Streamline accountability at the top, end annual beg fest

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Rufus Williams

Photo by John Booz

Rufus Williams

School Board President Rufus Williams says it’s just “not efficient” to expect Chicago Public Schools, year after year, to travel to Springfield and lobby for basic funding. That time would be much better spent, he argues, getting principals, teachers, parents and community leaders on the same page toward providing high-quality education to every child in the city. In an interview with Editor-in-Chief Veronica Anderson, Williams lays out his priorities.

What’s it going to take for the district to move forward? You mentioned that the district has some issues. What are they?

We have to make sure we have the right levels of accountability.

Flesh that out.

We are responsible for schools. We are responsible for the achievement of students. But we don’t have responsibility for everything that happens between here and there. We are not responsible for who the principals are in the school. We don’t make that selection, the local school councils [do].

You want control over that?

I want to be held accountable for the things that I’m responsible for. We need to do what’s best for children. And in too many cases, adults get in the way.

What else should the district address?

We have one of the shorter school days [and] school years in the country. It’s frustrating. We are comparing our students to students throughout the state and the nation, and we’re operating with much more limited resources.

What would you do with a longer day?

Some of it’s academic. Some is even broader than that. In elementary school, we would re-institute recess. A longer school day would allow us to do more things to broaden [students’] minds.

Another issue?

We are in a global society and our children need to catch up. We need to give them a chance to participate in society, and we’re not. Brown v. The Board of Education was 53 years ago. The push at that time was integration. Today, we need to focus on equality.

Explain what you mean.

We have a deferred maintenance of $4.8 billion. We have some brand new buildings. We have some buildings that are 100 years old, some of which need a lot of work. Children in those buildings are clearly not getting the same level of equality as those who might be in newer schools. Until we can get enough resources to move everybody up, you are going to find some disparities. Compare our absolute best, top, newest school to some other areas, you still don’t have the same things. Some private schools [get] huge influxes of cash. They get the best and the finest. Our children ultimately have to compete with them and it’s just not equitable.

So we’re back to funding.

It’s so fundamental.

Let’s look at the big picture. There’s a new schools initiative, a high school initiative, a reading initiative. There’s Preschool for All. Where is all of this taking Chicago Public Schools?

It’s taking us forward. If you take any one of those, they are all build[ing] a better system than what we had before.

How does that better system look?

All of our children are performing, meeting or exceeding standards at grade level in every grade. There’s adequate support for all special needs. We’re no longer talking about a dropout rate. I don’t think they’re talking about one in Winnetka. I don’t want to talk about one either.

Your goal is zero dropouts?

That’s my five-year goal. 100 percent of our children meeting or exceeding standards, and 100 percent of our children graduating from high school.

Some say the district doesn’t do enough to prevent or recover droputs. Do you have any ideas?

We’re focused on dropout prevention. [A] truly holistic approach that says we need to keep children from even considering dropping out. Success breeds success. If we can get them learning at the right levels early enough, engage parents and have parents engage their children, then we don’t worry about whether a child will drop out.

Looking ahead, who should be charged with leading the district?

Rufus Williams and Arne Duncan. We’re the ones who are ultimately responsible.

School superintendents and CEOs, on average, last three to five years. Arne’s been here for six years. Who’s next?

Arne is the horse that we’re riding and that’s where we are. We should all give our full support to the folks who are in place because those kinds of conversations are counter-productive.

What are your thoughts about local school councils and communities and how they should be involved with their schools?

I love the collaboration of parents and teachers, administrators and communities. Whether it’s happening inside or outside the school, we need collaboration to happen.

What can it accomplish?

It can bring more resources into the school, more opportunities to students. That being said, I think that there are people who have expertise and understanding about what takes place in education, and those people should be allowed to do what works best. You know, I was the president of an LSC.

Well, then, as a former LSC president, do you think the School Board should make the decisions that you were making when you were on that council? You’re not an educator, but you hired a principal.

Whitney Young has had three principals in its 30-year history.

So you had to just renew a contract.

Well, we evaluated the principal. I don’t think in the time that I was there we even got to renew the contract. I’m glad I didn’t do that. The process of doing an evaluation is not one that should be taken lightly. It takes training to do that effectively. I’m not convinced that everybody gets the proper training. And even if you take it, I’m not convinced that you can come [away] prepared to be able to effectively do that for what’s at stake.

What do you think is the best way to work with councils?

Somebody would say [I’m] against local school councils and that’s not what I’m saying. I am saying that the responsibility and the authority should go hand-in-hand. What happens if LSCs do a bad job? The children would suffer.

But children suffer when the School Board or the district does a bad job.

If we have an area instructional officer [AIO] who is consistently giving high ratings to a principal who is not a good principal, then we can do something with that AIO. If a local school council does the same thing, we can’t do anything.

What would you like to see churches and community groups do around schools?

The first thing I’d like for them to do is appreciate the importance of education. It should be revered. [Churches and communities] may not be able to teach calculus, but they can certainly teach the ethic of hard work and perseverance.

How do you motivate churches and communities, educators and everybody at central office to buy into your 100 percent performance goals if you don’t let them know where things stand?

We’ve got to tell great stories. We’ve got to tell them about people just like them who have achieved. And we have to show society what is real: That African-American males are as good, and in many cases, better than everybody else. That’s not the story that’s being told.

Well, I have to say that hair stood up on the back of my neck when I saw the test scores broken down by race and CPS African-American students were at the bottom. Why is that?

We have all these children who live in [public housing] and all they’re seeing are people who aren’t getting any further. At some point, if [black children] don’t see the same opportunity or feel too maligned, then they don’t put in the effort that they should otherwise put in.

But how do we change that?

The way Bill Cosby puts it is he says, “We got to put a body on it.” That means somebody has got to be responsible for everybody. Every parent wants what’s best for their child. They may not know how to get there. But those of us who know, have to teach them.

How do you make that happen?

Real Men Read was a way to take men and put them in the faces of children and say, “This is what a man is and this is what a man does.” And those men, at the same time, embrace these children.

But do those men feel responsible for the children they read to?

It’s happening. We had men who went back as many times as it took to finish reading a book with those children. One guy would bring in stuff for them. He would take them out. We will create programs that give an opportunity for one-on-one relationships and develop those relationships.