Sunday, May 17, 2009

Schools in Crisis = America in Crisis

This is a photo of a table in the cafeteria of my son's elementary school.  There's nothing remarkable here, but beyond the frame of my camera are the backs of about 200 kids grooving to the drumbeats of 28 percussion instruments being played by 28 beaming 5th graders, their smiling teacher and music teacher, and conducted by a very hip percussionist, courtesy of our Artists in the Schools program.

I can't show the absolute joy on the faces of the 5th graders or the wonder and amusement on the faces of the kids at the tables, because that would violate their privacy as minors.  But, I can tell you that I am grateful I took photos of those kids and the music teacher and the groovy musician, because next year they'll all be gone.

The 5th graders, sure, up to the middle school.  But also the music teacher and probably the artist.  You know why.  Because our little district had to shave $1 million from its budget, that's why.

Well, who cares, it's just music, right?  Oh, and art.  And librarians.  And special needs.  And preschool.  And kindergarten.  And a 4th grade class.  Let's see, what else?  What does it matter, we'll make it work.  We always make it work.  We late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers, we've gotten very, very good at making it work.  We adjust down, and down, and down.  

When we moved here, the average 4th grade class size was 21.  Today?  28...before that last cut.  Those of us who got a good education - those of us who got to attend school when everyone felt that an educated populace was the key to a healthy middle class - let's do some math:

You are a 5th grade teacher with, now, 30 kids.  The school day is 6 hours long, minus about 1 hour for 2 recesses and a lunch.  Minus one special class each day (thank goodness we won't have THOSE to worry about much longer!).  That leaves 4 hours.  Multiply that by 60 minutes (still with me Gen Xers?) and you get 240 minutes.  Divide 240 minutes by 30 kids.  If you got 8 minutes per kid, congratulations.  Although you may not feel much like celebrating.

I don't.

I'm no Chicken Little, but folks, we can't run a democracy when our kids get 8 minutes a day (and yes, I realize it doesn't really fall out like that, but the measure is nonetheless useful).  Across the water, in Seattle, there are high schools with 42% and even 37% graduation rates.  The graduation rate in Detroit is less than that - they have a 75% drop-out rate.  And, I happen to know that most schools are able to inflate their grad rates by counting GEDs and even people who graduate later - so the real, 4-year numbers are even lower.  Even lower than 37% and 25%.

We can point fingers - bad parenting, too much media, an entitlement culture - there's plenty of blame to go around.  But Rome is burning and we're arguing about the brand of hot dogs to bring.  

We no longer live in a pioneer society.  Our kids - your kids, THE kids - need more than Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rythmatic to thrive and succeed and raise our country up with them.  And that takes a lot of things.  Creativity, commitment, hard work.

But, first, it takes money.

No comments: