Progressive leadership needed

Published 10:34 pm Friday, June 7, 2019

By Jennifer Brennon

I have two children in Suffolk Public Schools. I am an avid volunteer, sometimes in schools and classes my kids are not assigned to. I attend most School Board meetings, and I am an active community member. When my oldest child was in kindergarten, I thought it was amazing that our superintendent, Dr. Deran Whitney, attended many of the school events and always seemed to be available to the parents. Now, four years later, I see that the culture in our schools is not healthy, and it needs to change. This is not a culture that encourages communication and community. Teachers cannot speak freely with parents or School Board members, and this diminishes the educational experience for our community.

My personal experience was when I questioned the aides for my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class. Two of the three classes were over 25 students; per Virginia Department of Education standards, if the average class size is more than 24, then a full-time aide is required. I noticed this essential change in the two years between my children: my eldest daughter’s class had a full-time teacher and aide, and a part-time aide, but my youngest daughter’s class only had a full-time teacher a two part-time aides. I questioned this with the superintendent, and he advised he would look into fixing it.

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Shortly after, a friend, who also happens to be a teacher in the school, was asked if they helped me to discover this error. I can count. Why was the principal of the school questioning a teacher about something that had nothing to do with them? Even if the teacher did have something to do with it — isn’t that a good thing? Aren’t our teachers supposed to point out problems and work to fix them? Do our teachers feel that they can openly discuss issues and concerns with the administration? Is the culture in our schools one that silences our teachers?

The situation outlined above is sadly not unique. I have heard of many instances, in many of our schools, where a teacher speaks out and then is “spoken to.” If teachers come forward to speak about issues at School Board and City Council meetings, they are chastised for it. I have even heard Dr. Whitney explain at School Board meetings that teachers who don’t have adequate facilities or resources are at fault because they have not completed their “work orders.” This is not effective leadership.

Our schools should be places where concerns, problems, issues and triumphs are all taken seriously and worked through and celebrated together. Our teachers should not feel afraid to speak their minds; after all, they are the voice for their students, our children. If they have needs that are not being met, we — the community — need to know this, and the School Board needs to know this. Is Dr. Whitney trying to make things look better than they actually are?

I always wondered why the School Board gets a “Good News Report” from the superintendent, but there is no “Progress Report.” It seems there is a rosy picture being painted of our schools, but the cracks are starting to show. We still have two not fully accredited schools, even though the accreditation standards were lowered. Why are we not hearing about what is happening to those schools to get them up to standards? We have six schools that are over capacity. What is being worked on for these schools? Why are we not hearing the progress of projects and budget purchases? I would rather hear about the efforts to work on issues than just be told how great things are. Communication with the community, so we can work together to make things better, is important, and may be something we need to demand going forward.

With Dr Whitney’s retirement, I hope the School Board will look for new, progressive leadership. I have concerns that hiring from within the current administration is going to continue the culture as it is right now. I think this community and our children, and especially our teachers deserve more.

Jennifer Brennon is a military spouse, stay-at-home mom and Suffolk resident.