Wearing my governance consultant hat, I’ve read through hundreds of board policy manuals over the years, and I have to say that they don’t make for scintillating reading. After all, policies are essentially rules that govern your district’s academic and administrative operations, and rules aren’t for the most part very exciting. The school board, as your district’s governing body, typically pays close attention to only a small number of the highest impact, farthest reaching policies with significant cost and/or political implications. For example, on the administrative front, the rules governing contracting with consultants, building security, check signing, hiring, evaluating, and terminating district employees, etc.; and on the academic front, the rules relating to curriculum design, professional development, graduation requirements, starting times, grading, student discipline, etc. In my experience, school boards and district administrators tend to pay attention to policies on an ad hoc basis, usually when a significant problem occurs that might have been averted if a well-crafted policy had been in place. So saying that your board of education is essentially a policy-making body really doesn’t make much sense. Governing goes way beyond just updating the rules telling us how to play the academic and administrative game.
In this context, what is happening on the policy front in the Ithaca City Schools in New York is truly extraordinary, as Board Vice President Sean Bradwell and Superintendent Luvelle Brown explain in the podcast they recorded for this blog. Over the past seven years the Board and Superintendent have been systematically working their way through every one of the district’s 250-some policies. As you’ll learn in their podcast, three elements make the Ithaca policy update process that’s underway extraordinary – beyond being systematic and comprehensive. First and foremost, the district has launched a student-centered process that is intended to ensure that every single policy promotes – and does not impede – an environment for students characterized by inclusiveness; cultural responsiveness; and loving respect. Second, although the Board of Education is the prime mover in the policy review and update process through its policy committee, a number of other participants – faculty, students, parents, community leaders, and content experts – have been actively engaged in shaping policies. And third, the process has been open to an amazing extent: encouraging candid discussion and even debate, rather than merely papering over potentially controversial topics.
By the way, Board Vice President Sean Bradwell’s in-depth dissertation research on student achievement in the Ithaca City Schools, which revealed significantly lower graduation rates for African-American and Latino students, was critical to launching the policy making process in 2010-11. Although three or four years from completion, the cultural transformation has already yielded powerful results: the graduation rate among African-American and Latino students has increased from 53 percent in 2006 to 86 percent. You’ll want to listen to Sean and Luvelle’s podcast to get the full story.