This year’s 60th Annual Meeting of the National School Boards Association, with 9,000 delegates among the total 19,000 attendees, was typical of such organizational meetings. In a general atmosphere that maintained all is well with the public schools–except for an occasional hitch–work sessions stressed indoctrination rather than education and provided ammunition rather than information.
Most important, however, was what was not said. This was demonstrated most clearly when the new president assumed office.
Her biography noted that the new NSBA president was first elected to her local school board in 1975, where she still serves, now in her 25th year of service. For many of those years she was board president. Her acceptance speech highlighted her term’s theme of “academic achievement: raising the bar as we close the gap.” As she pledged “ignorance for none and educational excellence for all,” she proclaimed her intention to stress the positives in education.
While that’s difficult to disagree with, consider what wasn’t said about the local school district over which she has presided for some 25 years.
As she joined the board in 1976, a 2,000+ pupil open-classroom middle school had recently been opened. From the beginning, it didn’t work: The noise was horrendous. Classroom walls were installed but problems continued. In 1982 a new superintendent said classrooms without walls didn’t work, that those involved knew it, but they “wouldn’t bite the bullet.”
By the mid-1990s, the local press reported that police had been called to the school more than 220 times. When one youngster refused to attend the school following a particularly violent incident, a local district judge refused to order her to do so because, as he noted, the district could not guarantee student safety. Eventually the board gave up and tore down the multimillion-dollar building, even though it was little more than 20 years old.
Safety has been an issue in other district schools, too. By 1996, armed off-duty city police were hired to patrol the middle and high schools. The district hired its own police chief. The county began permanently assigning juvenile probation officers to the secondary schools to work with the more than 250 students on probation. But in 1999, a new superintendent, over the objections of teachers, ordered most of the probation officers removed from the schools even though they were provided at no cost to the district.
The district is lacking in terms of educational achievement. The state recently noted that more than two-thirds of the students perform in the bottom quartile on the state’s assessment tests. With about 1,000 students in the first grade and fewer than 250 in the twelfth grade, most students apparently drop out prior to graduation. On an average school day in 1998, nearly one-third of the district’s secondary students were absent.
What the district does not lack is money. It was recently reported that the district spends $53,500 more for each classroom of 25 students than does an adjoining suburban district. A candidate for school board last year noted the district spends more than $9,500 per pupil per year–$1,200 more than any other district in the area.
Those who can get out of the district do so, including the district’s majority black population. During the 1980s, while the black student population of the district grew only 14 percent, the black student population rose by 31 percent in one suburban district and by 32 percent in another. About three-quarters of the teachers (75 percent) and administrators (78 percent) live outside the district.
Not that the new NSBA president bears full responsibility for these results. During her term of office, many board members and superintendents have come and gone. But she did say she wants to improve the image of public schools, starting with her district. What she didn’t say was that she wants to improve the reality of public schools. It’s only fair to point out what that reality is in her district.
David W. Kirkpatrick, a former public school teacher, is a senior fellow with the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Institute and a contributing editor to School Reform News. He can be reached by email at [email protected].