Back To School

The building at the end of our block is completing a full circuit in the circle of life. It began as a school, then later was turned into the Golden Hobby shop that sold craft items made by seniors — and now it is being refitted to serve as a school again, as part of the St. Mary’s school complex in our neighborhood.

The Golden Hobby shop people were nice folks, and we certainly appreciated the parking lot there when street parking got tight, but I’m glad the building is going back to its original purpose. We’ll miss the overflow parking, to be sure, but having a school at the end of the block is bound to ramp up the hustle and bustle and make our neighborhood even more interesting. And an expanded St. Mary’s school will undoubtedly be appreciated as an available option by the many young couples with strollers you see around German Village.

If the building could talk, I bet it also would express its happiness about returning to service as a school and being filled with the voices of kids again. Carved over the main entrance is a quote attributed to Socrates: “Learning adorns riches and softens poverty.” With noble and lofty aspirations like that, no building is going to be content to live out its life as a sleepy senior citizens’ hobby shop.

School Recycling Programs

German Village must have had a lot of kids back in the day, because it has a lot of neighborhood public and parochial schools.  Every few blocks you run across a large multi-story brick building where boys and girls once learned their ABCs.

Over time, the kids grew up, and because new kids didn’t take their places, the buildings grew vacant, and the schools were closed.  Some of these grand structures fell into disrepair.  But recently, the school buildings have been recycled.  One school has been changed into a beautiful private residence.  The Barrett School, below, has been converted into a grand building of one- and two-bedroom apartments that is the cornerstone of a huge development in south German Village.  And the Beck Street school, above, has been reopened as . . . a school, complete with a new school crossing sign.  It’s now a magnet school in the Columbus system.

Almost all of the older public school buildings are pretty, well-made buildings with tall windows and lots of wood.  It’s great that they are being used again.

When A School Makes A Bald-Faced Mistake

Delaney Clements is an 11-year-old girl in Colorado who is fighting neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that targets children. The treatment for her condition includes chemotherapy, which has caused her hair to fall out.

The pre-teenage years being what they are, a bald kid might feel awkward and self-conscious — but fortunately Delaney has a friend named Kamryn Renfro. Kamryn wanted to show support for her friend, so in a selfless gesture she cut off her own hair. Kamryn thought it was the right thing to do, and Delaney loved the gesture.

But Kamryn’s school had a different reaction. The Caprock Academy has a dress code that bans shaved heads, so the school wouldn’t allow Kamryn to attend classes on Monday.

Kamryn’s Mom wasn’t happy and posted a message about the school’s decision on Facebook. Delaney’s Mom did, too. And that provoked a firestorm of controversy with the Caprock Academy at its epicenter, one that overwhelmed the school’s website and telephone system. The school let Kamryn attend classes yesterday, and last night the school’s board of trustees voted 3-1 to waive the dress code in exceptional circumstances, such as when a child shaves her head to show solidarity for a friend who is dealing with cancer. (Amazing, isn’t it, that one of the trustees actually voted against such a waiver?)

There’s nothing wrong with reasonable dress codes. I imagine the original motivation for the bald head ban was concern about skinhead high school boys intimidating other students. Obviously, however, a young girl’s simple act of kindness is so far removed from that scenario — or any situation that might raise issues about safety, uniformity, and distractions, which are the stated reasons for the existence of the Caprock Academy dress code — that her ability to go back to school with a shining dome should never have been questioned. Any dress code policy that is so rigid that it produces a contrary result should be modified to give administrators appropriate discretion — or else the school eventually will end up wearing the dunce cap in the corner of the classroom.

Kamryn Renfro did a very nice thing — the kind of act that would make any parents proud of their child. It’s unfortunate that she had to miss a day of school because of her show of support for her friend, but as a result this student taught her school a valuable lesson about reasonableness and flexibility. Kamryn’s gesture may end up being more significant than she ever imagined.

Free To Play

A New Zealand school has come up with a “novel” way to increase student focus, reduce bullying, and decrease vandalism: it has eliminated all of the silly rules and restrictions governing behavior during school recess. Because kids now get to do things like ride scooters and skateboards, they develop a better appreciation of risky behavior, too. And, the school has been able to reduce the number of teachers monitoring the playground and get rid of the dreaded “timeout” area.

This result shouldn’t be surprising — it’s just a return to the way things used to be in every American school. Kids are full of energy and need to burn it off. If they don’t get to do it during recess, they’ll find some other, probably less positive, outlet for release. I’m guessing that the New Zealand school will see other benefits that become apparent over time as well. Because kids can do what they want, they are more likely to be active and therefore less likely to join the ranks of the morbidly obese. Because kids won’t be constrained by adult notions of proper recess behavior, they’ll be more creative and more willing to work with their classmates in coming up with new games and contests to fill their recess time.

