Friday, May 27, 2005

Mixed Bag

A graduation ceremony shows what's right and wrong with public education.

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2005 at 4:00 AM

As a parent of a member of White Station High School's Class of 2005, I was hoping for obvious reasons that Sunday's graduation ceremony would be orderly, at least until the roll call got through the B's.

It was, but barely. The announcement of at least a third of the subsequent graduates' names was met by a chorus of whoops, cheers, and even dancing in the aisles by pockets of -- what? -- friends and family members in the audience at the Mid-South Coliseum. One boisterous group sitting behind me must have an awfully big family, because they roared so many times I finally got tired of turning around.

The 400 graduates, who behaved well and whose class president and valedictorians spoke well, couldn't stop it by their example.

The pleas, letters, and annoucements from the principal couldn't stop it.

The teachers and assistant principals scattered throughout the crowd couldn't stop it.

The glares from the parents who couldn't hear through the din couldn't stop it.

Not even the presence of special guest Superintendent Carol Johnson, who sat on stage and shook every graduate's hand, could stop it.

It's easy to make too much of this. Fogeydom comes easily to some of us who are suddenly ex-public-school parents. There was a lot to admire at Sunday's ceremony. White Station grads, as speakers noted, were offered more than $17 million in college scholarships (projected over four years) to some of the best colleges in the country. The number is inflated because of Hope Scholarships from the Tennessee Lottery, but it still works out to better than $40,000 per graduate. For the second year in a row, White Station made Newsweek's list of the top 1,000 high schools in America.

It is no easy thing to get 400 people on and off a stage in 90 minutes. Nobody got hurt or left out. There were no fights or shouting matches in the stands, perhaps because the standard for crowd behavior at graduations has been lowered so much that it is no longer a problem to be fixed or fought. It is a simple fact of life. Schools have tried throwing people out and giving each graduate a limited number of tickets. It didn't work. The rowdiness is old hat. The acceptance of it is what's new.

So another little battle has been lost. That's one more small consideration to add to the list of pluses and minuses that parents and students consider when weighing their school options. Parent involvement, motivated students, advanced-placement classes, good teachers and principals, and a reasonable chance that your kid will get more good teachers than bad ones keep White Station in the nation's top schools. But after seven years as a White Station parent, I've seen that the best academic high school in Memphis is a mixed bag, and the scholarships and awards mask problems that are getting worse.

There is not enough innovation in the curriculum. Graduation requirements for college-bound students seem aimed mainly at producing high test scores. Calculus is important because that is what high school students do, never mind that the vast majority of them will never use it. Too many reading lists include the same "classics" that have bored students for generations and make them hate English.

Some sections of health, foreign language, and science are so hopelessly bad that even honor students routinely sleep through them or listen to music. They know after the first week of class that they are about to waste 180 hours of their life.

The high school building is attached to a converted elementary school to create a makeshift campus so crowded that hallways are an invitation to hassles and fights.

A fight during a basketball game at Ridgeway High School spilled out of the stands, marring what should be a classic rivalry.

School dances are out of the question, and all-school assemblies and programs are endangered because behavior is so hard to control. And if rude behavior bothers you, then bite your tongue at graduation.

If you have children, you add it all up and make your choice. You can get a free education and a chance at a college scholarship to Yale or Tulane or Vanderbilt or Tennessee or Memphis. Or you can opt out, knowing you might just be trading the ulcers you have for new ones.

When I read the thoughtful editorials and columns about improving public education in The Commercial Appeal on Sunday I just shook my head. For the first time in 15 years I was no longer a stakeholder in the Memphis public school system. And the only people who can improve the public schools are the parents and teachers and administrators of the 163,000 students in the city and county schools.

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