Friday, May 04, 2007

Back to School, Part 2: Public and Private

Clonlara School
The Clonlara School
Continuing my two-part series on the Leadership Ann Arbor Education Day. You might want to read part 1 first.

After hearing about the state of the district, we divided up into three teams to hop on bright yellow-orange school buses and head out to visit several schools around the area. I had to cut my day short, unfortunately, so I had to follow along behind my group in my car. To their credit, none of them made faces at me through the back window.

Our first stop was at a small private school located not far from my own home. The Clonlara School (named after the town in Ireland from which the founder's ancestors came) reminded me of nothing so much as a modern interpretation of the one-room schoolhouse. They cater to students from K to 12, but only have about 50 students at the school (pop quiz: On average, how many students per grade level?) The school divides the students into three groups, youngers, middles, and olders, and teach subject matter based upon the specific needs of the individual students.

Standing in a central common room, surrounded by computers on one side and the trees and shrubs of a large terrarium on the other, you could really feel that this place was a little different. Unfortunately, our time was a bit limited, so we didn't really get to see any classes in action. I would have liked to have seen how the teachers dealt with a classroom with ages ranging from 5 to 10 with all sorts of specific needs. After having taught martial arts for a few years, I know that this can be quite a challenge.

After we left Clonlara, we headed up to the north end of town to the Logan Elementary School. There, the principal, Arlene Barnes, took us on a forty-five minute tour. We met several teachers and even got to watch one class in action. The teacher, Mr. Parks, was praising his class for coping well with a last-minute change in schedule that morning. In general, the teachers, students and Ms. Barnes all seemed pretty happy and excited about their work.

The only real example of any problems that we noticed was when Ms. Barnes referred to some difficulties getting an inclined walkway renovated. Apparently at one time, the walkway had been carpeted, but, over the years, that carpeting had become worn and tattered. It wasn't until Ms. Barnes described the situation as a "safety hazard" that she was able to get someone to come in, strip away the damaged carpeting and have the floor resurfaced.

In reflection, I think the scariest part of the fact that the schools are having to make due with less and less money, is that it means more than just the loss of good teachers or the elimination of arts, music, or sports. It means that, inch by inch, the students, teachers, and the members of the community accept a lower and lower level of performance -- performance dictated by funds available. Where once the goal was to be the leaders and best, now we're satisfied to be in the middle of the pack. How long before we accept just not being last?

And with that decline how long before our best and brightest move on to greener pastures?

So, is this a real problem or am I just blowing it way out of proportion?

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