When I was young, recess was fun precisely because it was entirely unstructured: you got to do what you wanted, without having to follow dumb rules or sit quietly at a desk. We made up games, hung upside-down from monkey bars, swung on the swings as high as we could and jumped off, and ran around yelling for the sheer fun of it. We survived, and our playground chaos didn’t have any effect on our classroom performance. I wish more American schools would adopt the Kiwi’s “hands-off” approach to recess and let kids be kids.

A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?

Body Mass Buttinskys

Lilly, a sixth-grade girl in Florida, is the star player on her middle school volleyball team.  According to her mother, the girl is 5′ 5″, weighs 124 pounds, and is “all muscle.”  So the mother was shocked when the school sent her a letter advising that the girl is “overweight.”

How could such a letter possibly be sent?  Because Florida is one of a number of states that has begun sending letters to parents advising them when their child is viewed as overweight and warning of the dangers of childhood obesity.  Florida mandates “health screenings” for kids, and then uses a body mass index calculation to determine when a child is overweight.  Experts recognize that body mass index statistics are a crude means of determining whether a child is overweight, and in Lilly’s case the measure was made even cruder because she was reported as being two inches shorter than she really is.  The so-called “fat letter” was the result.

Childhood obesity is a concern, but sending “fat letters” based on rough measures like the body mass index hardly seems like a prudent way to address the problem.  We live in an age of eating disorders and concerns about the messages popular culture sends to girls about their bodies.  What does it say when a healthy, active volleyball player gets a letter from a government agency saying she is teetering on the edge of obesity?  Why send such personal, stigmatizing letters to kids who are already wrestling with the incredible self-consciousness and self-esteem issues that are an inevitable part of the teenage years?

Moreover, why are schools involved in this process?  The last I checked, American public schools were struggling to educate kids and, in some instances, keep order in school buildings.  Saddling schools with the job of policing childhood obesity is just giving them another task that distracts from the basic mission of education.  And when governmental entities are involved in making broad generalizations about health, mistakes such as the misreporting of Lilly’s height happen, letters that should never get sent are posted by mistake, and the damage is done.  I think the weight of individual children should be left to their parents and pediatricians and the children themselves.  Government buttinskys should butt out.

General Business

In junior high school, amidst the courses in trigonometry and English and American history, I took a class called General Business.  It harkened back to the days when President Calvin Coolidge famously observed:  “The chief business of the American people is business.

The class was taught by a friendly woman who ran her own business and was filled with enthusiasm for capitalism.  She taught us about profits and losses, balancing a checkbook, and basic bookkeeping concepts.  We learned about principal and interest, mortgages, and things to keep in mind when you were applying for a loan and trying to decide how much to borrow and how much to make as a down payment.  We read about stocks and bonds and how they were different and talked about how businesses were run and why some succeeded and others failed.  It opened our eyes to everyday things we’d never thought about — like what a cash register actually does and why you got a receipt when you bought something.

Through it all, the message of our cheerful teacher was consistent and packed a punch:  you’ll need to understand this stuff in the real world.  If you want to take control of your own future, get out on your own and be successful and independent, you have to this kind of practical knowledge of how the economy works and how you can participate in it.  You don’t want to be a know-nothing who is easy prey for shysters and frauds.  You don’t want to go bankrupt, either.  Even the most uninspired student paid attention when the teacher was explaining how a car loan works, because we all wanted to buy a car some day.

I still think of that class whenever I write a check, because I write it just the way I was taught more than 40 years ago.  The high concepts of trigonometry have been lost in the mists of time, but the basics of business are still there in my brain, accessed regularly.  I’m glad they are there, and I wish I could meet that teacher and thank her for the years of useful guidance she provided.

Do schools still teach classes like General Business?

The Swirling Retirement Mists Of Castine

IMG_4548One of the places we visited on our recent trip to Maine was Castine, a pretty little seaside town on the Blue Hill peninsula that is home to the terrific Castine Inn.  During a stop at a local tavern, we heard an interesting tale from a local.

He reported that some years ago a magazine identified Castine as the best retirement community option in Maine — scenic, affordable, friendly.  Locals were happy, and retirees responded to the article by visiting, deciding that the article was onto something, and buying up the houses in the community.  Over time, the influx of retirees affected the Castine community in a number of ways.

