Monday, August 17, 2009

Joe’s Take: From the Government and Here to Help

In a joke repeated time and again, the line “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” is described as one of life’s three great lies. But as applied to Jack Klenk (pictured right, at his retirement party earlier this month), the recently retired director of the Office of Non-Public Education at the U.S. Department of Education, the line carries a whole lot of truth. Jack has been a public servant ready to help throughout his 28 glorious years of federal service.

Scripture tells us, “Those who teach justice to many will shine like the stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12:3). Jack has taught me and many others in the private school community about justice and virtue through his actions, words, and life. He has been consistently decent and good. Whether through heroic acts like missionary trips to Africa or through everyday acts like answering the phone with a burst of energy and welcome, he has taught us how to conduct ourselves with joy, dignity and grace, and we are grateful.

Jack’s commitment to justice has extended as well to securing equity under the law for all children, regardless of the type of school they attend. Millions of students across the country have been the beneficiaries of his tireless, persistent, determined pursuit of fairness. So many rulings, guidance documents, interpretations of statutes, and decisions on policy have had his stamp on them, and his influence has consistently worked toward the greater good. Speaking truth to power was not an occasional event for Jack, but an ordinary occurrence.

And Jack has brought so much knowledge and skill to the task. He has understood the systems of government inside out, and has maneuvered all the inner pathways with great dexterity. Building partnerships and coalitions, and not worrying about who gets the credit, has been his signature style. He has always sought to expand the circle to help achieve the objective, knowing that the job is too massive, the consequences too great, to write anyone off as a partner. He has understood the formidable force for good that comes about when we combine our efforts and put the needs of children first.

In a commencement address at a religious school in Washington, D.C., several years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advised the graduates to find their passion in life and follow it. “Not something you have to do each day, but the thing that you can’t do without each day,” she said. “Something that you love enough and care about enough that it makes you glad to be alive.” Someone must have given Jack that advice a long time ago, because he found that which he had to do each day. His commitment to educational reform, to equity for all students, to parental choice, and to the preservation of authentic pluralism in American education comes deep from the heart; it is a force from within. And he has carried out his vocation with great grace, style, and integrity.

And so we say thanks to Jack for being not only a model public servant, but a model human being. Thanks for teaching us how to relate to others with compassion and respect, and how to pursue a noble goal with patience and purity of purpose. And thanks for teaching us about justice and virtue. His example will shine like the stars for all eternity.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hooray for Hollywood?

What do the following films have in common?

Chasing Holden
Dead Poet's Society
The Emporer's Club
Finding Forrester
Lost and Delirious
School Ties

If you knew that each of these titles is set in a private school, you've probably been watching way too many movies. You'd probably also know that each film depicts its respective school as an ivy covered bastion of privilege. Which is hardly front page news. One need not be a professional film critic to conjure up the stereotypical portrayal of private education, Hollywood style.

From the classic Goodbye Mr. Chips, to the camp School of Rock, private schools are most often presented as opulent enclaves earmarked exclusively for the scions of the upper crust. Castle-like buildings dot expansive quads and lush, immaculately tailored grounds. Middle-aged male heads of school speak in affected British accents. (OK, the head in "Mr. Chips" was a Brit, and his counterpart in "School of Rock" was a ditsy female.) When he isn't acting in service of the script, one senses that the head of school's most important function consists of quaffing brandy with a coterie of well heeled trustees in front of the massive fireplace adorning his spacious, dark oak paneled office. After having returned from the polo match.

Yes, I'm exaggerating. There is, however, a kernel of truth to the observation that Hollywood has helped to shape public perceptions of private schooling that are both misleading and superficial. To put it crudely, Hollywood allows for the impression that every private school is a Phillips Exeter Academy, without according Phillips Exeter Academy due respect. (I've referenced this particular school because its name is exceedingly well known. While Phillips Exeter Academy can proudly identify its unique attributes and achievements, a number of other schools could be substituted to illustrate the same point.)

If every school in our nation could but approximate Phillips Exeter Academy in any one of a variety of ways, wouldn't it be grand?

At Phillips Exeter, twelve students to a class sit with their instructors around oval shaped Harkness Tables, an innovative classroom environment feature intended to facilitate teaching and learning in the form of an interactive conference. The use of Harkness Tables, which was first pioneered at Phillips Exeter, has become increasingly popular in schools throughout the nation.

The school boasts a world-class faculty, as befits a community of learners whose students hail from twenty-three different nations, and speak twenty different native languages. (Phillips Exeter offers instruction in no fewer than ten foreign languages.)

Phillips Exeter's educational program is comprehensive, offering more than 450 courses of study across nineteen subject matter areas. If a student is looking for breadth and/or depth in the humanities, social sciences, math, science, or fine arts, it's available, not to mention an athletics program that would be the envy of many a college. At this school, it's clear that the whole person is engaged in constant, multi-dimensional learning.

There's much more, including more racial and ethnic diversity (fourteen percent of Phillips Exeter's student body is either Black or Hispanic) than is found in a vast number of public high schools.

Then there are the intangibles: more than two centuries of tradition and culture, the highest of expectations, an environment in which individual achievement and group identity are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing. (No, I'm not an alum. In fact, I've never so much as visited the school, much as I'd love to.) Watch this five minute video, and, like me, you'll probably end up wishing you had attended this great school, or that your kids could do so.

Regrettably, if understandably, Hollywood typically provides viewers of its products with little more than caricatures of great schools like Phillips Exeter. In fairness to producers and directors, I have yet to see a screenplay adaptation of a Teachers College Record article, and I get the fact that schools, as depicted in movies, are little more than settings.

But couldn't we see a little more...what's that word that Hollywood types tell us is so important...oh yes...diversity on the silver screen?

Yes, Catholic schools were featured in "Sister Act," and "Doubt," though neither film focused on any actual, you know, schooling. (I enjoyed both.) And a yeshiva may have played a cameo role in "The Chosen," produced nearly thirty years ago.

For every private school that bears so much as a remote physical resemblance to Phillips Exeter Academy, there are scores of urban private schools that are shaping and inspiring young lives in much the same way. Maybe when they get around to making "The Sonia Sotomayor Story," we'll get to see a more representative picture.

Ron Reynolds