Richard Connor: New school boss deserves kudos, not criticism

You want a business angle? I’ll give you your business angle.

Company recruits a new hire. Let’s call him or her an “executive.”

He (or she) likes Fort Worth; wants to move the family here.

“Where should we live? ” the soon-to-be resident asks.

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Tricky, says the recruiter. Fort Worth is a great city but has lousy public schools. You have to pick your home by quality of school district.

This story is decades old. I lived it in 1986 when I first moved here. Lived it again in 2006 when my daughter began kindergarten.

And now, 30 years later, I still watch Fort Worth struggle with the public school issue and the dismal reputation of our schools.

But hope has arrived. Kent Scribner, hired last fall as the Fort Worth Independent School District’s new superintendent, rolled into Texas from Arizona with not only a trunkload of new ideas and thoughtful plans for change but also with a teenage daughter who promptly joined the ranks of FWISD students.

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Scribner wasted no time setting his plans in motion, streamlining the district’s administrative structure, redistributing money from management into classrooms and funneling resources toward struggling schools that are most in need of improvement.

While he was at it, he established an immediate presence in the community, making himself available to the public and the media in a way that many of his predecessors never did. And in every public forum, he stressed the urgency of reaching students at the early stages of the learning process, with a special focus on third-graders.

Why? Because, as anyone who has studied education knows, if you don’t have these kids by third grade you will never have them.

And what about that business angle? Scribner has made a point of reaching out to the business community, emphasizing the importance of preparing Fort Worth students to become part of the area’s workforce.

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Even before he officially started his new job last October, Scribner appeared at the annual State of Education Luncheon sponsored by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and talked about the importance of connecting students with high-demand careers in Fort Worth.

“We are living in an age where our young people are going to have dozens of jobs in their adult lives, not one career that they’re going to stick with for 30 years,” Scribner said. “There’s going to be an ever-changing employment landscape, and we need to prepare our students for that kind of versatility.”

In a December Q&A with Fort Worth Business, Scribner discussed the school district’s relationship with the business community.

“We have many great business partners who are actively involved with many of our campuses,” he said. “Other businesses are ready to step up to the plate and are eager to become involved in the education process. Fort Worth is a vibrant, growing business market. … We need to be training students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. We must be innovative to put Fort Worth students into Fort Worth jobs.”

He urged businesses to get involved.

“Our Department of Community and Strategic Partnerships stands ready to match companies with schools based on student needs,” he said. “Education and the economy are inextricably linked, and this community will not be successful if our schools and our students are not embraced as the keys to the future. A school may have more than one partner, and any size business or organization can make a difference.”

Scribner is engaging and direct. He is, quite frankly, on a roll and Fort Worth should be rejoicing about the direction he is taking our schools and our city.

It’s easy, of course, to talk about restructuring an unwieldy bureaucracy, about invigorating a moribund school system, about preparing Fort Worth’s children to take on a challenging work world when their school days are over.

That’s happy talk. Who can argue with such goals?

But the demands of education today go far beyond the fundamentals of reading, writing, math and science. Educators must deal with complex social issues that are as real and troubling inside the schoolhouse walls as they are in society at large.

And so, one of the first tasks that confronted Scribner in his new job was updating the school district’s guidelines regarding transgender students. The district had a policy dating back to 2012 but it needed to be better defined and more detailed; district officials were already at work on a revised set of guidelines when Scribner entered the picture.

Once the revamped guidelines were finalized, the new superintendent and three other officials signed off on them and they became the official policy of the district. No muss, no fuss – until our state’s pathologically grandstanding lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, got wind of it and decided to create a furor where none was required. Patrick blasted the guidelines – especially the section dealing with bathroom use by transgender students – and demanded Scribner’s resignation.

(My views on Patrick’s theatrics are well-represented in our online editorial, “Thanks for leaving, Dan Patrick – and don’t come back.”  A news story about the public uproar Patrick touched off is also posted on our website.)

Luckily for Fort Worth, Mayor Betsy Price immediately stood by Scribner, and the school board appears to be firmly in his corner as well. For his part, Scribner said he has no intention of resigning and that he is proud of the transgender guidelines he approved.

Let me tell you, our readers, something. I have a 15-year old daughter and she lives in a much different world than I do, or did.

Issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are all too real among young people today and many of us who grew up in a different culture do not understand them. But we should appreciate this: These issues are out in the open and coping with them is a crucial part of the educational mission of every public school system.

Scribner accepted his responsibility to deal with a sensitive and controversial issue. Rather than screaming for his head on a platter, all of us should be thanking him for doing his job in a thoughtful and conscientious manner.

Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net.