New School Year — “Old School” Views

Even though a new school year has just commenced in Hillsborough County, I hadn’t planned on addressing education in this column. Not yet. The old school year, it seems, just ended.

Anyhow, some other screedable topics beckoned. Besides, writing on education around here inevitably leads this columnist to bashing FCATs, criticizing criteria for A and F schools, questioning the “gifted” label on bright kids and parodying school-choice scenarios. I needed a break from me as well.

But a funny thing happened on the way to chronicling the county commission’s “laughingstock” status and Emmy Acton’s accountability and curiously nuanced memos on “transitional issues.”

I received an invitation to participate in a media workshop at a gathering of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Communications Institute in San Francisco. SS/HS is really a number of federally-funded programs across the country, including Florida (but not Hillsborough County), where counties and schools partner with the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services.

There’s a lot of emphasis on school-based mental health, social work, mentoring, after-school programs and the like. It’s part of the post-Columbine reaction to violent student behavior and parental cluelessness. As a result, early childhood programs aimed at promoting school readiness and preventing youth violence are bedrock elements.

I was to offer insights to federal grantees about getting their word out to the public. The more awareness, the more support. Call it “No Media Opportunity Left Behind.”

And I did, and the participants seemed satisfied about tips on “human interest” hooks, media “targeting,” “Op-Ed”-page opportunities and collateral support and press-release quotes from prominent officials — especially during an election year. No one doesn’t want to be on the side of safe schools, whatever the details.

But then I wandered off the bureaucratic reservation. I had a captive audience of folks trying to do good things for kids at risk. But I really felt that any federal grant help was necessarily limited — if not compromised — by certain elements of the educational culture, if you will. So I added a postscript comprised of last-minute thoughts I had jotted down on the Denver-to-San Francisco leg of the flight from Tampa. I got the distinct impression such things weren’t typically said where the educational and governmental sets gathered.

Moreover, two days later, back in Tampa, I repeated the refrain as part of a breakfast address to the Rotary Club of Tampa Bay. Even more heads nodded assent this time. A few requests were made for a copy. Here it is.

*A serious dress code should be mandatory. It’s all about a uniform environment for learning — not about increasing polarization and distractions. Students are to dress for school — not an MTV or BET casting call.

*Adults are in charge and need to act like it. Everybody else is a kid. Columbine was a massive dereliction of duty by all the front-line adults, including parents.

*School officials must listen to students and parents and solicit their input. But they don’t have to grant veto power. Siring children doesn’t make one an expert on anything else.

*Be realistic about the popular culture. We have to live with it, even accommodate it. But we don’t have to surrender to it.

*Close open campuses. Even for “good kids” in “good schools.” Help them stay that way. As a teacher, I always knew when my students were coming from PE class or lunch. I certainly didn’t want them coming directly from the mall or a house where no parent was home, which is most homes these days.

*Don’t adopt zero tolerance policies for anything — whether weapons, bullying or drugs. It inevitably leads to zero tolerance for flexibility and common sense. Sure enough, the honor student with the nail file in her open purse in her car is the first one expelled. Followed by the advanced-placement student with a Christmas present of wine for his French teacher. He was trying to brown-nose — not sneak a buzz.

*Schools shouldn’t be in the business of promoting and promulgating a self-esteem curriculum. Self-esteem is a byproduct of accomplishment. Of having learned something. And having proven it.

*And let me add one more. The concept of “student athlete” is probably oxymoronic beyond redemption at the collegiate level. Specifically, bottom line-directed, major school basketball and football where — at the very least — the best players are mostly mercenaries prepping for the pros. But the insidious roots of this sham are, too often, in middle school.

That’s where the double standard for athletes starts manifesting itself. By high school the entitlement attitude has begun to metastasize. By college, vested interests look the other way so as not to turn off the pipeline of blue-chip prospects with cow-chip values. The sources: fawning adults, whether enabling teachers, accommodating administrators or stargazing coaches.

There’s also the deportment department, largely the coaches’ province.

Granted, it’s not easy when “trash talking” is condoned and rationalized as a colorful sign of confidence, gamesmanship and enthusiasm by the professionals. Lamentably, such boorish behavior is now a marketing staple with the NFL and the NBA. But in our schools, at least, let’s call it what it is: arrogant and classless.

The dysfunctional-culture genie is not about to be rebottled by the NFL and the NBA. Indeed, it’s celebrated. Ditto for the marquee college programs.

But we don’t have to give up in our middle and high schools, however formidable the challenge, however tempting the win-at-all-cost ethic.

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