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Who to blame for a school's sad demise?

Not funding. Administrators? Not fully. How about students? (Seriously.)


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The poignant newspaper story was about the closing of a high school with a venerable history and carried the headline "The Demise of a Community Institution is Always Sad."

Such ends truly are sad, even when they're still but a proposal. Great numbers of alumni and other partisans of North High School in Minneapolis fervently concur, even now that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has announced plans for a new North High to open in several years.

The newspaper article referred to above, though, was not about North and the role it has played in the neighborhood or its lengthy roster of accomplished alumni. It was about the closure of Far Rockaway High School in New York, from which I graduated in 1966. The piece ran three years ago in the Rockaway Wave after officials determined that the school would stop accepting students (in the understated words of Wikipedia) because of "bad grades."

Bad grades were not my alma mater's only problem. But to the extent that poor academic performance was the final nail, let's just say that the irony was miles beyond perverse. In an 11-year span just a few decades earlier, three Far Rockaway alumni won Nobel Prizes: Richard Feynman in physics in 1965; Baruch Samuel Blumberg in medicine, in 1976, and Burton Richter in physics, once again in 1976, not a bad year.

Oh, I forgot: Alan M. Kriegsman, another alumnus, won a Pulitzer for criticism in '76. (I am trying to forget Bernie Madoff, also an alumnus, but I am not having much luck.)

Without getting overly analytical about it, what the hell happened to what had been a school of remarkable academic strength? Keep in mind that Far Rockaway wasn't one of New York's selective public high schools like Stuyvesant or the Bronx High School of Science, but rather a regular old place that enrolled all comers. I presume that some of the policies and practices that encouraged rigor when Feynman et al. attended, as well as when I did, eroded over time. I know for a fact that too-small budgets weren't the culprit, as New York City public schools have been top-of-the-line in spending money on a per-student basis forever. Which leaves what as an explanation?

While fully taking into account that some Rockaway students in recent times were dealt trickier hands than my friends and I faced—social predicaments and cultural pressures from which earlier generations escaped—it's impossible not to conclude that a good measure of responsibility was with the kids themselves.

Borrowing the muted language of sociologist Laurence Steinberg, who has written brilliantly about peer pressures and other cultural impediments to achievement, pivotal at FRHS were students who were not "strongly engaged in school emotionally."

Which brings us back to North and its troubles. I trust that various complaints about how Minneapolis schools have been run are accurate and fair. I say this even though I have enormous respect for the tough jobs school leaders here and in other big cities have long faced. But enrollment at North has dropped by three-quarters in just a few years and is now under 300, a ridiculously small number for a nonspecialized urban high school. Why has attendance collapsed? For any number of reasons, I trust again, although as with my old school, funding has not been stingy.

Yet whatever the combination of causes, many students and their parents who otherwise might have been slated for North have obviously voted with their feet, as is their total right, opting for schools that might better serve their educational purpose, with climates more amenable to learning; places where loftier atmospherics and expectations are the product not just of devoted educators, but also of more engaged and academically serious students themselves.

Or, getting directly to the nub, might North High School not be on the cusp of closing, and might Far Rockaway's obituary not have been written three years ago, if students at either institution had cracked a few more books?

Sound harsh? If so, my regrets. But please explain how American education can ever get sufficiently better as long as adequate learning and viable schools are viewed as something politicians and superintendents deliver, rather than as something for which students and their families are ultimately responsible.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on November 5, 2010. 

Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted