Why I Am a Public Education Activist — a Personal Story

by on February 5, 2010 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Education, Organizing, San Diego, The Chronicles of Edumacation

fighting pointerI am a product of the public school system. I graduated from Point Loma High many moons ago after transferring from another public high school, far, far away. That’s part of being a Navy brat—you get to see the world, two or three years at a time. And you get to try and integrate yourself into the complex social systems that evolve amidst the hormonal surges and angst of being a teenager “forced” to endure public education.

At my old high school it was the “Ivies” (kids that dressed up for school) vs the “Suedos” (kids that had greased back hair & didn’t much care about dressing up). At Point Loma High, neither group existed, but there were “hipsters” and “straights”. I didn’t quite fit in with either group. I was miserable for the first few months.

Fortunately, an alert counselor at Point Loma noticed that I’d tested on the high side with my reading and English language skills and it was decided that I belonged in an “advanced” program. The course was team-taught (I wish I could remember their names!) and a great deal more challenging than anything I’d ever encountered along my educational path. To make a long story short, if it hadn’t been for a counselor who saw abilities and aptitudes in me (that I was certainly unaware of) and a couple of English teachers (who demanded more of me), I would have never connected with the writer inside of me. I might have ended up being a politician, or, worse, a lawyer.

The years flew by and my writing career got sidetracked amid the great need to make a decent living, and I ended up in hospitality management—proving the old saw that English majors always should have a side job working in a restaurant.

In 1996 my wife and I were blessed with the arrival of a daughter. It took a little while, but I learned to re-orient my priorities. Getting her a good education would turn out to be one of those priorities. It wasn’t so easy.

In 2000 we moved to the US Virgin Islands, as I accepted a senior management position with a resort hotel, and that’s when I began to see just what challenge the “good education part” could be.

student sleepsThere, I got see first hand what a failed public education system looks like. The schools lost their accreditation after years of neglect. The halls of learning too often became no more than breeding grounds for ignorance, crime and wasted lives. The buildings were rat infested and leaked when it rained. An entire generation was been left behind to rot. And it all started with a bunch of self-serving elected officials who couldn’t be bothered to see the importance of public education. Teachers were under-paid—when they were paid– and a new educator in the system could wait for months before seeing their first paycheck. (Eventually, the parents fought back in the Virgin Islands, but it will take years before the damage is undone.)

The damage to the VI public education system had other effects that went way beyond the parents and children whose opportunities were denied. As an employer (100+ employees) it was increasingly difficult for me to hire ‘locals’ who could muster up the basic literacy and social skills needed to make them employable in the hospitality industry. And youth crimes, some of the tragically violent, skyrocketed, making the islands a less desirable tourist destination. Cruise ship visits were cancelled. Flights in the islands were curtailed as visitors heard stories that led them to feel that the VI wasn’t a very safe place to visit. This was a very bad thing in an economy that was centered on tourism.

When the decision was made for my family to re-locate to San Diego—we could no longer afford the cost of private schools—educational opportunities were at the top of the list of ‘must haves’. We looked into the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts and found what we thought was a good educational opportunity.

The economy tanked during our first year here, and there was talk about ending the magnet school programs and many other components of a well rounded public education like sports, music and arts programs, school counselors and school safety personnel. That’s when I started going to School Board meetings, hoping that my presence there (and any insights I might glean along the way) might be helpful in preventing our local schools from making the same disastrous mistakes that I’d seen made in St. Thomas.

What I have learned over the past year is that, although I don’t always agree with their decisions, our local school board has very little real control over what the future of education in San Diego could be like. The funding that should be coming from our State legislature just isn’t there; the State simply doesn’t see education as that big a priority.

There are also people out there lurking in the shadows that actually want public education to fail as part of a bigger agenda.

