Resources galore, but schools that are wanting Baltimore vs. Honolulu

Susan Sullam

April 10, 1991|By Susan Sullam

Honolulu -- AFTER SPENDING a school year away from Baltimore, our family has come to appreciate what few people realize Baltimore city's public schools can offer -- namely, a top-rate education for bright students that, academically at least, often rivals private schools.

That's not to say Baltimore's public schools even come close to adequately educating the majority of students. With a 50 percent dropout rate, low test scores and chronic lack of resources, Baltimore's failures are well documented.

Since September, our two children have attended a Honolulu public elementary school. And -- while it has been an enriching experience in many ways -- academically, it cannot begin to compare to the program we left behind in Baltimore city.

Surprisingly, the shortcomings of Hawaii's public schools aren't due to a lack of resources. (Hawaii is the only state with public schools fully financed by the state.) Compared to Baltimore, Hawaii's schools have such an abundance of resources, it's like being in the Promised Land. And Hawaii does it with expenditures on each pupil that are similar to Baltimore's.

Our children's classes contain no more than 23 children. They receive twice-a-week instruction in Japanese, computers, and physical education. Once a week they have music, art, Kupuna studies (the study of Hawaiian language and culture) and visit the library and audio-visual room.

Their school has 479 students and is staffed with a principal, a full-time counselor, a full-time librarian, three full-time secretaries, full-time school nurse, 25 full-time teachers and six part-time teachers. My fourth grader has nine new textbooks, and my first grader has a wide range of new textbooks, including social studies and science books.

But, in terms of basic math and reading instruction, our children are at least a year behind where they were in Baltimore. Our fourth grader, who last year was galloping through multiplication, division and beginning fractions and percentages in the City That Reads, is bored with a curriculum that has recently moved )) out of addition and subtraction to beginning multiplication and division.

Basically, our first grader has spent the year redoing the same worksheets she did last year in a Baltimore city kindergarten. For her, school now means play time because she has found very little to keep her interested. One of my children is so bored here, she regularly begs to return to Baltimore where "they don't baby your mind."

Unlike Baltimore, Hawaii has no citywide high schools and no tradition of academically accelerated curriculum. Other than an hour-a-day enrichment program in elementary schools (in which students are pulled out of their regular classrooms) and enrichment "learning centers" in high school, Hawaii offers no academic or artistic curriculum on par with Baltimore's City College, Poly/Western or the School for the Arts.

While Hawaii's schools have an abundance of resources compared to Baltimore, almost no one here has a positive word to say about the schools. In fact, Hawaii's public schools have such a poor reputation that almost 17 percent of the state's children use private or parochial schools, the highest percentage in the nation.

The push for private schools here is so strong that one public school teacher routinely tells students about former pupils who worked hard and made it into prestigious private schools. The message is clear: If you do well, you too may escape a system wedded to mediocrity.

In all fairness, Hawaii's public schools have a graduation rate of 85 percent, and they do a reasonable job educating the vast majority of students. Hawaii's problems lie in writing off the brightest and most able.

One Hawaii school board member blames this lack of commitment to excellence on the "full crab basket" syndrome. "In Hawaii, if one crab tries to crawl out, the rest just pull it back down," she said.

Hawaii's lieutenant governor, Ben Cayetano, says the antecedents lie in the English standard school system, used here until 1960. That system segregated middle school and high school students by speech patterns: Those who spoke "pidgin" English went to one school and those who spoke "standard" English went to another.

He believes Hawaii's past experience with the English standard system has resulted in a reluctance to provide comprehensive programs for students considered "gifted" or "talented."

This resistance to accelerated academic or artistic programs has created a system so mired in mediocrity that bright and talented students have only two choices: either flee the system or lower their expectations.

There is no denying Baltimore must do a better job of educating the majority of its students. But it's also important that Baltimore maintain its commitment to its brightest, most able students. A school system that sets its highest sights on mediocrity is a school system doomed to find itself on a downward spiral as its most able students flee.

Susan Sullam is a journalist on a year's leave in Hawaii.

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