Education

Taking A Stand

January 01, 1997 3 min read
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The two main features this month reflect the dark and bright sides of America’s public schools.

Imagine a squad of police swooping down on your public high school in a series of surprise raids. Students are lined up, searched, made to empty their pockets. Drug-sniffing dogs roam the buildings and parking lots. The foray, sometimes lasting up to two hours, is called a “lockdown.” It is a preemptive strike—an effort to catch unwary students and teachers with drugs or weapons. The local school board, the superintendent, the principals, and, apparently, a majority of the teachers approve of the process.

So it is in Savannah, Georgia, where it appears some have confused high schools with prisons.

The story, “Up In Smoke,” is about Sherry Hearn, a veteran social studies teacher who consistently spoke out against a policy more suggestive of a police state than a public school. During one lockdown, police allegedly found a marijuana cigarette in the ashtray of her car. When she denied it was hers and refused, as a matter of principle, to submit to a urinalysis, Hearn was fired.

Sherry Hearn questions the constitutionality of the police raids on the school. But perhaps the more important question is how school trustees, administrators, and teachers can reconcile a policy so vile and psychically violent with what is supposed to take place in a school. That they could enact and enforce such a policy should disqualify them from having any role educating the young.

Superintendent Patrick Russo says, “There is not a more serious problem right now in this country than the abuse of alcohol and drugs.” Perhaps. But his solution may end up creating a worse problem.

What schools teach is important, but the behavior they model for young people is even more important. The way administrators in Savannah’s public schools behave is a more powerful lesson for students than anything taught in the classrooms. Sherry Hearn knew that and believed so deeply in the importance of teaching by example that she put her 27-year career on the line, offering one last lesson to her students.

There are many more heroic, caring teachers than there are monuments to honor them. But San Diego’s Mary Catherine Swanson has a living monument that testifies to her accomplishments.

In September 1980, buses rolled up to white, middle-class Clairemont High School in San Diego to deliver the first 500 low-income minority students assigned there under a court desegregation order. It was a sad day for the staff, who had loved working with kids who were like their own children and whose futures were of great concern. Many teachers were worried about dealing with the new students and believed the school’s standards would sink; some were bitter.

For Swanson, who was then chairwoman of Clairemont’s English department, the change represented a new challenge that called for new approaches. She believed these new young people deserved the same chance to succeed as the other Clairemont students, and she was determined that they get it. As the story, “AVID Learners,” details, she created Advancement by Individual Determination, or AVID, to prepare these disadvantaged students for college.

At first, Swanson’s colleagues were skeptical. Raising the achievement levels of poor and immigrant children to high levels seemed like a hopeless task. But Swanson persevered—and succeeded. Last year, about 500 schools across the country had AVID programs in place, and many more were planned. And although the majority of teachers in these schools do not participate directly in AVID, they support it.

Teachers like Mary Catherine Swanson and Sherry Hearn make a difference not just because they are willing to take a stand and go the extra mile but also because they care—every student matters to them. School reformers and policymakers who are desperately searching for ways to improve the nation’s schools can find one obvious solution in the example of these two exceptional teachers. They are committed to their work, and they have the courage and determination to do it as well as possible.

--RONALD A. WOLK

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Taking A Stand

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