The Greatest School

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Larry Pelok, blonde hair, brown eyes, was my catcher for Schatz Motors, our Little League sponsor. That would have been in 1948, and we would have been 10 years old then. My wool baseball suit, which assured that summer evenings at Kinsbury Park, were even hotter, was Number 7. That was the same number as Mickey Mantle, although I was a Tiger not a Yankee fan. Let it be noted that I wasn’t credited with more than a few wins that season. I was as apt to throw my fastball over the backstop as over the plate for a strike. I don’t recall that Larry complained. He’d just fire the ball back wherever he retrieved it from, his mitt or the stands where Dad sat, faithfully cheering his future big leaguer for every game.

Larry and I attended different public elementary schools, he went to Brickle and I went to Slocum in Defiance, in northwest Ohio. In high school, though, we were together again, this time in Miss Maria Slegel’s freshman Latin class. Larry’s was the first seat in the row next to the window. I sat in the middle, in front of my best friend, John Mitchell, who brought a piece of dry ice to stick against the metal on his desk, making a squeal to district Miss Slegal. Larry Pelok minded his own business and did nothing to harass the teacher.

For years now, we’ve heard people say the public schools aren’t doing the job anymore. They say we need to turn the job of education over to private interests to run charter schools or fund vouchers that students can use at private or parochial schools. At the paper, I often researched and wrote about this complaints and about the new testing plans to improve the public schools. And as I’ve reflected on the proposals and the debates, I’ve found myself remembering my friends from my early years, friends like Larry Pelok and John Mitchell.

I won’t say every teacher we had inspired us and pushed us to learn all that was humanly possible. But we were blessed with a number of fine teachers. And many of my fellow students grew up and not only managed to be responsible citizens. Some, such as Larry Pelok and John Mitchell, became physicians.

A few classmates spent their working years as professors at major universities. Larry Willey played basketball with the famous Oscar Robertson at the University of Cincinnati, studied architecture and then went into real estate. Public school proved to be no handicap for these people. And for most all my other friends. One, an appeals court judge, was even considered for a Supreme Court appointment. Another ran a magazine a variety store.

In the 1940s and 1950s, We didn’t have any standardized tests that I recall. Maybe an IQ test, which might have explained why teachers kept telling my I wasn’t living up to my potential. We had quizzes and homework, which I often failed to turn in. It seemed that everybody graduated, judging from the size of the class reunions of the three high schools I attended. Do drop-outs go to class reunions?

I can’t imagine what charters or private and parochial schools can boast of that you won’t find in a good public school. Granted, I have a different perspective than most folk. I taught high school English for seven years. Then I taught various writing courses as an adjunct professor at the regional campus of Indiana and Purdue universities in Fort Wayne. Meantime, when I wrote editorials and columns for the morning Fort Wayne paper, I visited a lot of schools in the city and the area and interviewed teachers in all kinds of settings.

For part of that time, I served on the board of the national Education Writers Association, two years as board president. One big event at the annual EWA conferences was a day-long visit to a local school. So I observed classes in such varied cities as Miami, San Diego, Minneapolis, the South Bronx, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New Orleans. I visited the country’s first charter school. That was in St. Paul, Minnesota.

During a few school visits, I was embarrassed for the teachers. At some schools, I saw the students only doing busy work. But I also witnessed inspired teaching, such as the first grade teacher engaging her students in a fun session on Spanish vocabulary and counting.

Even at good charter or parochial schools, I didn’t observe any kind of teaching I saw regularly at public schools. As a rule, however, the smaller the classes, the more engaged the students. Which was exactly what I saw as a teacher. That’s also why I’ve always been in favor of small classes.

Of course, as a journalist at each national conference, I had a chance to interview leading education experts, superintendents, public officials, researchers and reformers. Conservatives, liberals, radicals – we spotlighted I led some sessions and moderated a few debates. And no matter what the proposal or what the criticism of the schools, I always came back to the same question: Who has a better idea to improve education than the public school?

I do believe some reforms can make it harder for teachers to do a great job. Here, I’d include high-stakes testing, which drives teachers to focus on a narrow set of skills. It’s a real loss when students aren’t challenged to think for themselves or when the arts are neglected. I don’t believe that performance pay motivates teachers to do better and the bonuses likely will be awarded in an arbitrary fashion.

On the charter school movement, I’m a skeptic. I distrust this movement because too often we have people running these schools who aren’t proven educators. Even when the leaders have the background, I distrust the movement because so many charters are launched to make a profit for investors, putting up little of their own money. As a rule, the states provide little or no oversight. Or they allow these schools to avoid the high standards of treating teachers fairly, as required by a strong union. Often, I hear charter advocates bad mouth teacher unions. Ostensibly, the charters welcome all students. But they tend to attract students from the same social, racial and economic groups in a community. So you easily end up re-segregating otherwise racially balanced districts. Moreover, charters typically fail to produce test scores as good as, much less better than the public schools they’re drawing their students from.

Judging from my own visits, public schools are doing a better job than the public schools of my day. Teachers are better trained. Where they’re encouraged, and don’t feel constricted by state reforms, they’re more creative, resourceful. I’ve visited magnet schools, still organized and led by the public school educators, where the classes were so exciting I wanted to sign up for the class myself.

No, I wouldn’t choose to return to Miss Schlegel’s 9th grade Latin class. I have no idea whether either Larry Pelok or John Mitchell ever think of that otherwise routine year of their lives. But most all of us got a good early start in our education in those public schools.

Such schools form the foundation of our society, of our country. They’re not run for the benefit of an elite group or to promote religious beliefs or to enrich investors. Overseen by elected board members, funded almost solely by all taxpayers, leading the way for every innovation in education over the past century, when it comes down to it, public schools simply educate the kids. In fact, the public schools – despite self-serving efforts to destroy them – educate most all the kids. Including a lot of doctors, and editorial writers.

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