Saturday, December 15, 2007

The good side of schools

Things That Are Right with Schoolsby Tamim Ansary

I've been writing about school reform for some time now, and let me tell you, on this beat you learn a lot about what's wrong with schools.

Late last spring, 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, I was surrounded by students cheering for one another and their teachers. 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.

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