It's impossible to pick up the newspaper these days without reading something grim or horrifying about American public schools. One day it's declining test scores. Another day it's the massacre in Connecticut. This morning the Washington Post featured a story about a six-year-old who's been suspended from a school in Silver Spring for pointing his finger at other kids and saying, "Pow."
So it was a pleasure for me today to visit Central High in Prince George's County, Maryland, where I taught English from 2006 to 2011. The occasion was an awards ceremony for Central's International Baccalaureate program. The program's new coordinator, Dr. Cathy Jones, wants to make this an annual event, and I hope she succeeds. This was an occasion that showcased the kids who are too often overlooked in the media discussion of public education, the kids who do well.
The picture above shows two students who did exceptionally well, Nikki Barlow and Tobi Oke from Central's Class of 2012. They earned the International Baccalaureate diploma by making high grades on a battery of six diifficult, comprehensive exams. Each exam takes several hours. The answers are written, not bubbled in. The papers are graded not in the school but by an international panel of educators. Nikki and Tobi were the first Central students to achieve this honor since 2006. In addition to their diplomas, they got letters of congratulation from President Obama. I hope their success inspires the current Central I.B. students, who attended the event. It's helpful for students in a school like Central, who hear from society in so many ways that they're likely to fail, to see proof that they can succeed.
But Nikki and Tobi were not the only students from Central's IB program who are doing well. Dr. Jones invited alumni of the program to attend, and a lot of college kids, at home for Christmas break, showed up. Renee Plummer, the valedictorian of the class of 2010, was the keynote speaker. She is a Dean's List student at Howard, on a pre-med track, working toward her goal of becoming a pediatrician. She spoke about how the study habits she learned in IB, plus a lot of firm proddding from her mother, have helped her succeed in college. That's Renee at right.
I had a chance to catch up with many wonderful kids whom I had the privilege of teaching. The group on the left below is from the Class of 2011. The young lady in the middle, Ruth Tyson, is a sophomore at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Ruth told me she's doing well academically and has become a vegan. She's also discovered a way to get around the biggest problem she had in my English 11 class, which was being late for the 7:45 am bell. At St. Mary's, she doesn't take any classes that meet earlier than noon. That's fine with me. It shows that Ruth is taking advantage of the freedom and opportunity college affords her to learn and grow--and sleep in, too.
The Central honors event affirmed a few ideas I took away from my stint as a teacher. The first is that parents, not the school, nearly always deserve the credit for a successful child. Tobi and Nikki both had parents who were well educated and insisted that their children do well in school. Good parenting is a combination of setting a good example and mixing love and support with discipline. Nikki and Tobi were both blessed in this regard. So was virtually every kid in the Central High auditorium today. I've met nearly all their parents, and I respect them enormously.
And, yes, of course, I know that the kids themselves deserve a lot of credit. Just having good parents guarantees nothing. At Central, I saw way too many kids whose parents watched them constantly and badgered them to do their homework--and who still wound up in jail or on the street. A kid at Central is never far away from an opportunity to get into trouble--or to have trouble find him. It takes character to keep on doing the right thing.
Nikki's and Tobi's success also underscored for me the critical importance of teaching children to write. (Both of them came to my 11th grade class already knowing how to do this; see comments above re parents.) Nikki and Tobi are very bright, but I had kids equally bright. Nikki and Tobi are both diligent, but I had other, equally diligent kids. But I didn't have many smart, diligent kids who wrote as clearly and grammatically as Tobi and Nikki did. And that's a disgrace. Our public schools for too long have mimimized the importance of spelling and grammar; they have placed too much importance on golden calves like "teaching children to express themselves" or "showing critical thinking." Even worse, they now tend to sacrifice the teaching of writing in favor of teaching kids to fill in the right bubbles on standardized tests. It wasn't always this way. Kids at one time started their educations in what were known, for good reason, as grammar schools. I wish they still did.
But enough ranting. And back to the good news. The I.B. program also deserves some credit. It's criticized by some as being elitist. There's a group of right-wingers who regard it as part of the international conspiracy to undermine the independence of the United States. But it's a great program. I wish every public school had one. It gives kids who want to strive an arena conducive to striving.
And, last, the teachers and administrators at Central deserve a pat on the back. I know that the principals and I.B. coordinators under whom I worked tried very diligently to improve the program. They helped me to improve my own teaching substantially each year I was part of the program staff. In general, schools and their staffs get too much of the blame and too much of the credit when student performance goes down or goes up. But all of the folks at Central High had reason to be proud today.