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Public School Days: A Golden Age Past, But Why?

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I've blogged elsewhere about my experience in public education, which in retrospect feels like a Golden Age.

I started public school kindergarten in 1954 at age four; the program ran for two years. The demographic (all white, overwhelmingly Christian) was small-town, with farm kids who rode in on school buses, kids from families long resident in the town--population 5,000, give or take--and a bunch of kids whose newly arrived families (Dads in Gray Flannel Suits) were turning this farm village that also happened to be the home of Fisher-Price toys into a bedroom suburb of Buffalo, New York, then the ninth-biggest city in the country. Living where three districts converged in a hamlet five miles out of town, I had no school bus, but somehow my parents contrived to get me to and from school.

In first and second grades our teachers looped, so they knew us well. From fourth grade on we were offered Spanish, several classes a week. We went to the auditorium to watch the space program unfold live on TV, and we had extensive music and art programs and even quasi-extracurriculars for interested kids. The New York State School of the Air provided enrichment, and there was a well equipped library with a gracious, knowledgeable librarian.

We were always tracked for reading, and in later years we had SRA cards to differentiate us. In fifth and sixth grade the three classrooms of each grade did a mix and match for tracked math. In sixth we were bused--boys one day, girls another--to the high school for swimming lessons that were also recruiting showcases for the varsity coach; East Aurora was a powerhouse, and the coach meant to keep it that way. (A friend has written a memoir of the experience here.)

You might wonder why I was sent off to an independent school instead of following my classmates into junior high school, but it wasn't in the cards, and so my own experience ended in June of 1962.

Why this trip down memory lane? Easy answer: Look, please, at the services I received, at the opportunities we had. More or less "early childhood" education, looped teachers at a crucial grade levels, arts and music, modern language, differentiation, "accelerated" math, solid P.E. And, oh, yeah, we had recess.

I'm sure property taxes were relatively high, but I don't recall grownups grousing or any controversy about school funding. I'm sure my teachers weren't living like royalty, but neither were they destitute; they didn't seem to live differently from anyone else.

Nowadays my spouse teaches at an independent school that offers pretty much the same programs I experienced at Southside Elementary. The tuition is hefty (it's Boston), but the vibe always feels like Southside to me. I like the place, and I wish that every kid across the country, in every public school and every private one, could experience the same.

So, like many citizens but apparently not enough of us, I am tired of reading about public schools being forced to cut music, or art, or modern language programs. It blows my aging mind that we're still talking about making one year of kindergarten, much less two or more years of early childhood education, into a national expectation. I can't believe schools feel so pressured by the testing monster that they can't offer recess--when do the kids play?

The experience I had should be the free, absolute, and unalienable right of every kid, now and forever. It didn't cost the taxpayers an arm and a leg then, and so what if it had? Their children had a great experience, with caring teachers and programs and facilities to match. Why have we as a nation become so tightfisted and so uninterested in our children's future that my Golden Age is past, to be replicated largely in independent schools that are beyond the cost or conception of most families?

Don't answer that question. And Southside? The building (built in 1952 or so) still stands--town offices, a school no more.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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