For my field work project, I chose to do an observation of a public high school and a private high school. The schools I decided to observe were Tottenville Public High School and The Francis School, both of which are located in demographically similar neighborhoods. The purpose for choosing two schools with similar characteristics was to have schools with equal social and economical factors encompassing them. This, I felt would make my findings unbiased within the scope of the project. My rationale for choosing this was to comparatively analyze the differences and similarities between both of the schools, and also to see just how true the stereotype is that private schools are better than public schools.
My first visit was to the Francis School, one of the most distinguishable schools I have ever visited. The school, attended by a mere 200 students, ranged from grades 9-12. It was very clean and freshly painted. When I first walked in the front door of the school, I noticed a large, beautiful mural of the ocean and a lighthouse with what I later learned was the school motto Create the Vision worded across it. I then met with the principal, who informed me about the school. I learned that this school consisted primarily of under-achieving students. Most of the parents chose to send their children there because of their sub-par performance at their prior public school. For a school made up of primarily underachievers, oddly enough, 43 of 44 of last year’s graduates went on to pursue their post-secondary studies. Comparatively, that is a much higher percentage than the 60% of Tottenville graduates who went on to college last year. What is it that is making this school more successful academically?
I asked the principal, who taught for 20 years in public school, what she thought made her school different and, if anything, better than public school. She said there is only one difference and that is control. She explained that they had a greater amount of control on many different levels that public schools do not. The private school has the right to control who stays in the school and who is expelled for failure to adhere to its guidelines. This is not the case in public schools. Another area of control was the fact that the principal as well as all of the staff were required to know every student on a personal level. Because the school is so small, it is easier to regulate what is going on with all of the students as a group as well as on a personal level. She said you can pick any student randomly when the bell rings and I or any other staff member could tell you who they are, what grade they are in, what their family life is like, what their strong qualities are as well as what their week qualities are and how well their grades are. Because of the abundance of students in public schools, this type of control is virtually impossible. This particular type of control to me also allows for a holistic approach to education which I will later discuss. She also explained that in her school there is more control over the lesson plans than there are in public school. For instance, if there is something major going on in the media that they feel is important, the teacher will discuss it with the class. The teacher has more freedom to deviate from the planned lesson. In a public school teachers are not given this type of freedom because their curriculum is regimented. Another important area of regulation, one which I never thought of before was the control of hiring and firing teachers. If a teacher is not doing that great of a job and is not getting through to the students, they let the teacher go. This is not as easy to accomplish in public schools. The teachers in this school are also given performance-related raises unlike public school where their are standard salaries for teachers at certain levels. Performance is not valued in the public-school pay scale she explained. I found this to be very interesting, because not only do the students have to succeed, but so do the teachers. This idea to me put the teachers as well as students on a more equal level. This level of control allowed for a holistic approach to teaching which I will later discuss..
After my discussion with the principal, she took me on a tour of the school while classes were in session. Of all the classes I peeked in on there were no more than 20 students in any of them. There were no playing fields, sports teams and no technical labs except for one computer lab. It didn’t seem to me by appearance to be the most exciting learning environment. The bell rang and students came shuffling out of class going to the next laughing, yelling and disorderly. With the exception of uniforms, the students seemed and acted like any other public school students.
I then observed an American History and Government class. When I sat down I was bombarded with questions like why I was there and how old I was. The class went into discussion about the presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The teacher divided the class into 2 sections for which candidate they preferred. The students really knew the facts and had strong conviction in their beliefs of the respective candidates. Not only was their knowledge of politics so astounding, but their ability to think and reason was even more amazing. When one Bush advocate was meriting Bush for his plan to invest more money into the military, a Gore advocate said great, so he puts more money into the military and neglects education, so we have idiots operating artillery! You see by this one statement alone how not only did the students know what each candidate was representing, but they were able to think out their own educated ideas. The class was truly passionate about the subject matters they discussed as well. By the lesson plan, you could see that teacher not only wanted them to know the facts about each candidate, but she also encouraged them to think and express their feelings on it.
This brings me to my observation that a holistic approach was taken in this school. This whole idea of encouraging the students to think and feel on their own is truly holistic in its approach. Not only did this teachers approach to the lesson make the students learn the facts, but making them think about it, allowed them to really absorb it. This was evident in their performance. It made them more interested in learning the material because their feelings were involved and they were encouraged to voice it.. Earlier I explained that the school motto is create the vision. I later found out that each student’s purpose in the school is to envision their own personal idea of success and their job is to create the vision and bring it to life. The teachers job in the school is to aid in and encourage each student to create that vision, whatever it may be. The principal explained to me that on orientation day, creating the vision is what she discusses with parents and students. Another example of the holistic approach I encountered while observing was when, at class intermission, the principal went out into the hallway and called in two girls to come to her office. they sat down with her and discussed purchasing bears for a fund raiser for breast cancer. The 3 of them sat with the book and chose what bears they thought would sell and which would be more profitable for their cause. The principal valued their opinions as equals on the matter and you could see that this made them feel really good about what they were doing and, most of all, good about themselves. They, like the students in the earlier govt class, were so involved becasue they were encouraged.
