Feature

Courageous Acts: Personal Tales

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s not uncommon these days for school superintendents to find themselves in situations that demand the most courageous acts of leadership. Sometimes these actions take place in the face of considerable personal danger or hardship. Over the past 20 years, The School Administrator has reported on several of these superintendents’ bold and definitive steps, often taken without regard for personal consequence.

What follows is a representative sampling of 10 courageous acts undertaken by superintendents across the country. In each case, you’ll find a succinct retelling of the scenario. Then you’ll read the superintendents’ personal reflections of their state of mind or guiding spirit that contributed to their confident and resolute acts toward the common good.

STANDING UP FOR INTEGRATION

SCENARIO: In June 2007, just two days before Sheldon Berman assumed the superintendency in Jefferson County, Ky., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the school district’s race-based desegregation plan was unconstitutional.

Holding firm to the principle that an integrated school district benefits both students and the community, Berman led the district in a redesign of its student assignment plan. The new plan was multidimensional — assessing each attendance area for socioeconomic status, minority status and adult educational attainment — and establishing guidelines to sustain an integrated balance across the district.

 

The plan also included the launch of 22 theme-based magnet elementary schools to attract parents and children to schools in more challenged neighborhoods.

 

CourageSupe_BermanSheldon Berman regularly faced the press in Louisville, Ky., over the student assignment plan in the Jefferson County Public Schools.

Meanwhile, national and local trends were moving in the opposite direction. Seattle, Wake County, N.C., Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and other communities dismantled or abandoned their school desegregation plans, and the demand to return to neighborhood schools became a major focus in Kentucky’s electoral politics. In spite of those headwinds, Berman continued to promote diversity and an integrated district, issuing a report entitled “No Retreat,” writing op-ed columns for the city’s newspapers, meeting with local groups and refining the student assignment plan to help it gain broader community support.

SHELLEY BERMAN REFLECTS: “Following transition meetings in Louisville, I was heading back to Massachusetts, where I’d been superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools for 14 years. Watching the sunset through the plane’s window, I pondered the last graduation speech I would give at Hudson High School.

“The graduating class had chosen the theme ‘We are all in this together.’ I was struck by how equally relevant that theme was to retaining an integrated school district in Jefferson County. Had I been asked to select the one concept most vital to pass on to both communities, I would have echoed those very words.

“I have long believed public education has a larger mission, which is to help young people develop the skills and — even more important — the conviction to shape a safe, sustainable and just world. To do that, students must understand the power and meaning of community — the idea that we depend on those around us and they depend on us; that we can bridge the differences between us; that we achieve more together than alone; and that true value exists in striving for the common good.

“There is no better way to develop that understanding than to learn beside others who are in some way different from us and who view the world from dissimilar life experiences.

“My parents would never have survived without the help of others who acted on that belief. Orphaned at 12, my mother and her siblings were cared for by a family who reached out to help. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was welcomed into the home of a Polish farmer and protected from the Nazis for almost two years. When it comes to protecting each other, ensuring each other’s safety and well-being, confronting injustice and surviving oppression, we all depend on one another — we are all in this together.

“The lessons learned from my parents’ experiences sensitized me to issues of injustice, but also to the importance of compassion and community and to the need for reaching across the boundaries of difference and prejudice.

“It would have been much easier these past four years to acquiesce to national trends and local pressure. I stood up for an integrated system because of what I have learned from history and my parents’ personal experiences and because I was inspired and sustained by the commitment and courage of so many Louisvillians who care deeply about preserving the community’s 35-year legacy of integrated schools.

“At this critical moment in America’s history, it is vital we uphold the vision that school systems can bring together children of different races, classes and ethnic backgrounds, enabling us to, in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words, ‘fulfill (this nation’s) historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity.’”

Shelley Berman is superintendent of the Eugene Public Schools in Eugene, Ore. E-mail: berman_s@4j.lane.edu. He served in the same capacity in Jefferson County, Ky., until June 30.

 

THE RIGHT TO ATTEND SCHOOL

SCENARIO: Soon after Charles Fowler joined the Sarasota, Fla., schools as superintendent in spring 1986, he was approached by the county’s medical director to talk about developing a sound policy on attendance by students who had HIV. Fowler involved the district’s counsel in subsequent discussions and soon thereafter asked the school board to adopt a policy that permitted HIV-infected students to receive their education at school alongside their peers. The board approved, 4-1.
Many Sarasota residents strongly and vocally disagreed with the board’s decision. At the time, every other school district in Florida required HIV-infected students to be home-schooled.

