Merlene Davis: With Silberman's retirement, let the battle begin again

Stu Silberman got a high-five from 5-year-old Ryan Goodwin while his brother Jaden, 6, and 5-year-old Aja Coffey, left, looked on as the superintendent greeted kids on the first day of school at Liberty Elementary School on Aug. 13, 2008.
Stu Silberman got a high-five from 5-year-old Ryan Goodwin while his brother Jaden, 6, and 5-year-old Aja Coffey, left, looked on as the superintendent greeted kids on the first day of school at Liberty Elementary School on Aug. 13, 2008.

For purely selfish reasons, I was saddened to learn Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman was calling it quits.

I think a lot of folks should be saddened.

Instead of having a schools chief who has demonstrated a belief that our focus should be about children, who has cleaned out dead weight from Central Office and who encouraged personnel to return phone calls within 24 hours, we now don't know who we're going to get.

I don't think I have the strength to go back to the way it once was.

When Silberman was named the superintendent in 2004, I was hopeful and yet unsure he had what it would take to crack the "us-against-them" mentality that permeated the schools' administration building on East Main Street.

The black community, among other groups pushed to the fringe, was tired of fighting to get all children the best education this school system had to offer. The only open-door policy at the time was the one that ushered you to the parking lot.

So when Silberman acknowledged that black, poor and disabled children were getting short shrift in Fayette County and promised to change that culture, I wanted to believe him. So did others who were battle-worn and tired.

We knew, however, that folks don't just willingly give up the time-honored right to be promoted to Central Office — a place with no innovation and no desire to address difficult problems — where they could then wait to die.

Surprisingly, Silberman seemed undaunted. He said folks in Central Office and in our schools would have to work harder or they would have to move on.

"Stu had gotten some of the right people on the bus in the right seats," said P.G. Peeples, CEO of the Lexington Fayette County Urban League. "And he got some of the people who didn't belong on the bus off the bus. And that, to me, was very encouraging."

For the Rev. C.B. Akins, a longtime education advocate, Silberman "kept his eye on the ball and had the interest of all the kids."

In the seven years hence, the relationship between the community, businesses and even the local government and the school system improved dramatically.

But the closing of the achievement gap that separates rich from poor, black from white, abled and disabled, not so much.

Akins, Peeples and the Rev. Bob Brown were some of the founding members of One Community, One Voice, a grass-roots organization that examined data and highlighted the growing gap in Fayette schools.

"What he brought to the table was an understanding that there was a problem with the system," Brown said of Silberman. "No one else had acknowledged that."

But, Brown said, the achievement gap remains, and monitoring it doesn't seem to be a high priority for the board.

"Action and results achieved is where I am disappointed," he said.

The gaps have narrowed, but they are still wide enough for children to fall through.

There are too many black boys in detention and special education. And there are far too many students dropping out of school ill prepared for what awaits them.

When Silberman announced his retirement, he said he was disappointed that there wasn't greater progress in that area.

Still, though, he said, "I'll be leaving the district in better shape than when I found it. What I'm most proud of is the increase of student achievement and narrowing of the achievement gap."

"I wish I was making the announcement that all achievement gaps were closed," he said. "There is a difference between narrowing and closing."

Peeples said Silberman's retirement is "shocking and, even more so, it is very disappointing that we would be losing a superintendent who, in my lifetime of working in this community, gave closing the academic achievement gap a priority and was making strides in that direction.

"My worst nightmare is that this wagon might roll back down the hill, and I'm not sure that would matter to everybody," Peeples said.

And that's the fear, that's the awakening of an old fear that never quite dies. Who will finally put a stake in the heart of our fear that no one cares about our children?

With Silberman's retirement, black parents, poor parents and parents of the disabled have to shake out our fighting spirits. With Silberman gone, we may have to refight battles that appeared to be won. We still have to ensure that the head of our schools understands our children must matter.

Now it's time to "strap it on and get back in the game," as Peeples said. Now we, the community, have to awaken from our rest and prepare to grapple for the right person to lead this school system.

Board chairman John Price said a candidate should have a proven record of closing the achievement gap and not just talk a good game.

"I want a person who is committed to student achievement for all students," Price said. And it won't hurt for that candidate to be a good communicator, and open and transparent as well, he said.

"The person must be sensitive to the needs of all kids and who is accepting of nothing less than excellence from the staff," Akins said.

Silberman walked into a wasp's nest of entrenched culture at Central Office in 2004 and into a school system that did not embrace a belief that every child can learn. After tidying things up a bit, he is walking away with only a few stings.

I wish him well and pray he has many joyful hours with his 3-year-old granddaughter.

The rest of us need to gird our loins.

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