Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bad Boys, School Superintendents & Wal-Mart

Last night, I ran into two of my former students outside the movie store. Brandon and Ricky were always in trouble for one thing or another during their three years in middle school. Both of them flunked almost every class but were passed on year after year, as is the habit in most middle schools. Ricky had a violent streak and was finally placed in an alternative school for much of his 7th grade year. It was mostly 7th grade macho stuff that got him in trouble. Like so many other lost boys and girls we see in middle school halls every year, he had virtually zero parental supervision. Brandon's mom tried to become more involved, but her son was soft and lazy, a follower who seemed hell bent on being cool above all else. Brandon had a good sense of humor and was one of the few in my class who understood my jokes, but he hadn't learned much academically since the third or fourth grade.

They saw me first as I pulled into the parking lot. "Hey, Mr. Smith." It's always nice to see former students smiling when we meet. So often, my memories of scolding them and sending them to the office for some transgression are all I remember. Ironically, some of the worst discipline problems are the friendliest when we meet outside the confines of school. They seem to know that I really did like them - even the bad ones (sometimes especially the bad ones). The two bad boys sauntered up to the passenger side of the car as I pulled in, and we talked through the window. Ricky had his ball cap on crooked and wore an open baseball jersey, the uniform of adolescent rebellion.

"So how's high school going?" I asked.
"We're not in school," Brandon said, smiling.
"We're doing home school now," Ricky said with a straight face. Home schooling? I had to laugh.
"Are you kidding me?" Both of them smiled just a bit, not wanting to completely admit that they weren't doing anything remotely related to school work.
"So, who's teaching you?" I asked.
"My mom," says Brandon.
They knew I didn't buy it, but I didn't say anything more. We said our good-byes, and they drove away in Brandon's beat up Taurus with the bass vibrating a loose muffler. Poor lost boys.

I remembered one parent/teacher conference. Brandon's mom had broken down in tears, pleading for advice on how to persuade her academically-challenged son that doing well in school was important. "He's a good boy," she said over and over.

And now this poor woman was home schooling them? I wonder how she's holding up. Their situation seems hopeless now. I hate it that they have chosen to separate themselves from the one place where they might learn something outside their usual realm - where they could associate with adults who cared about them and had some insight into the real world. The sad thing is, Ricky and Brandon were both reasonably bright, funny kids - especially Ricky. There were times when I knew that I "had them" during particular lessons. There was definitely some hope there - they just weren't in class often enough for anything to stick. When he came to school for a stretch, Ricky actually contributed to class and truly enjoyed doing a little math now and then. He even passed a couple of tests. I can remember how he eagerly shot his hand up when he had the answer to a math problem. Now it seems their education is a lost cause, but I'll keep you posted if there are any future Brandon and Ricky sightings in the 'hood.


Speaking of education, I met the new superintendent of schools the other day at an NEA meeting. He's an affable fellow, much more articulate than the last suit that flew into town to lead R-12 . . . and much funnier. All the principals like him, but I still haven't heard him say much other than "we must foster a culture of improvement", which seems pretty uninspired to me. Let's all agree to try to do better, okay?

This was his first meeting with Springfield NEA, and a couple of polite teachers lobbed softball questions. He was obliged to mention how awesome (a favorite adjective) the system was and how capable the staff was . . . but then somebody asked him what he thought about class size. Having just struggled through a year when my classes were jammed with 35-36 students every hour, I was interested in how he'd handle this one. It seems amazing to me that a big system like R-12 refuses to hire enough teachers to have optimum class sizes.

Dr. Ridder smiled and apologetically explained that he always gets a little "political" when talking about class size . . . He rubbed his hands together and said, "I've seen teachers do a terrific job with classes of forty and a poor job with classes of fifteen." And then he smiled and nodded as if to acknowledge that what he had just uttered was total bullshit. Exactly the kind of bobbing and weaving we've come to expect from administrative types. I was disappointed but not surprised. He has a nice personality at least. He's coming back in a few months, and I have already promised myself to ask him about the tax rollback. Should inspire a good soft-shoe.

One last thing while on the topic of home schooling and public education. Did you know that the world's largest and richest corporation, besides busting unions and offering low-wage, low-benefit jobs to the working poor, has been funneling all kinds of money to political action committees that are opposed to public education? Here are a few facts from an NEA article:

The Walton family dedicates the bulk of its philanthropy to pushing vouchers, tuition tax credits and charter schools, giving at least $250 million to such efforts over the past six years. (USA Today, 3/11/04)
Since 1998, the Walton Family Foundation has given more than $100 million to private organizations that finance vouchers to private schools, undermine support for public education, and are intended to increase political pressure for publicly funded vouchers. (
The late John Walton was the biggest paycheck in the anti-public education movement, providing tens of millions of dollars of his own money to support anti-public education ballot initiatives and organizations and sitting on the boards of the major pro-voucher organizations.

