Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Dwight Scott: A Great Teacher, a Great Coach, a Wonderful Human Being

January 2, 2019 Comments off

I read on Facebook that my younger daughter’s cross country coach, Dwight Scott, passed away at the age of 87. Dwight Scott’s obituary that appeared in the local newspaper in Western Maryland, the Herald Mail, offered this synopsis of his career as an educator:

Coach Scott spent his primary years as an educator at Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro, MD, where he served for 37 years as physical education teacher, coach, and athletic director (final 19 years). He started the football and track and field programs there in the school year 1959-60. Highlights of his time as head coach of the football, track and field, and cross country teams include: Football — ten league or district championships, including two undefeated seasons (1968 and 1969); Girls Outdoor Track and Field — five state championships; Girls Cross Country — also five state championships. After retiring in 1996, Coach Scott was a volunteer assistant for the Boonsboro High School track and field program for 22 years.

Like most obituaries of educators and coaches, this one failed to capture the true essence of the human being who spent years working with students and athletes. It focused on Coach Scott’s major accomplishments: athletic programs he launched, championships he won, and the countless hours he spent as a volunteer for track and field. What it doesn’t capture is how Coach Scott connected with students when he was teaching gym classes, how he connected with athletes and the parents of athletes when he was a coach, and how he connected with his colleagues in the school when he was Athletic Director. And what it fails to capture at all is what a wonderful human being Coach Scott was.

Three personal anecdotes about Coach Scott illustrate his humanity.

When my younger daughter was in middle school, she and her classmates participated in a Field Day at the end of the year. After she did well in the longest run that was part of the event, Coach Scott approached her and two of her classmates and promised them if they joined the cross country team they would win a state championship and he would “graduate” with them in 1996. She and several of her classmates became the core of three of those championship teams on Coach Scott’s list… but they did so because Coach Scott developed a camaraderie among the team and the parents of the team members. Saturday cross country meets were not only competitions between teams from across the region, they were picnics catered by parents who formed their own bonds with each other and with Coach Scott. To his credit, Coach Scott never thought of me as “the Superintendent of Schools”, he thought of me as “Hannah’s dad” and treated me with the same respect as he treated every parent of one of his athletes. We— the cross country athletes and parents— were Coach Scott’s family and we all felt blessed to be a part of it.

During the fall of my daughter’s sophomore year, my father passed away. Between my own grief and the demands of my job, I had lost sight of the impact his passing had on my daughter. Coach Scott called me at work and called my wife at home to let us know that Hannah was experiencing some stress over her grandfather’s death and encouraged us to be sensitive to that. She reached out to him, and he, in turn, reached out to us.

A few years later after I moved from the area and my younger daughter went away to college in New England, Coach Scott learned that my wife had cancer. Because of the team picnics she attended over my daughter’s four years on the cross country team he knew her well… and because he connected with me as a human being he wrote to both is us regularly offering encouragement… and he corresponded with my daughter as well.  When my late wife ultimately passed away, Coach Scott he sent me a touching sympathy card, one that showed he knew my wife well and appreciated her life.

Obituaries cannot capture the humanity of those who pass away, nor can they capture the impact of the deceased on the community at large. Teachers and coaches, especially, touch countless lives. My late wife, daughter and I were touched deeply by Coach Scott, just as parents and students across the nation are touched deeply by thousands of teachers and coaches…. and, just as we touch the lives of everyone we come in contact with on a daily basis.

I believe Coach Scott would want us to honor his memory by honoring every human being we come in contact with the way he honored his athletes and their parents… by inviting every human being to be part of one family the way way he created one family with his cross country team and their parents. I also believe he would want to be remembered for his small acts of kindness more than his championships. Here’s hoping everyone who benefitted from Coach Scott’s humanity pays it forward in the years to come.



Connecting the Dots: Meritocracy in Children’s Athletics and the Disappearance of Childhood

December 25, 2018 Comments off

Several posts on this blog made reference to Neil Postman’s 1980s book The Disappearance of Childhood, which describes how well-intentioned adults of my generation ended the existence of childhood by imposing tight schedules on their children instead of the freedom children of my generation experienced, highly organized sports activities instead of the pick-up games children of my generation threw together in an ad hoc fashion, and lots of lessons instead of the trial-and-error method of learning children in my generation experienced.

American Meritocracy is Killing Youth Sports, a recent Atlantic magazine article by Derek Thompson, underscores the damage done to childhood by our generation and illustrates how the next generation is diminishing it even more. In the article, Mr. Thompson omits the legacy of pick-up games but does describe how sports went from the town and school sponsored leagues that accepted all comers in all sports to the “elite” teams that sort and select only the best athletes who are increasingly “specializing” in only one sport. This means that amateurs like me, who had lots of chances to play lots of sports with lots of kids of varying abilities are left on the sidelines… and it means that lots of kids who played multiple sports in multiple leagues — like my sons in laws– are finding it necessary to resist the pull their children feel to specialize in one sport or one area.

