Most of us are products of public education – and we turned out okay

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BETTY DEVOS HAD an anti-public schools reputation in Michigan before being “awarded” the nation’s top education post by a president bent on destroying the system.

By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader

It is heartbreaking to hear the constant disparaging of public education – particularly when it comes mostly from the White House and the national czar for schools, the infamous Betty DeVos. She shared her dim view of the future of public education in Indianapolis this week. Her pessimism is light years away from many of our realities.

Growing up in Gary, Indiana, I attended Garnett Elementary School. Early influences were Coach Bell, second grade teacher Mrs. Hampton, fourth grade teacher Mrs. Scott (who let me stage my first original play in class), Principal Mrs. Bufkin (Johnson) and even the librarian, Mrs. Paige. It was a nurturing environment.

Then on to Beckman Middle School where Mr. Davis inspired my artistic skills, Mrs. McCullough got me excited about French, and English teachers Mr. Bondurant and Mrs. Lumpkin encouraged me to continue writing – constantly providing tips and positive reinforcement when they read my work.

If you grew up in midtown, you dreamed of the day that you’d become a student at the legendary Gary Theodore Roosevelt High School where expectations were high from the top down, as respected Principal Warren “The Hawk” Anderson patrolled the hallowed hallways at 25th and Harrison with his larger-than-life presence.

The “Velt” is where many of us came of age. I remember teachers like Coach Dowdell, whose gruff exterior belied his deep compassion for students. There was Mrs. Evans, who told my 10th grade English classmates that someday they would read my work in newspapers or magazines. Mrs. Williamson made learning French fun and had us all trying to avoid her playful punishment, “the treatment.”

How could I ever forget Mrs. Bennett, who knew I was terrible in her Algebra 3X class so she let me write a math poem in lieu of my final exam. Gary Career Center Radio-TV teacher Ernie Nims introduced me to Indiana University. And motorcycle riding, dark shades wearing, bald to the bone Coach Leek was the quintessential cool and smart one.

Indelibly etched memories abound. In 1968, the Gary Roosevelt Panthers basketball team was the first from the Steel City to win a state championship.

Hearing phrases pounded into our heads over four years heralding the storied Roosevelt tradition and “Panther Pride,” infused the mindset of our being winners well beyond athletic competition. We knew that the odds were against us in a racist society. Yet we were reassured – beyond any doubt – that we had what it took to succeed.

Panthers excelled academically and fell in love with learning. Our confidence and self-esteem were cultivated. Planted within us were seeds of perseverance. We learned the meaning of civic duty, work ethic, honor, integrity and humility. We formed lifetime friendships. What more could a child ask of his or her school experience?

Are things the same today as they were then? Of course not. There are serious problems. Like society, public schools have suffered over time. But a decision to abandon ship rather than divert resources and energy to righting the course is a national disgrace.

If Education Secretary Betty DeVos and the White House get their way, cruel and craven cuts will hamper or eliminate such staples as after-school and summer programs, child nutrition programs, class-size reduction, community schools and the support parents rely on to insure their children have the best possible education.

The budget plan offered by DeVos is counterproductive and fiscally unsound.

For example, every dollar invested in after-school programs saves $9 by increasing kids’ future earning potential, improving their performance at school, and reducing crime and welfare costs, according to a study by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. And this hypocritical president committed to eradicating violent crimes in our urban areas.

Studies have shown that regular participation in after-school programs and community learning centers increases achievement in math and reading, school attendance, homework completion, class participation, improved classroom behavior and lower dropout rates. In addition, eight in 10 parents say after- school programs help them keep their jobs.

The horrendous plan on the table right now would also cut college work-study programs in half, public service loan forgiveness, and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework, and other services as the result of a $10.6 billion slash of federal public education initiatives.

DeVos champions private schools. She and the White House want to increase by $1.4 billion, funding for charter schools and school vouchers. The administration plan is to provide tax credits to corporations and individuals who donate money to groups and schools that provide school choice scholarships to students and parents.

This is war. The proposed education budget of the president and education secretary will still require uncertain congressional approval. The reality is stranger things have happened and this is far too important to leave to chance.

Every person who cares about children should contact their Senate and House representatives the moment this contemptuous and inhumane proposal surfaces in Congress. Sitting this one out is a luxury most working people can ill afford.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: vernonawilliams@yahoo.com.

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