An open letter to candidates for Huntsville City Schools superintendent

By Susan Higgins

Thank you for considering the position of superintendent of Huntsville City Schools and congratulations on your selection as a finalist.

I am sure that you are aware that there is controversy in our system, and that there is frustration among parents, students, teachers and community members. I am sure there is frustration on the part of administration and board members. Here are some concrete actions that would truly alleviate the frustration and help us to move forward:

  1. Understand that the parents in this city who are #smallnoisyparents are rocket scientists, poets, advocates, dreamers and practical beings. I can assure you that we are not a “small group”. Tis far better to have #noisyparents than quiet ones. The quiet ones are leaving. In droves. We want our children to have the education we had or didn’t have. We want open lines of communication. We want to be confident that our children are receiving a good education. We want to be confident that we know the truth of whatever issue we face. We want to trust that the information we receive is not spun beyond recognition.
  2. Be honest and proactive with news, even if it is negative. Parents, students and teachers already know. We are in the system every day. We need you to be honest, to admit the problem and to work with us to develop workable solutions that have community buy-in. Belittling the problem and those that want to address the problem causes more problems and erodes trust.
  3. Return textbooks to schools and classrooms. We have spent thousands of dollars on textbooks. Data and personal experience show that hard copy, paper textbooks are effective and are more effective than technology alone. When the Internet is down, as it often is, those textbooks are invaluable. When the Internet is working, those textbooks are still invaluable. Study after study shows that paper is better. Kids with and without disabilities do better with hard copy textbooks. Online textbooks have a role. Computers are but one tool in what should be a rich and varied educational toolbox. Our taxpayer-funded textbooks were taken out of the classrooms and into put storage. On its face that makes no sense at all. There has been no dialogue at all.
  4. Understand that the vast majority of us are not Luddites and the vast majority of us are plugged into the digital age. We all struggle with a balance between screen time and real time. We see the effects of constant blue light on our kids. We know our kids need to play, they need to develop fine motor skills. We know that writing and physical activity help information move to long-term memory. That is where we want the information they work so hard to learn.
  5. Discontinue outside PR services or severely limit them. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the services of one man. The PR narrative is not strong and it is not trusted. We have employees who are “spokespeople” and “community relations.” Surely, we don’t need to spend over a quarter of a million dollars a year on a man who sits in parking lots and calls us names. We have a PR person who provides services to the district and services to candidates. We have a PR person whose strategy is to denigrate and demean rather than to build bridges and create trust. Surely, that money could be better spent on teachers, instruments, bandwith or fresh apples.
  6. Restore and expand citizen comments. We — parents, teachers, community members — are your constituents. Hearing directly from us tells you exactly where we are and what we understand and don’t understand. Our comments, feedback, questions and positions will guide you and will help you know what will work and what won’t work. We aren’t opposed to change. We do want it to be the right kind of change and implemented in a coherent and meaningful way.
  7. Reduce or eliminate standardized testing. Our kids are tested, at great expense, constantly. Please don’t play games with the semantics. A standardized test is a standardized test- and HCS administers them liberally. Across the country, communities are protesting one standardized test a year as being “too much.” Here in Huntsville, our children are subjected to an alphabet soup of testing that consumes much of the school calendar. Let teachers test on what was taught. Hold them accountable to teach. Let them authentically participate in the creation of pacing guides and exams.
  8. Ensure that test questions and test answers are accurate. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen test questions that simply make no sense. I can’t tell you the number of times that the answer was wrong. I can’t tell you the number of times that two answers were correct, but the computer will only accept one. Testing should be an assessment of whether a student has learned the information. It should not be a landmine of “gotchas.”
  9. Be truthful and open to the challenges presented by behavior. Establish clear guidelines. All of us have different ideas about discipline. All of us have different expectations and experiences. Few of us trust what we are being told because the district is telling us something very different than what we hear from our children or see in our schools. Recognize that the genesis of the new behavioral guidelines is racial disparity in discipline. Perhaps the answer is not to create entirely new discipline systems, but to examine racial bias.
  10. Give teachers and building administrators support and authority. Provide them with professional training. Reduce the number and the pay of highly paid administrators and redirect those resources where they belong- with our kids. Of course we need administrators and we need a central office. There must be balance and every decision must be made in the interest of students.
  11. Evaluate – closely – outside contracts. There is a role for outside contractors and sometimes it is more effective to contract out. HCS saw an enormous rise in outside vendors in the past few years- vendors for whom costs dramatically increased. If one contract is questionable, why wouldn’t other contracts also be questionable? The integrity of all contacts beg scrutiny. For that reason, an outside audit must be conducted and a full evaluation made of the effectiveness of these services. That works for all of us- including the vendors.
  12. Take your time. Far too often the district rushes to implement new policies and programs without full examination or analysis. We recognize the desire to address issues but we also recognize that programs are more successful when time and thought has gone into their development.

Finally, remember that not every problem is solved by an app or an ad. Active, authentic dialogue will go a long way to resolving many of the issues we face. Worry less about statistics and more about truth. Without clear and unvarnished truth we cannot move forward.

If you are selected, welcome. Huntsville is a great community filled with diverse, committed and supportive parents, organizations, and resources. We care. Deeply. Our kids matter. Our schools matter. Our choice for superintendent matters.