From my increasingly curmudgeonly and nostalgic perspective, I wish that kids could be free to explore in the woods, play two-or-three man baseball games, pick-up basketball on outdoor courts, and touch football in open fields instead of being compelled to play in fancy uniforms in highly structured leagues….


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Forbes’ Op Ed by Michael McShane Gets the Facts Right, But his Convoluted Conclusion is WAY Off Base

December 19, 2018 Comments off

Earlier this week Forbes published an op ed by Michael McShane, a self described student of “K-12 education, including entrepreneurship and school choice“, titled “Enrollment Fraud Reminds Us That Many Public Schools Aren’t Public“. The article describes a recent lawsuit filed by the DC public schools when they discovered that six of their students resided in a neighboring Maryland district. He followed up this account with the following paragraph:

Lying about one’s residence to gain access to a public school is called enrollment fraud (or residency fraud) and it is something that is more common than you might think.  Philadelphia public radio station WHYY did an in-depth storyabout enrollment fraud back in May that is worth listening to. They even shadowed an investigator who follows students home from school and videotapes them taking out the trash and walking dogs to prove that they are not living where they say that they are.

Mr. McShane reports this as if it is a new phenomenon that has only emerged in the past few years. This is clearly NOT the case! When I worked as an assistant principal in a school district that abutted Philadelphia we routinely culled out a half dozen students a year who were Philadelphia residents thanks to the work of a team of three district employees with anodyne title of “Pupil Personnel Workers” whose job was to gather evidence needed to establish the student’s true residency. The year was 1975— 40+ years ago. Oh, and roughly half of the bogus attendees in our district had been expelled from school in Philadelphia for disciplinary or truancy issues.

And residency fraud was not limited to districts adjoining cities. I encounter this issue throughout my career: as Principal and Superintendent in rural Maine, and Superintendent in affluent communities in New Hampshire, rural Maryland, and upstate New York.

Mr. McShane as a self-proclaimed student of K-12 education accurately identifies one of the major flaws of our existing system:

School district lines often act as invisible barriers to opportunity. Many poor families find themselves on the outside looking in. Prosecuting families that pierce those barriers through nefarious means raises questions that cut to the very heart of our notions of public schooling. Aren’t public schools supposed to take all comers? Aren’t they supposed to be working to limit inequality, not exacerbate it? What would Horace Mann, father of “Common Schools,” say?

…Enrollment fraud is an example of where the reality of public schooling conflicts with the rhetoric of public schooling. No, great public schools aren’t always open to all comers. Public schools can, and do, act to exacerbate inequality. School choice is not something that only occurs when a state allows for charter schools or starts a voucher program…

In fact, the debate around school choice in this country would vastly improve if all of us were simply more honest about the de facto school choice programs that already exist in our communities. Rather than acting like a state “gets” school choice the day that a charter school law is passed, we would recognize that many Americans, from suburbanites to posh urbanites ensconced in exclusive attendance zone enclaves, exercise school choice. The fact that people want to choose a school increases the value of homes within its attendance zone. That premium keeps poor children out of that school. It functions like tuition, making a public school a private one….

Mr. McShane, as a school choice advocate, sees the problem as one of not having enough flexibility in enrollments. He would, presumably, allow the students expelled from Philadelphia Public Schools to choose to attend schools in neighboring districts and perhaps mandate that residents who pay a premium in housing costs and property tax to open the doors of their schools and overcrowd their classrooms with children who live just across the border— or who might commute in on a train, trolley, or bus. His means of addressing Horace Mann’s desire to limit inequality would, presumably, be to ask affluent districts to expand the space inter classroom to make it possible for them to “..take all comers”. 

This idea is preposterous… but it may sadly be as preposterous as raising taxes on those who are affluent so that the funding for all schools and the opportunities for all students can be equitable. The problems Mr. McShane presents have been around for decades… and the solutions involving spending more have been as well. HOW to spend more is the issue. WHETHER to spend more is not. The sooner the public realizes that reality the better off our children will be.

Good News For Underachievers (and the Well-Being of Students): Straight A’s Do NOT Translate to Success in Life

December 10, 2018 Comments off

In writing this post, I initially thought I would title it “This Just In: Grades Don’t Matter” because I thought that the lack of a correlation between high grades and “success” was as self evident as, say, the correlation between poverty and test scores. But I went with the title above because, as one who was labelled an “underachiever” because I failed to earn straight A’s in middle school I think it better reflects the reality of the mindset of public education when I attended school in the 50s and 60s, a mindset that persists today.

