Judith Johnson: A Superintendent Who Knows What Kids Want
This Peekskill, New York, schools superintendent talks about what kids look for in an after-school program, plus community partnerships and administrator buy-in.
1. Why are the after-school programs in your high-need district successful?
What people don't seem to realize is that poor kids do not want to be subjected to drill and practice. They don't want to be subjected to dumbed-down curriculum. People make an association, all too unfortunately, that if you are a poor minority, you don't want to be challenged, you don't want excitement -- and that's just the opposite of what kids want.
So, what these after-school programs did was bring artists into the schools, bring technology into the schools, bring robotics into the schools. None of these programs, by the way, were offered during the school day. What they were seeing from 3 o'clock to 6 o'clock is not what they were experiencing from 8 o'clock to 3 o'clock, and that's really important.
2. What's the key age group to address?
We brought in a program with some state funding that now services up to 600 kids in grades 5-9, and there's a reason. Students who don't make it out of ninth grade are at the highest risk for dropping out of school. So, if you are going to catch them before they become a dropout statistic, you have to work with them in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then make sure that when they get into ninth grade, they have a stable experience. Since we didn't have enough money for the entire school system, we targeted that early middle school group, which is the most troubled group in the United States.
3. What makes a good partner?
Schools cannot be the only magic bullet for kids. They need to be healthy, they need to be in adequate housing, they need their emotional needs met, they need their nutritional needs met. And schools can do that only in partnership with other agencies. So, as we were preparing this grant, we invited twelve social service agencies to join us. They helped with the writing of the application, and they signed on as partners.
What I didn't realize was that some of them signed on, thinking this was an opportunity for them to gain additional revenue to support already existing staff. You would think that with all my years of education, I would have figured that out, but I didn't. So, in the early meetings, as we began to design programs, I heard people saying, "Where's my money?"
That led me to develop contracts with the partners that simply said, "As a partner, this is what you will do; as a district, this is what we will do." And the partners were asked to bring resources to the table, and that led to the number dropping from twelve to seven partners, because some folks said, "We can't do that."
Now, those who have remained have done some really great things. They go out and find money to support what they want to do for our kids. They bring the money and the resources to our programs. We have an antiobesity program run by the health care center that is totally funded by a grant they received. We have a huge mentorship program with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They went out and found their own money, and brought that money into the district. Those are the kinds of things partners need to do.
A partner is someone who shares your belief system, who has an institutional goal that is aligned to the school district's goal, and who sees as an advantage working closely with the school system to meet the institution's goals as well as improve the quality of life for its citizens.
4. How do you think other superintendents feel about extended-day programs?
I don't think there are many superintendents who would disagree with the notion of an extended day. We all feel incredibly frustrated by time constraints. Almost every superintendent, whether it's a high-wealth district or a high-need district, feels challenged by the testing and assessments put on us.
We also feel challenged by the constraints of contracts that limit the amount of time that anyone covered by a contract can give to a school system. And everyone recognizes that we are working in an obsolete system that's an agrarian system. It assumes kids go home to farms from June to September. It assumes that kids stop learning at 3 o'clock. That's obsolete, and we all know that.
The challenge is, where do you find the funds to turn that around? I doubt that you will find a superintendent in this country who dismisses the extended-day concept. What they might say is, "We can't find a way to fund it." And isn't that unfortunate, when we fund so many other things many Americans feel are not appropriate for funding?