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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Making Public Schools Work in Tough Places : POSSIBLE LIVES by Mike Rose Houghton Mifflin $24.95, 454 pages

November 26, 1995|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is a big-shouldered book, full of ardor. Mike Rose, who teaches education and writing at UCLA, believes that democracy and the public school in America are inseparable.

He actually believes that American public schools can do a good job, and in some places are.

Rose has been all over the country, and in careful and affectionate prose he shows public education working, against the odds, in some very difficult places that many people have given up on. Most of the students he encountered were poor, and too many strikes had already been called against them at too young an age.

For 3 1/2 years, Rose went from Watts to Santa Monica to Pasadena to Calexico to Baltimore, Chicago, New York, eastern Kentucky, Mississippi, rural Montana and Tucson.

He went to places where people told him he could find success stories. When James Bryant Conant, former president of Harvard, finished his 1959 book on the American high school, I asked him in an interview how you could recognize a good school. "It's easy," he said. "A good school is where the teachers are enthusiastic about what they are doing--no matter what it is."

That is exactly what Rose found. Teachers who are imaginative, energetic and tough, teachers who believe in themselves and their students can make a difference most people would think unlikely, if not impossible.

A teacher in a nonprofit community science school in New York expresses Rose's own conviction:

"Most kids are in public school. That's where you've got to make the change. The kids hanging out on the corners are not in exclusive academies. You can have some wonderful private schools, but if we don't change the public school system we're going to lose. You can't educate the top 10% well and think the country's going to make it. You've got to educate everyone."

That is what Elena Castro is doing with her third-graders in Dool Elementary School in Calexico. Monolingual in Spanish herself when she entered kindergarten in Calexico, Castro struggled through the first grade, often reprimanded for not paying attention to instructions she couldn't understand. In the second grade a Mexican American teacher saved her by explaining the instructions in Spanish. That is what Castro is doing now.

" Por favor, Jorge, dibuje quince despues de las tres ." Jorge jumps up and fills in the clock hands on the board to make them read 3:15.

"To be sure," Rose writes, "there are bilingual programs that are poorly conceived and poorly taught. . . . And a small number of Latino cultural nationalists in the past have tried to incorporate bilingual education into a separatist political agenda. But when you sit in Elena Castro's classroom, it's hard to believe that what you're seeing will lead to exclusion and separatism. . . .

"The children's native Spanish was appreciated and utilized, and the use of English encouraged and guided. Both were used to communicate, solve problems, learn things, reflect on intellectual work and make connections to the world outside. . . . The children in Room 42 were becoming civic beings."

That is Rose's sturdy credo, that public education can make children civic beings, and must. It is a creed that lies deep in American history. It is the rock upon which rests the concept of education as America's secular religion.

Rose's book, detailed, meticulous, offers us a reasonable hope that with attention and care we can again make public education what it was meant to be, and must yet be.

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