MANHATTAN BEACH — When Supt. Byron Burgess started out in education nearly 40 years ago, the mission of public schools was relatively simple: Impart knowledge, promote God and country, uphold the society's basic values.
Now, says Burgess, the schools are overburdened with social and parental responsibilities, religion in any form is banned from campus, values are often a matter of individual choice and there is little agreement on a primary mission.
Burgess, who is retiring this month after 27 years with the Manhattan Beach elementary school system, does not by any means take a gloomy view of where education has been and where it is going.
Despite the upheavals, he said, "I think we've generally done a good job of teaching the kids and there aren't any problems that we can't overcome."
List of Priorities
In his farewell reflections, Burgess, 65, offered a shopping list of priorities, starting with the need to redefine the schools' primary mission. He suggested that a definition might start by placing limits on what the schools are expected to do.
"Instead of taking on more and more, we need to stop and evaluate what we can and should be doing with our limited time and resources," he said in an interview. "As it is now, whenever a new problem arises, the tendency is to say, 'Let the schools deal with it.' "
He ticked off some of the responsibilities that have been delegated to public schools over the past 20 years: drug and alcohol education, child-abuse prevention, bilingual education, tracking the physical development of youngsters, providing for nutritional and emotional needs, counseling on virtually every aspect of human life, expanded sex education, intervening in family problems.
While undoubtedly important, Burgess said, such needs were once handled by outside agencies, the church and parents. "The critical question," he said, "is how much more can we add to our program without diluting the academic curriculum? Is our highest priority in the academic area, or are we to have a more global, all-encompassing role in society?"
Burgess said that before slamming the door on new assignments for the schools, he would favor adding just one more course--parenting. Very few of us come into the world with the ability to be good parents, he said, so such skills have to be learned.
"Helping kids grow up to be good parents is of greater importance than some of the other tasks we take on," he said.
Burgess, who has two grown children, said a parenting course should focus on concepts of personal responsibility, making decisions and accepting the consequences.
"In our eagerness to make life better for our children, we tend to overindulge and overprotect them," he said. "Some kids are pretty persuasive in getting their way, because they can say, 'Everybody else is doing it. Why can't I?' "
Burgess observed that youngsters today are more knowledgeable and better traveled but that many tend to draw their motivations and ideas from the mass media, particularly television, rather than to generate them from their inner resources.
Parents 'Like Partners'
On the subject of parents, Burgess said they have become much more assertive and willing to challenge the schools' authority and ways of doing things.
"Parental involvement used to be largely a matter of serving punch and cookies at school affairs," he said. "Now, the parents are almost like partners with us in planning programs, assigning teachers and a whole range of other decisions. On the whole, it's been positive."
Teachers also have become more insistent on their rights, Burgess said. "We don't have the individual, personal consultations with teachers that we once had when problems came up," he said. "Much of that is handled through the unions now and, in some ways, I think that's unfortunate."
Like many other districts in the South Bay, Manhattan Beach has struggled through a period of declining enrollment--from 6,000 students in the early 1960s to the current level of 2,250.
Closed 5 Schools
"I've closed five schools and that is never easy for anyone," he said. "The real challenge for me has been to maintain a strong program for the kids with dwindling resources, and generally I think we've done a good job."
School board President Kathy Campbell described Burgess as "one of the most patient, considerate and articulate men I've ever worked with. He has been a wonderful, wonderful mentor to so many people and the whole community loves him."
The board last week picked Douglas Keeler, an assistant superintendent at the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District in San Diego County, as Burgess' successor, Campbell said.
Burgess worked for about 10 years as an elementary teacher and principal before coming to Manhattan Beach in 1959 as assistant superintendent. He succeeded C. J. Macdonald as superintendent in 1973.
He said he plans to stay in Manhattan Beach, where he has lived for 27 years with his wife, Penny, and leisurely pursue old hobbies, like woodworking and photography. He said he also wants to do consulting on school management.