Marc Lamont Hill: Cary's a great choice

Lorene Cary : A fresh look
Lorene Cary : A fresh look
Posted: October 12, 2011

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Mayor Nutter announced that he would be adding nationally recognized author Lorene Cary to the city's School Reform Commission. As expected, many found the move to be curious. After all, such commissions typically comprise university administrators, political connects, and private-sector power brokers.

Although the mayor's choice may have been unorthodox, he couldn't have picked a better person for the slot.

Lorene Cary is one of the most principled leaders in the city. For decades, as an advocate, administrator and activist, she has shown unimpeachable character and unflappable courage. She consistently displays an ability to make tough but fair decisions, even when they disappoint her friends and allies. Given the most recent string of political scandals, backdoor deals, and unethical tugs-of-war over school district leadership, these are attributes that cannot be taken for granted.

Cary's commitment to advancing the interests and life chances of our youth, rather than stockpiling wealth and power, will be a refreshing change of pace.

Cary is also a true Philadelphian. While it is always important to listen to outside perspectives, too much of the city's recent educational leadership has come from people born outside the city. As a result, much of the recent decision-making has been done by people who are not steeped in our city's rich history or deeply entrenched in its unique set of politics.

If we've learned nothing else from the string of superintendents/CEOs who have galloped into our town to save the day, only to leave the district in flames, we know that insider knowledge and connections are a valuable piece of the leadership puzzle. As a native Philadelphian, educated in the same public-school system to which she sent her own daughter, Cary brings native insight, commitment, wisdom and care to the SRC, sorely needed in the current educational climate.

Cary also brings a fresh perspective and ideology. As an outsider to traditional educational policy circles, she is devoid of much of the heavy ideological baggage that corporate bigwigs and political honchos typically bring to the SRC table.

Although Cary has yet to fully articulate her educational philosophy, she will not be prisoner to the current logic of school reform, which prioritizes top-down leadership, high-stakes testing, rigid curriculum, free-market fundamentalism and authoritarian control.

Of course, this is not to say that she will necessarily be an enemy to all these things, either. What we know for sure, however, is that she will be able to look at all aspects of our educational landscape with a relatively new pair of eyes. She will be free to question many of our taken-for-granted assumptions about how schools can and should operate.

Finally, Lorene Cary is an advocate for the arts. In the 13 years she has run Art Sanctuary, a non-profit organization she founded to promote art as a cultural bridge and educational tool, she has demonstrated the extraordinary possibilities that emerge when we expand our minds and take seriously all aspects of the human experience.

Perhaps the best example of her vision is the North Stars Program, which she developed to reach ostensibly "at-risk" urban teens through the arts. Given our nation's obsession with "teaching to the test," as well as de-funding arts programs, Cary's experiences will serve as a necessary reminder that we have to educate all parts of a child, not just the ones that show up on the PSSA exams.

Mayor Nutter should be applauded for choosing Lorene Cary. I only hope that her presence is a signpost of a new era, rather than a precious and bright light in the darkness.


Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.

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