I would hate to guess off the top of my head how many hours Evening Tribune reporters spend in school board meetings each year.
I’m afraid my guess wouldn’t even be in the ball park.
But let’s give it a try. Every month the newspaper covers the meetings of about seven school districts. That’s more than 80 meetings annually right there, not including budget hearings, special meetings, committee sessions, among other gatherings that a school board will conduct over many months. That puts us at about 100 meetings a year, of varying length. We are easily well over 200 hours.
Admittedly, much of what school boards do is routine. Paying the bills. Approving conference requests. Hiring substitutes. Managing the school calendar. Awarding contracts.
Essential business? Yes. Great newspaper copy? Not always.
But that’s not really the point. This is: as the resolutions pile up, and the construction reports are recited, as the tax cap is calculated and the budget numbers are crunched, it’s easy to lose sight of what this is all supposed to be about — providing the best education possible to our LOT (Leaders Of Tomorrow). Can we please talk about education?
This isn't a slam on the community members who volunteer their time to serve on school boards, or the administrators who keep the schools up and running. They didn't get into this field because they love crafting bus schedules. Helping kids was their original motivation, I'm quite sure.
Every once in a while, though, a school board meeting will remind everyone what's really at stake in public schools. That happened last week in Hornell. What appeared to be a routine resolution to approve the student extracurricular handbook, developed into a free-wheeling discussion about the real purpose of public education, second chances and the best use of limited resources and teachers' time.
Administrators are proposing a change to the handbook that would not completely shut the door on students who are failing four or more courses to participate in extracurriculars.
“In the old handbook, you were done,” explained Superintendent Doug Wyant, Jr.
High School principal Scott Carroll explained the motivation.
“We’re trying to foster a growth mindset," Carroll said. "We always champion that academics come first. But in terms of clubs and activities, research supports that students that are engaged in other activities are more likely to succeed, so if a student has a bad five-week marking period, it’s one of those things where we want to foster that growth mindset, that perseverance and allow them the opportunity.”
According to the proposed policy, the student would have the responsibility to go to the teacher of each course that they’re failing and create an action plan of what’s agreeable, and if they meet that benchmark once it’s established, the teacher will have the option to sign that student off or not sign the student off to resume participation in sports or clubs.
"I worry about sending the opposite message," said School Board President John McNelis. "That ‘I can do whatever I want. There are no consequences.’
“I also worry about teachers. If they’re the last teacher in line and three teachers have approved the kid, that’s an awful lot of pressure on the fourth teacher.”
The point of the policy, proponents insist, is to keep struggling students engaged and committed to their education.
“I want to speak from a coach’s perspective," said another person. "I had a student where they were struggling, and they felt like there was no need to continue because they were not eligible. This fosters them actually working with their teachers, where before, they were done.”
“I’ve seen it work to the benefit where they actually try to access all of their teachers and try to get those sign-offs. I’ve also seen students who say, ‘Why should I bother? I’m already ineligible. I can’t improve.' And sometimes, it’s by one or two points, so I think we should consider that.”
The school board remained unconvinced. “I know they’re in high school, but at what point are we going to stop handing kids things all the time?” asked board member Joshua DeLany.
“They’re not being handed anything at this point by this policy,” Wyant said.
DeLany: “I never even failed four subjects all at once, and honestly I didn’t try very hard.”
While the school board discussion seemed to focus on high school and athletics, officials pointed out that the extracurricular rules apply to all students, in every grade.
A teacher joined the discussion.
“So they have failed four subjects, and I have to figure out when I am going to meet with them, but how and when are we going to meet with them?” the teacher asked.
“It’s going to fall on my shoulders – you know that — as a teacher. I have to teach. I teach a very unique subject. It doesn’t usually go, ‘Take it home, good luck. ’It doesn’t work like that, so how is that going to be achieved with four different teachers?”
While in theory, the responsibility falls on the student, McNelis can relate to the teacher's concerns.
“What she is trying to say is if they are participating in an extracurricular activity and they are failing four subjects, where are they going to find time to (work with teachers)," he said.
Carroll said administrators have struggled with the policy, discussing the pros and cons among themselves for hours.
“Nothing is going to change in terms of policy and protocol," the highs school principal said. "They still have to get signed off by every single teacher of every class that they’re failing. If that one teacher is not there, then they can not be signed off and become eligible.
“It gives them the opportunity to show perseverance, to experience what it’s like to work through adversity and to either gain or not achieve their goal.”
The school board remained skeptical.
“Currently with all the safety nets in place, do you really think that if they are at that point that this is something that’s going to put them over the top?" McNelis said.
On this day, a final decision was not forthcoming. The school board tabled the resolution, with McNelis not closing the door completely on the proposal. A committee of board members will meet with administrators for more discussion.
“We think our administrators do a great job, and ultimately we trust their judgment," McNelis said. "I just think we have a few more questions.”
No matter how the issue comes out, McNelis seemed energized and pleased by the spirited dialog. A dialog/debate about the essence of education — not about, say, replacing school boilers.
“A lot of healthy debate, which is awesome. You know, we like to see that," McNelis said.
So do I.
Neal Simon is the city editor of the Evening Tribune.