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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Guest Opinion: Palo Alto must lead a great educational turnaround -- for the sake of our children Guest Opinion: Palo Alto must lead a great educational turnaround -- for the sake of our children (March 03, 2004)

by Diane Rolfe

There is a direct correlation between school funding and emotional well-being of our children -- and lack of adequate funding is creating a toxic environment in Palo Alto and statewide.

This was the core message of a recent community forum, "SOS for Our Students: Crisis in the Schools," held Feb. 21 at the Palo Alto school district board room. The nearly 125 persons in the audience were seeking antidotes to the slow poison of shrinking revenues.

As a former middle-school history teacher since 1967, I have personally seen the Palo Alto district decline from a "lighthouse district" nationally to one that is barely holding its own in maintaining high standards. Now as social-action chair for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), I have been exploring a premise that lack of funding leads naturally to an environment of despair, alienation and sadness in our youth.

Every child needs adults who care about them individually -- who nurture their spirits and guide them in gaining knowledge. When we cut programs, we cut teachers and staff members who are the helping hands, the lifelines every child needs.

Let's be honest: California doesn't value children. We say we do, but allowing school funding to drop to near the bottom of the nation reveals our true values. The emotional and health safety net of California is torn and the schools are crumbling.

Children are bright. They know. By the time they are in high school, they have it figured out that society really doesn't care about them much, or at best is indifferent. Parents may be supportive and profoundly loving, but loving parents are not enough. They are trapped in the same funding squeeze and pressurized society their children face.

Today's frantic quest for straight A's is understandable. Students are told good grades mean a good college, which might mean they will find security in America. Deep stress comes from knowing that there is no safety net in America regarding health care, job creation and community compassion.

With so many great people and organizations in Palo Alto helping our students, what has gone so wrong? A little history may help explain the crisis.

When I arrived in Palo Alto, it was the best place to teach in the United States. We were first, second or third in the nation in every evaluative category -- including funding. My beloved Wilbur Junior High School, now JLS, had three staff counselors, a head counselor, a full-time nurse and many aides. Clubs proliferated. We even had department secretaries to answer phones for teachers and run off dittoes -- think "copier."

Enrichment classes and field trips abounded, and the district paid for the buses. Resources were immense and the students seemed so happy. Then came Proposition 13 in 1978 that began the slow statewide unraveling of one of the greatest education systems in the history of the world.

Social historians tend to ask embarrassing questions, such as: Why haven't the communities of California risen up and demanded new revenues to fund education and health services for our children, to replace the property tax we crippled in 1978? Twenty-six years is a long time! Isn't California still the richest state of the richest nation in the history of the world? Where is the political will, the citizen outrage?

Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Palo Alto schools had more services and resources than now. I used to show a 1937 film about the brand-new Jordan Junior High School to my 8th-grade U.S. history classes.

What did my students see in this 8-millimeter, silent window to the past? They saw every child receiving routine physical checkups by a doctor and nurse, and routine dental checkups and care. The Jordan Marching Band had stunning uniforms. There was vocational training in carpentry, drafting and metalwork. Jordan had many after-school clubs: the Aviation Club, Boys Cooking Club, Photography Club, International Club, Garden Club, and the list goes on.

Following the film, we discussed how the school and community had changed. Comments were fascinating:

"They might have been poor, but they gave their children everything they could."

"Students were the number-one priority to receive funding; the entire community loved the children and was willing to support them."

"I think they prized their students' health and dental care more than our society today."

And when I told them about life in 1967, I received comments such as: "I wish we had the community dedication of 1937 and all the resources you had in 1967."

What has happened to us? I would say we have lost the connectivity of the greater community to our children. Children are not the first priority of our society.

But there is hope, in our many Palo Alto citizens who do care. We can rebuild our community so all Palo Altans support and participate in nurturing and educating our children, and lead the state in a great turnaround. In 1937 they knew that by supporting children they were investing in the future of a great democracy.

I am optimistic that our culture can be changed so no child will feel alone and abandoned. In a new age of patriotism, I believe real patriotism is supporting quality education, health and counseling services for all children. Let's get our priorities straight.

Anthropologist Margaret Meade nailed it: "There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing that when we save our children, we save ourselves."

Diane Rolfe is a retired history teacher at Jordan Middle School, and is social action chair for the American Association of University Women. She can be e-mailed at

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