Our culture’s brightest gift to the world

Published 10:53 am Wednesday, November 25, 2015

By Dave Irby

My wife and I were sitting in our living room last night around 9:30 with the TV on Fox News.  We both had our laptops open and working, a scene that plays out multiple times during any given week in our empty nest.  During the news segment I heard a familiar soundbite from one of the regular pundits, “Our public schools are horrible!”  I glanced over to see if my wife, a fourth grade teacher in Burleson ISD, was paying attention just as she glanced up at the screen with a scowl and went back to her school work.  I have often heard this idea of the poor condition of our public schools being bantered about by our politicians and leaders to score cheap political points at the expense of hard working teachers and administrators across our state and nation that are giving their heart and soul for the kids they serve every day.  Are there schools out there that need improving?  Yes.  Are there bad teachers?  Of course.  But the vast majority of our schools and educators are doing an amazing job with the tasks that they have been given considering the lack of resources and parental support so necessary to prepare students for life after high school.

I recently watched Good Morning America’s interview with the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, Shanna Peeples.  Shanna is an English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo ISD in the Texas panhandle.  Her story inspired me to read her biography at ccsso.org.  I discovered that Amarillo is a destination city for the resettlement of refugees from a number of countries around the world.  Shanna states, “As a teacher of refugee students, I’ve been privileged to see public education through the eyes of students from countries as diverse as Burma, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq and Cuba.  I’m thinking of a student who taught me that public schools are so much more than a building – they are our culture’s brightest gift to the world.”  Her biography goes on to tell heartwarming stories of several refugee student’s whose lives have been dramatically impacted by the Amarillo schools.  When asked on GMA why she loves her job, Shanna responded, “You can help write the end of the story for every kid.”

The past several years I have had the opportunity to visit a number of public schools in South Africa.  Although South Africa has been referred to as the U.S. of Africa because of it’s similarities to America, the disparity between the best schools, which rival our top schools in the U.S., and the worst is vastly greater.  Many schools, even in urban areas, lack electricity, supplies, and basic training for teachers that we take for granted.  In more than a few countries and cultures around the world, children with disabilities are written off and treated inhumanely.  This is not so in America.  This fall marks the 40th anniversary of legislation passed by congress, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, that required public schools to educate all children – regardless of any disability, mental or physical, they may have.  Why do most private schools refuse to take students with disabilities?  Because it is an incredibly difficult and very expensive proposition.  Hats off to all the educators who work tirelessly with our children including the extra special ones.

Many would say that teachers have an easy job with more vacation time than any other profession.  As the husband of a Texas public school teacher, I can attest that this is not the case.  Teachers put in countless hours during and outside the school year to prepare for what happens each day in the classroom.  So the next time you hear someone disparaging our public schools, ask them for something specific that they have experienced firsthand to support their assertion.  When they stare back at you with a surprised look on their face, ask, did you know the United States is one of a handful if not the only country in the world that guarantees an education for every child, even those with disabilities?  Or, when is the last time you volunteered to mentor a student or give your time at a school in your neighborhood?  Then, tell something positive and specific from your own experience.  Together we can spread the good news about what is happening in our public schools, “our culture’s brightest gift to the world.”
Dave Irby has served on the Board of Directors of Friends of Texas Public Schools since 2011. He is a Senior Account Executive with Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a non-profit research and assessment company.  He and his wife, Rhonda, graduated from Cobb County Public Schools in Marietta, Georgia.  Their two children are graduates of Burleson High School in Burleson, Texas.