Improving Dunkirk’s schools

Dr. James Tracy

Dunkirk City Schools Superintendent Dr. James Tracy has spent the first year in his position with an eye open for how the district can “go from good to great.”

In a recent presentation to the board of education, he explained some of the things he has seen and the way he believes the district can improve going forward.

“As far as what we’ve done and where we’re heading, I just wanted to start off with something simple. … I want you (the board) to understand some of the things we found as we began to look at some of the different kinds of test data,” he explained.

Tracy used a quote to emphasize that the first job of leadership is to face the reality of where you are.

“If you don’t understand where you are, it’s pretty hard to get to where you want to go,” he added.

He used several graphics to show data for Regents scores compared to cost per student within Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. In these, Dunkirk is doing well on the cost, but not so well on the scores. The same was reflected with the same parameters for the grades 3-8 state exams.

However, when the parameters are changed to districts with similar populations and poverty levels, Dunkirk is still doing well with cost and better in scores, but still not at proficiency.

“All that means is academically we have some work to do. Our teachers can tell you that, board members knew that,” he said.

What does that mean? Tracy said every step has to emphasize student learning.

“We have to be all about students and learning, nothing else. So successful businesses view their products through the eyes of their customers and design their organization’s structure accordingly. They want to be able to provide the right product, the right services so they can be successful. In education, successful school systems have to view through the lens of their learners — the students. You do that through their tests, their assessments, through the data, through what they tell us, through what we see. Then we design an instructional delivery system for each one of them. That allows us as a school to be successful. In other words, for us to be successful at Dunkirk, it has to be all about the students,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a paradigm shift. It’s not what is the teacher teaching and making sure that kids are hearing it and teachers presenting it. It’s all about what should the learners learn and how can they learn best and how is it we make that happen for the kids. … I can already see some of this happening.”

Some of the good things started and accomplished in the past year include a multitude of subcommittees created last spring as well as the addition of pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, an improved budget process and an increased number of grants for programs.

Tracy said improvement begins with the hiring process.

“We have to make sure we don’t forget this fact: a teacher’s impact on a student. Linda Darling Hammond, some of the best research out there, tells us that if you want to make a difference in student achievement and success, the best way to do it is through your teachers. They have the greatest impact, period, end of story, on your kids,” he explained.

Other improvements he mentioned include clear district goals, the use of data to make decisions on topics like curriculum and class size, modernizing technology and creating a model for college and career pathways.

Tracy said he is considering hiring a consultant to begin the process of creating strategic plan with long-range goals that will include community input.

“Dunkirk is a great place to live and learn and we want to make sure people know that. We want to tell people that, we want to show that in our scores as we move forward in the next several years,” he concluded. “One of the real positives is kids and teachers are very proud of Dunkirk and that’s something we should be able to build on. … (Sports accomplishments) are always what people see. I want to add to that at some point and say it’s a great place to learn and kids are doing well academically. That’s where we’re heading.”