For 19 years, I've been a journalist, writing on a variety of topics for newspapers and magazines. Education has always been a theme of that coverage, from countless board of education meetings to my time at District Administration.
But this summer, I took one step closer to joining the audience of this magazine than the cadre of journalists who produce it. In short, I've joined the Brookfield (Conn.) Board of Education.
On a personal level, this is a huge shift for me. As the editorial director of this magazine for the past five years, I've been much more than a bystander on education issues. I know District Administration provides tools for school leaders to make better decisions; I'm happy to be part of that process.
But I expect taking a seat in my local district will be a far different experience from my work interviewing experts and editing stories. I'm interested in exploring the difference between simply considering the big ideas in education and actually offering help to solving the specific problems that every district faces, from discipline cases to budget fights. ("How can we cut another $1.1 million from our $30 million budget?" "Why don't more town residents support the school system?" "Should we repave that elementary school parking lot or hire another teacher's aide?)
I'm breaking in at a relatively quiet time, with few meetings scheduled for the summer, and the latest budget woes just behind the town. This won't last long. My four-school, 3,000-student district, like all of your districts, has its own set of challenges. Two years ago, an asbestos problem forced the superintendent to close all schools early; the district is embarking on a major high school renovation; and improving test scores and reducing class sizes are ongoing efforts. While the requirements of No Child Left Behind loom over every school district the achievement gaps that plague so many districts are lessened here, where there's a relatively low free and reduced-price lunch population.
Even with only two meetings under my belt, some things are apparent. I'm an idealist, so when I hear the mantra that education isn't political, I actually believe it. (OK, not all the time, but certainly when the issues are shrunk down to one town's problems.) Even though our seven-person board is mandated to have three members from the minority party, it's still political. (For the record, I'm still not sure who's from which party, but I am becoming aware of who doesn't like whom.) This also means that getting the board to agree on an issue is much more complicated than putting out the best solution for consideration.
My second observation is that it's going to take a while to feel comfortable on the board. (I'm the only new member; I was voted in to replace a member who moved.) I'm still at the point where someone has to stop the debate periodically and fill me in on the history of the project or explain how the district used to do this.
I've heard it takes a full year to really feel at ease, and I can already see that the budget process and initiating and passing a five-year plan can seem like overwhelming goals.
Still, I think the knowledge I've gained during my time at this magazine will prove to be a long-term help. There are already some items, such as implementing No Child Left Behind, that I felt I could hold my own on from Day 1.
I would love to hear from you as I make my way as a rookie board of education member. I'll take whatever advice, tips and good-luck charms you want to send my way. And I'll report back here periodically to give you the perspective of an outsider who has now joined your world.