The basics of education include being there

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 5, 2009

When I was in grade school, it was always smart to get the Asian-American kids to sit on the front row of the auditorium on awards days. It would save time since they would be going to the stage so often, especially to pick up perfect attendance trophies.

Today, the Vicksburg Warren School District starts its 10th week of classes for the 2009-2010 school year.

Last week in Washington, President Barack Obama, who believes the nation’s chief executive is also the super-superintendent of education, said he thinks the future will be brighter if schools are operated year-around. (No disrespect to the president. He’s just the latest in a long line of presidents from both parties who forgot that local schools were never better than when their schedules were a matter of local, not national concern.)

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

Days before Obama weighed in, The Vicksburg Post had a news story — ostensibly to report that attendance was “back to normal” after heavy absences due to early-season colds and flu, including Swine Flu. The kicker in the story, at least to this old-timer, was that having 350 students miss a school day was “normal.”

Given a student body of 9,000, that calculates (using the math I learned in Vicksburg public schools) to about 4 percent or two empty seats on a 50-seat bus every day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the mists of my memory it seems like it was a big deal when any student was absent back when I was at Grove Street (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Thanks to my dutiful parents, I could pull the records from a box at home, but I don’t think I missed more than six days in six years. (No trophy, but not bad.)

More than a few things are different today. For one thing, there’s a direct admonition from state health officials to keep home any kid who has fever and, thus, may spread contagion. When I was in school (and Noah was building the ark) it took more than a sniffle to get a day off. I think there were just as many diseases and fewer cures, but that’s not important.

Of course, it’s not just illness that keeps kids out. Some parents will take a child out for a shoe sale, an impromptu vacation or because Aunt Birdie is visiting from Tutwiler. Again, in my day (when the polar ice caps were beginning to melt) being at school on a school day was as certain as the dog saving his most ferocious fit of barking for the mailman.

There were no inducements to be at school, either. No candy at the end of the week for showing up every day. No exemption from tests, no “movie day” as a reward (although it would have been a film strip day). Just the trophies for the Sit, the Chung, the Wong and the Koh kids at year’s end.

These days public schools here and elsewhere dangle treats of all kinds to encourage attendance. Of course, cynics will say that’s only because their state funding is based on average daily attendance and a mere 1 percent improvement in a year can yield $500,000 or so.

Poor schools. Everybody wants to fix them and there’s really nothing wrong at the core level. Teachers still do all they’ve ever done, but with a lot of extraneous frou-frou added to try to stifle criticism from onlookers and higher-ups.

Even this president is joining with others as the chorus of “change” rings across the land.

One day we’ll realize that it’s the so-called fundamentals that matter most. Parents who get their children to school because they set school and schoolwork as priorities in their children’s lives will see good results. Those who don’t, won’t. Other aspects may play a role, but the basics such as being there are, well, basic — and that will never change.