If children don't work, schools don't, either

March 23, 1997|By Susan Reimer

THE DAY AFTER my husband and I decided that Jessica would continue to receive a public education, a third-grader in her school was found with marijuana in the pockets of his jeans.

A week after my husband and I decided that our daughter would continue to attend public schools, she came home and asked for the translation of a foul remark made to her by a boy in her fifth-grade class during a soccer game.

Ten days after my husband and I decided that our daughter would continue to attend public schools, Jessie said, in wistfulness, not frustration: "I'd like to go to school with kids like me, kids who like to do their work."

It was only then that my husband and I wondered if we'd made the wrong decision.

We live in the city of Annapolis, and we are old hands in the public-school system there. We continue to volunteer and tutor and fund-raise even though our children, deciding that we are becoming a social handicap, have asked us to back off.

While it isn't Baltimore and it isn't Washington, the public-school system in Annapolis shows many of the symptoms of the diseases that now ravage schools in those cities: the flight of the middle class, disrupted classrooms and battle-weary teachers. Plenty of dope, the occasional weapon, racial tension. Lousy test scores, the promotion of students who are already performing below grade level, dropouts and pregnant girls.

We re-evaluate our decision to send our children to public schools about every 20 minutes, but we have stuck it out, in no small measure because there isn't $20,000 in the family budget for a pair of private-school tuitions.

But I also believe that if we leave public schools, we will have to turn out the lights and lock the door as we go. I believe that if public schools cannot educate our kids, who have no special needs and more parental support than they want, then they can't educate any child. I believe that if we can't stay, there is no reason to ask anyone else to stay.

Choosing public education in our cities is not as simple as walking your first-grader to the doors of the neighborhood school and kissing him goodbye. It is not a default decision, but a conscious one. And the decision does not always turn on money or safety. It would be so much easier for parents if it did. Gangs, knives, guns, bloody fights. These dangers can be seen, and any of us would scrub floors at night for the money to protect a child from them.

The real danger in a public school is less visible and less visibly offensive. But Jessie and her like-minded friends see it.

"I'd like to go to school with kids like me, kids who like to do their work."

Increasingly, public schools are lock-downs for kids who don't want to be there. It is not that they are bored. Bored would be good. Bored would be an improvement. Bored is something teachers can fix.

No, these kids are resentful. They are angry, more so as they move into middle school and high school. They don't think

education has any value for them or anyone they know, and they are mad at the teachers who keep preaching that it does.

If my kids asked what practical role prime numbers, invertebrates or dangling participles would have in their daily adult life I would be hard pressed to answer. But kids "who like to do their work" don't have to ask those questions because, intuitively, they know the answer. They see it in the opportunities and the lifestyles around them.

When Jessie said she'd like to go to school with kids like her, she did not mean girls, or white girls, or middle-class white girls, or middle-class white girls who come from intact families and who never back-talk the teacher and always turn in their homework.

She wants to go to school with kids who like to do their work. In an increasingly diverse society, it is the only sameness she requires.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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