At some level, we all believe in the importance of public education. Our public schools aspire to help all children achieve their potential. Our public schools strive to endow all children with the skills and knowledge they need to become productive and engaged citizens. Our public schools aim to bring children together from all parts of town, and from all walks of life, in a common social enterprise.
It was at Classical High School that my own belief took shape. As my teachers prepared me for my college studies, my classmates introduced me to a variety of ideas and perspectives from every Providence community. This second education was at times difficult, but its lessons have only grown in value in my life as a parent and as a citizen.
Around fifteen years ago, I returned to the neighborhood where I grew up. Things had changed. Two thirds of the children attended private school, as parents who themselves had attended public school felt deep concerns about the quality, and in many cases, the safety, of the local public schools.
Matters came to a head two years ago when the School Department proposed closing our neighborhood’s low-performing middle school. Officials proposed selling the building for condos, using the proceeds and tax revenues to pay for public education in other parts of the City. And then a miracle occurred. Hundreds of residents rose up and demanded their right to send their children to a well-functioning public school. As the emails, telephone calls, letters and meetings mounted, officials realized that this neighborhood really did believe in public education. And they responded with a commitment to re-open Nathan Bishop as a model school that could benefit the entire district.
These parents realized, however, that a belief in public education must be sustained with civic engagement. They joined committees to plan the new school and to introduce it to the neighborhood. They organized to advocate for structural reforms throughout the District and the State. At Classical High School, alumni have joined to contribute charitable funds to the school, so that today’s students can have the same opportunities the school has offered throughout its 160-year history. The obstacles along the path of progress are powerful, but so are the rewards, such as my daughter’s orientation night, which featured a cross-section of Providence families that could have passed for a miniature United Nations.
Public education’s gifts extend beyond the children who learn, and the educators who teach, to the parents and citizens who find meaning and purpose in its values. In uniting to improve the public schools, these citizens have demonstrated how their belief lies at the heart of the American Dream and the lively experiment begun by Roger Williams. To paraphrase a saying from the Bible, we can view our belief in public education as equally important to everything else we hold dear, because achieving this one goal can lead to the realization of all of our other hopes and dreams.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.