School principal talks nonsense, Mrs. V. talks bureaucrat-ese, the Evanston High experience, the Hemingway lesson, the Lefkowitz book, Afrocentrism . . .

5/8/96: Wednesday Journal in vendetta against principal, read all about it!

I reject the idea that the Wednesday Journal is trying to make an Oak Park elementary principal look bad, but the evidence is mounting. First it quoted her saying kindergarten is for “problem-solving” by five-year-olds, even as it’s “unrestricted play time.” Now (5/1) it presents her as wanting a “child-centered program,” again in the context of her approach to kindergarten.

Child-centered? As opposed to what? A pregnant observation.

Aren’t all schools that way, including hers? This can’t be new for her school, unless she’s admitting something horrendous; but WJ with straight face presents it as a helpful comment. The sound you hear is hair being torn out in the face of folderol.

Let us remind ourselves that this is one of the district’s ten principals whom the notorious League of Women Voters were not allowed to interview last year except in groups of three. The League was doing an apparently unwelcome study of Oak Park elementary schools, and the Oak Park Ten were kept under wraps, presumably so they wouldn’t tell tales out of school.

Maybe it wasn’t that at all. Not a fear of airing dirty laundry but of making boo-boos led the superintendent to clamp down.

Child-centered indeed.

Last week Mrs. V. and HS tutoring program . . .

Mrs. V. advised the Oak Park & River Forest High School board to do a bunch of things in connection with the school’s new program for non-performing students. I listed them last week but in translation.

For instance, her position was stated in WJ as “Define academic support. [She and her group] believes that support should be strategically focused and encouraged the board to provide interrelated services that will enable any person to become academically successful at OPRF.” I wrote “define academic support” and let it go at that. Her other lengthy recommendations I got into seven lines, quoting where I could and, one might captiously argue, not doing justice to her comments.

But she and others on the trail of various village boards have fallen into a carefully laid trap by adopting the professional, sometimes bureaucratic language of the public service-purveyors. They say “strategically focused . . . target population . . . establish a baseline . . . a transitional and leadership skills program . . . attitudinal and behavioral skills . . . strategy that coordinates . . . utilize the technology initiative . . . ” etc. Very strange language.

But one of the roles parents and other citizens play in public business is to ask simple, direct questions that get around the language of bureaucracy. Ideally, we citizens come as amateurs, no matter our background, asking plain questions, requiring relatively plain answers. Mrs. V. and others talk like professionals, or pseudo-professionals, compounding the problem.

Some more on this fascinating topic . . .

School (and other) programs are considered too often in a vacuum. The matter of “academic support,” for instance — helping kids outside class time — has been tried. Wouldn’t the first step in devising a program be to ask and see what others have done and how it worked and how people know it worked?

Or if it worked. Evanston High School has looked back in sadness on 10 years of doing everything it could for black and Hispanic kids, with what the principal last June in The Tribune (6/6/95) called “dismal” results.

Several university specialists threw up their hands, absolving the school from responsibility for the failure, which now has black kids failing at five times the rate of whites. The “primary” reason for failing, according to a school-generated report? Not showing up and not doing the work.

On the other hand, various Chicago schools are being held up these days as success stories as measured by state testing, and at every one of them a certain draconian flavor attends success. Standing and delivering seems to mean no-nonsense, as to both behavior and performance.

The Sun-Times on May 9 said “Hard Work Pays Off for Most-Improved City School.” At this school, the Laura Ward School, near Garfield Park, they emphasized reading and math, even taught to the tests, which is supposed to be a constricting experience. It’s also exciting, like practicing for the big game. You win it, you feel great; you lose, you build character.

So with big tests. Grace under pressure, Death in the afternoon and all that — thank you, Ernest H., our literary patron saint here in Oak Park. Better yet, the old man and the sea, Ernest’s tale that signified quite a bit in the view of the Nobel committee.

Laura Ward School again: they drilled kids with help of computers. Wait a minute. How can kids do higher thinking if they’re being drilled? Answer: in their spare time, as they will do as regards reading that you don’t let them wallow in while you impose “rigor” on their classroom performance — a word wisely used in the Evanston High report as something all students must experience.

Not out of Africa . . .

This is the book by Wellesley prof Mary Lefkowitz, subtitled How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. It’s a scholar’s attempt to fill us in as painlessly as possible on what’s become the rage in some circles. Early report from this corner is that some black scholar-promoters seem to have read some ancient authors with a delicious naivete, missing internal contradictions and even vaudevillian humor. At issue is how much Plato and other Greeks owe to Egypt. Not much, it would seem, though some Greeks apparently liked to claim Egyptian roots!

More later.

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