The post was prompted by an article in the Sunday NYTimes by Adam Grant titled “What Straight A Students Get Wrong”, and the “what” is that in the final analysis the grades you earned in high school and college do not matter once you get in the real world. In his op ed, Dr. Grant describes counseling a distraught college junior who had just received her first A-, a blot on her academic record that she was certain would doom her to some kind of second class citizenship in the future. Dr. Grant then revealed what underachiever like me have known for decades and used to comfort ourselves (or rebut our parents):

Getting straight A’s requires conformity.Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Dr. Grant then offers a long list of individualists who did poorly in school but made a name for themselves in their chosen areas of interest: Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have provided a much longer list, but those three clearly made the point.

He concludes his essay with advice for universities, employers, and students, suggesting to students that they recognize that “…underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life” and that getting a B might be the best thing for them.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a high school student I never aspired to be valedictorian, perhaps because I did not (and still do not) have the temperament needed and did not (and still do not) see the point in it. As a parent I celebrated the first B my children brought home in high school because I knew that they would no longer be able to become valedictorian and would, therefore, be able to dedicate their time to other pursuits… ones that satisfied their curiosity and not the needs of the schools.

There is a place for evaluation in school. Students need to master fundamental math skills and need to be coached to become good communicators. And once students have these baseline skills in place— and certainly by the time they are in college– there is no need for assigning letter grades or numeric grades. Narrative descriptions of a student’s performance are far more beneficial to the student and compel the teacher to get to know each student in their class deeply.

Alas… binary pass-fail grades on fundamentals and narrative descriptions once a student has progressed to higher levels of education do not yield rankings, and without rankings there can be no “competition” and without that, well, what? I suppose some will posit that without competition our “economic system” will collapse. I prefer to believe that without competition the well-being of children will improve and our political system will improve. Evidently I am not alone in this belief. The renegades who did not conform in school and spent their time working on computers send their children to Waldorf Schools and Montessori programs where doing things and being human is valued more than getting good grades and conforming to a system that measures skills needed in the early 20th Century. Maybe it’s time to re-think grades altogether… in doing so we would necessarily be re-thinking school.

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

October 22, 2018 Comments off

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.

Brett Kavanaugh Would Not Have Been Hired as Superintendent in Hanover, NH

October 5, 2018 1 comment

Like most Americans, I am watching the Supreme Court nomination process unfold. Unlike many Americans, I have been subjected to close scrutiny in being hired as a public school superintendent. In hiring someone to lead their district, school boards need to vet the superintendent, with larger districts often delegating the task to a professional consultant and smaller districts using personal contacts to determine the fitness of candidates.

The last district I was hired for was School Administrative Unit #70, an interstate district that includes Hanover NH, Norwich VT, and the Dresden Interstate Compact that oversees the secondary schools serving the students in those two towns. To obtain that appointment, I was interviewed on multiple occasions by the board, behind closed doors by teams representing employees, parents, and members of the public, and finally in public in a venue that resembled a press conference. Finally, my history as an administrator was closely scrutinized in a fashion that went beyond the list of names of references. This was all done to ensure that the individual the board was selecting to lead their school district for three years was capable, qualified, and a good match for the communities.

As a candidate for the assignment and one who had frequently led searches for school principals, I was especially impressed with the vetting of references. One of the Board members on the search committee was a retired CIA administrator who was relentless in his review of my performance in my previous district. As is customary, he called the names of the five references I provided. But after he interviewed them, three of them called me to indicate that when he talked to them he was very friendly but also very probing, asking each of them who else they thought he should talk to and who he might talk to who might have something negative to share. I know that he made at least one phone call to someone NOT on the list and also know that he eventually contacted one adversary whose name came up repeatedly.

As I watched Mr. Kavanaugh’s performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee I could not help but think that had I treated questioners who were inquiring about my background in the same fashion as he did I would have not been appointed as Superintendent anywhere. Moreover, based on what I’ve heard and read so far, it seems that the FBI’s “investigation” of Mr. Kavanaugh was proscribed to the point where the agency was not allowed to ask the questions Board members asked of my references and was not allowed to pursue every lead they were given. I just read a list of those NOT interviewed by the FBI and it does not give me confidence in the depth of their analysis. Had the retired CIA administrator who made calls to my references been able to study Mr. Kavanaugh’s background I’d feel far more confident in the findings.

