Saturday, March 21, 1998
It's about time public schools get recognized

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The words public schools bring a thousand thoughts to my mind. Not one has to do with statistics, money or state legislatures. Every one has to do with people.

I am at Wyoming High School's National Honor Society induction, talking with students who are considering Stanford and Princeton universities and Williams College. One plans to be a doctor, another an engineer, the third a teacher.

I am smiling outside the media center at Stewart Elementary in Sharonville, as kindergartners hover over computers, talking about ''icons'' and ''booting things up.''

I listen in at Aiken High School, where 12th-graders hear the finer points of going off to college - how to handle time, class loads, even credit cards. Advice comes from previous Aiken graduates, on holiday breaks, who are off to colleges scattered across the country.

I listen as a little girl enters her classroom at Rothenberg Elementary 10 minutes late. Tears stream down her face as she apologizes to her teacher. There were no clean clothes in her house. She had to sort through laundry baskets to find something she could wear to school. Her teacher holds her close and tells her she is proud of her for coming.

And I remember a grinning 16-year-old boy who delivers a homemade gingerbread house to his high school English teacher at Christmas. He has not only created it with his sister, he brings it on the school bus, a very brave act considering the razzing he would take from his buddies.

That last one I remember in great detail. The gingerbread house sat on my kitchen counter for months.

A week of their own

Perhaps it is not surprising that an old public-school English teacher like me would feel a burst of pride at the beginning of the first Public Schools Week. The truth is, we all should.

Public schools belong to all of us, whether or not we have children in them, attended them, or own homes within a school district. One of the most powerful and positive things we have done as a nation is to decide that all American children should have the right, privilege and option of a public education. It is something we have done together, a shared value, and it unites us as Americans.

It is a vast undertaking, and a work constantly under way. We still struggle with issues of access, equity and sometimes of quality. But it is a valiant struggle, because those have become our goals for public schools, and for every American child. Public schools miss sometimes, but hit far more often, and when they do it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Many times I have been fortunate enough to sit in a classroom or cafeteria with children of vastly different economic, racial and religious backgrounds and academic abilities, and see them come together as classmates and friends. Some people get a lump in their throats on the Fourth of July. I save mine for those days around the lunchroom table.

And, perhaps somewhat strangely, I feel oddly reassured in the midst of arguments over tax levies and curriculum, and even state funding and proficiency tests. I don't mind seeing people fight to make schools better. Only the most naive among us would think it easy.

Colleagues, not adversaries

Like parochial and private schools, public schools have contributed much to the intellectual, economic and moral life of this nation. Their graduates take their place in medicine, law, business, education, religion, the arts. Their staffs include some of the most creative, devoted and professional people I have ever met.

If, over the past two decades or so, we have somehow been forced into a corner educationally, feeling that public, private and parochial schools are adversaries and that we must choose a ''side,'' let us free ourselves of such limited and damaging notions. All schools have strengths. All have missions. All face challenges. And all deserve our interest and support.

This coming week, public schools will get their turn in the spotlight. They're celebrating today, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Forest Fair Mall with more than 150 exhibits.

Stop by. Say hi. Say ''Wow.'' Better yet, say thanks.

Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.