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Tuesday, November 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:19 A.M.

Guest columnist
A vision of possibilities at Seattle Public Schools

By Raj Manhas
Special to The Times

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Thirty years ago, in what proved to be a turning point in my life, I left my home in the foothills of the Himalayas to come and study in America. In doing so, I followed in the footsteps of my eldest brother, who made the same journey years before, earning a doctorate from the University of Texas in 1964. His experience underscored what had been clear to me since my earliest days in India: that education was the key to my future.

When I was growing up, my family lived in a small rural village. Like our neighbors, we had few material possessions and by American standards we were very poor. There were no desks or chairs at my elementary school; we often held classes outside, under the trees. But children in our village were surrounded by caring and supportive adults. There was a hunger for knowledge, a reverence for learning — and an unyielding bond between teachers and their students.

Here in Seattle, our students are blessed with beautiful schools, an abundance of learning materials and the latest technology tools. We have young people who come to our classrooms from every corner of the world, bringing languages and cultures that enrich the daily experience of us all. Without exception, the teachers, principals and other staff members I've been privileged to meet demonstrate compassion, commitment and remarkable skill. They are the kind of professionals I would entrust with the care and education of my own children.

Still, too many students in our city do not meet academic standards, and precious time is lost as we adults debate the merits of one approach over another. It's time to stop talking. It's time to start doing. We must channel our collective energy in a more positive and productive way.

I became superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in October, after serving as interim superintendent, and before that as chief operating officer of our district. I don't remember ever feeling as honored or as humbled.

I can't promise that my approach to this job will please everyone all of the time. But I can promise that I will always listen. I will respect and consider multiple viewpoints. And I will always act in the best interests of students. They are the reason I come to work each day.

On Nov. 4, the voters of our city elected four new School Board members who bring to our district and our city a passion for children and a commitment to student success. When they are sworn in next month, they will join a group of professionals at Seattle Public Schools who are dedicated to improving education in our city and are working tirelessly toward that goal. Together, we will be able to accomplish great things and to build on what already is a substantial body of work.

Over the past year, as we struggled to regain financial stability, we began to transform the culture of our school system. We are creating an atmosphere that supports open, honest communication at all levels of our organization. We expect a high level of performance from ourselves as well as our students, and we hold one another accountable. We're fixing what has gone wrong, we're celebrating success, and we are maintaining a vision of what is possible, for optimism is contagious.

The people who know me best will tell you that I don't tolerate excuses. I can be impatient. I know that "process" is important, but results count more. We can't accomplish all we need to in one year, but we can demonstrate improvement. And we will.

Toward that end, we have developed a detailed work plan for this school year with specific goals and measurable outcomes in the areas of academics, fiscal integrity, community engagement and organizational culture. Academic performance and eliminating the achievement gap between white students and students of color is the main focus of our plan and our work.

We are making progress — but not fast enough. So we are assessing several of our programs to determine where improvements are needed, and we are implementing ways to widely share our most effective instructional practices.

Over the next several months, we will work with the School Board and the community to develop a five-year plan that sets a clear vision for the future. I'll be the first to admit that we can't get there alone. Students are in school only about six of their waking hours — 177 days a year. If we are to fulfill our mission of academic achievement for every student in every school, we will need all the energy and commitment this community can muster.

I'd like to challenge every citizen of this city to be our partner in this effort. Volunteer in a classroom if you can. Tutor a student who needs some extra assistance. Provide an internship opportunity at your office. Read a book with a child — or let the child read to you. Share an after-school snack with a special little girl or boy and ask, "How was your day?" More importantly, listen closely to the answer.

Communicate high expectations to all the young people you know. Help them understand the value of education. Tell them life isn't perfect — or sometimes even fair — but if they don't give up, if they try their hardest and don't make excuses for things beyond their control, they are sure to succeed. Encourage them to reach for the stars, to have big dreams, to imagine all they can be and the difference they can make in the world. Then do everything in your power to help them make those dreams come true.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas received his master's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Washington. He joined the district in October 2001.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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