Why do I keep doing this? Covering schools, I mean. I’ve lost track of the years. Somewhere around 1994, I think, my employer told me I needed to have a specialty, a “beat,” so to speak.
I sort of joke about this, but there’s some truth in it. In my version of the story, I told my boss, “Okay, but I’m not a confrontational, in-your-face kind of guy. I’d like something with no conflict, controversy or politics.” So he gave me the schools. Be careful what you wish for.
It’s been a challenge. There are a couple hundred schools in our viewing area, and in a good year, I might get into about half of them. Most of the time, I’m doing a positive story, but you would never know it from the feedback I hear. Just this week, a Hamilton County school board member, for whom I have great respect, said in a public meeting, “The media only reports the bad stuff.” My immediate reaction was anger, but after a few minutes I shrugged my shoulders and said, “He knows better. I think it just makes some people feel better if they can blame someone else.”
Yes, the schools have problems. In one of those school board meetings this week, the hot topic was what to do about five “under performing” schools that are being considered for a state takeover. I’ve been in each of those schools. Compared to ten years ago, they’re in better shape than they used to be. Brainerd High has had the same principal for several years in a row, and he’s trying hard. Dalewood had a great one (who is now at Howard) and his successor is a dynamo. Woodmore had a sad, difficult year, losing six children in a bus crash, but that school’s principal is also a star. They’ll come back strong. Orchard Knob Middle’s principal attended school there, and cares deeply. Orchard Knob Elementary’s principal is world-class, and he has been there for seven years. If the state will let him do his thing, he will succeed.
If the state has a magic bullet that can cure Hamilton County’s ills, why haven’t they shared it before now? Will the state go into every home, ensuring that each child has a supportive family? Will the state protect each child from the dangers they face in their neighborhoods? Does the state know how to get in touch with absentee parents who have no contact information? Can the state provide supervision at home to ensure these children go to bed on time, and get the nourishment (emotional and physical) they need? Does the state believe the caring educators at these schools haven’t been trying to address these social issues for decades? Bring it on, state. If you have the solutions to all these problems, stop holding back. Share your secrets with us.
So I ask myself sometime: why do I keep doing this? The same problems that were in the headlines forty years ago are still there. Only the names have changed. Test scores are low. The school district says it can’t do its job without a tax hike. The politicians say, forget about a tax hike. Crumbling buildings. Suicides. Bullying. Bus problems. Frustration about state testing demands. Superintendent searches. The best families fleeing public schools for private schools, charter schools, or home schooling. Yes, it seems like I’ve done these stories before: many, many times.
Why do I keep doing this? This week, I figured it out. It’s because of this.
No one is posing in any of these pictures. You’re looking at sheer wonderment, true joy, unabashed happiness. The top picture shows 2nd graders at Clifton Hills Elementary, never before exposed to art class, admiring their work in a public showcase. The middle pictures show the entire student body at Pleasant Grove Elementary, supporting their principal as she gears up for the Ironman competition. The bottom picture shows 7th graders at Lakeview Middle School in their outdoor classroom, getting their hands dirty in the garden before they clean out the chicken coop.
Every one of these stories was on the news during the past few days, on-air and online. The other media outlets in town did some positive stories too.
When I report these stories, and take these pictures, I try to be a fly on the wall. If, as the school board member said, the media only reports the bad, you would have no way of knowing how hard teachers are working to be creative, to think outside the box, and to come up with new ways of engaging children in our video game-obsessed world. Hopefully someone saw these stories.
As these pictures are transferred from my camera to the computer screen, I sit and stare at them. I see the bright eyes and the big smiles. Some of these children have great home lives. Many of them don’t. What they have at school is a shared experience that is forming who they will be as adults. I’m seeing hope in those pictures. I’m seeing discovery. I’m seeing joy.
That’s why I do this.