Harrison is about a 35 minute drive north of New York City. Harrison is considered by the New York educational powers-that-be a "low need" school district -- in that there is no abject poverty. But unlike other Westchester turbo towns like Scarsdale, Bronxville, Armonk, Rye and Chappaqua, Harrison is economically diverse. There are pockets of extreme wealth (at least before last year's economic melt down), there's a substantial working class population in parts of town, a large fixed-income, senior citizen population, and a growing number of Hispanic families. Harrison is, in effect, not one town -- but a conglomeration of about 4 or 5 distinct communities.
Like many before me, my wife and I sojourned from Manhattan to the burbs 3 months after my first daughter was born in 1992. Harrison seemed like a healthy community -- not too homogeneous or material -- a good community with some economic diversity. As for the schools, I was told that the elementary school where I moved was good -- and the middle school had just won a Department of Education award -- and the high school was okay but needed work.
Shortly after moving to Harrison, I was surprised to learn that school budgets put to an annual vote routinely failed to pass This mystified me. Surely there were enough residents in town who cared about and were vested in the public schools to support the school budgets. What I quickly learned was that there was little coherent community engagement surrounding the schools -- and what engagement there was oftentimes focused on individual needs, desires and perceived entitlements. The school system serving about 3,500 kids was not living up to its potential. For many years the school board was divided. Some board members were truly interested in educating kids, others were more interested fulfilling a patronage mill or a power trip. And school tax dollars were being spent without any underlying plan or rationale.
Out of frustration I ran for a seat on the board of education in 2002 -- and along with my board colleagues that year we installed a smart, wily, visionary and brave administrator, Louis Wool, as superintendent -- who basically proceeded to upend many of the mores, practices and actions that plagued the school district. Most strikingly -- Lou attacked a culture inside the school system that by default personified the soft bigotry of low expectations. He stripped away reams of pernicious tracking practices that oftentimes blocked late bloomers from exposure to rigorous coursework in the high school (rigid tracking practices had started in early middle school). His battles to reform the school system have been heroic and often at great personal cost.
Lou, in a unique collaboration with the teacher's union, developed a rigorous teacher evaluation program so that tenure actually began to mean something. One can argue the merits and demerits of the state law granting tenure to teachers after 3 years, but at least we now, as a board of education, representing our community, have a much better handle on which new teaching hires are likely to be lifelong great educators. Those who show that great potential get tenure.
The reforms wrought by Lou Wool in Harrison are more or less similar to the reforms now being touted nationally in the "Race to the Top" and other ideas and nostrums emanating from Washington and state capitols. The only way the public education system in this country will survive and thrive is to instill a culture of accountability in school district operations -- and have as a working philosophy the mores guiding the Harrison School district: Equity, Access, Rigor and Adaptability.
I am gratified that the superintendents in New York State have chosen to recognize Lou Wool for his work on behalf of my community.
Here's a link to the New York State Council of School Superintendent's announcement: