Adrian Harris is certainly a supporter of teachers’ unions, and fears that profit-seeking influences are pushing education reforms like the Common Core, focus on standardized testing, and recent talk of vouchers and tuition tax credits.
There is much that we disagree on, but there is also much to like about Mr. Harris. He is affable; he is straight forward and says what he thinks, even when he knows you disagree. He is obviously passionate about education policy and has strong opinions on the nuances of teaching and engaging with at risk youth.
He’s not guarded or calculated in the way that some politicans are; quick to tell you what he thinks about other board members; calling it like he sees it. Last Saturday, we sat down and talked about education policy. This was the conversation we had.
Why are you motivated to run for school board?
I’m someone who believes that when regular individuals get involved then things will improve and I’m truly a regular individual. I’m not trying to use this as political stepping stone, wanting to be a judge or get bumped up to the County Legislature. I don’t have a political or ideological agenda that’s divisive and destructive. I’ve worked with at risk youth for 30 years in capacities developing and implementing educational programming. I have a Master’s Degree in Special Education and presently work in the Lancaster Central School District. I have an in depth understanding of the students who have the most challenging academic needs. I also have a son who attends a Buffalo public high school; I’m a homeowner and longtime resident of the City of Buffalo. I am invested in public education and its success.
Because of the Common Core, which the school board has been almost silent about, I realize that I have to run. It’s been implemented badly. There has been no training and no resources allocated to carry out the implementation. Excessive test taking hurts some kids, especially urban kids who come from non-structured, non-disciplined contexts, because good test taking skills require structure and discipline.
How do you develop testing that isn’t culturally biased and doesn’t traumatize some kids, while still making sure that they are learning, that progress is being made, and that benchmarks are being achieved?
Teachers and Administrators should be creating the tests; they are professionals and we should expect that from them – not from Parsons, or any other company trying to profit on public education. They also realize that students learn at different rates and learning styles. Teachers are capable of creating a multitude of assessments, projects, cooperative learning assignments, interpreting movies or audio lessons, essays or making multi media presentations. I work everyday in a classroom, there has been a lack of instructional creativity over the past five years; at no fault of teachers, which has been truly depressing.
I’m suspicious of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC). They want to privatize public education and inject profit making motives into urban education. I totally disagree with that, because it is intended to weaken the political influence of teachers and unions, not improve public education. We should have no bottom line concerns in education. We should have a higher social intellect. Business people ignore history and poverty, and they wouldn’t address issues associated with urban learners, special needs students, or English language learners.
What is your number one policy priority?
Improving CTE Career & Technical Education programs. Right now the vocational programs that do exist are inaccessible and underrepresented. We need technology centers that teach trades again. We need whole campuses that are specialized. Let’s breed creativity by getting students with similar interests together at the same campuses. I’m a proponent of having a Career & Technical Education center in areas of the city that are accessible and I absolutely believe one should be in Park district (South Buffalo).
In the 1980s, there was a shift in education. The thinking was that everyone should go to college, so we focused on college prep rather than vocational and career training. We used to have great vocational programs that trained people in aviation, mechanics, construction, plumbing – and people didn’t have to go to college. Something changed, now we are graduating people who don’t have the skills to get jobs and are not academically compatible with college. They will not be able to economically sustain themselves, because of the limited options for a high school graduate with no real employment skills.
What is your central diagnosis of the Board’s dysfunction?
From my stand point, it’s because we lack a common vision and the same goals. There is no true leadership dealing with real issues, such as the underfunding of education, common core and ending the teacher contract situation. The contract situation I feel is something the Board is just trying to move down the road on to someone else’s lap. Arguments are good sometimes when we disagree on serious points, and that’s fine. But right now, we can’t even agree which direction is forward, so how do we move forward? There are some people on the board, on both sides, who use rhetoric that moves the city backwards. We need to move beyond the whole Black-White thing. We’ve turned the door on that, and we shouldn’t let them cause us to slide backwards.
What is your assessment of Dr. Pamela Brown?
It’s evolving. There is a disconnect between her and the district’s stakeholders, particularly with the parent group which I have said in the past I disapprove off. She is obviously trying to turn that around now, improving her accessibility to the community – but we need to really feel it, which we don’t right now. In public, Dr. Brown comes off as a very mild mannered, professional person, but I’m told by people who I trust, that behind closed doors she can be mean spirited, and people see that as disingenuous. I know that some people want to be patted on the back for waking up in the morning, but she needs to exude a more collaborative demeanor and promote that atmosphere to the people around her. She needs to inspire people, not seem above them.
Will you be voting to extend Dr. Brown’s contract beyond its 3-year term?
I really can’t say whether or not her contract should be extended without having access to a lot more information.
What is your assessment of Carl Paladino?
It’s tough to give Carl credit for anything when Mr. Sampson is pushing many of the same issues far more effectively behind the scenes, and in a much more respectful way. Carl has said he would do a lot of things, and many haven’t occurred. He was all hot air on contract negotiations with teachers, which he said he would pursue, picketing Say Yes violators’ homes, accountants combing over the budget, etcetera. But in reality, he has only supported issues personal issues: attempting to settle past grudges, getting assigned to certain committees, or having his dog at meetings. He’s been really disappointing.