There is one more difference between my experience and Mr. Kavanaugh’s: I was applying to secure a three year contract that would be only be renewed if I passed muster at the end of that time. Mr. Kavanaugh is applying for a lifetime contract. I am disappointed in what I’ve heard thus far about the vetting process done by the FBI and VERY disappointed at the character I observed during Mr. Kavanaugh’s “interview”. If the school board made a bad choice based on their hiring process they could have non-renewed me after three years. If Congress makes a bad choice, our nation could be saddled with a questionable Supreme Court justice for his lifetime…. and the decisions he will be rendering will have an impact on public education for decades.

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Back to the Future in NYC Where Police Will “Wander the Halls”

September 8, 2018 Comments off

This week was the first week of school for children in NYC, and, as reported by Eliza Shapiro in the NYTimes, children in many schools in the Bronx experienced a new approach to school safety:

School districts across the country have added new layers of security to their buildings, and the federal government has signaled a willingness to arm teachers in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre. But on the first day of school, New York tacked in a different direction.

Starting this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday, the city would begin a pilot program at a group of Bronx schools to turn school safety agents into the equivalent of beat cops. The city was asking 63 of the agents who work in 30 high schools to walk the hallways in search of wandering students, meet with principals to discuss brewing conflicts between children, and wish every child a good morning before first period.

That will be a new job for many of the agents who currently spend their entire days at a school’s front desk,sometimes curtly asking for identification from visitors. And it will require parents, and especially students, to look at their safety agents in a new light. To highlight their new role, the agents, who work for the Police Department and are not armed, will be known as school coordination agents.

As I read the article about the “new” program, I had a flashback to 1970-72 when I worked as a math teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia. Because of gang violence in the neighborhood (that in some instances spilled into the school), Shaw Junior High School had its own policeman, Officer Black, and a cadre of Non-Teaching Assistants, or NTAs, who effectively teamed with Officer Black and the Vice Principals in the school to maintain order in the school while the teachers were in the classroom. Officer Black not only worked in the school, but he also was assigned to the beat outside the school during the daylight hours, which meant students and parents had an out-of-school connection with him. I also recall that the students in the school knew most of the NTAs, who tended to be drawn from the neighborhoods or at least from similar city neighborhoods. I also recall that some of the NTAs and, in some cases Officer Black, spent time engaged in informal conversations with some of the biggest troublemakers in the school, conversations that some teachers felt undercut their ability to maintain order. As an idealistic neophyte teacher— and now as an idealistic progressive— I saw the conversations as a way for the “enforcers” to build relationships that would afford them a means of preventing violence in the school and MAYBE connect the trouble-makers to some people in the community who might be a positive influence on them.

When I read about the role of the “school coordination agents” I saw them fulfilling the same role in a more formal fashion. Instead of relying on the kinds of informal networks  and relationships Officer Black and the NTAs cultivated, NYC intends the “school coordination agents” to link troubled and struggling students with existing agencies:

During a recent training session at the Police Department’s hangar-like facility in Flushing, Queens, …agents with years of experience said they often did not know how to bring issues they observe in their schools to the right person.

Two Education Department officials at the front of a brightly lit classroom ticked off the alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources for parents, principals and teachers. The several dozen agents were encouraged to attend meetings and build relationships with groups they didn’t know existed.

“We were like, ‘We don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about,’” Maximino Acosta, an agent with 14 years of experience in Bronx schools, said of the session.

In reading the article it was evident that there were two big differences between NYC in 2017 and Philadelphia in the 1970s. First, there was no “...alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources”. Schools had to rely on their own resources, and in the 1970s they were woefully understaffed in terms of psychologists and services for children with emotional and mental health issues. Indeed, 94-142 had not been passed at the Federal level which meant that children waited months to be screened for services and schools were not mandated to provide them. Secondly, the NTAs were school district employees and Officer Black clearly took his orders for his work in the school from the administrators. At a time when Frank Rizzo led the force this was a blessing for the students. But even with a more progressive chief of police in NYC, the fact that the “school coordination agents” are agents of law enforcement poses a problem:

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she does not believe neighborhood policing in schools is the solution she has been waiting for. While Ms. Lieberman praised the school safety division for its focus on driving down unnecessary suspensions, she said there were still “pathetically low” numbers of guidance counselors and social workers in schools.

“What would have been welcome news as we open a school year would have been an announcement that the Department of Education has identified and hired educators to be walking the hallways,” Ms. Lieberman said.

It will be helpful to see how the introduction of “school coordination agents” works in the high schools. My belief is that money spent on linking students with pre-existing services will yield far more positive results than using law enforcement tactics. Based on my experience as a teacher and school disciplinarian “troublemakers” are almost always troubled in some way, and dealing with their troubles is far more effective than punishing them because of their troubles.