The Million-Dollar Educator, a Long-Overdue Graduation, and an African Odyssey

By Rich Shea — September 02, 2005 3 min read
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While it’s always inspiring, it’s nothing new to hear about a teacher who made a huge difference in her students’ lives. Jean Louise Stellfox was a 39-year veteran who taught high school English in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. She never raised her voice, but she was stern. And she did things that stuck with her students for years—like having them memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy. Turns out the teacher was also rich, to the tune of $1.5 million. The value of Stellfox’s estate was revealed two years after her untimely death; in 2003, at age 64, she was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Stellfox—who’d never married and lived frugally—left most of her money to Dickinson College, where, in 1959, a visit by poet Robert Frost helped the undergrad decide to pursue teaching. Her gift will fund future visits by renowned writers, including novelist Ian McEwan. Stellfox also left money and personal items to some of her colleagues. One former student, who became an English teacher herself, got $25,000, all of Stellfox’s books, and a La-Z-Boy. Noreen Schwalm said of her friend and mentor, “She didn’t teach you for a year and forget about you.”

For 60 years, one group of people never forgot what they’d been denied. So it was with pride and tears that dozens of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II finally received their high school diplomas. In January, a California law went into effect allowing high schools to give retroactive diplomas to those whose education had been interrupted by the incarceration. Ruby Okubo, who, at 79, already holds a master’s from UCLA, had to leave Los Angeles High School at age 15. “I shed some tears because I wish my parents were here,” she said of receiving her high school diploma August 21 at Los Angeles Trade Tech College. Roughly 200 people signed up to receive the pieces of paper from schools across L.A. County, but just 60 attended the joint ceremony—a showing attributed in part to hazukashi, a Japanese reluctance to step into the spotlight. But one man said of the need to be there, “It was unfinished business.”

Getting a diploma is also a goal in a new documentary that’s been collecting awards and accolades on the film-festival circuit. In The Boys of Baraka, four Baltimore middle schoolers travel to Kenya to attend a boarding school as a way to focus on academics while escaping their hometown’s crime and violence. Located in a rural part of the African nation, the Baraka School is funded by the Abell Foundation, which spends $12 million annually to battle poverty in Baltimore. Baraka was founded in 1996, and 100 Baltimore teens have attended. But in 2003, halfway through the two-year term, the four boys featured in the film had to leave Kenya after the school closed for security reasons. The film, however, has made an impact on people like Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who would like to establish a Baraka-like boarding school in the city. As for the boys themselves, who are now in high school, they’ve been able, with support, to stay focused on academics. “Baraka,” one said, “opened our minds more to society and said, ‘This is what you have to do to be successful.’ ”

Success, to some degree, is relative, and that may be why some teenagers drop out of high school to go to college early. Jessica Banton, for example, is a 16-year-old freshman at Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina this year. She says that her small-town high school in Pennsylvania didn’t do enough to challenge her; she’d miss as many as 40 days and still get A’s. So after sophomore year, she studied two weeks for the GED, took it, and passed. “You’ve got the [high school] student who’s very advanced, and they’re just bored,” one CFCC official said by way of explaining the drop-out-and-enroll phenomenon. Other students, according to experts, have learning styles that aren’t conducive to 45-minute periods, big classes, or the cliquishness of teen social life. Some worry, however, that missing out on things like the prom might make for less than fully rounded adults. As for Jessica, she says of high school’s leisurely pace: “It’s wasting your time. Why not just drop out and go full time?”

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