The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Adjusting Schools to Blend With the Local Culture

on August 28, 2017

Over the weekend I set out to clean up the face of my computer, which is a scramble of published essays, ones only partly written, and rough ideas of things to write about in the future.  Among them I found an essay that was unmarked and figured out that I had sent it somewhere for publication, but not posted it on my blog.  For that reason, I am posting it here today, hoping that even if you did read it somewhere else a year or so ago, it is still interesting to you.


A while ago a newspaper article I read about poor school attendance touched on a view of education very different from the one that predominates in government, business, and the media. While the Common Core Standards and the states that have signed on to them are calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and college or post-high school training for everyone, their message is falling on deaf ears in many places in the U.S. For lots of students and their parents, school is just not that important.

The town featured in the article is a small rural one in Oregon with a high rate of student absence that can’t be explained by illness or poverty.   Last year 40 per cent of first graders were chronically absent, and 70 per cent of highschoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials and teachers were questioned about the causes of those problems, they came up with some answers: family hunting trips, a scarcity of doctors, dentists and other medical services locally that made day-long trips elsewhere necessary. But the answer most often voiced was that the town’s population didn’t really value education.

In that place the majority of adults, who have no college education or not even a high school diploma, are working at jobs they like, earning adequate wages, and living lives that satisfy them and their families.  One mother who was questioned defended her son’s absence for a recent hunting trip by citing family values: “What they are getting out of that experience outweighs three days of school…The bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours”

To the teachers and school officials that response seemed more reasonable than many others they hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school. Those answers boil down to “So what?”

Without examining the student absentee situation in other places, I’m convinced that there are cultures of attitudes, customs, and beliefs everywhere that influence people’s behavior more strongly than any government message. Take a high poverty area in big city, for instance, where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they do not expect their children to live lives any different from theirs. On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on misbehaving or truant students. When a couple of kids in the neighborhood decide to take a day off, others think, “Why shouldn’t I join them? It’s a lot more fun than going to school.” Some parents may object, but their kids do it anyway. Other parents don’t know what’s going on; and still others figure it’s just normal kid behavior. That’s the culture of the community, and it’s hard to fight against it.

High poverty communities are not the only places where culture rules, however. There are towns and whole states that cling to the traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own physical environment. For most local people school is okay as long as it fits with their own values and customs.

For the present, I don’t see much of a chance of changing cultures. America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today. But I believe it is possible to make schools more attractive and relevant to local populations without diminishing quality. Almost always there is an overlap between a local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that, if emphasized, would lure students and their families back to school. Let me describe, briefly, some things that could be done within that overlap.

First, provide more high school electives, especially courses related to the jobs available, but also ones in the arts and crafts. At the same time, reconsider the widespread practice of requiring all high school students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language. For many young people such courses do not serve their current interests or their future aspirations.

Next, make community interests and activities part of the classroom curriculum. Young children can read or listen to the teacher read about local events, then discuss and write about them.  Older students can be encouraged to get involved with community service projects in their free time.

Building a school culture is also important. Students can tend a school vegetable garden, “Adopt a Road,” organize an in-school recycling system, or form a crew of “safety partners” to protect younger children from bullying and walk them to and from school.

A school culture can also provide a variety of after-school and evening programs for children and adults by using existing facilities for recreational activities such as swimming, table tennis, and Midnight Basketball. A schools can also encourage community groups to meet for anything that interests them, from break-dancing to Bible study.

In addition, a school library can be converted into community service wherever a public library is not readily accessible. Keep them open evenings and Saturdays, expand the range of books available, have librarians or trained assistants on hand, and schedule book readings and discussions for different ages and interests.

For some communities, like the one mentioned earlier, medical, dental and social services for children and adults inside a school would be  powerful draw-ins.

Finally, and most important, it would be wise to return school districts to local control. That means having a community school board to set student standards, determine the school calendar, select textbooks, and choose the type and frequency of testing. With a return to local control the state’s major role would be to provide a variety of choices and assistance as needed.

To some readers the changes I am proposing may look like nothing more than a return to a worn-out past. On the contrary, I am trying to open doors that have been closed by powerful national forces that misunderstand the differences in international test scores and the cultures that produce them.   Wounded pride, more than a concern for America’s place in the global economy, has brought a series of ineffective changes to K-12 education and produced a vast chasm between national policy and the needs of citizens. After some 20 years under a barrage of school “reforms,” we are left with nothing more than failed policies, stagnant test scores, a growing body of opt-out parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers everywhere, and a serious lack of high school graduates prepared for existing jobs. Ask yourselves, “Is this democracy; is this quality education?”




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