Don't take public education for granted

08/26/2014 9:41 PM

08/27/2014 3:57 AM

In Wake County, the state’s largest school system, some 156,000 and counting students were back in school this week. And in what is a remarkable feat of derring-do, most things worked smoothly.

Teachers perform miracles, it’s true. But the running of such a system is a miracle in itself: Buses have to be scheduled, enough teachers hired and in the classroom by that first day, food bought and prepared, supplies stored, classrooms decorated, curricula designed and extracurriculars planned.

In the first week, and in every week thereafter, some of the kindergartners will melt down at the change in leaving home, and in every school students of all ages will go to the office to take medicines or to be disciplined (the principal’s office still is a big deal) or because they’re sick and someone has to figure out how to get in touch with a working parent.

Ah, parents. Some will visit the office several times this first week with everything from separation anxiety (theirs) to complaints about bus service to special food requirements. Others will be seen the first day and not thereafter. Teachers no doubt prefer someone in between.

Teachers, we hope, will begin the year with adequate supplies, but it won’t be long before they’re off to Target to resupply out of their own pockets. More affluent schools will have fundraisers to cover the multitude of extras not in the school budget. Others will just do without.

At one Wake elementary school toward the end of the last school year, a teacher was overheard telling a principal her pencil sharpener was broken. “Do we have some money for that?” the teacher asked. “I’m sorry, no,” said the principal.

A miracle worker can’t get a pencil sharpener?

At middle schools and high schools, the complexities of education are multiplied: science projects and sports and a multitude of clubs and after-school projects and plays and challenges designed to get youngsters in those impressionable years inspired and interested with an eye toward college.

Parents will to some degree watch in awe as their kids take on homework that seems far harder and greater than that the parents endured. Two hours, perhaps three, a night is not unusual for the most ambitious students. It’s true: School standards are tougher, the measuring by testing is more frequent and the pressure is greater than it was for parents.

Some kids handle the pressures fine, but others will need counseling to get through. And there is variation in how much parents can help their kids. Those who work may not have the time they need, and those of lower educational levels themselves may not have the knowledge. But teachers see, every year, determination in students that drives some to achieve no matter what their backgrounds.

And they see as well parents wishing for their children the chances they never had, the horizons they never reached due perhaps to circumstances beyond their control. It does not matter that some children have state-of-the-art computers and designer clothes and others have neither. Public education gives them all a chance.

Yes, our public schools have been much criticized, unfortunately of late by self-serving politicians who have actually used underpaid and overworked public school teachers as targets. But every day, from dawn until dark, custodians and principals and classroom teachers and coaches and cafeteria workers and bus drivers pull off the miracle, somehow, and then do it for another day and another and another.

Merlin and David Copperfield had nothing on them. Many a military leader aware of what public school people do would be happy to have them consult on logistics and battlefield strategy. It’s simply amazing, this institution called public education, and we forget that sometimes while we’re taking it for granted.

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