Welcome candor from schools chief

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

By Steve Stewart

Fixing a problem begins with taking responsibility for it.

That seems simple, yet it’s surprisingly difficult in the world of public education, where administrators are perpetually on the defensive, whether about standardized test scores, wacky policies, or disciplinary problems.


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It’s appropriate, then, to commend Deran Whitney for his response to last week’s release of 2013 Standards of Learning scores for Suffolk Public Schools. The superintendent of education manned up, took responsibility and made no excuses for the dismal results, which almost certainly will result in fewer Suffolk schools being fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education when those decisions are announced next month.

Anything less than 100 percent accreditation of public schools is unacceptable in a vibrant, progressive city like Suffolk. Mediocre public education is a disservice to students, parents and taxpayers — and to community leaders who are working hard to attract new jobs and citizens.

By any measure, educators have a tough job. Many parents are failing to provide the support at home that was commonplace a generation ago. A student who isn’t made to do his homework, get a good night’s rest, and show up at school the next morning ready to learn makes a teacher’s job doubly hard. Every generation of kids seems a little less respectful of authority than the generation before. Suffolk has a disproportionate share of students from low-income and single-parent households, compounding the problems the public schools deal with.

Those are all valid complaints, but they are not valid excuses. Schools across Virginia and elsewhere — in communities that compete with Suffolk for jobs and families — are overcoming similar challenges and educating kids at a level that allows them to test proficiently in critical skills like reading and math.

To his credit, Whitney offered no excuses last week. He promised to step up the “rigor of instruction” in Suffolk schools and to put more emphasis on teaching critical-thinking skills.

He talked about the need for at least a “discussion” about “additional resources,” but there’s much to be accomplished between now and debate over the next city budget, which is nearly a year away. Whitney got the ball rolling last week by doing something educators often struggle to do: taking responsibility for the problem.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.