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Category Archives: museums & events

What would you do to change education if you ruled the world?

That’s how Jon Snyder began the Bank Street Niemeyer Panel at the Times Center on 41st Street – March 1, 2010.

The discussion: Race, Class, and Reform.

The panelists: Irving Hamer Jr., Peter McFarlane, Michael Nettles, Jeannie Oakes, and David Sciarra.

The mental image of James Cagney closing White Heat on top of an oil tank, talking at the sky – shouting – “Top of the World Ma! Top of the World!” And then Pow! White light!

The memory of that Tears for Fears song – What is that ringing at the beginning of the song? – A synthesizer? – “Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back…”

As ruler, Peter McFarlane, Principal at the Hugo Newman College Preparatory School,  desires more community engagement. His comment – “moving schools from mediocre to greatness” – reminded me of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Jim Collins also wrote a monograph appending his book: Good to Great in the Social Sector. It distinguished between the measurements of greatness in the corporate world from those in the social sector. While the processes are elementally the same, the measurements are different.

What is a good school? What is a great school? It is easy to differentiate between bad and good – the two are polar. The distinction between good and great is far more difficult – there is a finer line identifying the two.

I’ve given good schools a lot of thought. I agreed with parts of the UCLA CRESST report, What Makes a Good School? A good school involves parents and the greater community. A great school would involve them in meaningful and transparent ways that promote its overall objectives (as defined by David Labaree and told by Eduwonkette):

  1. to prepare children for their place in the economy
  2. to achieve democratic equality
  3. to nurture social mobility

I believe as Peter believes – community involvement has the potential to transform a mediocre school to a great school.

The community school (by Sarah Fine):

Take neighborhood schools and turn them into community hubs, by extending their hours and broadening their uses. Rather than locking up on weekends and after the dismissal bell each day, a school might keep its facilities open, for use by partner organizations offering tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes. The arrangement is win-win: Service organizations gain facilities and opportunities to collaborate, and families gain a more centralized system of services.

I believe when people are able to personalize an institution, they are much more likely to care about it – nurture and protect it. While it might offer the types of community services Sarah states – “tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes” – it might also be a place to reflect – a place to get away. In a city like New York where the pace of life can run you ragged, a community school might just be the place to go to get absorbed in a book, to write, or to daydream.

But who composes the community? I am opposed to putting up barricades and drawing lines in the sand – dividing space into territories. It is ridiculous in the virtual age – an age where technology and availability of the Internet have furthered the realities of the global village.

The online Encyclopedia of Informal Education provides these three interacting – overlapping – definitions of community:

Place… where people have something in common, and this shared element is understood geographically.

Interest… people are linked together by factors such as religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation or ethnic origin.

Communion… In its weakest form we can approach this as a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea (in other words, whether there is a ‘spirit of community’). In its strongest form ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter…

Can I propose a “communionity”? A communionity school? A school that would communicate the spirit of a community school on a broader, more inclusive, more open stage?

The communionity school would retain local geographical and cultural characteristics that it would actively transmit to other schools that would do the same. This active sharing would create a more informed holistic system for learning and growing by revealing commonalities and exploring differences among peoples.

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Marita doesn’t need a brand-new school with acres of playing fields and gleaming facilities. She doesn’t need a laptop, a smaller class, a teacher with a PhD, or a bigger apartment. She doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as Chris Langan’s. All those things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance. (Gladwell, Outliers. 2008)

If you were to agree with Malcolm Gladwell, success would be one part cultural legacy, one part family and support, one part perseverance, and one part chance (or opportunity).

Milton Hershey is an “outlier.” He is someone who (per Gladwell’s definition) has done something “out of the ordinary.” His parent’s only surviving child, Milton Hershey dropped out of school in the fourth grade because his family moved around a lot. With the collective resources of his mother’s family (who were not rich) an adult Milton Hershey began and ended several failed candy making businesses.

A trip to Colorado (where he learned to make caramel from milk) after another failed attempt at starting a candy making business and a trip to The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (where he first saw and eventually purchased chocolate-making machinery)  laid the foundation for the creation of “the largest producer of quality chocolate in North America and a global leader in chocolate and sugar confectionery.”

Building off Gladwell’s definition of “outlier,” I would like to say Milton Hershey was a  “true outlier.”  He was someone who did something “out of the ordinary” with his success. Milton Hershey used the fortune earned from his success to build a “complete community around his factory.” To discourage comparisons to the stereotypical factory town, Hershey requested architects vary the look and feel of houses as they would look like in any other town or community.

I am sure if we dug deep enough we could find evidence that would attribute his desire to build a community rather than a factory town is a result of the frequent family moves he experienced as a child and his adult understanding of the importance of strong family ties. (His mother’s family was essential in providing him with the opportunities to engage in his candy ventures.)

As a “true outlier,” someone who applies the lessons and rewards of his or her success towards the greater public good, Hershey (more specifically his wife) founded the Milton Hershey School – “the nation’s largest, cost-free, private, co-educational home and school for children from families of low income, limited resources and social need.”

To its students, the Milton Hershey School (MHS) represents that “chance” Malcolm Gladwell speaks about in Outliers.

For a century, MHS has served as a transforming environment for children in need. Boys and girls who hail from different social and ethnic backgrounds, but are connected by surroundings that threaten their ability to realize their dreams, come together as one family, under one roof, on the rolling green campus in Hershey, PA.

100_YrsI was moved by Cynthia Wade’s film on MHS, Living the Legacy: The Untold Story of the Milton Hershey School. I saw it at a MWW Group event celebrating MHS’s centennial. There was a reception before the screening that included a signature dessert created by MHS culinary students and a panel of Hershey company executives and MHS alumni afterwards moderated by Phylicia Rashād and Paula Patton.

Jerrica Bechtold’s story was the most dramatic in the film. The eldest child and only daughter of a crack-addicted mother and a somewhat absent father (partially because he was serving a jail term), Jerrica had the toughest situation to contend with (beginning with the simple fact that only one of her two brothers was accepted into the school). Despite her initial desire to follow the rules and get good grades, the film documents her descent into potential expulsion. Frustrated, her counselor  asks her quite plainly to make a decision: Stay or go?

You can see the desire in her eyes for “normality” as she has defined it. And you hear about her reaction to the disappointing reality of her home life from her house parents at the school, teachers, and counselor. However, as one reviewer put it, the film seems a little “superficial.”

Somewhere someone made the decision to include the story of two boys at the school (though that story was not as developed as Jerrica’s). Instead of adding to the film, the story of the two boys is distracting. Thinking about the film, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective to focus on the story of Jerrica and her family, peppering it with the “cameo-like” reflections from other students on similar circumstances?

The film had a fair amount of these reflections and they worked to bring the points being made home. However, a stronger, more focused storyline was needed to fully carry the film into greater depths. As it is now, neither the two boys or Jerrica gets enough screen time to make the movie poignant.

But regardless, the film did succeed in changing my shopping behavior. Hershey will certainly be my first choice in chocolate and candy products from now on. Until I saw the film, I never thought of Milton Hershey as a dedicated philanthropist and humanitarian.