About a month later, in a neighboring county, the mother of three hemophiliac, school-age boys learned all three had become HIV infected because of tainted blood transfusions. As a result of the disclosure, their school district barred further attendance by the boys. One evening, with the family away, their home was burned to the ground. The family went into hiding and, as predicted by the community opponents, later surfaced in Sarasota because of its supportive policy. Fowler met secretly with the mother and her sons to work out the details of their enrollment in school.

CourageSupe_FowlerChuck Fowler in his Sarasota office in the midst of his battle in 1986 to enroll three young brothers who had HIV.

CHUCK FOWLER REFLECTS: “I often asked myself why I decided to take on this issue. Here I was, new to the Sarasota superintendency and to Florida. The only other Florida district to tackle the student HIV issue had decided in favor of home schooling its single, infected student. That child’s education was continuing unabated, and the rest of the parents and community could rest easy in the knowledge that if the condition were transmittable by casual contact, they didn’t need to worry.


“There are several ways to explain my position: First, I was born just prior to World War II and had seen the senseless loss of life generated by hurtful propaganda. Second, my undergraduate and graduate work had a focus on adolescent psychology, and I could just imagine the guilt these boys probably felt about being burned out of their home and forced to move from their school and town because of their mysterious illness.

“Third, I truly believed the schoolhouse was the place for fairness, and the school was the last place for anything irrational or hurtful to children. Fourth, by nature, I am a trusting person, and I fully trusted the county physician when he assured me science was on the side of the kids, and I trusted our attorney’s conclusion that the law supported their right to attend school with other children.

“I was fortified by prayer on what to do and by the strong belief that if I didn’t stand up for these children, no one else was lining up to do that. In the early stages of a controversy such as this, support comes from others in whispers, not letters to the editor. My support came from leaders I respected in the community, including all the members of my board of education and our teachers association.

“The ultimate validation and support, however, came on that glorious day in August 1987 when, with tears in my eyes, I saw these three boys so warmly welcomed to their new schools by the genuine and fearless friendship of their new classmates and teachers. Subsequently, the Florida commissioner of education stepped up to the plate and made the Sarasota policy the rule for all children in Florida.”

Charles W. Fowler is president of School Leadership, a consulting firm, in New York, N.Y. E-mail: leadschools@aol.com

 

PROTECTING IMMIGRANT CHILDREN

SCENARIO: At 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2006, Stephen Joel, superintendent of Nebraska’s Grand Island Public Schools, took a phone call from the local police chief. Federal immigration officials were raiding a meatpacking plant in town. More than 1,000 Grand Island students had parents employed at the plant. Joel realized, by day’s end, some students might not have a family at home.

With little time to develop strategies, Joel believed it was imperative the schools in Grand Island become safe places where each affected student would be cared for until his or her family situation was resolved.

STEVE JOEL REFLECTS: “My father was a New York City police officer, and I grew up in a tightly knit family. Most everything I ever learned about being a good person, I learned from them. My mom and dad taught me to face the consequences of my actions, and they taught me that kids are the most important people in our lives, that we must always make sure they are safe.

CourageSupe_JoelSteve Joel

“That lesson has come back to me again and again in my life, as part of a family, as part of an athletic team, as a teacher, principal and superintendent. If something happens to your family — your relatives, your team or your community of students and teachers — you need to wrap your arms around them.

“When I learned of the immigration raid in Grand Island, I sensed this would be a challenging ordeal. Instinctively, I called together people from the school district to plot strategy. It didn’t take long to figure out what was right. We were all parents, and when we discussed what it would feel like for our kids to come home to empty homes, we knew what we had to do.

“We touched the lives of more than a thousand children that day, amid pressure from an uneasy community and a flood of national media, yet we knew what was most important. As Grand Island’s superintendent, I needed to take responsibility for our students.

“I think what kept us going was knowing we were doing everything we could to shield and shelter our children as we watched kids break down in tears when they heard their parents might be taken away. I also was sustained by those moments when I witnessed the formidable goodness of the human spirit.

“One of my favorite stories from this episode involves a neighbor and friend, a successful white businessman in the community who had argued vehemently against illegal immigration. On the day of the raid, that neighbor walked into my office with a check. It was sizeable. I was confused. But he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is about the kids. I’m a dad.’

“I remember there were tears streaming down my face, because at that moment we shared perhaps the most important lesson that day: We need to keep our children safe. It was that simple.”

