Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My two cent clarification: In defense of Carlynton High School and Small Education

Hang on, this is going to be a long one.

A warning: the following is an opinion. As a journalist, I don’t like having those. Understand that opinions change and evolve as time does, and please respect the place I was coming from whilst writing this. Also I use Oxford commas, don’t judge me. I do not advocate for any candidate or particular legislation or anything beyond dialogue. Want that to be clear before I proceed.

So last week I shared a post from a Carlynton alum that I attached some comments to. I was under the impression that the commentary was an assessment of the district I graduated from in the aim of opening a dialogue on the faults in the education system as a whole.

Boy was I wrong.

I completely own up to sharing it, and further to misrepresenting a blanket approval from me of this statement with added commentary. I thought it was (and, full disclosure, I didn’t read the whole thing that late at night) an attempt to open dialogue and I shared to push further the reach of that dialogue. I also did it as a way to promote someone I felt at the time should be heard by my reach. I recognize that the alum can stand behind what was said as an opinion, but I want to make it clear: that opinion expressed in the piece isn’t mine.

The fact of the matter is when you share across your stage or your platforms, the assumption is that anything you further share you agree with. I need to add the whole “RTs do not equal endorsements” bit to my Twitter for this reason, but I’m not here to preach about social media, I’m here to preach about what my views are on the education system and what I meant to say originally.

I graduated two years ago from the Carlynton School District. If you’re fairly new to my adventures, the Carlynton School District is a tiny (and I mean tiny – my graduating class was 92 strong) school district five miles outside Downtown Pittsburgh. I’m currently pursuing a B.A. Journalism degree at Point Park University, a subject I consider a passion and a school I consider the best decision I’ve made.

The original alum commented on apathy at my alma mater and said quite bluntly (and quoting an unnamed source) that “this place is a disease.” I won’t argue that apathy exists within the education system but I have to argue that the source misidentified the problem. This place – being Carlynton High School – is not the disease. It has the disease that comes along with being (against its own will) a part of a governmental system that puts numbers ahead of people and tests ahead of education.

I’ve said for years privately that the strength of the Carlynton School District lies in its faculty and students. Teachers (and I’m dear friends with some education majors, I count them here also) don’t get into such a cutthroat business without a passion or a drive to accomplish something greater. It’s a drive to change what they experienced, or to provide something greater than themselves to their students. If you don’t have a drive to change it or to affect some sort of change, you’re not going to last in education long. You. Burn. Out.

I want to challenge the original poster to think about what honestly was said: was the lack of challenge you described you had experienced your senior year a result of climbing an academic pinnacle as I had, or was it because of a chosen apathy on the part of the participant? You said you chose against taking Advanced Placement yet expected the same level challenge at a general level class, what did you expect? I am genuinely curious.

I’m not going to lie, by my senior year I wanted to get out of Carlynton but that was because by that point I felt I had outgrown it and I had a taste of the real world and college life and wanted to move forward beyond the K-12 system. It’s a system that I strongly believe is designed that way for a reason so you can make a clean cut when you walk across that stage and be ready mentally to take on the next step, whatever you determined that to be.

If I didn’t feel challenged in the classroom, I did this potentially self-destructive thing I do in college where I get CRAZY involved with stuff to challenge me further in a way outside the classroom and to challenge the ways I think and the means by which I communicate. I’m not saying it’s the best way of doing things, but I will say that the challenges I didn’t find in a classroom I found elsewhere through in-class resources.

I want to step back for a moment and talk about resources. Carlynton doesn’t have many because, well, it’s tiny and is not the wealthiest district. But isn’t that a shame to say? I mean, seriously. Should size even matter when you talk about resources for students? Why does the per-student cost to educate vary from district to district and why should resources be tied to standardized testing?

Further, why are we allocating resources with preference to certain groups? It’s a television trope to have schools buy new equipment every year for a football team while the band uses decades-old instruments. I’m not saying that is true within Carlynton, but I have heard stories along these lines at other schools.

