All it takes is ingenuity

To save our schools: Practical solutions

6 minute read
One size doesn't fit all.
One size doesn't fit all.

Congratulations, Gary Day, on your daring and forthright proposal to save our Philadelphia schools by controlling population growth. (See “Why public schools are unsustainable.")

I certainly agree with your reasoning regarding long-term financing for public schools. Our funding isn’t sufficient to support overpopulated schools and ever-growing student bodies, not to mention the expanded curriculum requirements now critical in our increasingly complex world. As you suggested, birth control would definitely help solve Philadelphia’s crisis.

But just how do we go about persuading people to stop having so many children?

I don’t believe many Americans will find an acceptable answer to this compelling question in the near future. However, I do believe that we can discover other ways to save our schools.

My suggestions are all drawn from personal experiences: as a high school history teacher in poverty-stricken schools, as the director of bi-national colleges in Brazil, as the vice president of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, and as a businesswoman who has mentored and trained young people for more than 30 years. Learning by teaching makes me happy. So I hope you’ll join me by considering these proposals:

Power of volunteers

Gradually add thousands of volunteers to the teaching work force. Young teachers-in-training, able seniors living nearby, and privileged people who have time to contribute to their community— all are excellent candidates for part or full-time work in schools. They may actually prefer to work gratis, as I have, along with a number of my friends. I know how much these proposed innovations may accomplish because of my own volunteer experiences.

My first such experience was in Washington, while I worked as a Foreign Service officer orchestrating “thematic programs” on education. I was asked to make a contribution to a high school two blocks from my home in Logan Circle.

This overcrowded school consisted almost entirely of African American students, including many seniors with almost no interest in academic accomplishments. I taught the seniors in my own living room, two blocks from the school.

For their special needs, I created a new course called “Thrival”— the idea was to help students find jobs. I showed them how to discover good employment possibilities, use libraries, fill out forms, talk to prospective employers and negotiate payment. And it worked.

If Philadelphia volunteers attempted to replicate my experience today, they would no doubt face very different circumstances. These days a short training program would probably be necessary. Some volunteers might simply assist teachers who are overwhelmed with discipline problems. Others might give inspirational lectures related to their own professions; still others may take on administrative tasks or grade papers, or even act as translators.

If such a volunteer program succeeds in the long run, of course, overall education costs could greatly diminish. In that case, the School District could increase salaries for “master teachers”— those who’ve already made special contributions over the years. Each of these outstanding teachers should be guaranteed classroom assistants, giving them extra time to train other teachers and develop exciting new programs. These experienced professionals would prove invaluable during a major transition period.

How to reduce class size

Minimize the number of students in classrooms for regular course work. Use every method imaginable to give each student the attention he or she needs. Keep schools in session year-round, extend classroom hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.— and give pupils and their parents options for attendance times.

Also, now that computer programs are available for standard school course work, let’s encourage home schooling, either part-time or full-time. Students who lack home computers can use the excellent computer facilities in Philadelphia’s public libraries.

There’s no reason why home-schooled students couldn’t also participate in regular school sports and social activities. Flexibility should be the order of the day.

Even if we maintain the current public school structure, it’s still possible to achieve smaller class sizes. Here’s how we did it when I first taught school at East Side Union High School in San Jose, California:

I gathered together all the U.S. history teachers and we agreed to take turns, each giving one of our best audio-visual presentations to all the students in our auditorium. On other days, pupils went back to their regular classrooms, where they were divided into small groups to work on special projects, assisted by teaching interns. This rather primitive setup gave me time to spend alone with each student, seated with me at my desk (while I kept an eye on the small groups).

One size doesn’t fit all

Good business principles should be applied to school administration. We might start off by selling Philadelphia’s vacant school buildings, many of which are viable for conversion into moderate-income housing. (I’ve done this myself in West Philadelphia). The proceeds could be used for research and development to start diversifying our education programs, as so many other cities have successfully done. (We wouldn’t have to operate separate schools for each different discipline).

Taxpaying parents pay should get more than one standardized product. Many options ought to be available for young students who with special needs— physically, psychologically and intellectually. Our system should include special programs for learning trades, arts and drama, as well as training for pupils who are physically or mentally disabled. Without building any new facilities, we could gradually introduce these tailor-made classes into our system, which now focuses primarily on preparation for advanced education.

The welfare trap

Most controversially: Eliminate all government welfare programs that demoralize the recipients and actually promote increased birthrates. When I was renovating St. Agatha’s School in West Philadelphia into garden condo apartments, one of my greatest challenges was to create a safe neighborhood environment for future homeowners. The success of my real estate venture required driving drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes out of the immediate neighborhood. The police and social service agencies lacked the time and money to help me, so I finally decided to buy out all the proximate whore and crack houses to be found.

Just next to my newly renovated church stood a townhouse with a living room filled with trash and cribs but no other furniture. This was a baby factory: While the children’s mother was out turning tricks and getting pregnant again, the grandmother was feeding her daughter’s children. Government welfare grants supported this endeavor, even though the infants’ mother was a criminal addicted to cocaine.

What chance did these little babies have in life? Would they manage to grow up and attend school? If so, would their brains be too damaged for them to learn?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’ve asked myself many times what chance slum children have growing up in Philadelphia. I think it’s almost none— unless we manage to create a brand new educational system. We need to start by working with the resources we already have, and with the many fine teachers who are now doing their best during very trying times.

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