While some social policy formulators are advocating rigorous teaching methods in the formal skills for disadvantaged children, they are tending to enroll their own youngsters in schools that are more open, more permissive, and that tend to give increasing emphasis to the arts and the humanities.
Many observers are beginning to view schooling in the United States as excessively pre-ordered and sequenced. They see the growth of a factory model for education in the United States, in which “productivity” is analyzed in terms of prespecified changes in human behavior. Americans tend to assume that the development of an educated person is something like the development of a rocket or an automobile.”
— The Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders, 1968
INDIANAPOLIS — The 11 underclassmen — six girls and five boys — trickle into Mr. Sharpless’ first period English Lit class at Park Tudor School in clumps of two and three, wearing everything from crewneck sweatshirts to blazers and even a powder-blue Earl Campbell throwback jersey. The assigned reading on this rainy April day is Tim O’Brien’s bestselling novel In the Lake of the Woods, which centers on a rising political star, who is grappling with revelations that he was among the infantrymen who massacred 500 peasants in the Vietnam War, when his wife inexplicably vanishes from their lakeside cabin retreat.
“It’s like Gone Girl,” one teenage boy explains to a visitor who is unfamiliar with the book’s plot, referencing an earlier book that was the basis of a 2014 Hollywood thriller starring Ben Affleck.
“Did anyone else see the disappearance coming?” Sharpless asks, as the last of his charges takes a seat among the desks, which are arranged in an intimate semicircle. He is tall, and avuncular with a professorial mien, befitting a former college professor with an Ivy League Ph.D
“They kind of foreshadowed it, but I did not see that coming,” one girl responds.
The conversation that follows is fluid and full-bodied like a choir’s call-and-response, with Sharpless playing the role of bandleader, deftly instructing first the horn sections and then the strings to plumb themes such as grief, memory, and identity in an effort to help deepen the students’ understanding of the world and their own humanity.
Is O’Brien, Sharpless asks, with his references to God’s forgiveness, subtly questioning whether religion allows us to skirt responsibility for our gravest misdeeds?
“Well, if you can say ‘the Devil made me do it,’ that outsources the blame doesn’t it?” Sharpless asks.
“Oh, right, like in The Stranger” said the lone African-American girl in the class, invoking Albert Camus’ absurdist classic, which the class had read previously.
“This also serves as an introduction to postmodernism,” Sharpless says. “What is reality and what is memory? Is America a good country?”
A girl nods her head emphatically “no.”
Sharpless concludes: “How do you know you’re not a Nazi? How do you know that you are not yourself implicated in profound moral crimes today?”
Jam sessions for the mind
As if on cue, the bell sounds and the children rise in unison and Sharpless explains his approach to teaching.
I typically know what ground I want to cover, but every class is an improv for me. We don’t have a curriculum that’s governed from the top. If you told me that I have to be on page 46 of this book by such and such a date, like they do at some of these charter schools, I probably wouldn’t do well.”
If high school classrooms were concert halls, then Park Tudor would be a House of Blues, where eager young musicians gather five-days-a-week for jam sessions under the watchful eye of empowered teachers like Sharpless. This private college preparatory school on the city’s north side has for decades been widely recognized as Indianapolis’ best high school, and one of the best in the entire country. The city’s elite send their children here — a wing of the school is named after Eli Lilly, the scion of the pharmaceutical giant — Ivy League recruiters are here so often they should pay rent, students’ SAT scores are typically the highest in the state, and every single one of Park Tudor’s graduates — a cool 100 percent — enrolls in a four-year college.
Learning enough to scan barcodes and welcome shoppers
The contradiction is that Park Tudor’s spectacular outcomes and jazzy dialectic stand in stark contrast to the bipartisan privatization efforts of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, which have essentially transformed America’s public schools into the educational equivalent of karaoke bars, or temp employment services, where mostly black and Latino students learn just enough to whip up a mean Starbucks cappuccino or welcome shoppers to Walmart.
Contrary to the rigid core curriculum, impersonal high-stakes testing, and rote learning that have come to characterize public education in the U.S., private institutions like Park Tudor emphasize the elements of a well-rounded liberal-arts education — art, music, language and problem-solving skills — that spark the imagination. Like his peers, Sharpless seldom tests and, when he does, his exams tend to require responses in essay form rather than the standardized “bubble” tests that are par for the course in public schools across the country.
The yawning gap between the kind of schools that America’s ruling class chooses for its own children, and the curriculum it increasingly imposes on other people’s children provides compelling evidence that the plutocrats and policymakers do not view education as a ladder to help lift up the masses, but rather as a tool for reproducing inequality, if not prying the haves and have-nots even farther apart.
Said Park Tudor’s Admissions Director, Shants Hart, who is African-American and took her own children out of public schools to enroll them at Park Tudor:
It was all about ensuring that my kids weren’t subjected to NCLB and Race to the Top. High-stakes testing has really destroyed public education in this country.”
