Would an override save our schools?

Natural High/Byline Ryan Galer
Thursday, May 25, 2007

Editor's Note: This column was written before the May 22 special election.

This week, the City of Newburyport voted in a special election about the tax override. This was my first vote ever, over an issue dear to my heart, constantly in the forefront of my mind; therefore, it had special meaning to me, and the decision was not easy. My increasingly frustrating experience from kindergarten through twelfth grade has led me to question our system of education, not only in Newburyport, but also throughout the rest of America. I have observed and discussed with my friends and family their educations and schooling (which, sadly, are often unrelated), leaving me with impressions of how school systems affect diverse persons. My younger sister still has five years left in the Newburyport schools, so I feel particular concern for her future. With all this in mind, it was difficult to make my decision, while balancing my principles and experience.

A few years ago, I would have supported this tax override unquestionably. I once thought that if only the schools had more money, they would be great, rather than just alright. Some time during my junior year of high school, I realized that having few real choices and being bored much of the time was not for me. Still, I thought that we needed money for change. Finally, through reading, writing, thinking about, and continuously facing the day-to-day drag of school life, I discovered the blunt truth of the matter: we've been paying to reform schools for years, spending lots of money, and nothing has really changed. No amount of money alone will ever change a broken system.
Besides my general attitude towards schooling, I have some other less obvious reasons for not supporting the override. When the "Yes for Newburyport" pamphlet appeared in my mailbox, I tried to read it over, and then was distracted by charts of MCAS scores. While these tests might provide an easy way to measure student "progress," as a high scoring soon-to-be-alumnus, I can assure readers that MCAS scores have little to do with learning, let alone freethinking and happiness.
I also understand the plea of elderly people. I am not one to judge whether they can afford the override; that is not my business. However, I do wonder, what reasons do they have to support it? They do not have children in the schools, nor do they interact much with students. Why can't school resources be for everyone? How much do schools offer to senior citizens? While the Newburyport Adult Ed program exists, even that is not an opportunity for senior citizens and teenagers to enjoy learning together. Our community is splintered, and no amount of money can fix that. We need fewer locked doors and more interaction between ages, so that we can understand each other and support everyone's wants and needs. Perhaps we could even learn more history from our elders than from a book. I know my knowledge of the past is certainly enhanced when my relatives talk about their youth.

Yet despite these arguments, I think of my sister and her friends, and I want them to get more from their education than I did- not less. I feel fear knowing some of the subjects that made my school years worthwhile will receive serious cuts. My favorite has always been Spanish, although this class only became challenging enough for me during my senior year, thanks to a passionate teacher. Thus, I am lamenting the impending cuts to the foreign language program. In addition, it hurts me to see French eliminated, because while I have never taken the class, I love the language, especially its music and literature. (For those more pragmatic, French is also the official language of forty-one countries.) Finally, while I have not focused on the arts myself during school, I know that many of my friends have found them to be their most worthwhile experience at NHS. Complementing athletics, the arts bring life to our school.

In a recent interview I had with Superintendent Dr. Lyons, he constantly emphasized the importance of critical thinking. I agree with his assertion, for thinking is probably my greatest academic strength. Paideia seminars over controversial issues and difficult texts have definitely helped me to develop this skill. As Dr. Lyons and I discussed my English classes, he seemed quite excited to hear that seminars are happening, even leaving lasting impressions. If the override does not pass, Socratic seminars will become very difficult as class sizes grow. Often the best discussions I have are one on one or in a small group; thus I cannot imagine a seminar with thirty kids, which would leave each kid three minutes to speak in an hour and a half class.

If we expect our school system to create an informed citizenry of critical thinkers, we must first think and debate critically among ourselves how to do that. Nevertheless, how many people will consider whether they actually support the deeply rooted reasons for our education system's existence? Until all students, parents, teachers, and politicians rethink the purpose of schooling and its place in society, if any, we will never create an adequate means of education for the American people.
Last Tuesday's vote was not the end, but merely the prologue. We have not even begun to identify the fundamental flaws of our education system. Do not consider your civic duty performed just because you voted yes or no. Do not forget about the schools. Citizenship is about thinking critically and making real choices, not deciding between two unacceptable offerings. Whether the override passed or not, please do not think the school's problems are solved. Our efforts after the vote must demonstrate true commitment to radically changing our schools. I pledge to continue my efforts in that direction and I hope my readers will, too. The futures of our children and our world are at stake.

Ryan Galer is a student at Newburyport High School, to be graduated with the Class of 2007. Other related articles are archived on Comity.org website can be found at this link within.

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Current.)
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