Stephen C. Joel is superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Neb. E-mail: sjoel@lps.org

 

CONFRONTED BY HATE

SCENARIO: The serenity of a bright spring morning in 1994 ended abruptly when Terrance Furin, superintendent of the Owen J. Roberts School District outside Philadelphia, received urgent calls from staff at his high school wondering what to do about the students arriving at school with neo-Nazi flyers to distribute. They were recruiting new members to a hate group known as the Pottstown SS. The students were calling for a boycott of school in two weeks to commemorate the anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s death.

CourageSupe_FurinTerry Furin

TERRY FURIN REFLECTS: “Early in my tenure in the school district, I realized being a superintendent can be dangerous. One month prior to my arrival, the high school valedictorian, a Jewish girl, had stopped Christian prayer at the commencement through a federal restraining order. This set the stage for my first actions as superintendent.

 

“Working with the administrative team, I developed a policy eliminating prayer at all school events. When the school board adopted the policy, all hell broke loose. I was accused of being the Antichrist, was stalked, had my trash stolen, received threats in the mail and learned that my family, still living in Ohio, also had been threatened. With the help of a supportive board and a reliance on my principles of social justice, I was able to survive.

 


“It was déjà vu four years later when neo-Nazis turned up in the district. I questioned whether I really wanted to stick my hands in the fire again by confronting this hate group. I had no choice if I wanted to be true to the principles that I had advocated for years. For me, these came into focus one day when I heard Norman Cousins, then editor of Saturday Review, describe a conversation he had with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Schweitzer. Cousins had gone to Schweitzer’s medical clinic deep in the jungles of Africa to ask the question he had asked many famous people: ‘What is the most important thing you have learned in your lifetime?’

“It was not until some days after being asked that Schweitzer was able to provide an answer. Upon returning from a distant village where he had helped deliver a baby, Schweitzer said that, at the moment of the birth, he realized the most important thing he had learned in his lifetime was that ‘each person contains a cathedral within.’ Wow! Not a small room or a prefab building but rather a vast sacred space filled with rich colors, intricate details and a unique beauty that fills your senses and carries you to a spiritual realm beyond.

“Imagining that each person contains such a cathedral within is a vision of humanity in the sharpest contrast with neo-Nazi hatred based upon flagrant racism. In this context, confronting those neo-Nazis — no matter the consequences — was something that had to happen.”

Terrance L. Furin is director of international education programs at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. E-mail: tfurin@sju.edu

 

BLINDED BY BROCKOVICH

SCENARIO: In February 2003, Gwen Gross, superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, was blindsided by an evening news report on the local CBS affiliate. Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist portrayed three years earlier by actress Julia Roberts in a major motion picture, claimed she had collected air samples from Beverly Hills High School and found pollutants at a level “higher than the 405 Freeway at rush hour.” She contended an oil well adjacent to the campus was unsafe. Allegations of elevated cancer rates among Beverly Hills graduates fueled an overnight frenzy that continued for years.

Brockovich filed suit against the Beverly Hills district, but thorough testing and epidemiological studies debunked her claims of significant levels of toxic chemicals. The Los Angeles County Superior Court granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs, and the district later was awarded $450,000 as reimbursement for legal expenses.

GWEN GROSS REFLECTS: “I naturally had trepidation as I walked past the row of vans stationed along our high school campus. They were manned by questionable characters who toted clipboards and approached our students, staff and community members. One egregious sign read, ‘If you know anyone who has cancer, sign up here.’

 

“Student safety is one of the greatest concerns educators share. I considered our community under attack. At each board meeting after the news report, I issued a statement to ease parental concerns, sharing all of the steps we had taken with complete transparency. As a parent, I spoke as a parent.

 

CourageSupe_GrossGwen Gross

“Huge flaws emerged in Brockovich’s story. Our attorneys and scientists, working feverishly, asked her for her data and any proof our students were in danger. It took four months of legal wrangling before she relinquished her test results, coinciding with another sweeps-week news story.

“It is now glaringly obvious that Brockovich used her celebrity status to stoke fears in our community. She continually fueled a firestorm of public opinion that could only be doused with a strict focus on factual scientific data. In the 20 years I served as superintendent, this three-year span was by far the most frightening and exhausting. Though the case galvanized our city, our staff and our board of education, I often alone acted as spokesperson, a role that required great faith in the scientific process, disciplined messaging and a willingness to tap into my own energy reserves for months on end.

