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Presidential Address from Dr. Harry Leonardatos at SAANYS Conference 2021

“This is a great opportunity for us, as educators, to discuss what is and what can be better in our educational system.”

Good afternoon and welcome back to our annual conference. It’s great to be here in Albany with some familiar faces and colleagues who provide support to our association. I would like to thank some people today: 1) the Commissioner, Dr. Rosa, and the Chancellor, Dr. Young for joining us; 2) everyone at SAANYS who entrusted me in representing our members as president; 3) my wife, Kristy, and 4) my parents, who are no longer with us, but understood the value of an education. Since the Nazis bombed their island in Greece and destroyed all schools, my mom only had a 6th grade education, and my dad was able to finish the 8th grade.  They came to this country poor, and we first lived in public housing projects in NYC, but my parents understood the value of an education, and I thank them for their support and sacrifice.

Recently, I watched in awe as the cultural icon, Captain Kirk, flew into space. I must admit that I am jealous since from the day I watched the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 on a black and white TV set, my dream was to go to space. If anyone bounces back time after time and time again, it is William Shatner.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Bouncing Back Better.”  What does this mean?  In some sense, bouncing back implies overcoming an obstacle or a difficult situation.  I think about the Rocky films where Rocky Balboa overcomes personal losses or challenging events, such as the time when he bounced back to defeat Apollo Creed in Rocky II.  Another example is the job market bouncing back from a period of job losses and unemployment to employment gains. For many of us in this room, we were able to bounce back from remote and hybrid instruction to a full reopening of schools. As school administrators and leaders, we successfully met challenges, often learning on the go to make dynamic and changing situations work. The late Friday afternoon updates issued by the former governor’s office usually put us in a tailspin on weekends, trying to figure out implementation strategies and logistics. But as professionals we managed, and we did it.

All around us, we see instances of bouncing back: movie and stage theaters reopening, indoor dining is allowed, fall sports are in high gear, and in schools we face the usual situations we experienced before the pandemic – disagreements between students, parental concerns, and other circumstances. The common element in all these “bouncing back” scenarios is a return to normalcy. I have heard the word “resilience” mentioned many times during the pandemic. Resilience implies an ability to navigate tumultuous times and setbacks and return to the original path or condition. Resilience is exemplified in these words by Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”  On a larger scale, our institutions (government, education, the economy) showed their resilience and are now showing indications of bouncing back.  

However, in thinking about what we went through during this past year and a half, is bouncing back to the original state of our institutions and norms something to which we should aspire? Is it prudent to bounce back to a status quo that we know is somewhat broken? Having the benefit of learning from the past should raise a cautionary flag that makes us pause. We cannot have a return to normalcy like the one that occurred 100 years ago after the pandemic of 1918.  Then, our society witnessed institutional crises, such as race riots, suppression of political minorities, immigration quotas, nativism, controversies over what is being taught in schools (evolution), overproduction, and land speculation. It is stunning to see how the United States of the 2020s resembles the state of the union in the 1920s. A “return to normalcy” is not good enough.

Instead, we need to do better, bounce back better.  This situation does not only call for resilience, but also adaptation and ultimately transformation. Many of us had to adapt during the pandemic. Our own lives changed for the worse or the better. For me, a friend and a great teacher passed away from COVID in March of 2020. On a positive note, my life was transformed. I went from being a bachelor to being married with three daughters. Joining us along the journey are our pandemic dogs: Hudson and Nooma.

As an educator, I wondered what a transformative educational system would look like, I first started examining the current state from a school principal’s perspective. The pandemic exposed some realities: 

  • Unequal resources and access to those resources—My school is located in New City, NY in Rockland County. It is a suburb 25 miles north of the George Washington Bridge, and the town (Clarkstown) is considered upper middle class. There are two high schools in the district and the location of my high school places us in a lower socio-economic status compared our other high school.  Our school has both the haves and the have nots. As a result, while many of my students had food, laptops, and Internet access, a few others did not. One example that stands out for me involved a student whose mother placed him on trains (also known as beasts) to escape gang violence in Columbia to come live in New City with his aunt. This student did not know any English but worked hard in school and held a job. He and his aunt rented out a room in a house. But during the pandemic, he lost his job, his aunt lost her job, and they had no way of supporting themselves. They benefitted from the school lunch program until other residents in that house would take the lunch away from them. The student had a laptop but was not able to afford cellular network service or broadband. He just stopped attending class remotely. Luckily, our parents and staff came together to support students and families in these situations. However, this assistance should not be left to charity. Instead, our institutions must change to afford students certain basic resources, such as food, broadband, and housing. In urban areas like my home in Washington Heights (New York City), the pandemic disproportionality affected the poor and people of color. We need to supply students and families with necessary resources so that our students are prepared to learn. The federal funds presently expended to schools clearly aim to support our students.
  • Childcare—Families are struggling to hold jobs while they juggle to meet the demands of their household.  Sometimes choices are made regarding which parent stays home and which parent works.  The increase of single-parent households places an additional need on affordable childcare. Schools functioned as the primary childcare centers for many years, but schools cannot meet this demand alone. Expanding access to affordable childcare is a policy solution that can positively benefit our society, and this specific issue is currently being discussed by Congress on the federal level.
  • Skill deficits—Just like there is an unequal distribution of resources, there are also differences in skill sets among students.  These skill deficits existed before and were magnified during the pandemic. Depending on a family’s educational attainment, students perform accordingly. Of course, this is a generalization, and there are exceptions, but for the most part, parents’ educational attainment does correlate with a student’s success in school.  The valuable piece of testing is to diagnose deficits and provide a plan for students to succeed.  However, the reliance of tests as annual performance indicators for educators is problematic.
  • Tests—We know that after a year and half, students are returning with deficits in numeracy and reading skills.  And yet, students are expected to sit and take exams towards the end of the school year as in years past. Returning to this type of normal is not working out. Teachers are in a bind. Not only are they teaching material and skills missed during the pandemic, but they are also covering the current curriculum. Students and teachers are pulling double duty.  There are funds to provide extra academic services, however time is limited and there is only so much of it to go around. Expecting students to learn skills that were “lost” during the pandemic while preparing to sit for the Regents exams should be reconsidered.  Over a decade ago I joined SAANYS when I saw the educational landscape changing to a reductive approach in which teacher and student performance was reduced to performance on state exams, measures of value-added, and growth algorithms. This APPR system, although suspended, is still in place. Though I applaud the State Education Department for approving various pathways to earning a diploma, the overreliance on Regents exams still exists and needs to reconsidered especially in the context of racial, economic, and social disparities. 

During this time of bouncing back, we need to hit the reset button if we are to move forward and plan for a better future. Currently, our institutions are facing a legitimation crisis as the concept of democracy is being questioned, our ability to deal with climate change is being tested, and our schools are facing a rageful public. A discourse of rage that has led to threatening behavior towards school leaders and school board members. This is precisely why we cannot go back to normal. If we are to bounce back better, our schools must stand for a future that is more equitable, just, and inclusive. This is a great opportunity for us, as educators, to discuss what is and what can be better in our educational system. I commend the State Education Department for putting this in motion with the current framework on Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education and the expectation that all school districts will develop policies that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Right here, right now in this room, we have the knowledge, the people, and the desire to bounce back better. As Muhammad Ali said: “Impossible is not a fact.  It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”  So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get moving.