What can you do? My little family is boycotting Wal-Mart in favor of companies like Target and Staples, who generously support public schools across the country. In spite of all the problems in schools today, I sincerely believe that public education is the glue that holds our society together, as tenuous as that hold may be. For every Ricky and Brandon that drop out, there are also kids that are rescued from terrible situations and benefit greatly from their time in public schools.


Jacke said...

Good for the Walton family. I believe that the competition that school vouchers and alternatives to public school affords public schools can only be good for public education. :)

Anonymous said...

Good for the Waltons? Are you serious? You can't even write a coherent sentence, yet you want to encourage competition between public and private schools for money. Our public schools need all the support they can get and a competition for the money of greedy corporations only downplays what's really important-the education of all children. And as for publicly funded vouchers-there's no way I'm paying additional taxes for children to go to private schools or take money away from a school system that desperately needs it.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, I support the Angel and family for boycotting Wal-Mart. I have not set foot in one of the "discount stores" for years. Their support of the voucher system is just one more reason (added to a list of numerous reasons) why no sane person should shop there. Thanks for spreading the word.

Jacke M. said...


Why shouldn't Americans be afforded every option when it comes to educating their children? Is the pro-choice attitude only to be welcomed and promoted when dealing with abortion? *wink*

The public schools have failed to educate many children for many years. I don't think it is wrong at all to look at other options.

I do think that public schools, who get paid tax dollars for each child who attends public school, when faced with the growing discontent among parents about the quality of education their children are receiving will more likely address their failures when they realize they aren't the only game in town.

I know I could have crafted my sentence a little better. I didn't like the way it read either. Thanks for paying attention. :)

Tish said...

All those incoherent sentences you allegedly write, Jacke, sure do make a lot of good sense! Methinks Anonymous woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

I agree that school vouchers are needed. Public schools spend more money per student, generally, than do private schools. In spite of the annually increased taxpayer monies thrown at public education, the performance is lacking. Common sense dictates that throwing money at a failing system is not a solution. It hasn't worked thus far, so why would it now, or ten years down the road?

It is my opinion that poor performance in our public school system can be attributed to turning our schools into institutions of social engineering. Instead of spending time on the basics, our children learn more "fluff" than ever before. In some respects, our public schools have become politically correct indoctrination centers. It's understandable why liberals wouldn't want money taken away from these institutions, even if it means dooming a poor inner-city kid to attending a horribly failing school. Gotta love that compassion!

Anonymous said...

What side of the bed I wake up on has nothing to do with the fact that I abhor Wal-Mart and the voucher system. And jacke if you are going to lambaste people for their typos and sentence structure as part of your argument then you should expect the same.
As for public schools spewing "politically correct indoctrination"-that is a problem that engulfs all of our society and has been forced down the throat of teachers because of the politically correct ideals that the people of the US would like to think they espouse. Yesterday's supposed holiday is a perfect example. Every government run institution in this country is a joke, regardless of which side runs it. Our public education system is lacking in many areas, but at least we have one to provide to our nations children. Maybe if more concerned citizens and parents took a greater role in a child's education and were more willing to provide public education with the funds it needs then a difference could be made. But when all anyone seems to argue about are the words of the pledge and the orgins of the universe education will continue to operate at the level it is now. A person cannot be handed a good education regardless of whether they are in public or private school, one has too work for an education regardless of the environment. Taking money away from public schools will only make a difficult situation worse.
You girls have a lovely day, I know I will.

Jacke said...

Anonymous, I have no problem with someone correcting my sentence structure, grammar or spelling, knock yerself owt! :)

Regarding your statement:

"Taking money away from public schools will only make a difficult situation worse."

I quote:

"The Department of Education's budget has grown by 82.5 percent in real terms from $34.9 billion in FY2001 to $63.7 billion in FY2005. This is the largest increase of any president since Lyndon Johnson.

And President Bush's 2006 budget asks for more of the same. Every state sees an increase in grant money, nearly 5 percent on average. The average state receives a level of grant funding that is more than 50 percent higher than when President Bush took office; no state has an increase less than 35 percent.

In spite of the GOP's extravagance, Democrats constantly criticize the Administration for not spending enough."

End quote...dang, ain't the internet special!? :)

ElacaReg said...

I wonder if public schools need more money because they have to spend more money. Public schools have to accept ALL children. Some children require that more funds be used for their education. Special equipment, aides, etc. It must all add up, don't you think? That is the reason I am against vouchers. Private schools should not get tax money, because they are not required to accept ALL children.

The Words of a Prophet 2019 A.D.

Prophet of God I was called upon by God* today to visit a Christian church in Springfield, Missouri. I don't care if you don'...