Radical educational experiment ends with whimper

I turn my car for the last time onto this campus, here to get my 6-year-old son on his last day of kindergarten. My first- and second-born sons attended the inaugural year of this school in the fourth and second grades, respectively, and both graduated from elementary here.

So, why do I feel like I’ve just turned my car into Arlington National Cemetery?

Oh the memories. I watched them build this place. Brick by brick. The architecture is one of a kind. Every line, every color, every angle has intention. I watched the landscapers nestle this building into a desert paradise.

An energy gathered here. A revolution. A huge Petri dish for a radical experiment in education. What if we stopped pounding kids into the John Dewey mold? What if teaching a 5-year-old to sit quietly at a desk was not the victory we thought it was, and was instead an actual impedance to development and learning?

What if mediocrity and conformity were not our abiding guides? What if we paid attention to cutting-edge research, and especially brain research as it pertains to early childhood development? What if we admitted that standardized testing of pretty much any child younger than 8 yielded not much more information other than which children were good at taking tests?

What if we pried early elementary-age children out of the grasp of our culture’s narcissistic parenting patterns and actually offered them an environment conducive to their own optimum development? Rote teaching, preplanned curriculums, rote assessments — these things make modern parents feel comfortable and secure. What if, instead, we aimed solely at the best possible education for children, and expected parents to simply deal with it?

What if we scheduled a developmentally appropriate length of school day for a kindergartener, and based that decision on serious research, instead of turning our concerns to appeasing parents inconvenienced by two carpool pickups?

What if nothing mattered more than teaching children to think critically?

The phrase "wag the dog" keeps nagging me.

These very sidewalks once hummed with excitement and optimism. I was energized every time I set foot on this campus, and jumped at every chance I had to be here. I am eternally grateful to the people who fought hard, economically speaking, for my children to attend here, seeing as how my hopelessly middle-class income couldn’t touch the tuition and fees.

Stephen, Beth, Serena, Jennifer — for the record, many of us parents saw your vision. We were uplifted by your unwavering optimism and your unrelenting advocacy for the best interests of our children. Strangely enough, my fondest memory of ya’ll is you standing curbside every morning like doormen at a five-star hotel, welcoming each student to a new day of learning. Stephen’s mantra? "Work hard; get smart." Still makes me smile.

Emergent curriculum, integrated curriculum, art, music, theater. Rote, schmote — you people stopped pounding data into children and instead coaxed learning out of them like a devoted farmer romances fruits and vegetables out of the soil. Education, from the Latin educare … "to call out." In the end, a classical education calls the Self out of the self. Yip. Nobody did it better.

These leaders today are welcomed nationally like rock stars where they now consult and train and invite other educators to the revolution. And none of them works here anymore. Five of the eight teachers of preschool and kindergarten plus the director have "resigned." It’s an exodus.

This experiment is over, swallowed up by … by … oh, I don’t know what. It’s here that my imagination takes over. Inspiration, beauty, excellence — these things must take us to places unfamiliar. And unfamiliar is not a place that most people can abide happily for long. This institution has set a new course, which, of course, it has every right to do. It will now be doing something … else. And the parents will be happier. OK then.

So, public education, after a many-year hiatus, here I come. The last of my three sons will enter the first grade at Staton Elementary. Staton, welcome to "the village" charged with the task of collectively raising my boy. I’ll be right there with you to support, to hold up my end, but I expect you to know what you’re doing. Because I’m not an educator. I expect my son’s teachers to be passionate, well-trained and alive. I’m counting on you to protect him from "No Child Left Behind" and other such political self-massage. I expect your teachers to like children. Really.

I’m counting on you not to anesthetize my boy’s brain or his spirit.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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