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Public schools a cornerstone of the future


BERLIN, Md. -- Our family, probably like many families, has a storage problem.

To resolve this problem, we simply shove everything into the attic.

When we run out of room in the attic, as a family, we attack the attic to organize and discard. Very quickly, our kids lose interest in the task of sorting, stacking and moving boxes of stuff to the car to be taken to a Goodwill drop-off site. Our kids retire to the kitchen for a snack.

As I continue to sort and stack, I find a box of family pictures and high school yearbooks from many years ago. I sit on the attic floor and sift through the box. I find my class picture from first grade. I stare into the faces of 26 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds from a first-grade class of 1960.

The picture is typical of the time. It was taken on the playground of the school with the school building as a backdrop. It was formally staged with three rows of children. In the first row, the short boys sat on the ground crossed-legged. In the second row, all of the girls sat on chairs. In the third and final row, the tall boys stood with the teacher standing next to the boy who was the class troublemaker.

From the clothes we wore and our personal grooming, one could quickly deduce that we were a mixed group. For the most part, we were poor to lower- middle-class kids who lived in a 20-block area of a small town. Our town was in the middle of an agricultural region. The major industries included a hospital and six manufacturers of various materials.

In our town, there were four elementary schools that served children in grades one through six. We were heterogeneously grouped because there was only one teacher per grade. Unless a teacher retired, we were destined to have the same teachers who had taught our older brothers and sisters in the same classroom and, since we sat in alphabetical order, we would probably sit in the same seat. We had kids who easily picked up concepts and others who struggled. We had kids who would openly challenge the teacher for attention and others who were childishly devious.

Our books were old and outdated and the library consisted of donated books on a shelf in each classroom. The kids who could afford it purchased books through the school book club and, for those who could not afford to do that, the teacher somehow found the money so that all students received a book each month. There were very few audio-visual aids except for the occasional filmstrip without sound that each of us would take turns reading out loud. The building was cold in winter and hot in the spring and fall.

As our first-grade class of 1960 progressed through elementary school, I know that we challenged our teachers. I am sure that on many occasions our teachers questioned our ability to make it out of sixth-grade, let alone graduate from high school.

As I looked at the faces of the children in the photograph, I saw excitement, happiness, hope, dreams and anxiety. I saw a group of kids who wanted to be loved, cared for and successful. I saw a group of kids on a journey to gain skills and knowledge that would allow them to be successful in life.

I recalled that out of the 26 kids who were in that picture, two moved away and one who failed second-grade joined our class. Despite predictions to the contrary, 24 of us earned a high school diploma.

As we enter the next millennium, our children in Maryland have much in common with my first-grade class. Our kids have all the same hopes, desires, and needs of past generations. Our kids need love. Our kids need someone to have faith in their ability to be successful. Our kids need to dream and have people willing to give them the hope that their dream can come true.

When you have the opportunity, I would encourage you to find your first-grade picture and look into the faces of the children. You will see our future.

As with all kids, our kids are seeking an education to help them be successful.

As this school year begins, the graduating class of 2014 will enter our schools with kids from all socioeconomic conditions, religious and ethnic backgrounds and abilities. As did my first-grade class of 1960, kids are seeking and needing a nurturing environment in which they can be challenged academically, be successful and grow and learn.

As I gazed into the picture, I concluded that the quality of life of our region, our state and our country will depend upon the successes of our public schools.

Even though the mass media may have us conclude that our future is decided on Wall Street or in Washington, the reality is that our future is determined by the struggle of teaching and learning that occurs in the public school classrooms of our country each and every day.

Jon M. Andes is superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools. This was excerpted from a welcome-back message to teachers and administrators.

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