The increased demand made housing prices rise.  It was good for the sellers, but it also meant that houses were priced out of the range of workers who would otherwise live in the community.  Because the retirees didn’t have children, school enrollments fell and schools struggled to survive.  And, because many of the retirees were “snowbirds” who love Maine during summers, where temperatures typically stay below the 80s and 90s, but don’t want to endure the tough Maine winters, Castine became a kind of part-time community that shrank greatly during the fall and winter months — which made it difficult for local businesses, like grocery stores, restaurants, and bars, to survive on a year-round basis.

IMG_4537The local said that if it weren’t for the student body and teachers of the Maine Maritime Academy, a school that trains students to serve as engineers and in other capacities aboard ships — and which takes students out on training missions on the State of Maine, the formidable ship pictured above and anchored in Castine’s harbor area, side by side with the school tugboat — Castine might not be able to survive.

For Castine, good publicity about its advantages as a retirement community apparently turned out to be a double-edged sword.  When we left Castine, the fog still shrouded the harbor and the mists swirled around the State of Maine.  It seems to mirror the hazy uncertainty that one local sees about his community’s future.

The Old Public School

On Route 60, on the outskirts of Vermilion, sits the decaying edifice of the Vermilion Public School.  It is a huge brick building with multiple floors – the kind of school that would not be built today, in our era of single floor facilities.

Although the building seems to be in significant disrepair, the lovely front entrance, with its graceful multiple arches, has escaped the ravages of time.  Looking at it today, it’s not hard to imagine the children of Vermilion streaming through that front door, books in hand, chattering with their classmates and ready for another day of school.

The Demotivational Impact Of Empty Platitudes

According to an article in the Washington Post, schools and teachers have finally begun to recognize that efforts to boost student “self-esteem” that aren’t tied to concrete accomplishment aren’t achieving anything.  The article says that three decades of research shows that constant praise irrespective of performance, participation trophies, and the like aren’t actually increasing self-esteem and instead are interfering with actual improvement and accomplishment.

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone.  Indeed, the only surprise lies in the fact that it took three decades for schools to figure out what is obvious to most parents — but then, once a “concept” like “promoting self-esteem” gets rooted in the hidebound American educational system, it’s almost impossible to dig it out.

Kids — even kids who learn at a slower pace — aren’t stupid.  They’re observant and socially aware.  They know who is smart or adept at math or science and who isn’t, just like they know who is good at sports and who is a klutz.  If you praise them for non-performance, they will feel patronized, not proud — and may conclude that you don’t care, or are too incompetent to determine, whether they are really learning.  Neither message motivates kids to work harder and learn.  Ask any parents whose basements are filled with boxes of the silly participation trophies or good citizenship medals or attendance certificates their kids have received — those “awards” mean nothing because the kids intuitively know that awards given to everyone mean nothing.

Self-esteem can’t be conferred, it has to be earned and developed by actual achievement.  It’s time to return to schools that feature competitions with winners and losers, like science fairs and spelling bees and speech contests.  When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game called conductor where two kids would stand next to a desk.  The teacher would call out a math calculation, and the first student to give the right answer would move on while the loser would sit.  If you made it through the entire classroom you felt legitimate pride — and those who sat down were motivated to work harder.

We need to forget about the trophy generation, and focus instead on how to turn our youngsters into an actual achievement generation.

Title Creep

Our local school district recently hired a new official.  Her title is “chief of innovation, improvement and human capital” for the school district.

You may be scratching your head about what a job with such a high-flown title entails.  Well, her position replaces the “human resources director,” and a release from the school district says the official will “serve as a key leader and facilitator in bringing staff together through collaboration, guiding the organization to grow and learn, and engaging the community to reach the district’s vision to be one of the most innovative and high performing districts in the nation.”  That’s clear, eh?

Reading between the lines, it sounds like she’s supposed to help teachers improve and thereby help the school district’s performance.  My guess is that her actual performance criteria focus on those subjects, which really is the acid test.  What else would she be evaluated on?  Hey, what kind of “return” did you achieve on that “human capital”?  Had any good “facilitations” lately?  What have you done to make the community more “engaged” in reaching our “vision”?

In many workplaces, we’ve seeing a form of “title creep,” as people try to come up with new, more impressive-sounding names for the same old jobs.  Banks led the way; long ago descriptive job names like “tellers” and “loan officers”  were replaced with empty titles like “assistant vice president for lending relationships.”  The “personnel manager” became the “human resources director,” which apparently now has given way to “chief of innovation, improvement and human capital” — but has the job really changed at all?