In praise of public schools, our incubators of hope
August 29, 2014
The start of the school year stirs me a bit each August, even decades after having been a student myself and several years removed from seeing my son off to new teachers and classrooms.
Every school year, in retrospect, felt a little like a new job, a move, a reunion, a challenge — markers of growth in life that have stuck with me. Most importantly, those years and changes taken collectively lifted me from poverty and afforded me a really good version of the American dream.
I don't want to get out the violins here, but I did grow up poor. Into the early '70s, my dad paid $40 a month rent for an old farmhouse on the edge of our small town. We didn't have an indoor toilet till we moved when I was 14.
Based on income and other factors — my older brother went to prison for assault when I was 12 after he had a number of other scrapes with the law — I probably would have been considered an at-risk child, had the term been in use at the time.
Fortunately, I was eligible for the greatest social program ever devised: the American public education system.
My parents were beneficiaries of the same program. They grew up on Nebraska dirt farms, finished high school during the Depression and didn't get a lot of breaks after that. But they had good educational foundations. Mom, in particular, was an avid reader.
Then I had seven other moms, one a year through sixth grade, elementary school teachers in Beatrice, Nebraska, who enabled big dreams, not the least of which was making me believe I could go to college. By the time I was in junior high, my economic status had become motivation to succeed.
I remained in public schools through getting my bachelor's at the University of Nebraska. That education enabled me to have a rewarding career and live and travel all around America, to hold my own in meetings with politicians and CEOs.
The public schools taught me to be an American, too, a critically important role they play in our society. In my eighth-grade social studies class, we read the entire U.S. Constitution aloud, one paragraph at a time, and discussed the passages.
Today, public education is increasingly challenged by a range of social and political forces. The schools face hostility from some lawmakers and policy makers, and suffer from our growing unwillingness to invest in our country's future, from roads to children.
America is not the land of infinite plenty it once seemed to be — growth is harder, resources are scarcer, the world is more confusing, dangerous and competitive.
In many ways, our reaction as a society has been to grow stingier and more fearful. We collectively resist taxes and, it seems, are reluctant to share our country's still-great bounty with newcomers and the needy already among us. At times, it seems we have forgotten fundamental kindergarten lessons.
Against this tension and changes in society, public schools remain our greatest-ever social (and socialization) program and our greatest hope.
They still work, too.
Last month, the Post Independent interviewed Marissa Molina, a Glenwood Springs High School graduate who starts this school year as a Teach for America instructor, working with underprivileged kids in Denver.
Marissa told of her first day of school in Glenwood Springs, when she was in fifth grade. Her parents had just come to the United States to work hard, give their children a better life and pursue the American dream.
The only English Marissa knew on that first day was, "I don't know English."
She went on to be the first person in her family to go to college, to be a student government leader at Fort Lewis College in Durango and to dream of a future in politics.
That Marissa could succeed so fabulously is, of course, a credit to her. It also is a credit to the Glenwood schools, which nurtured her just as my schools helped me develop a bigger vision of life.
Marissa, once a Glenwood Springs Strawberry Days queen, is civically aware and active. She's giving back with her two-year commitment to Teach for America.
Sounds like what America is supposed to be, right?
However, while her parents, who came to the country on work visas, are now permanent U.S. residents, Marissa fell into a crevice of our broken immigration system. Some people would have those in her situation deported. She remains here under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama's oft-vilified order giving special status to young immigrants who would have been covered by the Dream Act.
Surely we want this young woman to stay here. We would only diminish ourselves to lose her potential.
Just as surely, we want to strengthen and celebrate our public schools, which make her story and mine and millions of others possible.
They are our great incubators of hope.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.