Skills Replace Frills
In some schools at least, and the results are gratifying
TERRENCE Swilley was dismissed from Chicago’s public schools as unteachable. In his first year of high school he had a straight F average. The school board placed him in a private inner-city school for grades 1 through 12. Mr. Swilley graduated from that school with a straight A average, a member of the National Honor Society, and he is now studying engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
That private school is in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, its student body is all black, and it is only one of several schools established in impoverished communities to show that poverty need not inhibit learning. Its curriculum has shifted from the usual experimental enrichment programs to the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics. It stresses discipline and self-respect. Its founder, after teaching for years in inner-city schools, decided that an important need of the children was not being met, namely, their acquiring self-respect and self-esteem. Everyone needs to respect himself, and needs to meet certain standards to merit that respect.
Another school that has replaced frills with the teaching of basic skills is the Beasley Academic Center. It is a public elementary school in a school district that includes the poorest community in the city of Chicago. Beasley was organized in 1978 by Dr. Alice Blair, who said: “I wanted to demonstrate that children from communities such as Robert Taylor Homes [a housing project] could achieve if people really cared. I wanted to dispel the notion that, because youngsters are poor or come from poverty homes they cannot achieve.” She has succeeded. In two years the school’s 1,200 pupils have excelled in reading and mathematics. In these subjects they rank third among some 600 of the city’s elementary schools. They are well above the national average for students of their age.
The school’s philosophy is, “Students must do well.” It is expected of them, and they meet these expectations. Parents are involved. They are required to sign pledges that the assigned homework will be done and that they, the parents, will be responsible for discipline. Students must learn one poem a week. They hear it in good English, practice it at home in good English before their parents, and recite it before the class in good English.
In New York city, private schools that have cracked down on the frills are stressing the basic skills—the easy electives are de-emphasized. There is a return to stricter discipline and more stringent dress codes. Special student smoking lounges have been closed, tardiness and cutting classes are penalized, free periods are now structured with study halls, and students are no longer allowed to leave school at will during the day. “There was a philosophy to let the child find his own way,” the headmaster of one school said. “I think it has proved not to be so successful.” In many cases the demand for these private schools to return to the traditional, conservative methods came from parents.
Dr. Ronald Edmonds, chief instruction officer of New York City public schools, said that “the evidence is overwhelming that school districts all across the country” are moving in this direction. “In the past five years,” he said, “there has been a virtual avalanche of state action from Oregon to Florida in which legislatures in nearly 40 states have taken action that imposes competency standards and tests to measure competency on public schools.”