Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Our common purposes: Meeks, black students and New Trier education

The best part of Senator Obama's acceptance speech was the second half when he returned to the theme of his political career. He reminded us that we've lost a sense of common purpose in the partisan wars. We're losing the idea that we are all in this together and that our government -- the only institution that we all belong to -- can and must help all of us live better lives.

That's the spirit that should take hold among wealthier white people as hundreds of parents of poorer black children try to enroll their kids in one of the best public schools in the nation today, even though the government says those kids do not belong.

I'm a graduate of New Trier High School. I grew up in Winnetka surrounded by children of fantastic wealth and some of us of more modest means. The mansions of Winnetka were taxed to fund New Trier and feeder schools (like Washburne Junior High and Hubbard Woods Elementary) and many of them had to pony up $15,000 every year to operate those schools of excellence. The owners could afford to pay that tax (or, like my family, paid it until the last kid was a senior in high school to buy that excellent education and then left for cheaper pastures).

I recognize that my career and current earnings would not have been possible without my public education. Because the taxpayers invested in me as a child, I am today a far happier and much more productive adult. My family -- raised by our mother without a college degree, one child constantly in and out of the hospital, and a persistent rebellious streak among the boys -- ended up successful, largely because of our education. But if we were in a gang-infested school with mediocre teachers and nothing happening after school, I know our lives today would be much worse. New Trier's education -- the after school programs every day, the culture of achievement -- significantly improved my life.

But many, many children today are not allowed to attend New Trier. They don't live among mansions. They live in Robbins. Or Dolton. Or Calumet City. There, the hard-working families of modest means aren't lifted up by an excellent public school. Instead they are burdened by mediocre schools. And their lives suffer as a direct result.

What will we do for the children of Calumet City? Will we call Senator Meeks a flamboyant clown for staging a protest where hundreds of students try to enroll in a school far, far better than their own? Perhaps we'll shrug our shoulders and say that it isn't really about the money, but about the parents or about the culture, or we'll think of mediocre schools in our county and in our state stunting the lives of poorer children every year as something regrettable but out of our control, like a hurricane.

The motto of New Trier High School is "Minds to Inquiry, Hearts to Compassion and Lives to the Service of Mankind." Elegant, isn't it? To their credit, the New Trier Administration has embraced Senator Meeks and the hundreds of families of New Salem Baptist Church, likely recognizing their common purpose to educate all our children.

It isn't easy to find a way to instill a culture of academic achievement (I remember as a sixth grader writing in my assignment notebook "Work Harder" as a stern note to myself -- this was not uncommon among my peers) and break altogether the nagging culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-achievement that still penetrates too many pockets of our county and state. And it isn't easy for the taxpayers who already pay for excellent schools in their communities (where the schoolhouse doors are literally barred to students who live 30 miles away but in a different and poorer suburb) to shoulder the additional burden of paying more for schools filled with poorer children. It isn't easy to balance local control and performance standards to improve the capacity of the school board members of poorer suburbs who, almost by definition, have less time and expertise and personal wealth to manage their schools as well as school board members from wealthy communities.

But as Barack might say, don't tell me that we can't find a way to provide the children of Senator Meeks' community with the resources and accountability and culture of academic achievement that we already do the children of Winnetka if we try.

That's our common purpose, especially in state government. That's our challenge as Illinois citizens. And this year is our time to meet Senator Meeks' families and devote more children's minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion and lives to the service of mankind.


Reed said...

Dan, as a fellow NT alum, I just wanted to say I think you hit the nail on the head here. I came to Obama a bit reluctantly in the primaries. Kucinich was my choice. But the thing that made Obama an easy second pick was that he made a point of actually addressing the need for an overhaul of our public education system. Most politicians simply give the issue lip-service, and the media always seems reluctant to take it on. George Bush did try to make improvements, but of course did so without listening to teachers or really anyone who had a real stake in the outcome.

I have long felt that improving education for all children only serves to improve everyone's life. If we are a nation that believes in bootstraps, we must at least help people get a grip on those straps in the first place. If we are a nation that believes in equal rights, there is none more moral than the right to a proper education. It's a long-haul solution to a long-term problem. There is no quick fix here.

I've tutored junior high children on the city's west side. They are forced to learn in a pretty tough environment. I can't quite remember every detail of my Wimette Junior High existence, but I know I never saw a student throw a desk at a teacher. Obama's approach feels right to me: Hire and promote better teachers. Put more of the onus on the parents.

Some politicians like to say "A rising tide floats all boats." I've never agreed with this premise as they use it (tax cuts for the wealthy). But I do believe that we all benefit from a better educated populous. Lower crime rates, fewer teen pregnancies, and the opportunity for more Americans to contribute to society in a meaningful way. It's a difficult problem. You can't take away that vaunted New Trier education from the parents who moved there, in part, for that very reason. But I don't see anyone asking that. Giving other kids a chance at a decent education isn't just the right thing to do; we will all reap its benefits.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

Thanks Reed. Excellent point on how difficult it is to teach in environments without much structure or a culture of deference to authority (where throwing desks at teachers occurs). That problem belongs to all of us, not just the parents of the West Side.

Denise said...

Dan and Reed I attended New Trier, CPS schools on the westside of Chicago, and Marva Collins Preparatory. The responsibility is collective. Enviornments that are not condusive to positive learning experiences should be challenged by everyone, not only city, state, and governement officials and learning institutions. If you were to place New Trier in an adverse enviornment today, it will become like any other learning institution in that adverse enviornment. Better schools are the responsibility of everyone; but you have to care that every child has an opportunity to receive the best education available in the CPS system. The effort requires a wholistic approach. I definitely believe people are a product of their enviornment. I also grew up in Glencoe and attended Central Jr. High. There we students that misbehaved. They threw chairs, cursed their parents, started fires, used drugs, etc. The difference is there were programs to manage the behavior of those students. They were not permitted to challenge the overall balance of the school and community. Again, a wholistic approach will produce good outcomes.