Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tomorrow should be yesterday

I have three kids, aged five, twelve, and fourteen. All of them are enrolled in the public school system--elementary, middle, and high school respectively--because, frankly, I believe public education is a good thing and is more than adequate, as long as parents are doing their part in the process. That means insisting on the importance of education, making sure their children are keeping up, are doing their homework, and are attending school with a proper attitude (which includes a healthy respect for authority).

Forgetting the whole nature versus nurture debate, I can proudly say my children are smart. The older two have managed to bring home report cards with A's and B's, have passed all State-mandated tests (FCATs), and have been singled out for membership in organizations like the National Junior Honor Society. The youngest is just starting kindergarten, but can read, do basic addition, and understands that school is important. I have little doubt she will follow in her siblings' footsteps, academically speaking.

The older two also happen to be enrolled in magnet schools. The eldest is in an International Baccalaureate program (really, it's a pre-IB program, since the IB-specific courses begin in two years), while the other is in a drama program. In middle school, the eldest was in a dance program at the same magnet school her brother still attends for drama. The magnet programs have been good to us; both kids have definitely benefited from the structure and the limited nature of the programs. Inside of a large school--even a magnet one--the individual programs seem like separate, smaller schools.

All that said, states and counties are going overboard with magnet schools. Terribly so. For instance, a local middle school here is being "phased out" so it can become a magnet high school. But we don't need another high school, magnet or otherwise. The kids who would attend this middle school will be spread around to other non-magnet or semi-magnet middle schools, most of which are already overcrowded. Thanks to other new magnet schools, the elementary school my youngest attends (not a magnet school, but an "A" school) has seen a growth in enrollment the past several years of over four hundred children, most of whom are now bused in.

It's true that magnet schools have proven to be quite successful, but at what cost? In Miami-Dade county, many magnet high schools are honored yearly, often showing up in lists of the top high schools in both Florida and the entire country. There are some thirty-seven non-magnet high schools in the county and seventeen magnet high schools right now. US News and World Report's rankings of all public high schools in the country has seven magnet schools from Miami-Dade in its top 200 rankings (including my daughter's, by the way) and zero non-magnet ones.

For high schools only in Florida, ten Miami-Dade magnets crack the top fifty, once again zero non-magnets. The one lone, shining light for non-magnet high schools in Miami-Dade is Palemtto Senior High School, which popped in at number 251 in the 2011 list of the top 500 high schools in the country. And interestingly enough, that would have been my daughter's home school, if she had not gone with the magnet IB program at Coral Reef Senior High (which came in at number 53 in the same list).

Which of course points to an historical issue, when it comes to "good schools": by virtue of where we live and the typical socio-economic status of people in the area, my daughter's home school is better than most other--all other, actually--high schools in Miami-Dade county (which is why we moved to the area, of course). Even with some of the best and brightest being siphoned off to magnet programs, Palmetto Senior High still excels.

But what about the other thirty six non-magnet high schools in the county? They don't have the same level of parental support or involvement as Palmetto and they--and the students therein--suffer for it. The best and the brightest from these regions get siphoned off to magnet schools, as well (and given the options, parents who have such an opportunity have little recourse). So the schools get worse; that small percentage setting the standard, carrying the academic banner for many of these schools is gone. The only things left to crow about are athletics, for the most part. The only sure-fire opportunities for students here--after college--are on the court or the gridiron.

Then there's the issue of money. So far, I've spent over $300 on school supplies for my kids, and there's still more to go. Like most parents nationwide, I'm not just buying notebooks, folders, and pencils for my kids, but also basic classroom supplies for the teacher, like gluesticks, copier paper, tissues, hand sanitizer, markers, and even copier ink cartridges. These are things that, if parents don't pony up for, teachers are often forced to buy. And neither scenario is right. Back in the day--all the way back in the eighties and shortly before--schools had all of these things, as a matter of course. These supplies were a part of the school's budget, of the school district's budget. Now? We're told there's no money for these things. Yet, there are millions and millions available for buliding and supplying (often with cutting edge technology) new magnet-type schools? Where's the sense in all of this?

Magnet schools can be great, sure. But job one for a school district is to staff and supply all of the schools properly. How is it fair to doom some kids to awful conditions with inadequate supplies, just to benefit local communities with a magnet school for them to brag about? Because make no mistake, that's the impetus for more magnet schools: local and state politicians who want feathers for their political caps.

Enough with the magnet schools; let's get back to fundamentals. Supply all of the schools properly and try to teach all of the children the fundamentals. The ones that still won't learn? Well, there's a point where personal responsibility kicks in, so screw 'em. But don't punish the rest, just because they're not magnet-caliber students. It's just wrong, yet somehow unnoticed even by those who most often complain about inequality in education. Indeed, they are often the champions of magnet schools...for the very same feather-in-the-cap reason noted above. Their personal glory even trumps their ideology.

The past is rarely what we like to imagine; we idealize it more often than not. But when it comes to education there was a happy moment of balance, reached and then inexplicably ignored, not all that long ago. Sometimes, we do need to look back.

Cheers, all.


  1. Happy I am for you, Robert. I sincerely hope that your experiences continue to be most positive. We did choose to home school our four children, one of them still here, the others gone on to college.

    I would just like to exhort you to remain vigilant in monitoring the system. You mention some symptoms, I am going to sum it up tersely as irrational allocation of funds.

    Then I am going to spare you the balance of my opinions. You're welcome. (:

  2. Thanks, Roy. :)

    I think homeschooling is a great choice, by the way. I considered it but it wasn't a workable option early on. I know many people that do it, though. Great kids across the board.

    And yeah, vigilance is a necessity.

    Eternal vigilance is the price of healthy gums, after all.