Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale, Illinois, October 26, 1998, p. 3A
PART OF NATIONAL PROGRAM
Parents who've rejected public schools tell why at forum
by Tracy James
They talked non-stop for hours about the merits and problems of public education and the participants were not the usual suspects.
There were teachers, yes, and an adminisstrator or two. Area community college and university representatives were there. But there was no preaching to the choir at this education forum because many of the participants opted out of the public school system and either home-school their children or send them to private schools.
Others have been highly critical of the public schools and their use of federal Goals 2000 money and programs dealing with non-academic issues such as drug education and values.
------- SIDEBAR --------------------------------------------- Some of the responses from the 40 Southern Illinois participants were brutal. --------------------------------------------------------------------
The differences definitely did not discourage discussion, with parents and educators talking cordially during breaks and after the forum ended at 10 p.m.
"This was the first time I've been at a meeting like this and nobody's yelled at me," said parent Pam Kelly.
This forum was the first of 10 in Illinois organized by the Illinois PTA and the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. This, like at least 60 such meetings across the country during the last two years, put the public school system under a microscope.
The idea is to bring a diverse group of people together and to put them around tables to talk - and listen. Each table, there were seven last week, is supposed to have participants representing the various groups, such as home schoolers, clergy and public school teachers. They are asked to reach consensus on the purpose of public schools, their effectiveness and ways to improve them.
Some of the responses from the 40 Southern Illinois participants were brutal. It was suggested, for example, that too often grades are given away, not earned. Half of the tables concluded that the schools are not very effective, with one group saying it varied widely depending on teacher leadership at the schools and parental involvement.
Mary Jo Diamond, the curriculum director at Unity Point elementary school south of Carbondale, couldn't help being a little defensive. During the discussions, she found herself defending other school districts. After the meeting, she said she did so because she believes "so completely" in the importance of public education.
Many youngsters are highly intelligent, she said, and are able to develop their potential because of good public schools. Many of these students would not have access to a private education because of family resources.
These meetings are held, however, because the organizers also believe so strongly in the importance of the public education system.
Public schools are doing a better job than people think, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an advocate of public education. But he said students need to be prepared for an increasingly complex world.
"Education levels are rising, but it's not good enough," he said during Tuesday's forum
Public educators have built up walls around themselves because they feel they are not treated fairly by the media and a variety of critics, such the "far right," and business people, he said. But the way to improve public schools and build support for them is for educators to listen to what these critics have to say and reach out ot them.
A report including the various findings of Tuesday's meeting will be included in an overall report of the 10 Illinois meetings. It will be forwarded to the Illinois legislature in January.
The major recommendations coming from the meeting are that the state should look at ways to reduce large class sizes and to improve training teachers receive with the goal of improving instruction. Local school boards should look into including character education in their schools and ways to improve parental involvement.
****************************************************** Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU