Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 8, 2005, letter

June 8, 2005

To Whom It May Concern,

Why bother? The deed is already done. My proposal for a small school at North Eugene High School (NEHS) was dismissed because some wrongly imagined that I had ulterior motives. Unfortunately, my detractors won their foray, or so it seems. According to the newspaper, the game is over; the irrevocable has been decided upon. So ‘good riddance’ should be my happy ending, but it is not. Though NEHS will surely ignore my work, perhaps others one day will find it helpful.

Regarding the irrevocable, I call, “Foul!” The Big Picture School with enrollment capped at 100 is nothing more than a naked grab at Eugene’s home-schooling population. If it is truly something more than that, then it is irresponsible in the extreme.

If home schooling is done well under the supervision of very committed and intelligent parents, it can be an effective means of educating a child. However, if the parental supervision and commitment is not there and/or the parents lack the intelligence and knowledge base to competently teach a subject, home schooling can be a disaster. I have seen it firsthand both ways as a close outside observer. The successes were wonderful. The failures were nothing but sad.

My understanding of the ground rules for the design of NEHS’s small schools was that each school was required to have a true cross section of the student body present in its enrollment, including problem students and those designated as ‘special education’ students. I cannot believe that the Big Picture School will include the full range of students as required. How then has it passed muster? It is nothing more than a ‘special case’ school for ‘special case’ students: i.e. those who successfully home school.

I will state in its defense that the Big Picture School is a clever way to gain more tax dollars for NEHS in a way that will likely prove successful in upping the overall performance of NEHS by standard measures, especially if I am correct that the narrow intent of the school is to serve the existing home-schooling community without actively adding to their numbers. But I question whether cleverness alone is enough to make the Big Picture School something more than disingenuous as a Gates Foundation small school. Perhaps I am seeing darkness where there is nothing but light. I hope so.

Regarding the irrevocable, I am outraged by one simple word used deliberately (?) by Register-Guard reporter Anne Williams in her June 2, 2005, article “North Eugene small schools taking shape” in which she describes the School of the Arts at North Eugene (SANE) curriculum thusly: “Will focus on visual arts, writing, performing arts, humanities, math or science, and internships and projects.” Or!! Did I correctly read: math OR science? Of course, it SHOULD read AND, i.e. math and science. But I wonder if what should be the case is in truth not the case—that “or” is in fact the correct and intended word.

I am no fool born yesterday regarding the fine arts. All of the true career ambitions I have ever had in my life were related to the arts. First, I wanted to be an architect. Then, my interests changed to theater and film as an actor, director, and set designer. After that, I wanted to be a studio artist, meaning painter and sculptor. And finally, even now, I want to be a writer. I married a truly great visual artist who has had drawings and cartoons published in national magazines and who has been exhibited in one-person shows, group shows, and traveling shows by museums and galleries. Both of my children have the artist in them, one as a writer and one as a visual artist. I sing in one of the finest choirs in the Northwest. I was a child actor with lead roles in operettas, and I spent one summer of my life in a summer stock theater company that included university undergraduates and graduates, and assorted theater professionals in the casts and crews. After the summer stock experience, I was actively involved in independent theater productions for a while. And, for a brief while, I once had an art gallery. And, finally, I own a blues/rock/folk/jazz/classical record album collection that numbers in the thousands!

The Arts are the best! There is nothing grander than the Theater! To sing is to experience the Sublime! As Bob Dylan wrote, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge—someday I’ll make it mine.” God help the artists, for there is no greater blessing and no greater curse than to be an artist. It is more than a way of thinking and more than a way of feeling; being an artist is a way of life, a way of being. It is a totality that is inescapable, and it is at once both glorious and ruinous. Do not wish it on people, and do not make it easy. The true artists will find their way to it because it is who they are; they cannot be otherwise. Everyone else should learn appreciation for the Arts and perhaps become skilled in a craft or two, but do not lead people on to any pretensions. Even some of the greatest artists in world history could not pay their bills through sales of their artwork.

It is wrong to deny an average high school student a proper education so he/she can overly focus on visual arts, creative writing, and/or performing arts. I use the word “average” deliberately. The occasional (read: rare) genius simply must go and meet his/her destiny, but those people are not “average.” Mere mortals must live mundane lives working mundane jobs to get by—and a whole lot of artists must do the same, too. In the proposed SANE school, please be sane about this. Simply tell the truth, and start by informing all SANE students that a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Oregon is a five-year program totaling 220 credits, including satisfaction of general university requirements for the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Science degree—and that means academic achievement is required, not just studio achievement.

The very scary thing about SANE for me is that I probably would have enrolled my daughter Liesel in that school, and to do so would have been a huge mistake. E-4J middle schools do not clearly uncover a student’s potentials and interests, and I am an attentive parent stating this. My wife and I knew that Liesel was extraordinarily gifted as a visual artist, but we were absolutely clueless about her keen interest and best-in-class abilities in the sciences. Liesel did not even know this interest and ability in the sciences about herself until she enrolled in Chemistry as a high school freshman. It was a love-at-first-sight experience, and it has not diminished. In fact, if anything, the experience has made Liesel seriously question who she is because her being is very much the artist and very much the scientist—and how those two will become one in her life is not at all clear to her at this time. Liesel excels in both the visual arts (she is one of three Register-Guard 20-Below staff artists) and the sciences (she finished the AP Chemistry school year with the highest grade in the class, and she is only a sophomore). So which of NEHS’s four small schools would we enroll Liesel in now? Certainly not SANE.

I created School U.S.A. (SUSA) for students like Liesel and my older daughter Eva, and their contemporaries Katie Walro, Javier Hernandez, and Monica Joseph. These five students (and others like them) are very smart, and none of the four small schools NEHS has chosen truly meet the needs and abilities these students possess. The Walros did not choose International High School for Katie even when doing so would have been immensely more convenient. Likewise, we did not choose International High School for our daughters. Instead, the Walros and we specifically chose NEHS because of its emphasis on Advanced Placement classes for its best students. I cannot speak for the Walros, but I know we have never regretted our decision to enroll our daughters at NEHS even though South Eugene High School is within easy walking distance of our home.

The following seven-page description of SUSA is entirely my own. Eva read it and suggested that more Advanced Placement classes should be offered as options, but otherwise the ideas and descriptions are mine. I have tried to create an inclusive school, and I think I have succeeded in that effort. Of course, extraordinarily smart students should never be dumbed down or even slowed down, so the challenge is to somehow open the ground floor doors to let others in. SUSA accomplishes this feat in what I consider to be a reasonable fashion. If a student—any student—wants in, that student is welcomed. What is more, that student is sincerely helped as needed to get up to speed so academic success in the SUSA program is not a wishful thought but an attainable goal.

SUSA clearly fulfills the requirements set forth by the Gates Foundation. If NEHS does not institute SUSA, some other high school somewhere else will. My prediction is that SUSA would draw heavily from all over the Eugene-Springfield community if any local high school gave it a home. Not everyone is enamored with International High School, and even some who have chosen it have chosen it because they do not see a better alternative available. I think many would clearly recognize SUSA as the superior choice for our community’s best students, and that parents would drive across the city if necessary to allow their children to attend the school.

Smart children are children at risk. SUSA cares for smart children. E-4J should, too.

Finally, SUSA is not project-based, not at all. SUSA is a school that will attempt to find and unlock the genius in its students. It will strive to birth intellectual creativity in its students’ minds, and to do so in a way that gives courage to individual self-expression. SUSA recognizes that high school is a preparation for higher education, and that the knowledge base to be mastered in high school to aid success at the next level is significant enough that straightforward classic general classes are more appropriate and beneficial than anything else could be.

SUSA is not for everyone. But for those who would choose SUSA, no other school would even come close as a second choice.


Steven A. Sylwester

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