Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Park School

The last time I really attended public school was second grade. Between second and ninth I either attended Catholic school or a public school out of zone that my parents paid for me to attend. This was in Vermont, which has an excellent public education system. Then we moved to Baltimore, which does not. From ninth grade on I attended an exclusive, private school in the suburbs of Baltimore.

I started ninth grade in 1989. Eleven years would pass before I would step foot inside a public school in America again. And when I did it would be one of the lowest performing schools in one of the poorest areas of the country: Simmons High School in Hollandale, Mississippi.

The Park School, where I attended high school, has graduating classes of about sixty. Every senior goes to college. Every single one. Every year one or two go to Harvard, two or three to Yale, and six to ten to Brown. The yearly tuition is about $22,000. And this is a day school, not a boarding school like Exeter. High school wasn’t even called high school, it was “The Upper School.” Elementary is “The Lower School.”

Park was essentially college in a high school. In ninth and tenth grade there were several core classes (English, math, foreign language) and the rest you chose as electives. After tenth grade you simply selected all of your classes from the “Program of Studies.” Teachers offered courses in whatever interested them: The Atom Bomb, Otherworldly Writings, Photography, Civil Liberties. You took whatever you were interested in.

For your last semester you did not take any classes. You arranged an independent study in whatever field you desired. Some wrote novels, some worked with lawyers or doctors or judges, some painted. In the spring of 1993 I interned at Senator Kennedy’s health care office in Washington, D.C. It was an interesting time as Bill Clinton had just been elected and his wife was working on a universal health care bill. The bill, a revolutionary piece of legislation that would have guaranteed all Americans free health care, failed miserably, a victim of the health care and insurance lobbies which spent millions to defeat it in the court of public opinion.

The school itself was open-ended. You didn’t have study halls, you had free periods. And you could do whatever you liked. Read in the library (my favorite), hang out in the “commons,” take a canoe out on the lake (yes, there was a lake), go for a walk in the woods, or, after tenth grade, go off campus in your car. Go home, go to the mall, go to McDonalds, it didn’t matter.

Almost every teacher was called by his or her first name. Classes were almost always discussion based. Homework was assigned every day. The sports teams weren’t very good. We didn’t even have a football or baseball team.

Academically, Park was an outstanding school. It prepared me to think on my feet, to question authority, and to dig deeper. Two teachers in particular, Howard Berkowitz and John Roemer, inspired me to become a teacher.

At the same time I didn’t like high school all that much. The kids, almost all rich, were mostly spoiled and mostly not interested in life beyond the three car garage with a lacrosse net in the perfectly manicured yard.

A place like Simmons High School simply didn’t, and simply doesn’t, exist to them.

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