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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON YOUTH VIOLENCE

Inadequate Schools, Pressure to Standardize Can Dehumanize Kids . . .

April 01, 2001|JESSE PHELPS | Jesse Phelps is an instructor at Laurel Springs School in Ojai

It's time to change the way we school our children.

Lately I find it difficult to read the news. As depressing as the hunger and warfare that continue to plague the planet and more damaging than stock market fluctuations are the incidents of school violence across our nation. They are symptomatic not of the "decaying moral fiber of America" but something far more insidious: the dehumanization of our children through social pressures and inadequate public schools.

The issue is conformity. Beginning with early childhood, we direct our children through subtle actions--buying toy trucks for our sons and dolls for our daughters--and that is only the beginning. The process of standardized socialization continues when children enter school and are expected, even required, to learn information in the same way.

They read, listen to lectures and take tests. They get a minimum of play time at recess. At night many watch television, which bombards them with contrived representations of youth and perfection, and they begin to feel inadequate if their own lives don't match the images they see.

Children learn to value or devalue themselves in terms of whether they live up to standardized definitions of beauty and intelligence. The child who struggles to keep up learns to think of himself or herself as dumb or worthless, while others begin to develop a sense of superiority.

Kids, particularly teenagers, need acknowledgment from their parents, teachers and peers. Children need some form of discipline and honest guidance. They blossom when educators understand and foster their full potential.

We need to reorganize the social and educational development of America's youth. We need to create educational methods that take into account the many different learning styles and use them to feed students' diverse talents.

All too often, children are limited in the feedback they are allowed to give and ostracized for questioning facts or representations put forth by their instructors and parents. In a typically overcrowded classroom, teachers simply don't have the time or energy to commit to a student who has an original line of thought.

Other students are too busy trying to understand a concept from the day before, or falling asleep or throwing paper airplanes or passing notes. Many are inevitably mislabeled as having attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and shunted into special needs or remedial classes. Thus both gifted and special needs students are left behind, not honored for the gifts they truly possess.

I teach at a distance learning program. My students, many of them home-schooled refugees from chaotic social spheres, choose classes from a range of options tailored to match the ways they learn. I give my students a learning styles profile that helps the parents and me understand how to tap each child's unique brilliance.

These kids avoid the daily ridicule that, for so many, accompanies the school experience. Instead, from an early age, they learn to follow their passions. I work with parents and students in concert, creating a productive learning team.

How much better off would our children--and public schools as a whole--be if every parent had a personal relationship with his or her child's teachers?

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I went to both public and private high schools. I doubt I could have survived either without the dedicated support I received from my own mom.

In the end, confidence and emotional health are far more important than grades or scores. We need to find ways to promote these in every child. School funding to reduce class sizes and improve the methods of instruction should be a top priority, implemented across the board, regardless of standardized test performance. Why deny those who need most?

President Bush campaigned on a platform of educational reform, citing time and again statistics that supposedly proved Texas' superiority in public school improvement. Bush would be wise, however, to seek out and listen to experts concerned not with standardized test scores but with child development.

Colleges across the nation are debating dropping the Scholastic Aptitude Test as an entrance requirement, the alternative education market is booming and there are great reasons why. The president should stop and think about what he sacrificed in Texas in the pursuit of higher test scores. If he can gain a wider understanding and champion real educational policy shifts, he might truly earn the moniker Reformer with Results.

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