Education Opinion

Connections: Risky Business

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 01, 1995 3 min read

Under the big sky of rural Montana or amid the urban decay of a Milwaukee ghetto or in a predominantly black high school in an exurb north of St. Louis—wherever it happens, schooling is a complicated and sometimes risky business. And, in the end, its success depends mainly on good, caring, and committed teachers. Andy Bayliss is a good example. The main character in the book excerpt beginning on page 38, he is the lone teacher in the one-room school in the ghost town of Polaris in rural Grasshopper Valley, Mont. Though he is a first-year teacher and lacks the resources available in most bigger schools, Bayliss is determined that his 15 students (ranging from 2nd grade to 8th) will get a first-class education. Visiting Bayliss’ class is a back-to-the-future kind of experience. Except for tables and chairs instead of school desks, Polaris looks like one-room schools of yesteryear. But what goes on is a model for tomorrow’s schools. Some students work together in small groups on projects and learn from each other; others work independently, reading or writing. All progress at different speeds. The curriculum is linked to the real world and out-of-school experiences. The new math standards are in evidence, as are student-produced work and performance-based assessments.

The students in the Polaris School are engaged and fulfilled—involved not just in “book learning” but also in developing a sense of who they are. It is difficult to imagine that they could get a better all-around education anywhere else. It is much easier to imagine how inner-city kids in huge urban schools would benefit from schools like Polaris.

Being inventive and creative like Bayliss can get teachers into trouble with parents and officials. Shortly after his arrival, some board members and parents visited the school and wondered, “What in God’s name is going on here?” Bayliss was lucky. Impressed by their children’s enthusiasm and progress, parents came to accept the kind of teaching Bayliss brought to their school, even though it was “different.”

Cissy Lacks was less fortunate, as the story beginning on page 24 illustrates. An award-winning, veteran teacher, Lacks taught English and creative writing to her 11th graders—all African Americans, most of them disadvantaged—at Berkeley High School in the Ferguson-Florissant district of St. Louis. By all accounts, she was an inspired and dedicated teacher who encouraged her students to excel. Students bear witness to the positive effect she had on them. But Lacks got into trouble because she would not censor her students’ writing, even though she maintains classroom discipline and allows no profanity in discussions. “If I censor that first work,” she explains, “then I don’t get to that last good one.”

Last winter, Lacks was fired for allowing her students to use obscene language in plays they wrote and performed in class before a video camera. The board called it “bad judgment,” but there were also racial overtones in the controversy. Administrators and parents—all African-American—were especially upset that a white teacher allowed their children to “act a fool.” Said the principal, “I was offended watching my students act like that because it’s a very bad stereotype of black people.” Lacks has sued the district for violating the state’s free-speech and teacher-tenure laws. The case is now in federal court. She has received widespread support from her students, fellow teachers, and local media. But she is unable to do what she loves most: teach.

In search of good schooling and committed, caring teachers, poor parents in Milwaukee are sending their children to private schools under the nation’s first choice program to include nonpublic schools. Our story about that program, beginning on page 30, quotes one mother saying simply, “We’re all looking for family.” Many are finding it. Parents say they know each other and the teachers. The principal of one of the schools says, “Here we use the word love. It’s very difficult to talk about love in the public schools.”

Disenchantment with public schools that seem not to care about kids spawns voucher programs. The education establishment resists, arguing that these programs could destroy public education. But a teacher in a choice school disagrees, saying, “Nothing with merit will destroy anything else, unless it deserves to be destroyed.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1987 edition of Education Week as Connections