Telling it like it is: a tribute to Toby Sanders

At a meeting of the Trenton Board of Education early in January, when feelings about the district’s reconfiguration plan were running a bit high, board president Toby Sanders picked up the gavel that’s a symbol of the office – and noted that he’d never used it. Pounding a gavel “does not represent the kind of attitude I have,” he said. And he continued, reminding members of the public crowding the board meeting room that in there “you can say anything you want, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be challenged, . . . that you can speak your truth, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be rebutted.”

The comment was quintessential Sanders: authority expressed with power and grace. A large and imposing man, Sanders needed no gavel to call board meetings to order. He would arrive, sit down to greet fellow board members, then ask all to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a pledge he takes seriously, and as he reminded members of the public at another board meeting, “education is a joint responsibility between parents and the board.”  “It’s not enough to tell our children to read,” he said at a meeting in November. “We must model it.” And he then went on to gently chide teachers who don’t read books on a regular basis either.

Sanders, who for two years headed the board of this tragically under-performing school district, was never afraid to tell it like it is. That, perhaps, might explain why he was not reappointed to the board. The city’s mayor, currently under indictment for petty corruption and taken seriously by few in this city of 79,000 people that he nominally runs, had brusquely notified Sanders in early April that his services were no longer needed. No doubt the board president’s competence was perceived as offering too much contrast to that of the city’s foolish mayor.

Whether boards of education can actually have a positive impact on academic achievement in a district is an open question – a book on American school boards published a few years ago claimed that the board’s most significant responsibility is choosing a superintendent. And in discharging that responsibility, the board under Sanders’s leadership seems to have done well in selecting a seemingly gifted administrator, Francisco Durán. Commenting on his appointment last summer, Sanders reminded parents and teachers that Durán was backed by the board “1,000 percent.” He seemed to be saying, to a district where black-Latino tension has resulted in tussles and threats at the high school, “Let’s not have any of that foolishness.”

Sanders is well aware of the district’s shortcomings – 16 of its 21 schools are on a statewide watch list for serious underperformance, a state-appointed monitor oversees its spending (85% of which comes from the state), and only half of its students graduate from high school in four years. Further, as a community college teacher who has had many Trenton graduates in my classes, I know that they can graduate unable to conjugate a verb, fill in a map of the country, write a common English sentence, or pronounce words such as “essential” or “prediction.” My math teaching colleagues claim their students cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or find a common denominator to add fractions – all skills they should have acquired by sixth or seventh grade.

Sanders also knows where the problems are; he has expressed substantial support for the district’s restructuring plan, which will bring back the K-5, 6-8 plan it had until seven or eight years ago when middle schools were eliminated for financial reasons. This has led to a “nadir in achievement,” he noted at a January 2 meeting; so now the district needs to “correct our disinvestment in middle schools.” Sanders has also been candid about where the most serious problems are: “we seem to be losing our boys at around fourth grade,” he said at the same meeting. And earlier, in one of his efforts to have district decisions driven by data, he asked the district’s research administrator for “more nuance” in the data gathered. Could it be broken out by subgroups, he asked, in a candid reference to differences between the varied ethnic groups that compose the student body?

Despite his affection for data, Sanders has also noted “suspicions about how data on black people” is collected: depending on its political purpose, the numbers can either over- or under-report whatever is being investigated. He’s also been sufficiently candid to admit that his years in school included some time in special education classes – and that he, along with other black leaders of distinction, had been suspended at one time or another. But past injustice does not absolve the community – roughly 60% of which is black – from taking greater interest in how the schools are doing: “We need the community to show up when we go into the wards for meetings. We are asking parents not so much to complain, but to contribute to the education of our children,” he said at a meeting in mid-January.

Sanders has been a cheerleader as well – he commends what’s positive, be it academic or musical or athletic accomplishments of Trenton students, and most recently noted parent turnout at an afterschool sports event. “It is a powerful thing, a hopeful beginning” he said, commending a new spirit. He also praised the superintendent, staff, and community as a whole for concern and neighborliness after Hurricane Sandy: “It was a shining example of how a community should be,” he said at the board meeting following the disaster.

An ordained minister who heads the Beloved Community congregation near Cadwalader Park, Sanders also represents a moral force in Trenton. This was never more apparent than last September, just days after the only son of a district paraprofessional was killed when he and some friends were caught in crossfire between rival gangs. Speaking to a room that hushed immediately when he began, Sanders spoke of how “proud but heartbroken” he had been when seeing the way school staff and neighbors flocked to the hospital chapel to be with the boy’s mother. “I am talking broken, but feeling whole,” he said. “We will find out a way to honor [this young man] and the mother who lost her only son.” We can do something about this, he said, and we will. “But first we must grieve.”

Sanders surely recognizes the close connection between violence and schooling – the ministers and others who led the development of American public education two centuries ago justified their campaign by claiming that schools now would be cheaper in the long run than prisons later. It’s as true now as it was then. “Tragedies like this help us focus on major things,” he had said earlier in that late September meeting. “We have to do more; it’s not that we have not done something, but we have to do more.”

Thus, Sanders sees the big picture, but he also looks carefully at the details. His command of district procedures and their impact on the children and families the schools serve is impressive as well; he listens to the community and to district teachers. He understands that changes like the restructuring currently underway will inconvenience some and that decisions the board makes will not please everyone. But if the compliments he received at his last board meeting on April 22 are any indication, his leadership has been widely appreciated. He was lauded for perseverance and dedication by fellow board members and praised by many others who spoke. In return, he commended his colleagues as well for their courage and diligence. He said he’d never served with a better group of people, “more fun to disagree with, more noble to represent.”

Toby Sanders’s act will be a hard one to follow; I wish his successor well.

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