‘Back to the future’ for rural NY schools?
We’ve heard more than one observer of school funding politics say that rural schools in New York will soon begin looking like schools of yesterday.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s and remember the era well. Class sizes of 30 students were typical, with a teacher who stood at the front of the room and lectured when they weren’t handing out multiple choice tests where you selected answers by shading in a circle.
My elementary school art teacher’s entire instructional approach comprised of drawing simple impromptu line sketches and having us trace over it with a black pen.
My 11th grade U.S. history teacher was an “untouchable” state championship baseball coach. In the spring, we spent many hours pretending to read our textbooks in the bleachers of a baseball field named after him. Mostly, we just socialized and watched the coach and his assistants mow and line the field for the next game.
My eighth grade Earth Science class was taught in the room where lump coal used to be stored for a giant steam boiler. The room smelled of coal dust and no amount of white paint could cover the stains on the cinderblock walls.
My elementary school band director was also my high school band director. Somehow, we squeezed a 100-piece marching band into the prop room behind the auditorium as there wasn’t a real band room. This teacher famously chain-smoked, spewed profanities and threw objects at us from the podium. He took pleasure in giving us the kind of nicknames today’s anti-bullying programs issue dire warnings about. Believe me when I say band was the best part of high school for me.
I attended school in a state where the school district is a division of county government and the superintendent makes an annual pitch for tax dollars to the Board of Supervisors. I went to school with the superintendent’s daughters, but I never met him in person. Not even once.
We didn’t have air conditioning, and school rules forbade shorts well into June when temperatures in my Southern hometown could reach 100 degrees.
I graduated in 1987. The same 59-year old school building is still in use today — although the lounge where students were allowed to smoke cigarettes has long since been closed.
The main difference between that school — and indeed schools you may remember from your own childhood — is that we know a lot more about what it takes to educate students.
Schools provide much stronger opportunities for those with physical and mental disabilities. Schools understand that drop-out and suicide prevention means offering a wide range of extracurricular activities, not just boys’ sports. Schools devote more time and resources to standards-based instruction and testing. Schools are expected to teach critical thinking, citizenship, technology and other topics no multiple choice test can measure. All these expectations mean a smaller slice for the basic education my generation was getting decades ago.
Our funding structure could easily slip backward to the 70s and 80s, but modern mandates will remain. The only consolation is that we can teach courses via distance delivery now. A skillful teacher in one school can offer a class to six or seven other schools over a webcam and an online classroom forum.
As tight as our school budgets look today and as much as school boards may have to cut to remain solvent, our educational offerings here go far beyond what many County News readers remember.
At some point, New York voters need to hold the line and make sure we don’t slip back to a less-enlightened era. The future of our state, and indeed our country, begins at home and in the classroom.