Steve Perry, a Connecticut principal and CNN commentator, laid a dose of shame on about 350 education advocates in Charlotte Thursday, trying to jolt the crowd past endless talk of education reform into a passion for ed revolution.
Persistent failure of minority students, especially African-American males, shows people dont care enough to provide them with good schools, he said at a community breakfast sponsored by MeckEd, the local education advocacy group.
You dont have just an achievement gap. Youve got two different school systems, Perry said at the Crowne Plaza hotel. And he pinned that responsibility on the crowd of business, education and community leaders.
Everybody here knows every raggedy school in Charlotte, Perry said. When we care about children, we send them to schools that work, and when they dont work we shut them down.
He said afterward that when failing schools are closed, the next step is to voucher students out to public, private or charter schools with a record of strong performance. And he didnt mince words about using test scores to gauge success: Were schools. Thats what we do: We give and take tests.
Several in the audience said afterward that even if they didnt agree with all of Perrys ideas, they were inspired by his call to shed complacency and do more for all students.
I just want to be part of his movement, said Amanda Ulmer, a math facilitator at Myers Park Traditional Elementary and one of several teachers of excellence honored by MeckEd. I felt very uplifted and refreshed that someone was saying what a lot of us think.
His personal style might differ from my own, but I appreciated his powerful message, said Anna Nelson of the Spangler Foundation, which is helping support a $55 million philanthropic push to improve low-performing westside schools. He very bluntly reminded us that our community has much work to do.
Picking a fight
Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., is a regular CNN education contributor and author of Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve Even if it Means Picking a Fight.
He clearly came to Charlotte ready to pick a fight for kids. He had harsh words for central office staff, teachers unions (and the associations that are the equivalent in non-union North Carolina), custodians who dont get schools clean and individual teachers who make excuses for failure and talk about children like dogs in the teachers lounge.
He said hes heard teachers complain that they cant help children who arrive so far behind. Children are 4 years old when they arrive at school, Perry said.
You mean to tell me you cant catch a 4-year-old up? Then you suck at your job, he said.
Perry even took a jab at new swashbuckler superintendents who sweep in every few years ready to shake things up. That stuff makes our job very, very, very difficult, he said, sitting next to new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison on the stage.
Morrison told the crowd he agrees with Perry that central offices need to do a better job of listening to what educators need and staying out of the way of success. But he said afterward he thought Perry painted with too broad a brush in dismissing the efforts of administrative staff.
Morrison said his goal is to improve weak schools before closing them, and to revamp central offices so they do a better job of serving schools.
But Morrison said he supports Perrys push to have difficult conversations and stop tolerating failure just because students are poor or African-American.
Goal: Spark conversation
Perry clearly relishes his role as provocateur, and opened his talk by warning it would be a rollercoaster ride.
Yall brought me here, he quipped. Should have watched the tapes.
Bill Anderson, executive director of MeckEd, said he did, and knew what he was getting.
MeckEd, a nonprofit that strives to inform and engage people with CMS, was reviving the community breakfasts that a predecessor group used to host. Anderson said the goal was to spark a conversation and the sold-out room and attention-grabbing speech were a success.
I think he entertained people, Anderson said. I think he made some of the audience uncomfortable.
Anderson said that included him, when Perry launched a tirade against central-office staff. Anderson is a former principal and central-office administrator.
Its easy to point fingers and its much more difficult to find long-term solutions, Anderson said. But while Anderson said his group doesnt endorse specific plans, such as closings and vouchers, it does support Perrys central theme: Its on us to make CMS better, with us being the whole community.
Pat Riley, president of Allen Tate Co. and a longtime member of education-related boards, said controversial speeches are part of the tradition that draws crowds to talk about public education.
We have to shake it up, said Riley, who was honored as MeckEds education champion of the year.
Nelson said the foundations and philanthropists who created Project LIFT for westside schools rejected the idea of giving up on low-scoring public schools and creating charters or private schools to replace them. Instead, the group is supporting West Charlotte High and eight feeder schools, serving about 7,000 students.
We think that you should try to work with the schools before you close them, she said.
Perrys school is a magnet that is part of the Hartford school district but also takes students from outside the district.
Its about love
For all the zingers aimed at adults, Perry kept coming back to love for children. He said the only way to break cycles of failure is for the community to love all its children, and for teachers to love their students.
You can tell me that you value all children, but as a visitor, its hard to make that argument to me, he said. A child who is loved will go through fire for you.
Michael Pillsbury, a math teacher at Randolph IB Middle, said that rang true for him. Part of his success, he said, comes from making every child feel wanted.
Several of the teachers who were honored by MeckEd and invited to the breakfast said the packed room and the high-energy speech made them feel the communitys love.
Joanna Schimizzi, a biology teacher at Butler High, fielded questions with Perry and Morrison. She said teachers need emotional support, especially during years when theyve gone through so much financial hardship.
But she said it was a good combination to have that mixed with Perrys putting our feet to the fire.
Too much emotional support makes us maybe too willing to pass the buck, she said.