By Peter Jovanovich
When Dr. Eric Byrne was appointed Superintendent of Rye City School District last summer, he promised to immerse himself in the Rye school community, and so he has.
In just over six months, he has interviewed 127 teachers and 12 PO/PTO leaders, and met with 21 community organizations, 32 parents, and 20 administrators. (These meetings have lasted 45 minutes or more.) He has attended seven parent coffees, numerous athletic and arts events, and even found time to meet with city officials, pre-school administrators, and leaders of houses of worship.
Aside from the importance of sleep, what has Dr. Byrne learned? In his presentation to the Board of Education on January 23, he stated:
“I asked everyone the same question: What are your expectations for your superintendent? The number one answer: Have a clear sense of purpose, focus on curriculum and instruction, and not keep the status quo.”
Of the dozens of expectations listed in presentation to the Board, two themes stand out. First, many in the community want “Rye schools to become an educational leader – not a follower.” They expect the new superintendent to address issues such as the “lack of a cohesive vision for teaching and learning,” and to introduce “21st-century pedagogy, focus on elementary mathematics curriculum and instruction, improve access and use of technology, and bring high-quality, meaningful, professional development.”
This week, we sat down with the Superintendent and asked: “How do you find time to take action on all these issues?”
“A lot of expectations are related to how I behave as superintendent – things like listening, being visible, building relationships,” he said. “These are some of the things I had planned on doing before taking this position.”
As for concrete actions, Dr. Byrne has already taken steps to adjust the development of a new math curriculum in the elementary grades. “With the help of Sheri Goffman, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, we have shifted the emphasis from selecting a textbook series to understanding what the beliefs and values of our math teachers. We need to build a consensus around good math practices before we choose a program.”
As Dr. Byrne has delved into the Rye community, he has pushed his teachers and administrators to visit other school systems – some in the City and others in Westchester, to find out what others are doing well.
Elementary mathematics, for one. “We cannot be insular,” he emphasized.
A major issue within Rye schools is the culture. He pointed to the concerns about the “AP culture, where students strive for the perfect transcript and parents count on their children attending one of the 20 or so elite colleges in America.”
Dr. Byrne asked whether the District was providing a wide range of opportunities for special education students and whether it needed to “broaden the instructional program beyond the AP, creating more meaningful instruction for our students in the middle.”
And, ever-present are concerns about the social-emotional health of our kids, exacerbated by alcohol and drug use, stress and pressure, and the culture of drinking in the community.
The Rye Record asked how can one superintendent change such broad cultural issues. “We need to develop a deep understanding of the culture, what are the root causes of that stress and anxiety, and what we as a community can do address students feelings of isolation.”
Dr. Byrne shared, along with the good news about Rye schools, some less than favorable views. Over the summer, he invited graduating seniors to write to him about their experiences in Rye Schools. Here are a few excerpts:
“I have been very bitter towards Rye High School. The high intensity created a type of pressure that I, as a terrified 14-year-old, did not cope with too well. I constantly felt a paranoia about my future, afraid that I would be labeled ‘whiny’ or ‘annoying’. The obsession about getting into college seeped into every crack in the building.”
Another student wrote in the same vein: “I’ve learned an astonishing amount, and accomplished much academically; but, I’ve also endured years of stress to raise my GPA a few points. While I’ve grown more discerning, . . . high school has imbued me with a deep sense of cynicism.”
Another student noted that, “Wonderful teachers and administrators recognized that I was not stupid, like I often feel, that I just needed to express myself differently or to have material presented in a non-traditional way.”
When we asked Dr. Byrne if there were any surprises in his first six months, he replied: “Everyone speaks about the attention and caring that Rye teachers, administrators, and staff express for the kids. That’s a great culture to build on.”