Nathan: Penny, Pete, Paul and public education

In some ways, Penny, Pete and Paul were very different. Penny was a blonde, blue-eyed teenager who grew up on a farm in East Central Minnesota, with 10 younger brothers and sisters. Pete, who sometimes colored his hair, lived in a western Twin Cities suburb with his single-parent mom. Paul was a tall, handsome, angry African American teenager in St. Paul.

By the time she was in 11th grade in her rural high school, Penny, the oldest in her family, was a cheerleader and member of the National Honor Society.

But there was turmoil at home. The family farm was in financial trouble. Her parents often argued. Penny assumed many responsibilities at home. Unfortunately, she looked elsewhere for love and comfort, made a mistake, and became pregnant.

She was kicked off the cheerleading squad, removed from the National Honor Society and ridiculed by some students and educators. She was devastated and thought about suicide. Fortunately, a friend told her about an alternative school in the area. Penny blossomed again. She told a legislative committee that at her new school, “people didn’t judge me. They encouraged me. The school probably saved my life.”

Pete’s parents didn’t just argue, they divorced. He often was bored in school. He wanted to drop out, but his mother convinced him to stay. Then he heard about Post Secondary Enrollment Options. The University of Minnesota allowed him to take a course. He earned an “A.” That led to attending the University of Minnesota full-time under PSEO. He did very well.

Finally, there is Paul, from a classic inner city family, facing many challenges. He was angry at the world and hated school. He made many mistakes, including fighting at his high school. Finally, he was kicked out and landed in a school where I taught. He mostly slept in classes for several weeks.

Like Penny and Pete, Paul graduated. He worked for Prince, the recording artist. Then he opened a recording arts studio and encountered many other young men, years younger. They shared his love of music and dislike of traditional schools.

With help from some educators, Paul founded the High School for Recording Arts, a charter public school that helps previously unsuccessful students develop stronger skills and positive attitudes. Students must apply to some form of higher education before they can graduate.

Over the last 40 years, I’ve seen many youngsters like those above (although I did not use their real names). We need to acknowledge the power of public education and educators, as we work to help reach even more. Public education is powerful.

Joe Nathan directs The Center for School Change.  Reach him by e-mail at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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