The Chinese Fire Drill

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Perfect School: Part I

My Perfect School

Prologue: Why Charters, Vouchers, Etc. Aren't Really Working

Why even suggest the concept of an alternative school when said alternatives are already appearing all over the nation?  The Voucher concept began decades ago and became election-time fodder in the late 80's and early 90's.  And frustrated parents and community members have been popping out Charter schools like Pez Dispensers (to quote Rhea Perlman's description of her character's, Carla's, birthing record in Cheers).  Charters however, for all the attention they get and the controversy they generate, really haven't threatened the status of public education.  For all the griping that parents and even kids themselves make about their schools, when the time comes to choose between the Charter and the local high school, most kids go local.

Why?  One word: sports.

Charter schools don't have those little banners in their gymnasiums showing they belong to their state's athletic association.  For that matter, most Charters don't even have gyms (let alone pools, wrestling rooms, soccer and football fields, and weight rooms).  The one motivator that all kids share, regardless of their academic ability or their parents' incomes, is their love of sports and their enjoyment of the benefits that come from participating on a team.  Therefore, as logic would dictate, as long as most Charters open with the fledgling attitude that they can worry about sports later, they will never take off, no matter how much better they claim to be than their local public rivals.

Conversely, when Charters finally grasp the importance of the link between sports and enrollment (and more importantly when they do something about it) the inner city public school will be extinct overnight, and eventually many rural and suburban schools will hear their death knells as well.

I have often spoken out to my students in frustration, claiming that, one day, I was going to start my own school, and that we would keep things simple and focus on what really mattered.  Sports, it turns out, matters...a lot.  So, before I even write the first word of curriculum or the first sentence of our Mission Statement (OK, scratch that...we're NOT bothering with something worthless like a Mission Statement).  I'm going to make sure that we have soccer, basketball, and swim teams at least.

What Makes My Perfect School Great:

Chapter One: Enrollment

Currently private schools notoriously populate themselves with, for lack of a better phrase, wealthy primadonnas. Of course, every schools has exceptions to this, and no school's enrollment can claim to be 100% as such. However, the stereotype exists; and like all stereotypes, it exists for a reason. Furthermore, what we're discovering as we delve into the nasty side of Charters in this nation is than many of them doctor their enrollments in order to maximize the results of their test scores. Most reserve the right to refuse students, and they have no shortage of creative minds capable of creating “honest” criteria effectively closing the door on students who could damage their image.

So, when we remove money and ability from the student enrollment equation, we're left with one other distinction that often separates students from each other: effort (or attitude as these terms are synonymous in this context). At My Perfect School, our philosophy is very basic: Students who take school seriously, who want to make something of themselves, who will respect others are welcome regardless of their family's income and no matter how well they perform on standardized test. The reason we don't care about those factors is because, as far as the money goes, we can and will find benefactors who care about kids and will gladly float the cost to give some youngster a chance to prove himself and earn a better life for himself. Secondly, the test results don't matter to us because our kids aren't going to to waste their time with the various state-administrated tests linked to funding (see subsequent chapter/s).

Critics, no doubt, claim that few kids with that kind of attitude exist. The reasons for this perception make sense because, as adults, we often create powerfully negative associations with the “curb squirrels” and other trouble making youths who seem ubiquitous in every American town. However, the reality is that schools across this nation are filled with far more kids who really DO want to learn and improve themselves...they're just prone to slightly more frequent episodes of temporary stupidity and poor judgment. In my own “regular” English classes (whatever that terms means) I have a young man who comes from a very poor, very dysfunctional family. He is also no rocket scientist by any means. He struggles with semantics and syntax, and he has a hard time grasping abstractions and moving beyond the literal. But those are not reasons to turn this kid away. He cares for one thing, and he also works as hard (and sometimes harder) than my honors and AP kids. We may never transform this young man into an 1800 SAT score, but we can make him a better writer and a better student than he was before he walked through our doors. We can make him a more confident student going into college, and we can give him hope that hard work WILL give him an honest chance to escape the miserable life he experiences at home.

The last time I checked, that's what we were supposed to be doing anyway.

Future Chapters:
  1. The Only Tests that Matter
  2. Our Notice to Parents
  3. Why Our Teachers Are Different
  4. A Better Idea for the School Day
  5. Where We Spend OUR Money
  6. Rules the Really Matter
  7. Epilogue

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