One could see by this interaction as well as many others that there was a great relationship between the students and the staff, everyone seemed more like friends, like one big team, all working together, unlike the traditional idea of education where the teachers are superior to the students. This teacher-student equality as well as the consistent encouragement is also very holistic.
My next venture was to Tottenville High School. The school in itself was enormous in size. The school was attended by 4,000 students. When I walked into the school in between classes, kids were laughing and disorderly.. Not much different from my observation of The Francis School, only a larger setting and more students. The school itself was in Grade A shape. I met with the dean of students for a tour of the school. I asked him what he felt separated his school from a private school and he gave me a similar answer to the principal of the private school. He explained that unlike a private school, they can’t just weed out the bad seeds with students as well as teachers. He also explained that with 35 students to a class opposed to 15-20 in a private school, it is more difficult to establish a sense of control. He also explained that in a private school, the parents place a much higher regard on their child’s performance academically and socially because they are paying for it. He also explained that there is a tougher strain on teachers to follow guidelines because they must meet the requirements for Regents. Private high schools are not required to take these Regents exams. This allows private schools to be more flexible in their curriculum. I told him about my experience in The Francis School and the relationship the staff had with their students. I asked him if he felt this made a difference. He said it did because this allows for more control of what is going on, but with 4,000 students and 200 teachers and staff, this is just not feasible. He felt that there were unlimited resources for students who wanted to do well there, but for the ones who didn’t it was harder to give them personal attention.
We walked around the school and he showed me dozens of vocational and technical labs. This school truly had unlimited resources, more than that in the Francis School. There were two huge gymnasiums, an outdoor football field, baseball field and track field. The schools had every type of sports team imaginable. The school had from computer labs, to an automotive lab, to a dental lab, to an actual supermarket where kids taking a business management class run and operate it. These are just a few of many resources the school provided. There was not a career that comes to mind for which this school did not have a class. This school was much like John Dewey’s vision of education. This school was founded on hands on experience. This school truly applied the idea of using the hands as well as mind in education.
Eventually the bell rang and I sat in on an American History and Government class. I was bombarded with the same questions as I was in the Francis School. Socially, these kids were no different to me than the students of the Francis School. It was when the lesson began, I noticed distinct differences. The teacher got up and proceeded to write notes on the board and then just repeated it verbally. He had no enthusiasm and neither did the students. Some were falling asleep and others were talking amongst one another. the class was noisy but their talking had nothing to do with the lesson. The teacher was frustrated and said if you don’t want to learn, I dont care, just put your head down and be quiet.? The class was saying that the lesson was boring and he said well I have to cover it for the regents. There was clearly no encouragement at all here. The teacher then continued to lecture these bored kids who did want to participate in the lesson at all. the bell finally rang, and they raced out of class like there was no tomorrow. This was a huge difference from my experience with the students in the American history class in the Francis School where all the class was interested and involved. The students weren’t any different, the only difference I saw was that the teacher in Francis was able to get through to them and made them want to learn through her interactive and encouraging approach. Perhaps, the Tottenville teacher was not able to succeed like the Francis School teacher because he needed to cover this material in a set amount of time. He was not given the same freedom and control.
Now here you have a school with unlimited resources for preparing students for future careers, but lacking the capabilities of unleashing each student’s spirit. Without a focus on the heart and soul it seems these resources are useless. Because of the control the Francis School has in many areas, it makes it easier to focus more on the heart and soul of each student, something Tottenville as well as public schools in general are neglecting.. I am not trying to say that hands on experience is not important in education, but from my experience here I am learning that when a student is encouraged to put their heart into something, the rest will fall into place. Like something as simple as the girls working with the principal on ordering the teddy bears. These girls were not involved in a business class and did not have this high tech vocational business lab like Tottenville, yet with some encouragement and teamwork they acquired the necessary business skills. This project started as a goal within their hearts and then trickled down to using their heads for the business decisions and received hands on experience for the procedure of purchasing. They did not need a lab to gain this type of experience.
This leads me to believe if you encourage students to put their heart into something, they are more than likely to give it their best effort. Either way they learn something from the experience. Although you can’t make a student enjoy every class and everything they’re required to learn, if you encourage them to create their vision, they will do whatever it takes to get there. Even if it means succeeding in classes that are preliminary to their achieving their goal.
Gaining control by knowing each student as an individual is possible to obtain in a public school setting. I believe this is the most important approach to a successful education. I will apply this lesson when I myself will be teaching in a public school. I will make it my every mission to give individual attention to all of my students. Although I will have a lot more students, and this task will be difficult, it will not be impossible. It will just take more time and work. I will make every effort to focus on encouraging all of my students to ?create the vision?.