“A final validating footnote followed years later when Norma Zager, a newspaper reporter with the Beverly Hills Courier, published her revealing book, Erin Brockovich and the Beverly Hills Greenscam. Zager was named Journalist of the Year and Best Investigative Reporter by the Los Angeles Press Club for the work.”

Gwen E. Gross retired in June as superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District in Irvine, Calif. E-mail: gwenegross@gmail.com

 

BATTLING A BOARD OVER STUDENT RIGHTS

SCENARIO: Michael Majchrowicz, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., didn’t expect public attention when he penned a five-paragraph editorial that was mildly critical of the school’s former varsity football coach in December 2009. However, an assistant principal, claiming the editorial would negatively affect morale at the school, removed all copies of The Scout from the school’s newsstands.

The student editor demanded they be returned on First Amendment grounds, reminding the censoring administrator that the superintendent had reviewed the editorial before publication and found nothing inaccurate or objectionable. The school refused to return the newspapers.

Michael turned to his father, Joseph Majchrowicz, a superintendent with 17 years of experience in suburban Cook County, Ill., now leading the Sunnybrook School District in Lansing, Ill., a community located 10 miles northwest of St. John.

JOE MAJCHROWICZ REFLECTS: “Mike came to me not as his father seeking support, but for input because I was a professional educator. As he related the details, I became incensed. How could public school officials abridge the already-limited rights of the student press? I was raised to believe the Constitution was the backbone of this great country.

 
“I suggested Mike take his fight to the board of education, which was meeting a few days later. He did. He also used his social network on Facebook to rally more than 100 others, adults and students alike, to attend.

 

CourageSupe_MajchrowiczJoe Majchrowicz

“He was the first to speak and did a remarkable job. I tried to remain silent, as I didn’t intend to be involved, but I was moved to speak by the passionate efforts of my son. I could not stay out of the fight. I had to speak as a concerned citizen to support those who were willing to fight for rights guaranteed to all citizens in the Bill of Rights.

“I gave an impassioned plea to the board for several minutes, pointing out that students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse door. Those rights are limited at times, but that does not mean they are nonexistent. I told the school board that its support of the abridging of student rights in school bordered on a ‘terrorist mentality,’ and as elected officials that was unacceptable in our country. I mentioned that Lake Central’s mission statement talks about engaging students in the democratic process.

“The next day, Mike called me on my cell phone. I could barely hear him among the cheers in the background. All he said was ‘Dad, we won. ... They put my issue back on the stands.’”

Joseph J. Majchrowicz is superintendent of the Sunnybrook School District 171 in Lansing, Ill. E-mail: jmajchrowicz@sd171.org

 

UNCONSCIONABLE BOARD INTERFERENCE

SCENARIO: In May 1994, three years into her first superintendency, Darline Robles was following a well-defined process for the selection and hiring of new principals in a unified school district in Los Angeles County. (She asked to withhold the identity of the district.) The final step required the finalists to be interviewed by the superintendent and her assistant superintendents for the final recommendation to the board of education.

As Robles and her colleagues were conducting final interviews, she received a phone call from a board member indicating he and two other members had a particular candidate they wanted her to recommend to the board for one of the principalships. The individual pushed by the board member had not placed in the top five in any of the interview panels.

When Robles objected, the board member told her the three of them had made a commitment to this individual as part of an election campaign promise. Robles hung up, stunned by the unprecedented demand.

CourageSupe_Robles2Darline Robles (center) at a Sacramento protest in 2008 over proposed budget cuts in state education support.

DARLINE ROBLES REFLECTS: “This was one of the most difficult challenges of my career — something that would test the core of my values and belief system. As a young child, I was taught to be honest and fair, to stand up for what is right and to do the right thing when dealing with problems. Honesty and integrity were values instilled in me by my family. I felt pushed to the edge and tested to the very core of my beliefs of right and wrong.


“I just could not accept that this was happening. I asked myself over and over again, ‘Does this happen to all superintendents? Am I just being naive?’ That evening, I called my longtime mentor, Mary Mend, and she agreed with me this was wrong and reassured me this isn’t the way it should be done. She suggested I call Ray Cortines, then the chancellor of New York City schools, for advice. I left a message, and he immediately called me back.

“I did not know Ray personally, but his call told me a lot about him as a person. I related the details and how strongly I felt I could not do what the board member was asking me to do. Ray responded in a few words: ‘The only thing a superintendent has is his or her integrity,’ and I was right to follow my instincts.

“I knew I was right in taking a stand against the board’s directive. The majority of the board insisted on taking this action against my recommendation, so then I knew I had to leave. At a board meeting just prior to the start of the school year, I took the board motion but refused to put my name on the recommendation. By December, I had left the district.

