6 Things That Are Right With Schools
By Tamim Ansary
Web infotk.com



I've been writing about school reform for the last six months and let me tell you, on this beat you learn a lot about what's wrong with schools.

Just last month, I was writing a column that had my brain brimming with dismal factoids. In the middle of it, I took a day off to attend my daughter Jessamyn's high school graduation ceremony.

There I was in the crowded auditorium, jotting notes so I wouldn't forget to mention in my column that 13 percent of high school students know someone who has brought a weapon to school, and that public schools in New York are installing metal detectors to stem the violence, and that standards are lax, teachers are apathetic, students are out of control, and high schools are like factories in which kids are mere products being listlessly assembled by bored workers who hate their jobs.

Meanwhile, students cheering for one another and their teachers surrounded me. Every time I looked up I was reminded of the four great years Jessamyn spent at this particular public high school, SOTA (San Francisco's School of the Arts), with teachers like Ms. Lederer, who taught American and European history and who hosted intensive evening tutoring sessions for all her students because she wanted them to do well on their tests. The kids didn't have to go, but they did, because the tutoring sessions made all the difference.

And then I thought about my other daughter, ten-year-old Elina, who attends a public school called San Francisco Community. It's just as good as SOTA in its way, even though it's very different. Elina's school is an "inner-city school" with a student body so racially mixed it has no majority, only minorities. And what a wonderful environment of learning and growth it has turned out to be.

Man, I must be the luckiest guy ever! I have two daughters, and they both go to wonderful schools. Somehow I ended up living a stone's throw from the only two good public schools in America, I thought. What are the odds of that?

Then it struck me: Maybe the buzz is a little skewed. Maybe lots of people live a stone's throw from a good school or two. Maybe the success stories don't get full publicity here in the Culture of Complaint.

So I did some research, and I found some good news out there. What's right with America's schools? Well, let's see, we have:

1. Inspiring teachers
2. Inspired students
3. A commitment to educate everyone
4. Fine facilities and equipment
5. Caring, sensitive administrators
6. Plenty of choices

I know. It sounds like a satire. Shouldn't it be that we don't have all those things? Well, it all comes down to examples. Yes, you can dredge up lots of examples to show that schools are in a terrible crisis, but there are some counterexamples too. You want to hear a few of them? Read on.

Part I: Great teachers and students

Recently I wrote a column about great teachers and I asked my readers what great teachers they knew about. The e-mails flooded in. Some were about teachers who had long since retired, but quite a few described teachers who are out there working now.

Inspiring teachers, inspired students
Ed Shook of Baytown, Texas, wants me to know about his colleague Kim Futrell, who teaches writing to sixth graders at the Gentry School. Futrell, he says, "Incorporates every subject known to man in teaching kids who have been brutalized at home and in life. One boy who could not write his name on the first day turned out master drafts by the end and instilled in others what he had learned. If a child who is made to feel inferior by his classmates for five years turns around and becomes a mentor to others in his sixth year, can you imagine what his self-esteem and knowledge level have zoomed to?"

Is Kim Futrell special? Sure. Is she unique? Naw ... I get lots of mail like that.nce.

Part II: Educating everyone
There is a from Kentucky writes to me about her father, who has taught automotive technology for 24 years. "A majority of his students are special education kids that have fallen through the cracks of the system and are low on self-esteem and confidence," she says. "He picks them up and makes them feel good about themselves and they learn in the process. He has always said he rates his success as a teacher by his student's success after they graduate. His students have gone on to hold jobs in their field."

"Now, I myself am a teacher," says Theresa. "I teach mentally handicapped students. My success ranges from small things that we take for granted, such as being able to buy an item in a store, to bigger things like being able to manage on their own after graduation. I want my students to function as independently as they can. However, when one of my students accidentally calls me ‘Mom,' that makes my day! Then I know that my kids feel safe and that there is some of my father in me after all!"

Father and daughter. They both sound pretty dedicated, don't they? But they're only fulfilling one of our core educational ideals in America: We make it our goal to educate everyone. We don't say, "What's the point? This one's too stupid, and that one won't amount to anything." Instead, our whole system is built on the premise that everyone can learn and everyone's entitled to do just that.

But what about reports of lead-fisted administrators, antiquated textbooks, and rats in the cafeteria? Don't worry, folks--those aren't the only stories out there.

Part III: Fine facilities, caring administrators

You want to hear about well-equipped schools? Let's talk about Northbrook Middle School in Houston, Texas. In some ways it's a very traditional place. Academic standards are rigorous. Discipline is strict. The kids even have to wear school uniforms.

