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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Make school better from inside and out

File photo of children in a classroom. (Aug.

File photo of children in a classroom. (Aug. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: iStock

Let the scrum begin.

Or, should I say, continue.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made his pitch for education reform, opponents have criticized it, and the debate goes on as it has for much of the governor's tenure -- two sides backed into their respective corners lobbing hand grenades.

It's the great stain on political discourse today, each side yelling that the other isn't listening. Some of it is genuine outrage, some posturing. And all shades of gray disappear in a simplistic two-color world.

Take the debate over teachers. Yes, there are bad teachers in our schools. But not as many as one side implies. But more than the other side would concede.

The debate about evaluating teachers is equally shrill. But we clearly need to do it, and it must be fair. We should reward the ones who are great and support the ones who can get better. And it should be easier to get rid of the ones who are chronically bad. Teachers are critically important to our children's success and we need those teachers to be as good as they can be.

But, as Herricks schools Superintendent Jack Bierwirth noted in a forum Friday on educational inequity, "You can't fire your way to excellence. Sure, let's fire all the bad teachers. Then what?"

It's a good question.

Because as much as we're arguing about teachers and school aid and evaluations and charter schools and the reforms Cuomo pitched in his State of the State address Wednesday, we're ignoring the things outside school that affect a student's performance. It's as though schools exist in a vacuum.

The forces of impairment are many. They include entrenched poverty, unsafe communities, unstable families, a lack of access to health care, mental health problems, and even nutrition -- for children in school and before they enroll, and for mothers while they're pregnant.

This isn't some liberal ideology. These are factors that hold back students, as shown in study after study and countless real-life examples. As much as we work on improving our schools, and it's work we must do, progress will always be mitigated by what students bring with them from outside.

"It's a narrow worldview to say the schoolhouse solves society's problems," said Tom Rogers, who was superintendent of Nassau BOCES before moving to the same position in Syosset this school year. "Clearly, we have a role to play. Clearly, we're looking to do more. But these are tectonic plates we're talking about, these societal issues."

Wyandanch schools graduate Geoffrey Canada attacked these problems with his famed Harlem Children's Zone, a cradle-to-college program founded on the premise that you need to build communities and schools in tandem. The mix includes charter schools and pre-K classes, workshops for parents and a crisis center, dropout prevention programs and more.

New York City is joining the community school movement being used around the country, which puts social workers, community health agencies, dentists and other medical professionals, and mental health experts into schools. The goal: to offer consistent daily support to students and families in need.

There are lots of ideas worth considering. But nothing will happen until we acknowledge the problems.

For many children, school is the best six or seven hours of each day. That doesn't mean it can't be better.

Let's keep chipping away on the inside, because we have to get that right. But let's work on the larger forces outside, too.

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