I see him as throwing darts to see what sticks. He’s part of an old guard with an outdated mindset that’s held us back for years, because they want to control everything, but don’t have a clue what they’re controlling. I never understood the whole Black-White thing. We need to respect each other because we need to learn from each other, that’s what moves people forward.
What is your assessment of BPS’s organizational structure?
We need really strong leaders running our campuses. We have too much administration at the Central Office that needs to be cleaned out. I support more autonomy for the campuses and empowering the principals, but they need to be strong leaders who have the ability to inspire people around shared objectives, motivating them, supporting and rewarding them.
Dr. Mauricio is a great example of a strong principal. The principal really is the key component of whether or not a school is going to function well. When my son attended his school, every morning he was standing at the front door welcoming each student with a firm handshake and eye contact. That might seem trivial, but it’s not. You saw there was respect there – the parents felt it too – and test scores went up. He never allowed things to simmer and stir.
When he left, the next principal didn’t do that. In fact, she would barely acknowledge parents. I used to come to every parent event, everything, and she never acknowledged me or introduced herself or shook my hand – and I was an active parent who was always there participating. Test scores went down, that’s what happens when there’s a lack of leadership.
So you’re not one who says, as some teachers argue, “that our job is to instruct, not to parent”?
I received my master’s degree in 2008 and parent/ student involvement and how to cultivate that was a well defined part of the teaching standards within the profession. We don’t spend enough money on urban education. These kids have needs that are very demanding, very challenging. Teachers in urban school districts should make more money, because we are demanding more of them. We also need teachers who are willing to build relationships with their students, who are connecting with them because they understand their interests and hardships, and what they go through on a daily basis. Teachers need to open up and share themselves with their students. I let my students know who I am, and when you build that trust with students, they will all be tripping over themselves to tell you things: knives, fights, facebook issues. They will learn because they respect and listen to you.
How do you deal with truancy and other “at-home” issues?
You can’t just use hard discipline with kids and expect them to do what you want. They will rebel and do what they want. They will act like they don’t care, and they will see you as an adversary. Instead, you need to get to the core of the issue, which requires that you understand their situation so that you can figure out what motivates them. It’s far more productive to engage with students in a respectful way built on trust.
Do you support charter schools?
I don’t support turning more Buffalo Schools into charter schools. When I ran last time, I was perceived as very anti-charter. I’m not so anti-charter, I’m just concerned that their basis of success is entirely rooted in the socio-economics of the students they accept and limited focus on special needs students. For instance, look at Tapestry. They have a very strong elementary school program, but a weak high school program. That’s because many of their elementary students then go to other public high schools or private schools. So in terms of their success it’s less to do with structure and more to do with clientele.
There are some charters, like Applied Technologies and Enterprise, that have strong leadership that’s very supportive of the staff and they have diverse student bodies and high standards for teachers. I am very supportive of those charter schools – but you need to have strong, inspired leadership, that’s the key.
Do you support vouchers?
No. Taxes are too high. Where are we going to get the money? This state has been under funding education for decades. Even if we could afford it, how would we pay long term BPS pension costs that the charters don’t have because they’ve only been around for the last 5 years or so? There are also legal issues that might be involved. The person in this community that promotes vouchers uses Louisiana as an example of it working, but the program was declared unconstitutional by their highest state court and 40 million dollars came from other state resources. It’s only been around for three years, so to call it a success when there’s no information proving that is misleading at best. They never use Milwaukee as an example, because of the so, so results. The city has used a combination of charter schools and vouchers for years, but those initiatives have provided the same academic results as traditional public schools.
Do you support tuition tax credits?
Again, where do we get the money? It sounds nice if it’s coming from the State, but where does the state get the money? When I was sending my son to Canisius, I would have liked to get back that tuition, but how could we possibly afford it? It would have been nice to have a tax credit for some of the other expenses, like books, uniforms, and i-pads that they required – but tuition? Parents send their kids to private schools because they want their kids to be safe, so I’m sympathetic to the idea, but I don’t see how it’s affordable.
Do you support neighborhood schools?
Yes, absolutely. If you want to attend the school that is closest to where you live, then you should be able to attend. There will still be busing, the demographics of the city aren’t conducive to having schools for everyone to walk to. If you want to attend a school outside of your neighborhood fine, but we shouldn’t be forcing kids on buses for 3 hours a day, if there’s a school that they want to go to right down the street. Also having that type of educational certainty will help build stronger neighborhoods and increase Buffalo’s tax base. Make that school strong by being part of the community and it will become a catalyst for the entire area.
This article is the first of a series of interviews with the school board candidates who are vying for three At Large seats, which will be elected this May. The At Large board members will serve a five year term. Current At-Large board members are Barbara Seals-Nevergold, John Licata, and Florence Johnson. If you are a candidate for school board and would like to participate in the interview series, please do reach out.