“I realize now it was an easy decision to make because it aligned with my values and belief system. I know I could not have made any other decision.”

Darline P. Robles is a professor of clinical education at University of Southern California, and co-author, with Maria G. Ott and Carmella S. Franco, of the forthcoming book A Culturally Proficient Society Begins in School: Leadership for Equity (Corwin Press). E-mail: dprobles@usc.edu

 

FIGHTING SATAN IN THE SUBURBS

SCENARIO: The Bedford Central School District, in an affluent Westchester County bedroom community 40 miles north of New York City, was a most unlikely place to be the focus of a federal lawsuit brought by three conservative Christian families. They alleged in 1996 in U.S. District Court some 117 separate violations of their children’s First- and 14th-amendment rights in what came to be known locally as the “Satan Lawsuit."

 

CourageSupe_DennisBruce Dennis

Bruce Dennis was Bedford’s superintendent from 1992 until 2004.

The three plaintiff families, acting out of some combination of religious conviction, paranoia and what felt to school officials like a desire to damage the intellectual underpinnings of one of the finest school systems in the country, took exception to a variety of curricular and instructional practices that included the celebration of Earth Day, the DARE (drug and alcohol prevention) program, autobiographical poems, several guest speakers and Newbery and Caldecott award-winning children’s literature.

Quiet, upper-middle-class Bedford soon became the target of a flurry of media attention, in the local newspapers, The New York Times and the major TV broadcast networks. Reporters were everywhere on the Bedford campus. The school district became immersed in costly litigation, and the already politically divided board of education found its attention diverted by a public spectacle.

BRUCE DENNIS REFLECTS: “I always regarded a primary part of my role as superintendent to be the protector of our children and faculty from those matters that could divert their attention from teaching and learning. So in my view, one of the costliest elements of this lawsuit was its impact on Bedford’s teachers, an extraordinary group of professional educators.

“Once the district became the lightning rod for so much unwanted media attention, I began to hear of incident after incident of some of our most talented teachers second-guessing themselves about instructional practices or materials they had used for many years. Confident, capable educators were questioning whether their lessons might serve as fodder for the next allegation or embarrass the district in some other way. The teachers I most relied on as instructional leaders and models for others to follow were spending their energies questioning and doubting themselves, and I experienced this as the most pernicious effect of this entire litigious affair.

“My concerns prompted me to take actions that others labeled as courageous, but I never saw as anything other than stepping up to deflect the brunt of a battle I needed to lead in service to our teachers and kids. I immediately wrote to faculty districtwide, affirming my faith in them and exhorting them to rely on the good judgment and professional instincts that always undergirded their work, and to do so without fear or intimidation. I assured them of my unqualified support for them to continue the instructional practices that had always served them and our students well, and my insistence that they not relent or capitulate to the external pressures that were being exerted by a very small but vocal group.

“I worked with my board, divided as they were, to publicly support our teachers, and I visited middle and high school classes to talk with our students about the lawsuit, why the district was innocent of the allegations and what it meant to take a stand against injustice. And I spent a huge amount of time with the media, trying to position the district in the best possible light. During the first two years of this legal battle, I spent over half of each workday immersed solely in matters related to this lawsuit, something that naturally took a toll on the other responsibilities associated with my leadership of our school system.

“Fortunately, the story had a happy ending. We prevailed in court, as we should have, and the forces trying to damage us ultimately moved away. They took a toll, to be sure, but our district emerged stronger and more resolute and very proud we fought the good fight against forces that sought to undermine a truly fine educational program.”

Bruce L. Dennis is head of school at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. E-mail: bdennis@packer.edu

 

FACING DOWN A CRAZED GUN TOTER

SCENARIO: An angry parent, brandishing a handgun, confronted Ken Mitchell on June 9, 2009, in the reception area just outside his superintendent office in the South Orangetown Central School District, located 20 minutes northwest of New York City. Fiercely angry over what he thought was the district’s policy relating to the H1N1 virus in the schools, he pointed the gun at Mitchell, shouting, “Get the f—- into your office.” He grabbed the superintendent’s tie and swung him through the doorway.

The parent closed and then locked the office door. He aimed the gun at Mitchell’s chest, cocking the hammer at one point, and told the superintendent he would “f—ing kill [Mitchell]” if he had to. “I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.”

CourageSupe_MitchellKen Mitchell sits in the office in which he was held at gunpoint.