Also, why is the education system still structured in the way it was during the Enlightenment where local government meant something? It makes NO sense to penalize a district’s funding because of standardized test results, frankly those that struggle should be given MORE resources to bring them up to speed in my humble opinion.

Single A designation should not be a death sentence, nor should it inspire any sort of victim situation. It doesn’t at Carlynton (with the only exception I can think of being an oddly specific school board meeting in 2013 or 2014 where the justification by the superintendent for class scheduling problems was “well, we’re a single-A school, you’re lucky you get to have electives) but I know it’s true in some other districts. Being small means more individualized and community-based education.

Parents pick a school for its resources, and I’m proud to say my family found a district whose nonphysical resources (teachers, programs, etc.) are incredibly abundant. We have fall plays and spring musicals and 19 sports. How could a school of less than a thousand do it except by having people who care and others who can stretch a dollar?

Am I saying Carlynton fell behind? No.

What I am saying is that as a whole the education system has fallen behind. Money that could have gone towards offering unique electives and challenging students’ ways of thinking is instead going toward mandated remediation on testing, diagnostic programs, and compliance with further regulated yet seemingly innumerable and indistinguishable revenue-sucking mandates. It’s not the Carlynton School Board or the principal deciding this, it’s someone at the federal and state level telling these people they have to.

Do you know how often I was given diagnostic testing ahead of the Keystone or PSSA exams? Nearly monthly. Imagine, that’s at least 10 days outside of the classroom every year. Don’t forget, several of these tests were multi-day, and you had to do some sort of buildup prep to the diagnostics, and then the build up to those tests...

This testing obsession is classroom time spent chasing your tail in an effort to save the school that you’re being set aside from. It’s circular and so, so wrong. And let’s not forget those diagnostic tests are expensive to use, and could go to, I don’t know, journalism books, or psychology books?

So where am I going with this? It’s no myth that the education system is broken (at least by my assessment) but it is a myth that the individual district is to blame. Do you feel trapped? Good, it’s the system that got you to the point where you can realize it. Challenge that system.

I was reminded recently that the successes I’ve had and the career I’ve chosen didn’t come from the classroom. I never once took a journalism class, and it wasn’t for lack of trying either. The teacher of the journalism course did pull me aside at one point and told me I wouldn’t have benefitted from the curriculum. Why? In part, it was out of date books and a lack of resources to do real journalism. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember this positive: my love of radio stemmed from a gifted education teacher passing along the information for a program at WYEP.

Yeah, Carlynton didn’t teach me a lede from a nut graph but can you seriously blame the high school for that? There should be no reasonable expectation that every profession should have an offered elective that prepares you for that individual, specialized profession. It’s unreasonable.

What Carlynton did offer me was the access to that gifted teacher who shared the WYEP project, or to that band director who let me try my hand at announcing, or that English teacher who (and I still don’t understand how this happened) let me run a newspaper as a high school senior or the drama teacher who rescued me from hating theater after a bad experience and let me anchor the TV morning announcements after being a technical director there, and I could go on but hopefully you get the point.

Was I saying to myself junior year “dang I wish I could drop out and move on to college”? Of course. What teenager wants to be a cog in a politicized state-level machine that hasn’t been working well?

But why do you stick around? Two key reasons in my case: because your end goal is a diploma so you can keep moving on to that liberal arts school in the city, and you stay out of respect for how you came to that conclusion.

The reason you want to leave high school in the first place is because you discovered the ‘real world’ a teacher on the inside helped share with you. In other words, you can’t realistically wish to be a part of a different world if you had never heard of that other world in the first place.

So what was draining about Carlynton? The public school system. The helplessness you feel on a daily basis where the decisions are made for you in either a board meeting or some faraway marble castle in Harrisburg. It’s not some sort of deeply engrained lackadaisical work ethic in the teachers or administrative support staff, it’s an apathy at the extreme top that trickles its way down to resources at the feet of those who truly care.

