change in the educational enterprise is inescapable, so all may as well accept the fact learned by the successful mice in Who Moved My Cheese? ; that is, &uot;If you do not change, you become extinct.&uot;