Mitchell tried to calmly discuss the man’s concerns and assured him a follow-up message would be sent to the community about the problem of H1N1 in the district. He invited the gunman to view it on his computer screen. The man’s threats and belligerent posture continued. Mitchell feared he was about to be killed. The parent seemed irrational and desperate.


When the man put down his gun to sip his beer, Mitchell kicked the gun between the gunman’s legs and lunged. During a struggle on the floor, the man momentarily regained the weapon, but Mitchell grabbed his wrist and slammed it to the ground, dislodging the gun and tossing it toward the door.

At that point, the police SWAT team blasted its way into the office in formation, pointing shotguns and demanding both men put up their hands. By chance, one of the SWAT team members was a former varsity ice hockey player on a team Mitchell had coached years before.

The ordeal lasted 25 minutes.

KEN MITCHELL REFLECTS: “Raised in a blue-collar home and community, I was taught to respect everyone but to take care of myself when necessary. I also learned there will be times in life when I will be forced to make choices regarding situations I did nothing to create. I may have to make such choices on the basis of either fear or hope.

“Some choices, based on fear of failure, may carry less risk. When acting on the basis of hope, there are no guarantees, just potential within hope.

 

“I began my ordeal as a hostage with the hopeful intention of persuading my captor he had made a mistake and that, after meeting me, he would understand my intentions were in our children’s best interests.

 

CourageSupe_Mitchell1Ken Mitchell

“I found myself in a mental and emotional state that was unusually calm and measured. Interestingly, I had a sharpened sense of the details within the physical space of my office. I also found myself calculating scenarios to extricate myself as the events unfolded. Time surrealistically slowed. Yet I also understood the odds were not in my favor: The gunman was bigger, younger, irrational and armed. I was in trouble.

“I approach all situations in a hopeful way. I also believe in the potential of others. Yet I realize there are times when one must take chances, especially when the options are limited. This does not equate with being reckless.

“I try to exhaust reasonable argument before resorting to more decisive actions. Nonetheless, based on the accumulated years of challenging life experiences (though none quite as personally harrowing as this incident), I understand there will be moments when it will be necessary to take action and to be decisive and deliberate when doing so. This was certainly one such moment.”

Ken Mitchell is superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y. E-mail: kmitchell@socsd.org

 

FIERY ORATORY ON THE CAPITOL STEPS

SCENARIO: John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Perrin, Texas, issued an open letter in March 2011 to Texas legislators, modeled on the famous words written just before the fall of the Alamo in 1836. In his “Letter From the Alamo,” Kuhn talks of being “besieged,” having “sustained a continual bombardment of increased high-stakes testing and accountability-related bureaucracy and a cannonade of gross underfunding for 10 years at least.”

CourageSupe_Kuhn1John Kuhn addressed thousands from the steps of the Texas state Capitol in an impassioned speech lambasting the governer's intention to slash public school aid by the billions.

Kuhn followed that with a fiery speech at a Save Texas Schools rally on the steps of the state Capitol in which he criticized plans by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to cut billions of dollars from public school funding. The video of that eight-minute speech quickly went viral on the Internet.


JOHN KUHN REFLECTS: “A wise superintendent friend once told me that teachers who complain to each other in the teachers’ lounge don’t really want things to change, they just want to gripe, but those who want things to be better will actually voice their concerns to the people who have the ability to fix them. So that’s why I wrote the letter — I’m begging our legislators to quit driving us down what I believe is the fundamentally wrong trail.

“One major gripe I have is this: If we really believed that accountability works, wouldn’t we have accountability for all public servants? Why do we not require our legislators to make ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’? We have the data from their congressional districts, do we not? There are crime data, health care data, poverty figures and drug-use statistics for every state and federal legislative district. Why, exactly, do we not establish annual targets for our legislators to meet? We could eliminate 100 percent of poverty, crime, drug abuse and preventable illness by 2014!

“I have always believed that if a person has the audacity to accept the mantle of leadership, they’d better have the courage to lead. Unfortunately, many of my state elected officials play games and issue half-true sound bites rather than exhibit true leadership. The greater good is dying on the floor while they preen and play to their fan clubs. It’s all very sad to me because historically we did education right, and now American education is writhing in hideous deformity on the experimenters’ table while other countries do it right.

 

CourageSupe_KuhnJohn Kuhn

“I say what I believe to be true. And I’m willing to live with the consequences.”

John Kuhn is superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Perrin, Texas. E-mail: jkuhn@pwcisd.net. Listen to his speech at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUm-07NxDX0.