Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kids Are the Schools' Top Priority. Say What?

Our Town downtown
July 17, 2007

We said here a couple weeks ago that we wouldn’t take part in the applause for the 58.2 percent graduation-in-four years rate in the city’s high schools. It seemed to us that it was 41.8 percent below where it should be. We didn’t use that last number two weeks ago. We did suggest though that a 100 percent graduation rate should be the standard in the public schools here, just as it is in the private schools. Doesn’t it seem unconscionable that anything less--so less--has become acceptable? Shouldn’t there be T shirts saying 58.2 Percent is a Failing Grade? Shouldn’t the board have to go to summer school? Shouldn’t mothers be banging pots and pans and marching in front of the school board building? Shouldn’t someone’s head roll? 58.2 percent is a failure.

Last week there was an insert in the Times from the school board. It was a ‘Summer 2006 Guide for Parents and Families’. It looked like something from a school board. It looked governmental. It had the feel of a summer course schedule from a community college like you’d find in the library by the tax forms. If you don’t have kids in the schools you pitched it probably. We didn’t pitch it. We kept it so we could keep staring at the slogan on the cover. Here’s the slogan: ‘Putting Children First’. Sounds good, right? Sounds caring and progressive and it fits the feel-good, sensitive approach of the rest of the cover with its three racially-balanced pictures of kids engaged in school work, and with its culturally sensitive message written in a half dozen different languages at the bottom of the cover. There’s nothing wrong with that approach and we’re not trying to be cynical. But the slogan is strange. Putting Children First.

Indulge us: Does that mean that they didn’t used to put children first and that this a new approach? Did they once put something else first? Were children second before the new slogan? Who was first in the old order? Teachers? Parents? Custodians? School librarians? Textbook salesman? Volleyball coaches? Yellow-bus drivers? Crossing guards?The teachers union? What do you think? This is a topic for a call-in show (which now that we think about it would be a great idea, a daily call-in show about the schools).

Is that curious logo a symbol of what’s wrong with the city schools? Maybe. Well-intentioned as it is, it does say something about how the people in charge see their charges. It does reek of a public relations agency. It’s soft soap. It’s not real, it’s not focused. It’s a vague slogan that means nothing. You can’t take it seriously. It doesn’t register. It doesn’t say anything. The Latin slogans that festoon the breast pockets of the blue blazers that the private school students wear say more to those kids’ parents even if the parents can’t read Latin. At least they look serious.

No doubt the school board thinks that Putting Children First is serious and inspirational and that it signals some commitment to the city’s public school students. You have to wonder about the grit of the commitment when the message is so softly American Greeting.

More important than anything this city sets its sights on, more important than having a new indoor lacrosse team in the Garden, more important than the Second Avenue subway, more important than rat poison, is the education of kids, even if that goal is so often expressed that it becomes its own meaningless slogan. Nothing is more important than that though. Why doesn’t the city act like it? Why doesn’t it absolutely pay enough to get the teachers it needs? Why doesn’t it absolutely get all it needs to get students excited by reading and the other skills they’ll need to be stimulated by life? Why doesn’t it absolutely provide for the task of educating young people? Maybe ‘absolutely’ would be a stronger message than the slogan they used on that cover.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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