I have learned that it’s not too late. If we make our voices heard, then funding can be found. The choice that we face is one of paying (less) now or paying more later. For me it’s a no brainer. It’s not too late. But the clock is ticking. I hope that you’ll join with us here at Educate for the Future in fighting for our future. (Crossposted at the EFF Blog)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie February 5, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Doug, I’ll overlook the snarky remark about being a lawyer (people tell jokes about lawyers – until they need one, you butthead) but I’m glad that you’ve become an activist – finally. And I’m glad you’re an activist for public education.

I am also a product of public education – mostly – as I too was a military brat (Go Army!) – and managed to keep my head above the water of teenage angst and rebellion. Until later of course.

When I was at Point Loma HS and Dana, kids were grouped into several factions: the Soc’s, the Surfers, the Ho-dads, and the Tunas. (Later I thought that was a slur until I realized that they encouraged its usage – to set them apart from the landlubbers.)

But I experienced a slew of wonderful teachers at PL: Maria Wheatcroft, George Rion, Paul Schenk just to name a few. Plus the coaches: Benny Edens, plus the swim coach who also taught printshop, the other football coach who also taught Honors English (the first teacher to introduce me to dialectics!) and so many more !

Without these public education teachers and coaches, I would not be whom I am today. To them, Salute!


avatar Shane Finneran February 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm

How about that – when I was at PLHS in the early 1990s, I had Mr. Rion for US History. He was terrific. And I believe Paul Schenk was retired then, but he was still busy coordinating the students who ran the Point Loma SafeRides program, which Pointers could call up to get no-questions-asked rides home on weekend nights. Salute, indeed.


avatar Frank Gormlie February 5, 2010 at 5:30 pm

George Rion was great. My step-daughter also had him but didn’t like him, and that was around 1988 or so. He did finally retire, but at all the Homecoming games, he would set up his BBQ grill behind home plate and smoke out anyone loitering over there and dish out some great stuff for any staff – not former students – who meandered over.


avatar just my 2 cents February 6, 2010 at 8:50 am

I guess lawyers are like the Police that way.
Nobody really likes them until they really need one.


avatar Beverages February 5, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Great article! I am a graduae of SDSCPA. SDSCPA was the best school I attended, mind you I lived 2 blocks from PL.


avatar Ernie McCray February 5, 2010 at 12:34 pm

You’re right, Doug, the clock is ticking and I hope enough people will give whatever they have in the way of skills or time to help Educate for the Future’s efforts to get more funding for the schools.
But what we as educators, parents, community activists, and society, at large, have to consider is what do we do if we don’t get the funding we desire. If that happens then we have to look inside ourselves, our creative selves, for answers to facilitating learning experiences for young people, seeking ways to make it relevant, to make it “human” oriented, truly “child” centered.
The big problem, in general, with schools now and before now is we, without input from the kids, “set” standards rather than “developing” standards as we find out who the students are and how they learn, as we help them address the issues in their lives as opposed to badmouthing them about the issues in their lives.
Oh, well, I can’t lay it out here in just a few moments but schools basically, I guess I’m saying, ignore the realities under which we all live. Not to mention that we, as a society, as a world, for that matter, don’t really care as much about our children as we say we do. If we did we would include them in discussions about our economy and other issues in the world and help them understand that it’s their world and that they have to be a significant part of whatever it will take to change it for the better. Turn them on and the problems shrink a bit. When they want something they get it.
Anyway, I think a number of people are jumping on the Educate for the Future bandwagon and I suspect some beautiful music will emerge from that.
Take care.


avatar lane tobias February 5, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I have already been pretty outspoken in my support of public education on this blog, but I do think its important to reiterate something Doug mentioned in the article. There are people who want to see failure for political and personal gain; it has already happened in other states across the country. I know this firsthand from living in New Jersey: a state with thousands of tiny little municipalities, that for decades all had their own public schools. Over time, low-income districts ripe with crime were taken over by the state (Newark is the prime example of a state giving up on a city) and spending doubled while at the same time mandates handcuffed teachers and forced them to “dumb down” their curriculum without alternative options within the school..its sad. But that is what San Diego, and other big cities facing huge deficits, are moving towards to. California just doesn’t see funding public education as a priority, and I support any movement that not only calls politicians and stakeholders in Sacramento out on this, but also puts action plans out there for people to take part in. Doug I commend your efforts and see you as the ideal parent. I wish other parents took this much interest in their kids’ education….


avatar Shane Finneran February 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Thanks, Doug, for this insightful article. I love its illumination of how under-investment in education rippled through the Virgin Islands society. The clear lesson is that we short-change our schools at our own peril.

