Monday, September 22, 2014

School Bored

You've been there, right? School bored. We all have. Somehow we muddle through and get on with life, some better prepared than others. Some much better prepared. Most of us forget about it after that ordeal (until we have to relive it with varying degrees of intensity with our children). For some of us, school was a war zone. We have flashbacks and test dreams. PTSD. Like brave and stoic soldiers returning from war, we don't want to talk about it.

Thank goodness the future of our children's education is not in our hands. There are others somehow fresh with passion and purpose who step into the front lines as adults. They are teachers and principals, counsellors and coaches. And they are school board members. 

Thanks to my friend Elaine Hahn I met two Palo Alto School Board candidates this morning. They were amazing. Highly educated, highly qualified. People with successful relevant career experience and keen interest in the issues that face our school district and its students. I'm grateful to them for wanting to lend a hand.

Palo Alto is a rich school district. Both of the candidates I met this morning were, with Elaine, among the founders of Palo Alto Partners in Education, a local non-profit that raises millions of dollars each year and gives it to the school district to supplement state and local funding. Our schools have modern facilities, well-paid teachers, involved parents, access to Stanford, and on and on. There may be better places in the country to get a public education, but not many.

And yet, even here there are the heartbreaking tales of bullying and suicide, of kids lost in the middle of the pack, of children from poor families who feel they don't belong. Kid-by-kid we have the same issues anyone does. Every child, high and low achiever, is an opportunity for us to do better.

My children are all out in the world. Well, one is in grad school, but that's part of his world now. My grandchildren are in public schools in Atlanta and Philadelphia. My oldest grandchild is a freshman in a magnet high school in inner-city Philly. I believe in public education. But it's so tough out there for so many school districts, for so many teachers. They don't have the resources they need. Often their students don't have adequate support at home. 

The war zone metaphor is perhaps even better suited to teachers and administrators than to students. They have to fight for every child they help. Education ideology as expressed in the curriculum is necessary but not sufficient. Even in places where there are still battles over whether to teach evolution, it is not principally those battles that shape our children; differences in lives are made in the classroom, child-by-child.

Teachers need support and resources. That's where school boards come in. They are the supply line. They make sure the generals--the school superintendents and principals--know what is expected of them. They make sure they know someone is watching their performance in the field and is standing by to relieve them if necessary.

Education is a long war. A grinding one. There are not dramatic turning points. It is won or lost gradually, sometimes imperceptibly; you wake up one day, as California has, and see that from the 1960s when we led the nation in education we have slipped to near the bottom. How did that happen? Did the supply lines get cut? Did the generals quit caring?

Well, the two school-board candidates I met this morning care. They are smart, articulate and energetic. They don't have to do this. They are doing it because they want to make a difference. Thank goodness for them, and for the teachers, administrators, volunteers, parents, and students like them. We are entrusting our future to them.

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