In his classic book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the late Brazilian writer Paulo Freire described curricula similar to today’s school reform as the “banking” model of education, in which teachers “deposit” in a student’s mind only that information they want their students to know. Conversely, Freire wrote, real education occurs when teachers eschew didactic, robotic teaching methods and instead interrogate reality in concert with their students. The difference is acute: while the banking method tends to alienate and bore pupils, imbuing students with agency in their own education is akin to flipping on a high-voltage switch.
Keeping students present and engaged
“You want a brain break?” Christian Jacobs asks the 10 underclassmen in his third-period French class. It is an elaborate trick that Jacobs deploys whenever he detects his charges are a bit fidgety. Nevertheless, the class jumps to its feet and excitedly gathers in a circle tossing a tennis ball around to each other. Each recipient must correctly conjugate a French verb in the first person — Je peux surfer (I can surf) or Je peux jouer à frisbee ultime (I can play ultimate frisbee) — until the entire class is cheering on the two finalists, one black girl and one white girl, neither of whom seems the least bit self-conscious or intimidated by the competition or the spotlight.
“Language comprehension is really tricky,” Jacobs says afterward. To accomplish his goal, he emphasizes storytelling and engagement, fist-bumping students to congratulate their classroom triumphs, pestering distracted boys to écoutez or listen and requiring more advanced learners to create videos on their smartphones in which they imagine themselves or classmates as the Little Prince.
Said Admissions Director Hart:
What we know is that teachers’ expectations of their students is one of the top factors in delivering a quality education. So here at Park Tudor we’re really invested in why one demographic gets one kind of education, while another demographic — mostly people of color — gets another type of education.”
To that end, Park Tudor offers $3.6 million in scholarships annually to help families afford the steep annual high-school tuition of $21,500. The school, Hart says, has not had much success in attracting Latino families, who represent the fastest-growing segment of the city’s population, and tend to favor Catholic schools when they can afford private education. Still, more than a quarter of Park Tudor’s student population is comprised of people of color, almost evenly divided between African-American and Asian.
Teachers not just “passing through”
Park Tudor’s hiring strategy also cuts against the grain of current school-reform efforts. Rather than hiring Teach-for-America types — typically freshly-minted college graduates who plan to teach for a few years before moving onto graduate school or careers in Silicon Valley or Wall Street — Park Tudor prefers teachers who have both expertise in their subject matter and enthusiasm for teaching, and plan to stick around for more than just a few years.
They may not be biology teachers but they’re biologists. We really operate more like a college in some ways. Our teachers usually stay for the long haul. We just believe that if you can be passionate about teaching and are knowledgeable in the subject matter, you can help us provide our students with a quality education.”
Students not just “mailing it in”
A civil servant, Chaka Coleman uses her Earned Income Tax Credit refund check for low-wage workers to send her 18-year-old son Zakwon Williams to Park Tudor. He attended North Central, a nearby public school, as a freshman but she found that it just wasn’t academically rigorous. Zakwon, for instance, was on the football team at North Central but initial grades didn’t even come out until after the season was over. Said Coleman:
None of the kids could be held accountable. My son just wasn’t challenged.The whole reason we chose Park Tudor was because of the teachers. They look him right in the eye and challenge him to do his best. It was definitely an adjustment at first but he’s done well at Park Tudor.”
The moment she knew that she had made the right decision was his sophomore year when he was taking World Civilizations from one of his favorite teachers. Coleman was in the midst of a tirade on patriarchal oppression of women when Zakwon cautioned her not to paint all Muslim women with the same brush just because of their head garb. She recalls her son saying to her:
Mom, just because they wear this head garb doesn’t mean they’re oppressed.”
The big difference between North Central and Park Tudor, Zakwon says, is class size. If his typical class at North Central was between 20 and 25 students, classrooms at Park Tudor average 13 pupils. The smaller class size, in turn, generates more heat, said Zakwon, who plans to enroll at Indiana State University and study marketing.
At Park Tudor, you have to go 110 percent all the time just to keep up. They really drive us to push ourselves and to think outside the box. Park Tudor is just a whole different experience.”
Looking into things: school as guided exploration
History teacher Gracie Krouse teaches World Civilizations. Four years ago, she participated in a teacher-training course that had her splitting time between a public school and private school outside of Boston. She enjoyed both but she had much less autonomy in the public school setting.
There was a lot of standardized testing.”
In her World Civilizations course at Park Tudor, she explains that while Africa is often called the “Dark Continent,” it was really Europe after the Middle Ages that was isolated, unplugged from the rest of the world and backwards. She goes on to say that racism was a predicate for the African slave trade because the Europeans needed to dehumanize the people they brutalized. “I think there’s a natural curiosity about things,” she told MintPress later. “It wouldn’t make sense to shortchange the students.”
Some of the things that I see coming out of the public-school dialogue are more about commodification. The objective at Park Tudor is trying to create learners who are well-balanced and resourceful. It’s less about making a product or a commodity.”
I was raised in public schools and I believe in the mission . . . just not at the moment.”
Top Photo | Park Tudor freshmen during on the first day of school. (Photo: Park Tudor)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”