But when you get to the core of what kids are learning and how they're learning it, Northbrook is carving a new edge--especially in its use of technology.

Northbrook was an existing school that got transformed in the early 1990s into a model technology school. During the remodeling, the whole place was wired top to bottom. It opened with 400 computers for about 750 students, including 11 function-specific computer labs--multimedia, art, literacy, and so on.

The building itself was redesigned as well. Walls went down, walls went up, and when it was over classrooms were clustered in "pods"of five, with teachers in each pod working as teams so they could cross-reference what they were teaching.

What sets Northbrook apart, however, is not its powerhouse facilities per se, but those facilities in the context of the school's demographics. This is not a school for rich kids; its students are mostly from low-income Hispanic neighborhoods. Principal Laura Schumann told me, "The kids who come here are street-smart. If you put them in a gritty urban setting, they fit in. But when they walk into this school, they could just as easily be in any privileged school in any wealthy suburb."

Schumann goes on to say, "This is a middle school. We try not to be a mini high school. Students at this age have real emotional needs. The transition from grade five to grade six is huge. They're going from elementary school to middle school and they have all the physical and emotional changes that are going on at this age." Ah yes, the werewolf age. I remember it well: "Yikes! Who's that in the mirror? Oh no! I'm growing hair!"

So, at Northbrook, working in a building filled with 21st-century technology is a staff that puts a lot of effort into giving students old-fashioned personal attention and emotional support.

Technology and sensitivity together--big deal. That's not unique. I could have written about Hawthorne Elementary School in Oakland, or the Open Charter Magnet School in Los Angeles, or any of a dozen others that fell out of the computer when I searched the Internet for "good things about schools."

Part IV: Plenty of choices

The stereotype says public schools are lumbering things stamped from a cookie cutter, and if you want publicly funded schooling, this is what you get--take it or leave it.

Not quite. Under the umbrella of the public schools there's a lot of ferment.

In the early 1990s, for example, a New York City group called New Visions for Public Schools launched a drive to build a string of new schools. First, they solicited 15,000 ideas (count 'em: 15 thousand!) about what makes a good public school--from parents, students, community groups, teachers, and others. Out of this mulch came 40 New Vision schools scattered throughout the city. Are they achieving fantastic results? I don't know; that's not my point. I do know that they represent a gamut of choices. Take a look at some of their areas of concentration:

Strong arts focus? Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School.

Real-life focus, lots of internships? Banana Kelly's School of Learning through Community Building.

The Socratic method? Humanities Prep.

A curriculum centered on field trips that use the city as a classroom? Bridges to Brooklyn Academy.

A second chance for high school dropouts with jobs and kids of their own? Cascades Learning Center High School, where extended hours and evening classes are the norm.

The list goes on. Forty schools, each one small and personal, each one organized around a different theme. Of course, 40 little schools in a city of teeming millions isn't much--but then again it's not anything. And there could be more. Almost every state now has the charter-school option going. People can propose whatever type of school they think would be perfect: more rigorous, more open, more classical, less classical, whatever. And if they can get a district interested, they can get public money to start and run it.

Other options
Maybe you just don't want to be under the public school umbrella, and you don't like any school in your area. Well, then, you grinch, this is America. Start your own school.

That's what Suzy Price of Monmouth, Oregon, did. When she and her husband moved to Oregon from the East Coast, the public school choices failed to impress, so Price decided to school her own children at home. (Price had a teaching credential and lots of teaching experience.)

Price's neighbors quickly noticed what an asset they had living next door and they formed a little home schooling co-op with Price as a member. By 1983 the co-op had eight members, and they said, "What the hey, let's go all the way."

So they bought a house, remodeled it to work as a school building, called it the Luckiamute School (after a local Native American tribe), hung out a shingle, and charged (below-market) tuition. Pretty soon the school had 50 students--which was as big as they wanted it to get.

When you have a school that tiny, and all the families know one another, you can do things that aren't possible in a big institution, public or private.

One year, the kids studied the Lewis and Clark expedition. Then when summer came around, the parents coordinated their vacations and the whole school spent a week and a half following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, hiking part of the trail and going down the same rivers in canoes. Now that's what I call a field trip.

When you focus on school reform (and even when you don't), you keep hearing about the Good Old Days. But let's not forget that time marches on. Someday, these will be the Good Old Days.

Don't you wish we lived here now? Hey, wait: We do live here now. And isn't that something to celebrate?