Home > Uncategorized > Dan Rather’s Paean to Public Education Reminded Me of My Visit to Robert E. Lee Elementary School

Dan Rather’s Paean to Public Education Reminded Me of My Visit to Robert E. Lee Elementary School

October 22, 2018

Yesterday my daughter tagged me on Facebook to share an article she read on Dan Rather’s blog, News and Guts. In the post, titled “My Love of Public Schools, Mr. Rather describes his visit to the elementary school he visited in Houston, TX. In the post he wrote:

The neighborhood has changed greatly since my youth. It is much more ethnically diverse, much like the larger city around it and the United States itself. But as I walked the hallways and met the children, I found so much in common with when I went there. There were the committed teachers and an inspiring principal – Melba Heredia Johnson. There was the spirit of optimism and the strong sense of community from the students and their families, many of which, as in my time, is positioned at the lower rungs of the ladder of the American Dream.

Roughly fifteen years ago, before I came out of an early retirement to take an assignment as superintendent in NH, my wife and I took a cross country tour that included a visit to Tulsa, OK, where I attended the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. I arranged a visit to Lee School to observe their gifted and talented program, which was initially instituted when I attended there. In a post this summer I recounted how it came to pass that I am an alumni of the the Robert E. Lee gifted and talented program:

In 1957 I was in 4th grade at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, having moved to that city when my father was transferred by DuPont. I recall being amazed that the math topics offered that year were identical to the math topics I covered a year earlier in Pennsylvania. I also recall one news event that fall that captured the imagination of the nation: the USSR’s launching of Sputnik. One of the immediate responses to the launch was passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, an act that included millions of dollars for science education and an act that sought to identify the best and brightest students to help the US win the Space Race that was launched when Sputnik orbited the earth.

At the end of 5th grade, I was identified as one of the “best and brightest” students in Oklahoma and placed in a special program with several of my peers. I am certain my “excellence” in math classes helped in my identification as one of the “best and brightest”, an “excellence” that had more to do with Oklahoma’s lagging curriculum standards than my aptitude. I also am certain that my test scores helped as well, for I have always done well on the tests that stand as a proxy for “intelligence”.  For my 6th grade year in Oklahoma, our group was assigned what would come to be called “inter-disciplinary units” instead of traditional subject-matter classes, working on projects instead of worksheets. It was by far the best year I experienced in my entire K-12 schooling. The teachers and interns worked with us closely and provided individual tutoring and counseling and my classmates were all engaged and committed to learning. We were taunted by others in school on occasion, but once we got on the athletic fields at recess our status as “gifted and talented” students didn’t matter, only our ability to kick a soccer ball (incredibly we couldn’t play football at recess!) and pitch, catch, and hit a baseball.

When I went to visit the Lee School I was struck by the changes. First, and most strikingly obvious, was the attendance of children of color. The Lee School was all white when I attended, Oklahoma being resistant to integration in the late 1950s. Secondly, the school was brighter and more colorful than I recall: the halls were full of student art work and there seemed to be an energy present that was missing when I attended the school…. maybe because we were, as I recall, expected to remain quiet when we passed from class to class. Finally, I learned that the school had abandoned the elective “rotation” that we experienced when we went to art, library, Speech, science, and PE classes in the afternoons after spending the mornings on academics.

When I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up I experienced the phenomenon that most adults witness: everything seemed smaller than I remember. The house we lived in seemed tiny by today’s standards and the park down the street, that I recalled being big enough to play baseball in, was seemingly smaller… and the long blocks seemed shorter and the hills looked flatter… but the azaleas that were in bloom were far more dazzling than I recall.

And how is the Lee School doing today? Well, as of August it is no longer in existence! It has been renamed Council Oak Elementary School as Tulsa works to shed its legacy of racism. Somehow, that makes me especially happy. It shows that public education is striving to the fosters in Dan Rather’s words, a spirit of optimism and a strong sense of community in a school that is, like our nation as a whole, now ethnically diverse.

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