If Carlynton didn’t challenge you, it’s you that failed. Not because it was supposed to consistently hit you with ridiculous workloads or whatever effort you expected of it but because you didn’t seek more. In the real world, people don’t work with you or for you. You have to seek out your own challenges or support for what it is you’re trying to do.

It’s a lesson I feel this alum missed. By choosing to enter and remain in this supposedly toxic environment (read: it isn’t) then complaining afterwards it didn’t help you, apparently you hadn’t sought those challenges out through the system? I don’t know, I can only guess your position, but from mine I feel like there is some action on the participant’s part that is missing here.

I know this much, however: the reason I got where I am is I sought out and sucked up every opportunity I could inside and outside the classroom. There isn’t any professor who asks you to become Editor-in-Chief of your campus newspaper your freshman year. It’s Josh Croup and your friends who you’ve surrounded yourself with who convince you to take that leap. It’s the professor who tells you you shouldn’t be doing it.

This is probably the longest post I’ve written in a long while but I wanted to make this incredibly clear: I can’t endorse the notion that Carlynton is some sort of wretched wasteland where dreams go to die or whatever yarn that you want to spin. It’s a wonderful place where teachers do the best they can with what they have. It’s a place where you have to find your own path because that’s how the real world works. It’s a place where you have to seek a challenge, you can’t expect it to be served to you because that’s not how the world works.

If there’s a problem, it’s the lack of resources allotted to these base-level programs because of a flawed administrative/governmental system. I’m not endorsing anarchy, I just want to start a responsible dialogue. Comment if you’d like, I only delete straight profanity.


  1. Nice to hear your voice, Alex. I love that you are stressing personal responsibility, even without actually naming it. I agree with much of what you have said here and fully understand this is an opinion piece, not backed by researched facts. If you were to ever want to add to your knowledge base on this topic, I think the only thing missing is a fuller understanding of the actual school budgets. I don't have the exact facts either, but I have had, possibly, more exposure to the money side of our district. Federal cuts, testing mandates, teaching the test for an "alledged portion" of state and federal funding all are very real things affecting school districts. However, the largest expense and challenge to education is really found in the teacher contracts for salaries, pensions and benefits. People love to blame "administrator costs", complaining the superintendent makes too much money, but the sad part is, his/her salary is a drop in the bucket compared to the salaries and benefits mandated by these contracts. This might be an area you might find interesting someday. I love great teachers! I absolutely believe they should be paid well. My issue is the guarantee that even if you aren't great or are just terrible, you are guaranteed the same increases, benefits and pensions.
    So here are my two cents, that might sound like a rant, but I hope you might see it as positive agreement with your thought process, with a nudge toward another learning opportunity if the mood ever strikes. Always happy to have a glimpse of your continued success. Keep discovering more and remember to look from all angles. Wishing you all the best! Bridget

  2. Alex, I'm sorry I missed your first post. I'm always up for opening a dialogue regarding this topic.

    I respect your advocacy to Carlynton. You found what you were passionate about and did everything you could to find ways to use it there. As did I. I had plenty of creative outlets while I was there - photographing sporting events, the senior mural, helping with the play and musical, etc. It wasn't the lack of opportunities I had an issue with. It was the fact that I didn't see others as excited about their futures as we were about ours. It was the overall atmosphere that drained me. The atmosphere that students and teachers have disclosed to me as being toxic.

    I'm not disagreeing with what you're saying - the public education system is broken. But I never complained about a "lack of challenge" in my post. I was never fulfilled by academic excellence, those who were took AP classes. If anything I wanted to lighten my workload so I could spend more time on things I was passionate about. Which I did.

    I don't expect anyone to fully understand my point of view. I wasn't bashing the teachers or students who supported me, I'm incredibly grateful for those people. Again, it's just the atmosphere. If you've experienced it your entire life, you wouldn't know anything different, and some will learn to thrive within it. I've experienced almost every type of educational atmosphere available, and that's where my perspective comes from.