Friday, May 18, 2007

The Schools May Have Picked a Winner

Our Town downtown
March 5, 2007

Did you see that the city’s Department of Education chose a woman named Martine Guerrier to be the Chief Family Engagement Officer? If you don’t have kids in the schools or aren’t a news junkie, the appointment wouldn’t get your attention. It got my attention because this Martine got my attention the three times I went to a school board meeting this year. They don’t call them Board meetings; they’re called Panel for Educational Policy meetings. That sounds like they might be of a new order and of a higher nature than old-time Board meetings. Well, I never went to one of those sessions, but at these the level is not high. It’s so low in fact that nobody goes, unless you think 20-30 people showing up to listen and talk about a school system that has more than 1,000,000 kids is a good turnout.

The lone exception to the boredom of the proceedings and the boredom on the panel members’ faces (Chancellor Klein looked by far the most bored; he arrogantly [there’s no other word for it] played on his Blackberry the whole night(s)) has been Martine Guerrier. She can’t help it. She’s not showing off. She’s just sharper and more alert than the others. It doesn’t take much to be sharp at the Chambers Street meetings I’ve been to. But she’d be sharp in any crowd.
In this new job she’ll represent the parents of the more than 1,000,000 kids. She is a wife and mother and has a 10-year-old son. With that, and her intelligence, diligence, and speech pattern, she’s a great fit for the job.

That’s all I really know about her. I googled her after I first watched her at a Panel meeting. There wasn’t much about her. I was fascinated enough by her to do that. Watching her exceptional talents at the meetings was like seeing some random game on TV and finding yourself rooting for a player you’d never heard of because he got your attention somehow. It happens with supporting actors sometimes. You’re taken with them and start to follow their careers. Or you catch part of a song and you’re hooked on that singer. If your instincts are good, it doesn’t surprise you totally that some of those first impressions are validated and the person goes on to be somebody big.

That’s how I feel about this Martine Guerrier. She’s young, African-American, smart in a non-annoying way, likable in her manner and unafraid to ask for clarification of some point—at the meetings I attended—that otherwise would have just laid there in its own jargon.
The position she’s got now could be a place where she’ll be able to shine. Representing all the kids’ parents could be a huge, powerful opportunity to move the city to do more. There must be significant things that need doing or there wouldn’t be just half the students graduating in four years.

Running the city’s schools must be a bear. No place has figured it out. No other city has, for sure. It doesn’t seem to matter if the mayor takes control or a woman runs them or a board. There must be something essential that’s being missed. I wish they’d find out what it is. The kids are waiting. What probably will happen is that it will all be done by some computer programs in the frighteningly-not-too-distant future. Teachers will still be in the room but kids will learn music from Winton Marsalis and history from Bono, like we learn cooking from Rachel Ray. In the meantime, before we turn the thermostat way up to Fahrenheit 451, the schools need flesh-and-blood humans to run things. Sharp people are what are needed most and typically schools don’t attract the bold, energetic types that go into more alluring-for-them careers. This Martine might be one of those, and we better use her well while we have her.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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