What I observed over my three decades-long career in child welfare services, Part II

Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media

What I observed over my three decades-long career in child welfare services, Part II

February 14, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a two-part article by Dr. Robert Maher who recently retired from his position as CEO at St. Christopher’s which provides education and life planning skills to children with special needs and their families. Here is a link to Part I.

I do support many of the new initiatives related to Council on Accreditation standards and benchmarks, but my real concern is that the child welfare world does not focus as much on the child as they do the family. I am certain that similar headlines have appeared throughout our country regarding each state's attempt to improve standards, living conditions, and productivity. The family piece is important but focusing on the child is paramount.

To this day, some 40 years later, I have always made certain to remember the child. This is one of the reasons I can no longer remain silent about what can be improved in the child welfare world.

Traditionally, child welfare agencies are already doing Herculean tasks for the betterment of the children and families they serve. However, the one area that I believe they fall short on and the one tool that can truly transform their lives is in education.

As a nation, when you compare our education statistics to others around the world, we haven’t moved up very far. But individual states like New York have improved our state rankings. New York is now considered one of the more academically rigorous and forward thinking states.

I believe everyone will agree that higher standards are what we need to challenge all students to achieve all they are capable of. Remember the child! 

You may be thinking that I must be one of those administrators who have been characterized as “lacking confidence” because their agencies and schools do not produce an appropriate number of Regents diploma graduates. On the contrary. I had the good fortune of leading a Special Act Public School District that has averaged more than an eighty-percent High School diploma rate during the past ten years. In fact, through the tremendous effort and hard work of our student body and faculty members, and with the parents, superintendent, and board of education, we broke the eighty-percent barrier, with some of our graduates earning a Regents and Advanced Regents NYS diploma.

What exactly is my point then? Even with these statistics and a wealth of support, twenty-percent of my students would not have been able to graduate with anything more than an “attendance diploma.” I know that my faculty, my entire school community, and I had made every possible attempt to help all students earn NYS diploma, and yet the absolute best we could achieve eighty-percent.

I do believe that the current New York commissioner Maryellen Elias and the New York State Board of Regents, and other state departments of education have called attention to some serious shortcomings in the way Americans view education.  I would dare say that some school communities were content with being superior to others although they were still inferior when compared with the best of their own capabilities. And of course, one of the greatest concerns was that students in most urban districts were being seriously shortchanged because few expected them to do better.

I applaud New York for not accepting the status quo and for not acquiescing to some formidable forces that are resistant to change. However, I believe these new standards must be phased in more responsibly. If New York and other states developed a more realistic timeline replete with appropriate resources and safety nets, the support these initiatives need to be successful will immediately appear. I have only one other piece of advice as we all make a mad dash toward educational excellence: Please remember the children.

Robert E. Maher is the former CEO at St. Christopher’s and the former superintendent of the Greenburgh-North Castle Union Free School District. Prior to assuming a leadership role at the school district, Maher served as the principal of Briarcliff High School for 10 years.

Robert Maher