Monday, August 24, 2009

California Education Reform - blast from the past

I'm looking for like minded people who are willing to take a step back and EVALUATE the history of education in California, before we spend another nickle on school reform or increased wages, etc. I'm a product of California schools in a different era and I'm apalled at how little we get now for how much we spend. Can anyone else relate to my own school experience?

I went to school in California in the 50's - 60's. I was a first generation immigrant and may have been considered ESL today, but in kindergarden we're all pretty equal. I had been in the country a year and got embarrased enough by minor grammar mistakes that I always took spelling and English more seriously than native English peers. My cousins who immigrated later sometimes were put back into Kindergarden to help with their English or just suffered through until they had it mastered. Half of us are still bi-lingual, but all of us acclimated to our new home within a single generation.

I found school fun and challenging, but not especially difficult through high school and skated through with a commendable GPA on a college bound track. Yes, there was tracking in those days whether anyone admits it or not. It seemed a natural tracking process. If you chose your classes based on College or University requirements then your class schedule didn't have much room for electives.

It was in those elective classes however that I learned about alternative tracks, and the real depth of opportunities available in high school. There were Business classes that had the same depth as my college prep classes. I only touched the tip of the iceberg with Typing I, but there was Steno, Business Machines and most enviable, Work Experience. Students in the Business track were pulled to help out in the office doing clerical and administrative work. What a concept, kind of like an apprenticeship.

It wasn't only Business options though. My high school had an Art Department that was enviable. Art I,II, III, IV; Sculpting, Painting, Drawing, Graphic Arts, Printing (yes we had a full print shop on campus) in the Industrial Arts dept. As a matter of fact the school took on all the tasks of a small city. When the Drama Department needed sets for their productions, the Art Department handled it. When the prom committee needed programs and tickets printed, you guessed it, the job was handled in house, on campus. I remember having to order the Jr. Prom program and the Print Shop was run similar to Kinkos. I had to fill out a work order, approve sketches and sign off on the proofs to get my program printed on time. We had an Olympic swimming and diving pool. We hosted Olympic trials. Our gym and school sports were a major part of our morale and pride. We were the flagship school in the area and our teams proved it week after week.

The school had an auto shop that rebuilt cars, metal shop, wood shop, even furniture upholstery. They built all of the props for the Drama group. Industrial Arts offered drafting and engineering classes and provided the Home Economics department with floor plans that the Interior Design class could work off of. We had cooking, sewing, Child Development, Marriage and Family, fashion design, nutrition, weaving, textiles... I mean each department had a depth of coursework equal to my own college prepatory classes.

I was almost jealous that I didn't have time to explore even more, because my own workload was already heavy. I had time for one elective as a freshman, maybe 2 as a soph & junior. I was done 1/2 way through my Senior year, but then voila, in 1970 at a new school in the same district, I had very few options. I saved up all of my electives for my senior year and poof the choices were gone. Where was the football stadium, the theatre, the Olympic swimming and diving pools?

I had a few options in English that deviated from Eng I,II, III, IV; like comparative religious course, logic in literature, and other funky class titles, but I didn't have the depth of my older school which offered Journalism (with work on the school paper), Yearbook with basic photography classes & a darkroom, prose composition, classic literature, ancient myth, etc.

Another thing that was obvious in 1970, at the new school in the same district, Dress codes were relaxed, attendance was relaxed, tracks went away, extra curricular activities were minimal. Dress Codes were hated, but the argument was always that dress codes were to train us in proper business attire, and it did. Regardless of how much we balked, there was a 'business' or professional atmosphere to the classes depending on the department. If you were in the art or science building it wasn't unusual for them to be wearing lab coats over their school clothes. Shop classes had overalls to protect your clothing. Grooming and Dress was a part of going to school.

True enough, this was a new school and didn't have the stadium & auditorium, the physical amenities of a school built in 1904. This school was what we called a "cookie cutter" school. I guess if you pick one of the state school designs you get a break on the construction funding, so this school was IDENTICAL to another new school across town. It was my senior year, so I wasn't paying attention much to what happened. Changing schools as a senior was enough of a heartache and I didn't think much of my new digs. Looking back however, the changes were real and soon undermined my alma mater as well.

The "Industrial Arts" building that housed the printers, the drafting, the graphic arts groups were shut down permanently. The metal and wood shops were closed and within a single generation the course offerings found the lowest common denominator for both schools. I didn't realize the significance of the changes until my own children entered high school. I was excited for them, I couldn't wait to see their course lists, only to find all of the "alternate" tracks were missing. They still had sports and some art classes. Journalism and Yearbook were there. There was still an auto shop, but no more metal and wood shops and the auto class was limited to one or two project cars for the whole year.

I understand that as a society we were moving into a new computer age, but why not transform Industrial Arts to add computers & Graphic Design using CAD or the new technologies. I know that Home Ec had to add microwaves. Of course we were an evolving society where more advanced technology skills were going to be required, but shutting down whole departments as if all welding was going away?

I didn't realize until more recently, and after reading Charlotte Iserbyt's book on the dumbing down of American Schools that we were destroying our young people. If you looked at schools as a business, what do we produce right now? I say, a handful of college freshman. We've eliminated all but college prep and basic general education with some schools still active in sports. Most schools may offer sports & arts but they don't have the facilities that the older schools had. So, what are the other students who aren't focused on college doing during those critical ages of 14 - 18? Are they in apprentice ship programs; are they learning new business technologies with computers; are they into CAD design and robotics, computer programming or the other skills needed to compete in the new technologies? NO. They have some of those classes in community colleges or private "trade" schools, but they offer few or none on high school campuses.

What happens to the kids of this generation who would not have chosen track one university prep? We bore them out of existence. Less than 70% of our high school students graduate and those who have interests in other things we suppress them, literally hold them hostage, until they finish high school. Some very determined students will leave at 16 and take the GED to pursue their education at a trade school or technical school. My own nephew knew he was an artist at 10. High school became such a burden to him that we allowed him to leave at 17 and take the GED. We searched for art schools for him, but had to settle for a correspondence course on DVD. It was pricey but equivalent to any of the best Art schools around. He worked at a Pizza place for two years, worked on the DVD courses, built his portfolio. He was still young and got a job at a local sign shop for some experience. He really wanted on the computer, but he was stuck sweeping and weeding vinyl signs. By 21 he had a full portfolio from pencil sketches to multi-media gaming and got his first adult job with a probation clause and a starting salary of $40K. His friends are just getting out of college now.

We need to rescue not only our state budget, our school system, that was once enviable, but we need to rescue these kids. They are being bored out of the minds, labeled failures and are blowing in the wind. If nothing else they are wasting valuable learning time. I figure between 12 and 18 there are passions that can and should be tapped into. If you have any recollection of a better system than what we have now... please email me and we can assemble a team to do the research and start fighting back for our kids. My grandkids now.

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