August 27, 2017

Editorial: Bring the ‘A’ game

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Flickr / Alberto G.

Worcester Public Schools are set to ring the bell on a new year.

Mailings have gone out, supplies have been bought, and new principals have been assigned. Crosswalks are being painted, and even murals. Inspirational posters have been stapled to walls, and squeaky new sneakers are set to walk the freshly waxed halls.

Also, at last, the school administration and the Educational Association of Worcester have contract negotiations off their plates for the time being. Union members, however reluctantly, approved a new contract last week after working last year without one.

Next up: the first day of school.

Here, and for the entire school year, is where we really must bring the “A” game.

For Worcester school kids, vacation screeches to a halt tomorrow, assuming Durham School Services and the local bus drivers union come to their senses (and agreement on a new contract) to avoid an ill-advised labor strike. (Kindergarten and pre-K have until Sept. 5, according to the the Worcester Public Schools calendar.)

There will be schedules to follow, activities to juggle, homework to slog through, and alarm clocks and school bells ringing from here until June.

No one enjoys putting summer aside, and first-day jitters will be felt by nearly everyone from staff to students, kindergartners to old-timer third-graders.

But reconnecting with school and its expectations is a very good thing.

Learning is a lifelong need, and a foundation for future happiness, employment, inspiration and success. Education is one of the best things we pursue as individuals and a society.

Ideally, that is felt across the system, and not just on the first day, but on even the most ordinary of the 180 school days ahead.

It won’t be long before the newness of this fresh start turns into something like old hat. Maybe three days? A month? But if we do our jobs right — parents, teachers, leaders, community members and students — the drives to achieve, discover, excel and conquer challenges ride along with the routines.

The 4,100-strong school staff — teachers, administrators, instructional aides, nurses, custodians, librarians and others — are off to a good start. A brainchild of Superintendent Maureen F. Binienda, they came together for their second annual rally last Friday at the DCU Center.

Despite the size, complexity, disagreements, budget constraints and other obstacles of the school system, the message is clear: Students come first, and this work on their behalf is enormously important and fulfilling.

Speaker Manny Scott told the gathering: “Even on your worst day, you can still be somebody’s best hope.”

He knows. Once a dropout in Long Beach, California, his life pivoted after a chance conversation on a park bench with an older man who warned of a bleak future without a diploma. When Scott re-enrolled, his English teacher in particular helped see him through, in part by encouraging troubled students to write about their lives.

That teacher, Erin Gruwell, authored a book on which the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers” was based.

One thing is sure: This school year will deliver students to next summer changed.

Let’s change them for the better. We need to set standards high for all students, those who struggle and those who are gifted. We need to provide safe, well-equipped buildings; and a range of supports for students with various needs, like the expanding laundry program implemented last year so less-fortunate kids can have clean clothes that improve their self-esteem and chances for success.

And we must remember that young people, as impressionable as they are, generally remain hopeful — at least deep down. Some little moment or small act — not just from a teacher but perhaps a principal, bus driver, peer or cafeteria worker — might make all the difference.

“There are 4,100 of us now, working together to give students the courage and the skills to realize their dreams,” Binienda said at Friday’s rally. “They don’t forget those adults who helped and inspired them along the way.”

Earlier last week, in an interview on Facebook Live that was conducted and reported by the Telegram & Gazette, Binienda said: “The work is hard.”

She was referring to all the different jobs, effort and goals that make up the school system. And it is clear that, to her — as well as to many others involved with the schools — the work being difficult is in no way a complaint.

Gaining an education means welcoming problems because you have the tools to solve them.

Students, we believe, should be saying the same thing — ”The work is hard” — in a way that energizes them. They should be challenged and motivated, internally, to meet those challenges. That is the kind of person we hope to graduate, and the kind who never stops aiming for better things for themselves and their community.

Among initiatives Binienda spoke of in the T&G interview are various efforts to expand access to Worcester Technical High School, including to adults; a planned early childhood center in a few years; and widening community-service opportunities and requirements to younger grades.

We believe a forward-thinking approach to vocational education is a clear priority, particularly with the myriad technical jobs going unfilled — and coming on the horizon — in Massachusetts and around the country.

And we heartily agree about the value of community service. It encourages kindness, perspective, participation and connection, qualities that can serve students well beyond the classroom years.

Good luck to everyone in the city heading off to school.

When those yellow school buses lumber down local roads, it’s a sign of something going right. Whatever the deficiencies of public education and any school system, we’re bringing learners and educators together. When everyone involved does their best, does their duty — including the bus drivers — despite obstacles and challenges, well, that’s what we’re steering for.

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