By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott
It was our good fortune that Dr. Eric Byrne was relieved of jury duty and had time to sit down with us last week for a lengthy and open-ended discussion on education in general, the Rye City School District in particular, the college admissions process, test scores, teacher training, and community engagement.
His “scores” were off the charts in all areas.
Dr. Byrne becomes Rye’s new Schools Superintendent at the end of the month, after serving as Assistant Superintendent of the Chappaqua School District.
“I was very deliberate in where I applied,” he said. “I was interested in a high-performing district with a united school board, a talented staff, and a community that was looking to take a giant leap into the 21st century.”
When the Rye School Board did their site visit in Chappaqua, “We saw what a collegial relationship Eric had with both students and faculty,” said Board President Katy Keohane Glassberg, who sat in on the paper’s interview.
For Dr. Byrne, spending time in the classrooms is essential, like “rounds” to a physician. “It helps you see where your needs are,” he said.
In no rush to “mess with Rye School’s off-the-charts success rate,” he said his plan in the first few months is to assess what is working and what could be working better, and engage the community in the discussion, on everything from curriculum to space design.”
Emphasizing the importance of quality teachers, Dr. Byrne said, “ We need to set up a system for them to be successful. We need to nurture them.” He added, “I think of teachers as my class.”
In the Chappaqua schools, professional development doesn’t follow the traditional model — “off-campus workshops where teachers are watching Power Point presentations and the balance dozing off.” The Chappaqua district believes in the coaching model. Every summer, they hold a writer’s camp and the students help train the teachers. “It’s embedded development, small group coaching on-site. I can’t imagine any other way.”
The incoming Superintendent’s doctoral thesis was on innovation in education, and he’s just returned from a conference in Israel to which he was invited to speak on the subject. “I don’t have a TED talk,” he said with a smile. But he does have a wealth of knowledge and ideas.
“We’ve come a long way from the days when schools were modeled after Horace Mann. Back then, the United States needed a compliant work force and to train that work force. It was content-driven system unlike today,” he observed.
He looks at technology, not as a silver bullet but as a tool. “There is no silver bullet in education. It’s what the teacher does that counts. A laptop isn’t going to teach kids to read, but the Google classroom is revolutionary. It can give feedback and a chance to revise.”
In his first year as a teacher, at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, he was handed a textbook and a curriculum but he created a lot of his own materials. Eric Byrne always had a vision. Growing up in Staten Island, he knew as a high school student that he needed to go to college. “I knew it was the way ahead. It wasn’t the same for my parents, neither of whom was college-educated.”
Today, the focus in education has shifted to problem solving. “There are great lessons from lots of places. We can’t just be teaching content or relying on a memorization approach,” he emphasized. “We need to build student skills so that they can defend a claim and engage in dialogue.”
On the subject of AP courses, which more and more college admissions administrators discount when considering an applicant, Dr. Byrne says, “AP classes are driven by rigor. Giving students the opportunity to take higher level courses gives them the opportunity to reach higher.” He added, “More importantly, we need to ask, ‘What is rigor?’ and ‘Are AP’s a way of tracking?’”
He continued, “What college professors want that admissions aren’t giving is kids that think critically.”
Under his watch as Superintendent of Schools in the Rye City District, expect more and more students to be doing just that.