Education Opinion


By Ronald A. Wolk — July 10, 2019 3 min read

Except for their gender, Denise Torres Gullick and Elizabeth Mann would seem at first glance to have little in common. Their stations in life, their backgrounds, their aspirations, and, very likely, their prospects for the future are very different.

Growing up in and around San Diego, 19-yearold Denise’s life was scarred by poverty and violence. In 1988, at the age of 13, she became a single parent and dropped out of school for two years before enrolling in an alternative education program. Her short life has been one of struggle and pain, but she has tasted the joy of winning.

Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth lives in Silver Spring, Md., a bedroom community of the nation’s capital. Her father is a journalist, her mother a professor. Elizabeth is gifted, brilliant, honored; the list of her awards and triumphs goes on for pages. Her short life has been one of support and gratification, but she has struggled in her own way and tasted pain.

Elizabeth graduated last spring and will matriculate at Harvard in September.

Denise graduated last spring and will enter a nearby community college in September; she hopes to transfer in two years to a nursing school at the University of California at San Diego.

Last year, Denise won a $1,000 scholarship in an essay contest for her entry titled “From the Streets to Education.” Elizabeth entered the Westinghouse Science Talent Search this year and won a $10,000 scholarship for a research project titled “A Parallel Implementation of the Wavelet Transform.”

The differences are stark, but these two young women do have some things in common. One is a determination to succeed—more specifically, to get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Another is that they attended alternative schools and have been nourished and encouraged by caring and dedicated teachers.

The alternative program that Denise attended is run by Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista. It was specifically designed for students like Denise, and it bears little resemblance to a traditional school. The teachers, most of them veterans, display the energy usually seen in beginning teachers. They have adapted their program to the needs of the students, and they don’t give up on anyone.

At Montgomery Blair High School, where she was enrolled in the math, science, and computer magnet program—an alternative program, albeit much different from Sweetwater’s—Elizabeth was “The Darling,” the favorite student of every teacher who has had her; they extended themselves in every way to help her achieve all that she is capable of.

The stories of Denise and Elizabeth—which begin on page 20 and page 32, respectively—say a great deal about the human spirit, personal courage, values, success, and failure. But they also suggest the enormous potential of public education to help each individual succeed despite the terrible inequities that separate one from another. That has always been the hope of public schools, if not always the reality.

It is the hope that drives Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, the tough, idealistic, committed teacher-leader whose story begins on page 26. Burned out and on the verge of leaving the profession in 1979, Cherkasky-Davis fought her way through inertia and depression and set out to re-educate herself about teaching and learning. Ultimately, she came to reject virtually everything she originally believed about teaching in favor of an integrated, holistic approach that places the child at the center and makes students responsible for their own learning.

Cherkasky-Davis is confrontational in pursuit of her goals. She argues that teachers have to speak out for what they believe, and she feels it is her duty to help teachers discover that they can change what they know is wrong.

Often at swords’ points with administrators and fellow teachers over her views about schools and teaching, CherkaskyDavis eventually attracted a group of like-minded colleagues and founded Chicago’s first public school designed and run by teachers. It is an alternative school in the sense that it was started out of dissatisfaction with traditional schools. But Cherkasky-Davis and her colleagues obviously want their school to be the kind that would make alternative schools unnecessary—to be the kind of school, in other words, that would serve both the Denise Torres Gullicks and Elizabeth Manns of this world.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Connections