I’m writing in praise of Northern Michigan public schools. Every day, complex issues about negotiations, test scores, class sizes, pay scale and more are reduced to sound bites and protest signs. I’m not going to pretend I can speak about the issues behind the political combat. It appears that our experiences, our politics, our hopes for our kids and our state, and our fears are sending many to their respective corners. In the face of all this, I want to put a good word out there for the success story that is public education in Northern Michigan.
I am a believer in public education. I’m one of those people who feel it is on the list of America’s greatest achievements and a key component in the creed that anyone can reach their dream in America. To make that dream a reality takes hard work, pluck, some luck and, in most cases, access to a good education. Somehow we understood that 200 plus years ago. And many of our leaders in every field—our visionaries, our entrepreneurs, our artists and some of our most brilliant elected officials—were the product of our nation’s commitment to a good, public education for every child in America.
I absolutely concede that there are places where public education isn’t working well. As a parent, if I were in a school district where my child was not safe or not able to learn effectively, I would absolutely look at alternatives. As citizens, we truly owe those communities our best efforts in finding solutions and offering quality alternatives.
But what about the places where public education is working? What is our commitment to our success stories? Northern Michigan is filled with small, public schools that achieve the hallowed great test scores and that have graduation rates of 100 percent or close to that. They offer AP courses and send kids on to schools like University of Chicago, Northwestern, Pepperdine, Tufts, University of Michigan, and so many more. (And of course I have to mention that this year’s Mr. and Miss Basketball of Michigan, Dwaun Anderson, Suttons Bay, and Jasmine Hines, Central Lake, are both products of our Northern Michigan public schools and both are bound for Michigan State University).
Most of our small public schools do this with the minimum state allowance and with populations that include children from many walks of life. Public schools do this while nurturing the emotionally and mentally challenged who are mainstreamed into classrooms and while jumping over every single hoop and unfunded state and federal mandate put in front of them.
But these public schools do even more. They wrap children and young adults in a true sense of community. Our public schools are often located right in the heart of their small towns. The school is a focal point for the entire community, where multi-generational interaction happens every single day. Retirees in our communities are paired to mentor or tutor kids and many retirees sit on school committees. People from the entire community show up to support the kids’ efforts whether in a gym or a fundraising spaghetti dinner, regardless of whether they have or have ever had a child who attended the school.
My children attend one of these schools, a K–12 public school housed in one building. Are there things that we’d love to have but don’t? Absolutely. But we get so much from these schools. Students get a terrific education that prepares them to get into and succeed at very good colleges if that is their path. High school students have access to programs that let them explore what it takes to become electricians, pilots, etc., if their future lies in that direction. If they want, kids in these schools usually can play several different sports, while also performing in the play, volunteering in the elementary wing, heading to Youth in Government and so much more. In a small public school, it takes everyone to jump in and participate.
And all the way, leading up to the start of their adult live, these children have a community along with them. These kids walk as kindergartners down to the harbor to see the fish come in off the boats or to visit the volunteer fire station. When they get older they walk to the local grocery store before their game, and once the game starts, they see the grocer in the crowd or in the audience at their drama production. They still see their second grade teacher in the cafeteria or the principal, someone who has probably followed them through much of their journey, at church. The people showing up at spaghetti dinner fundraisers might be the farmers they drive tractors for in the summer or their book buddy from kindergarten back from college. Their teachers are on the bench during games as coaches and wearing the headsets during drama performances. And there is not a school event, at home or many miles away, where the administrators and many, many teachers are not in the audience long after the school day is done.
Our schools have all the same problems found in any community in America. They are not panaceas to the attraction of alcohol and drugs, nor do they provide everything all parents crave given the dollar allotment our schools receive.
But if our goal really is to prepare kids for academic success by measuring their test scores, our public schools are hitting that mark beautifully with kids from all backgrounds and situations included. If our goal is to provide rigor in the form of AP courses to prepare them for admission to excellent colleges, our schools have that covered. If our goal is to give kids options to build successful lives if they are not college-bound, yes, our schools do that as well.
And if our goal is to try to instill self-esteem in our kids by making it possible to participate in a myriad of teams and organizations, our small schools do that. If our goal is to help them understand their place in a community and their commitment to being a part of a community, our small public schools do that naturally. If our goal is for the education system to really know these kids, how they learn, what their challenges and success stories are and have the chance to intervene and encourage, our small public schools are absolutely built to do that.
Lately, it seems we are talking a lot about public schools as if they are not working. But what do we do when our public schools are successful? I hear the goals professed for charter schools as a solution to our education woes and wonder why we don’t, at the same time, sing the praises of small, public schools that are already achieving the goals hoped for with prospective charter schools. We've listened to the recent months, and years, of political speeches touting a commitment to our children and their education, yet in the face of a struggling economy, why is that the first place we cut?
We can dismantle the amazing education work these schools perform. We can dismantle the sense of community, support and self-esteem by consolidating districts and opening brand new charter schools in their place. But if we do, something that works so beautifully and importantly for our kids, our state and our country will undoubtedly be gone for good.
Will that really be our generation’s legacy?