A team of outside consultants, brought in at a cost of $92,500 yesterday, didn’t tell Tucson Unified School District leaders anything they didn’t already know or that hasn’t been said before:
- It’s important to communicate with the public, both good and bad.
- Student progress needs to be assessed regularly.
- An investment in schools in poorer neighborhoods ultimately benefits the entire community.
- Schools need to share a common curriculum.
But TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said the event was worth the cost because it opened the door to discussions in which participants aired their grievances, gave constructive criticism and shared ways that the district could improve.
The nearly eight-hour session attended by about 200 teachers, students, administrators and selected members of the public consisted of a series of five presentations by the experts, each followed by smaller group discussions.
Since he took over the district reins in July, Sanchez has worked to address teacher pay, classroom sizes, repurposing closed schools and assisting employees by offering low-cost early-childhood education.
But he said that to be effective, he can’t do the job alone.
“The one thing I know is, I don’t know everything,” Sanchez told attendees. “I don’t know what’s in the minds and hearts of the people in this community, but I know how I can get to that,” he said, explaining the genesis of the day-long strategic planning conference.
The feedback collected at Tuesday’s conference will be used in the formation of a five-year strategic plan that will focus on curriculum and instruction, finance, facilities, diversity and communication.
“The best thing we can do for our children and our community is to ask our children and our community, what do you want for your school district?” Sanchez told the participants, who were handpicked by the TUSD Governing Board, TUSD administration, school leaders and local business organizations.
The conference was put on by the Center for Reform of School Systems. In addition to providing Governing Board training and compiling the community feedback, the center recruited a panel of educational experts to discuss how to effectively communicate with the community; strategies in place at highly effective schools; dealing with the new financial reality of continuous budget cuts; the importance of embracing diversity and using it as a strength; and how facilities can enhance learning.
The firm is headed by Cathy Mincberg, whom Sanchez has worked with on strategic planning in Texas and who was most recently listed as one of four references on Sanchez’s résumé for the TUSD job. In addition to Mincberg, Sanchez has Texas ties to two of the other panelists.
Rodney Bell, a TUSD parent who attended the conference as an observer, felt the event was informative.
“I feel it’s an excellent forum to have so people can get involved,” said Bell, who noted that it is often challenging to bring people together to have in-depth discussions.
Bell believes the key to success in TUSD is strong teachers and student support. He encouraged the district to downsize facilities as TUSD enrollment continues to decline.
“People will be upset, but in the long term, it will be good for the district to get rid of some of the excess and focus on getting schools to a place where they are top-performing,” Bell said. “The district overall is doing a good job, but there is always room for improvement.”
Pete Blankfield, a TUSD teacher for nearly two decades, said the forum was much-needed and provided great insight.
“I think as educators, we don’t have all the answers to our own problems because we’re too close,” Blankfield said. “This brings people in who have a different perspective and can provide insights that we never even thought of.”
Blankfield, however, worried about whether the district would follow through.
“This is the sixth or seventh superintendent I’ve worked under in 17 years,” he said. “If any of this is to work, (Sanchez) needs to stay for five years. Every time we get a new superintendent, everything changes — so this process will only work if we have stability. We will see positive outcomes in our education and that will improve our community even more.”