Regina Buccafusco said the answer to one question finally convinced her to support Charles Nagle.
The newly elected school board chairman said she decided to back Nagle for school superintendent when he described what he would do to take the helm of the already-successful Columbia County school system and move it forward.
"He did not want to be complacent, but wanted to put in place programs to ensure that students at all schools are capable of achieving at the same level of expertise," Buccafusco says. "The enthusiasm of his response swayed me as well. He believes, as I do, that all students can learn and that education is an equalizer."
After eight years as the No. 2 man in the school system, Nagle will get the chance to put that theory into practice as he ascends to the top job. He'll take over in June after the retirement of Superintendent Tommy Price, who brought Nagle in from his previous post as principal of Riverside Middle School.
Nagle has been an educator since 1976, and gave up on running a Tattnall County, Ga., Tastee-Freez in 1980 to devote himself to education. Just as he knows it's easy to sell vanilla ice cream, Nagle is aware that there is an easy way to get all children "achieving at the same level of expertise": All we have to do is lower our expectations.
That's not what Nagle and Buccafusco have in mind, of course. What they mean is that we'll set the bar high, and work on everyone's ability to jump it.
Unfortunately, public education has often done the opposite. The feds long ago assumed impoverished children couldn't learn as well as wealthier kids, so they created such things as Head Start and the Title I program. Rather than raising the bar of expectations, they provided a booster step for poorer children.
Title I schools, for example, get more per-pupil funding than "regular" schools. But even with that booster, those schools still rarely reach the achievement hurdles of wealthier schools. If the booster hasn't worked, what do we do? Add another step to the booster, or lower the bar?
Just don't suggest removing the booster, unless you want to get a lecture from a protective education bureaucrat. There is nothing quite like the vigorous defense of money mounted by the stubborn advocate of a failed federal program.
But that isn't Nagle's only challenge. As the third professional superintendent hired in Columbia County since elections for the post were eliminated, he's also going to be faced with attempting to live up to the unrealistic expectations of anyone unhappy with anything in the Columbia County school system, while resisting the set-in-concrete defenders of the status quo.
Just about everyone would agree that there are some changes needed in Columbia County's school system. Reaching agreement on what those changes should be is a different story.
For instance, I'd like to see foreign language education in every elementary school in the county; someone else might want to see more physical education. I'd want more breaks throughout the year; others might want a long, lazy summer and a more-compressed school year. I'd like to see more teaching and less testing, though I can't imagine anyone but the test-printing companies would disagree with that.
Nagle's priorities, as one detractor said, will have to mesh with those of the school board - as if that's bad. The members of the school board are elected to represent the citizens of the county, and their collective will represents the voice of the people. The superintendent puts that voice into action on the people's behalf.
And Nagle will, I believe, work to the best of his considerable ability to serve the children of all of those people with the best public education possible.
Not just vanilla, either.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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