In 1999 I joined my local public school board. Since I am a writer I thought that in addition to seeing if a failing school system could be helped, I would write about my experiences. But good intentions gave way to more pressing priorities. Today, at my non-profit Web site, WilliamPMeyers.org, there is a section for expressing my thoughts on public education. I've even written an outline of topics, though that has not been posted so far.
So my new tactic is to write in this blog. Hopefully at some point I will be able to re-write some of the blog entries into a more coherent account of what, in my experience, it takes to turn around a public school. The best thing is that I can confidently say our community has turned around our public schools. I can also say with confidence that it has not been easy.
I'll refer to my school district as the Point Arena School district, though its legal name is much longer. It has three campuses located in the City of Point Arena (the official name of a town of 440 citizens). They are Arena Elementary School, Point Arena High School, and South Coast. The high school also has feeder elementary/middle schools that are in their own districts with their own boards. The high school district encompasses over 40 miles of coastal California, including parts of northern Sonoma County and southern Mendocino County. We also have a public charter school, Pacific, which has elementary through high school classes, and a relatively large home schooling community. This is a rural community, so the total number of students is not large, under 500 students.
Yesterday was our annual board retreat. Most regular (monthly) board meetings are filled with official obligations created by the California and Federal governments. I'll introduce some of the more important aspects of that in later blogs. We do discuss important issues about the direction of education at those board meetings, but the time always seems constrained.
So it is nice to have a full day once a year to talk at some length about what we think is important. This year we had what might be called staff reports in the morning. The principals and heads of the building, maintenance and transportation told us how they saw the situation. We were able to ask questions and discuss issues with them and among ourselves at great length. It's a small district so a few topics we discussed may seem petty: the need for a part-time bus driver, the problem of gophers destroying our athletic fields, why the new building is going up much slower than expected.
But in the afternoon we discussed the big topic for public schools: how are we doing on the goal of bringing every child up to proficiency in reading and math? The short answer is we are doing much better than we were 6 years ago and generally better than most California public schools. Last year every one of our high school seniors (about 35 students, 40 if you include the charter school) passed the California high school exit exam. We also had the highest percentage of students qualifying to attend the state college system for our region.
This is somewhat remarkable for any public school, but it is quite remarkable for what bureaucrats call a school with a high percentage of "low-socio-economic students." What that means is students from poor or low-wage working class families whose parents typically have a high-school diploma or not even that. In our district it includes a high percentage of children whose primary language is Spanish. We have a lot of relatively well-off retirees in our community as well, but their children's families live elsewhere. Most children in the schools have parents who work serving the retiree community or tourist trade. One advantage we do have over what might otherwise be comparable schools is a robust tax base. Real estate is very, very expensive, rents are very high, but pay rates have not risen to correspond.
How we turned around our schools is a long story involving a lot of sweat by a lot of people. What I want to focus on briefly is how left and right wing ideologies have not been helpful in creating the success. Then I'll say what is working.
Typically the liberals in our country want schools where children are allowed to grow into brilliance with minimal interference from teachers. Testing is abhorred. Creativity is prized. Education should be oriented to the Gifted and Talented, and every liberal child is known to be above average. The conservatives want a schools where children are allowed to grow into brilliance with strict discipline and by really hitting the books. Testing is important for separating out winners from losers. Education should be oriented to preparing the children to be winners in the system.
But once we defined our district's goal to be getting all the children to be proficient, we had to throw these ideas out the window. It is not that they are bad ideas; in the right circumstances, with the right kids (children of college-educated, upper-middle class parents) they both work well, with the main differences being how character is molded.
We looked for models of successful schools dealing with students whose parents were Spanish speaking or not highly functional in the academic sense. We read the literature and talked to experts. We hired new administrators, who went through this process with us. And what we decided on, and what is working so far, is a system that is closer to the conservative system, but with some major improvements.
We decided to focus on reading, writing and math, starting with reading. We decided we had to get rid of institutionalized racism, the racism of low expectations. We had to find a way of teaching socially, intellectually, and emotionally unbalanced children while maintaining a level of behavior that meant more time could be spent on teaching and less on disruptions.
We chose a highly-structured reading curriculum. It gave the teachers almost no flexibility and it required a lot of testing. It works because a lot of thought went into the creation of the curriculum. It is as if every teacher is teaching like the best teacher would in our circumstances (large percentage of poor kids). The testing is not to categorize kids, so we call it assessment. The assessments are to see if the kids have actually learned the lessons. If some have not, we focus on them until they get it. The lessons are designed to build on one another, to increase vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Studies have shown that poor kids typically have one-half the vocabulary of middle-class kids at the age of three. They fall further behind over time. The problem is compounded if they have to learn English. If you just teach them the way you would teach middle class students, they will fail.
A much longer article on this subject that you should read if you are really interested is "What It Takes to Make a Student" by Paul Tough in the New York Times magazine of November 26, 2006. It uses public charter school experiments as the basis of its analysis, but comes to the same conclusion.
Point Arena schools still have a long way to go. We are having more trouble developing a math curriculum that we like than we had with reading. We have a great writing program at the high school level, but are still developing one for the elementary school. There is never enough money to do everything we would like to do. But there is now an aura of hope.
I'll keep you posted from time to time in this blog and hopefully will get a nice structured education Web page our for you some day.
III Blog list of articles