Brown brings a positive outlook for Austin High School

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Someone passed on to me recently words shared by Nobel Prize winners, words that point to their discontent with school.

Tuesday, September 05, 2000

Someone passed on to me recently words shared by Nobel Prize winners, words that point to their discontent with school. Actually they use another word instead of discontent, but as this is the first day of school I will soften it.

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George Bernard Shaw, winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in literature wrote "… and there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is some respects more cruel than a prison." He refers to "inspired books" that are not accessible and students are instead forced to read "a hideous imposture called a school book." He goes on to say, "In prison they do not torture your brain and they protect you against violence, and outrage from your fellow-prisoners."

Coming away from last Tuesday’s informational meeting at the high school led by Austin High’s new principal, Joe Brown, I, Austin’s greatest cynic, came away with a ray of hope.

Other presenters spoke, too, and the theme that I first listened to the presentation was directed at incoming ninth-graders – was often concerning rules: you’re allowed this many tardies, six absences per class, only juniors and seniors are allowed out of the building during noon hour, no hats in the building. These are standards youth feel obligated to challenge.

But then I heard something else, most noticeably from Mr. Brown when he opened it up to question and answers, and I felt I could sense his honest rapport with the audience, adults and youth alike. When he mentioned the no hat in the school policy he suggested students present in the auditorium could practice this by taking off the hats they had on, and they complied.

The audience question I appreciated the most and the one that was most daring came from a mother, who asked, "What about student harassment?"

It’s a hard question that seldom is brought up in a public meeting, one of those areas we don’t like to address. We prefer to want to think that this doesn’t happen. It does. And Mr. Brown stated in a very direct manner that this won’t be tolerated and pointed out that this is against the law.

The mother seemed satisfied with his response. Harassment has a enormous impact on students and has forever, but now there is a principal willing to face this and deal with it.

This is even more relevant with the changing face of Austin and leaning how to engage the "unknown" in a positive way and not the long practiced negative way.

I remember in our own days we used to feel that if we didn’t insult somebody or were insulted the day wasn’t complete, but this was among friends. Now, looking back, I’m not sure that was so good.

But these days, it has grown worse and needs to be addressed. It sounds to me that it will.

It is my understanding Austin now has a teacher who was born in Vietnam, who left the country as a young child. This is a gift in a changing community.

And Mr. Brown informed us last week that they were going to allow the students to sit where they want for assemblies; freshman and sophomores upstairs and juniors and seniors on the deck. This almost sounds like giving students an opportunity to be responsible for themselves.

Students are also going to be allowed to attend sport functions for no charge if they have their class ID with them.

One of Mr. Brown’s hopes is to restore school spirit, and I think he’s going to succeed.

His hope is fill the gym with every student for the first volleyball game – wouldn’t that be something?

He also said he won’t be found during the school day in his office, he will be out and around, in the classroom.

In our conversation last week, he also brought up the name of Alfie Kohn, one of the best voices in education today, at least by my standards, however my standards seem to be in question these days.

He has authored "Punished by Rewards" that describes how schools punish the best learners and the those with the most difficulty. The best as they learn what the teacher wants rather then being challenged and those struggling because they feel they can’t succeed and they find other ways to succeed, very often in a crowd. He also authored, "The School Our Children Deserve"

Finally, if I were a black or Hispanic student in a school, I might have trouble paying attention to all the wonderful things white people do for twelve years, with a month in there someplace to honor blacks. I just wonder how many black or Hispanic authors are read in literature classes such as black writer James Baldwin. I hope books are available to all readers.

Bob Vilt’s column appears Tuesdays