Tuesday, April 15, 2003

WEBRANT

WEBRANT

Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Rx FOR SCHOOLS: MORE CLOCK TIME, NOT MORE MONEY Major motion pictures are often remembered for memorable lines such as "Show me the money!" or "Just put your lips together and blow." Others are made immortal by riveting speeches such as Wilford Brimley's star turn in Absence of Malice. But one particular oratory sticks in my mind when I think of America's educational system and our insistence on clinging to a nostalgic ideal of how our schools ought to be run. That speech is Danny DeVito's address to the employees and stockholders of the fictional New England Wire and Cable Company in Other People's Money. Gregory Peck plays the owner of this venerable company which is being targeted for takeover by the venture capitalist firm owned by Danny DeVito. DeVito's character is known for his ruthlessness and lack of emotion for anything but the bottom line. If the deal is consummated, the company will be broken up and sold off, destroying the life and the economy of the small town in which NEW&C has played a significant part. In answer to Peck's heartfelt plea to spare his employees because of the quality product they have put their lives into making, and the traditions and rhythms of small town life created by those employees, DeVito responds with pathos and pithiness. His answer is that in the nineteenth century, there were thousands of buggy whip makers that fell, one by one, to the effects of increased mechanization and the advent of the automobile. DeVito muses to the audience that as superior as that last-of-a-breed buggy whip company must have been, he would have hated to be a stockholder clinging to the belief that the end wasn't near. Implicit in his speech is the point that the world changes, and those wanting to survive in it must change also. The leaders and citizens of Shelby County would do well to reflect on this Tinseltown tableau if we want to solve the problem of delivering education at a price we can afford. This is particularly true in the matter of high school overcrowding, where the proposed solutions are limited to deciding how much more or less money we are going to spend. No one seems to be interested in discussing whether we should be spending any of it on propagating more of the same inefficiencies. The current squabble over expansion and construction of county high schools is not going to be adequately solved by more money, or even slightly less grand plans for that money, but in completely overhauling the way we look at providing the physical plants in which our adolescents are educated. We can do it now, or we can do it later, but either way, we will have to adjust ourselves to a world where there are limited funds to run our schools--funds that are insufficient to continue in the hidebound traditions of our Baby Boomer past. Throughout Shelby County, we have a seven-hour school day which begins in early morning and ends in mid-afternoon. No one has bothered to ask if we need to continue this arrangement. Whether it makes sense to shutter these buildings at about 3:00 every day, not to be reopened until about 7:00 the next morning. Whether our middle and high schools should lie vacant for nearly sixteen hours a day, regardless of the fact that the maintenance requirements are about the same whether the buildings are empty or full. Although principals and teachers may come early and stay late, students, for whom the system is ostensibly operated, are not on campus at hours other than these. Therefore, they are not realizing the highest and best use of the multimillion dollar complexes that our county builds and maintains. And neither are their parents and other taxpayers. My own Florida high school, faced with serious overcrowding in the early 1970s, found a solution to the problem of a dearth of time and money to build additional schools. Mainland Senior High School in Daytona Beach, Florida required its juniors and seniors to attend from 7:00 A.M. until noon and its sophomores to be in class from noon until five in the afternoon. Of course, such a change required that many longstanding high school traditions be reexamined including graduation credits, extracurricular activities, bus transportation, meal service, and faculty and staff positions. But when I mention changing the school day as a solution to Shelby County's dilemma, I am met with sentimental objections similar to the ones that faced DeVito in OPM. My response is that once upon a time we also taught girls to sew and boys to weld and when we abandoned these elements of the curriculum, few people seemed to cry out that tradition was going to hell in a handbasket. To accommodate the change in Mainland High in 1970, the number of graduation credits for my 10-12 school dropped from 21 to 15. When officials examined the hours required for graduation, they realized that many of those additional hours were outside the core curriculum anyway and included study halls, physical education and enrichment programs such as music, art, band and sports. Therefore, streamlining the core offerings was accomplished with little damage to the basic educational program. This did not prevent students from taking additional courses and participating in extracurricular activities. Band and football were taken before or after school, depending on class status. Bus transportation, however, concerned itself only with picking up and dropping off students according to their core schedule. Bus transportation was compressed to fit the new schedule as well, with the yellow behemoths that transported the upperclassmen at the crack of dawn, going on to the elementary schools, just before picking up the sophomores for their trip at noon. These same buses picked up the juniors and seniors moments after the sophomores were disgorged, scooted by the elementary schools, and then picked up the sophomores for their ride home in time for dinner. Nary an empty bus rattling from barn to school and back with hours of downtime in between. Meal service, too was altered to fit the new reality of a shortened school day, resulting in menu items such as ice cream, juices, fresh fruit and cold sandwiches being available to us. These foods were purchased from distributors or prepared at a distant commissary with the attendant efficiencies of such an arrangement. Teachers and personnel were assigned schedules according to which student population they were serving: morning or afternoon. Some teachers and staff were more or less happy with this arrangement, depending on whether they liked arriving early or late, but there was a full complement of faculty and support personnel. For those of us sitting in the classroom in pursuit of a diploma, the changes were hardly noticed--or welcomed wholeheartedly. Next week: how Shelby County schools could adopt this plan.

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