Public school classrooms should max out at 10 kids each, and good teachers should make $100,000 a year. Bring on the necessary tax hikes – they’d be worth every penny.


avatar annagrace February 6, 2010 at 10:43 am

My education was-and continues to be- through the public education system. Back in western PA, that included kindergarten through the university. School taxes in Allegheny county were among the highest in the state; I can remember shaking my head as my long retired Dad wrote out a $2K check to the school district. His school taxes alone at the time were higher than my property taxes here in San Diego. He looked me in the eye and reminded me that taxpayers paid for my education all the years that I was in school and he was glad to contribute to the education of other people’s children.

I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood. Our fathers worked in steel mills, drove trucks, had jobs in heavy construction and they voted for Nixon. The prevalent feeling was that getting an education was the best and some time only hope for sparing a new generation of children back breaking work on farms, or dangerous dirty heavy manual labor that left you all busted up by the time you were fifty. And for girls circa 1960’s, an education was something to fall back on if you didn’t get married.

I went to a high school that included for the most part working class children- the Cookies- and the other half was divided between the Cakes- the children of professionals- and River Rats- the poor. Our public education was a great equalizer by providing at least equal access, if not equal opportunities to us all.

Our public education system is under enormous budget pressures right now, but I think the real battle, as both Lane and Doug have pointed out, is political. They are however inseparable issues and their resolution will affect the whole notion of equal access and equal opportunity.

The recent tuition increases at UCSD, the elimination of hundreds of classes in our community college system, and the requirement that all first year freshmen attending SDSU from outside the service area live on campus ($7k/yr) erode our public education systems ability to carry out its mandate of equal access and opportunity. These decisions not only reflect education budgets in peril but the relentless attempt to substitute a “corporate” model into virtually every aspect of the public sphere.

Bottom line driven slash and burn decision making is being justified not only as a budget necessity but as a sound business practice in its own right. The corporate model would have us regard our public education system as just one more costly entitlement program, in which the teaching unions are welfare queens and and the poor and disadvantaged who can no longer afford a public education are perceived as a bunch of expendable whiners.

Mary Mann has written here about the public library as the great equalizer http://obrag.org/?p=17327 This role of libraries developed in conjunction with the public education system. It is no surprise that both our library and education system are under attack.

It is deceiving to think that the cost saving decisions are really cost free. Simply take a hard look at your child, your young nephew or niece. How do you define the bottom line?


avatar Larry OB February 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Doug, that teacher you can’t remember…was it Loch?



avatar Larry OB February 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm

George Rion’s son was the pilot/guide of my raft on a trip down the Kern river a dozen years ago. He told my his dad was involved with retracing the route of Lewis and Clark. I just did a quick search and saw George involved with the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. He also tought some adult classes on the subject at the PL library. I had him for a US History class at PL High. I can seen now that he didn’t just teach History, it was in his bones.

By contrast…a friend of mine changed careers a while back, and became an English teacher. He wasn’t happy about it, because the grading and homework were more difficult than say for a math teacher. More work out of the clasroom translates into lower pay per hour worked. How does one compenaste for that? Maybe by being a less enthusiastic teacher.


avatar Bruce Deitrick Price November 18, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Here’s ammo:
I just posted on Amazon a review of Bruce Shortt’s excellent “The Harsh Truth About Public Schools.” (Written from a Christian perspective, but I’d say ignore that if it’s a problem.) This book gives a complete–and completely depressing–indictment of the nonsense in the schools. All the facts you need; 450 pages.

For more such books, Google my Amazon list: 40 Important Books About Education (until today: 36 Important Books About Education)


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