Wednesday, April 12, 2006

As If The Wild Girls Weren't Enough

I don’t know why Oprah doesn’t like me, but she obviously doesn’t want me to sleep soundly this week. Or have normal blood pressure. Because do you know what she did? She followed up the “girls going wild” show with another well-it’s-clear-I’ll-never-rest-again program: “America: Schools In Crisis.”

Truth be told, we only got about three-quarters of the way through the show before we had to turn it off. It was too depressing. I’ll finish watching it today, but between Monday's Paris Hilton-wannabes and yesterday's deplorable conditions at an inner-city high school in Chicago, my mind had had all the “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG?” that it could take.

All three of the kids in my family went to public schools, and I think it’s accurate to say that we each had pros and cons to our school experiences. I probably had the most "pros." Sister and Stacy were both affected by the growing pains that came with desegregation…but by the time I came along, a lot of those issues had worked themselves out. I was in mostly honors classes with pretty much the same group of students in each class, and in retrospect I realize that we had our own little college prep curriculum within the much larger school-wide curriculum. When I graduated from high school, I was prepared for college. Plain and simple.

But a lot has happened in the last twenty years. What Oprah focused on yesterday was the great and ever-increasing discrepancy between suburban high schools and inner-city high schools. Her producers arranged a student swap, with suburban kids spending the day at Marvin High School in Chicago and Marvin High’s students spending the day at a sprawling multi-million dollar high school in the Chicago suburbs. Both groups were astounded by what they saw. I won’t go into all the details – you can find them here - but what I watched was a wake-up call for me.

Before everybody starts chiming in about public vs. private schools, that’s not what this discussion is about. I know we all have varying perspectives in terms of public schools vs. Christian schools vs. homeschooling. I know we all feel passionately about whatever we’ve chosen for our kids, and I have no doubt that y’all have made decisions that are the very best for your family. So that’s not what this is about…you don’t have to argue or defend your choice.

Because here’s the thing. We, you and I, have had a choice about where we want our kids to go to school. We have options. Most of us live in nice suburban areas with great school systems. David and I have at least five excellent school districts within a 10 mile radius of our house. We’ve chosen for Alex to go to a Christian school when he starts kindergarten, and we are grateful that financially we have that option. But before we all start patting ourselves on the backs that we’ve worked hard and finished college and blah blah blah so that we can make these choices for our children, let me put this thought out into the webosphere: we, as a nation, are failing an entire generation of children.

Specifically, we’re failing poor children, the ones who DON’T have options, the ones who can’t afford to move to suburbia, the ones who have virtually no tax base in their area and therefore no money to hire good teachers. I hope that I’m not going to step on toes as I talk about this. But in case I do, I’ll just go ahead and say the following: “’scuse me…beg your pardon…I’m so sorry…are you okay?”

I know that none of us are capable of single-handedly taking on the educational system and revolutionizing it. I don't know that any of us would know how to do that. I do know that several of you have been vocal supporters of city school systems (I'm not talking about suburban systems...that's a different discussion) but eventually became frustrated because you wanted more for your children. And who can blame you for that? Many inner-city schools are a mess...teachers receive tenure because they're affiliated with unions and the school boards are terrified to fight back, basic repairs aren't made because there's no money (you can't get blood from a turnip, after all) and kids sit in classrooms with ceilings falling in and mold growing up the walls. Kids aren't encouraged or motivated at home, and honestly, who among us at 15 or 16 would have been self-sufficient enough to get up and get to school without the consistent encouragement of our parents? Or without the discipline that resulted from NOT going to school?

But there are kids, how many I don't know, who have to attend schools in poverty-stricken areas and who want to do better, who want to succeed, who have the full and unconditional support of their parents...and there's nothing. there. for. them. educationally. Nothing.

There was a clip yesterday of the inner-city kids walking through a computer lab at the suburban high school, and their mouths were hanging open at the sight of so much technology. One of the sweet young girls looked at the brand-new computers and said, "If this was at our school, the keyboard would be missing, or someone would've stolen the ball out of the mouse." Her comment reminded me that in so many ways, this crisis has nothing to do with a school building and everything to do with the decline of the family. Schools are in crisis in large part because families are in crisis, and until parents decide to deal with those "heart issues" (I know I say that all the time, and I'm sure it's annoying, but it's TRUE), I don't see how anything will change.

I don't know if y'all saw this report on 20/20 - and granted, I take a lot of what I see on the news with a grain of salt - but it does point out some of the problems with America's schools, chief among them that very few schools - public or private - can compete internationally. In about 20 years, we're going to see huge ramifications from this shortfall, because business-wise, industry-wise, we're just not going to be able to hang with India and China and other nations that have their education ducks in a row.

I wish I had an inspiring conclusion, or some sharp insight, or a magic wand to wave and make everything all better. But I do think we're seeing a direct effect of what happens when families fall apart, and kids aren't held accountable, and adults - whether parents or teachers or both - don't try to hold them accountable because they're not accountable, either. Like Atticus said after the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird, "Don't fool yourselves - it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time."

And I promise that tomorrow - maybe even later today - I'll try to return to our normally light-hearted BooMama content. But y'all - think about what life will be like when, a generation down the road, almost half of our working population HASN'T FINISHED HIGH SCHOOL. We can't stay in our suburban bubbles indefinitely, you know?

Many of our schools are asleep at the wheel. So the question remains: what will it take to wake them - and us - up? Are we past the point of no return? Because there's a big concrete wall about 1/2 mile down the educational road, and we're headed straight toward it.


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