9.01.2009

How bad is it?

I think it should be said that, even before the great public schools experiment, I was a fan of the idea of public school. I attended public school as did my husband.

The public school that I attended for most of my childhood (actually, the great majority of my childhood: K-10) was fine. It wasn't a great school. It was tiny and didn't offer that much in the way of choices - in fact, the year that I entered 10th grade was the first year that the school had ever offered more than one foreign language. It was French and it was taught by a teacher that had some college French about 20 years ago. Needless to say, the program wasn't spectacular.

But that wasn't the point. Growing up, I didn't need a million languages to choose from or levels and levels of AP classes. My parents had certain criteria - the same criteria that I had, more or less, for my kids: a safe school, a neighborhood school where you could learn the basics.

As you read the blog, I don't want to give the impression that I had expectations for Philadelphia public schools that weren't being met because I wanted too much. I didn't demand Latin or calculus in elementary school. I don't think my children need to learn cello in kindergarten. I actually started out the process by wanting the basics: a safe, neighborhood school.

That isn't as easy as it sounds.

Before I decided to take the plunge into Philly public schools, my good friend and neighbor decided to be the pioneer. She enrolled her daughter in public school. A few months into the school year, her daughter was attacked by another child. As it turned out, her daughter was fine, just scared. But it also turned out that the child who had been the aggressor had "issues" and this wasn't his first offense. He had, it was explained, had a difficult life, as if this was supposed to excuse everything. This, we learned, is a recurring problem in the public school system. Since every child is entitled to an education by law, it turns out that some children are apparently entitled at the expense of others. So the best solution ended up being that my friend took her child out of public school (and enrolled her in private school) and we all breathed a sigh of relief. That, we thought, was the end of that.

Only it wasn't.

Sometimes, even when you don't want to be the catalyst for change, you are. And my friend may have been the catalyst for change even though it was at the expense of her child.

Things changed after the incident. Class size decreased. The number of aides increased. And yes, that meant some things had to go - the money for this didn't just magically appear. Art and music took a beating. But it was a step in the right direction. A few years later, when my daughter enrolled in that same school, class size was manageable and school violence was minimal.

But that doesn't mean that we don't still have concerns. The elementary school where my daughter is enrolled is a feeder school for the local high school. And just last week, that high school was named one of Philadelphia's most dangerous schools. Not exactly encouraging.

When I met with the Regional Superintendent about the high school, he had a very interesting comment for me: it only takes four years to change a high school. Four years.

And with that, I have hope.

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