The Race is On!
Will our Children come out Winners?


Email Sandra Nichols

"My problem is not with the standards, but with the concept of the herd moving along at a pace set by the standards and the speed at which the entire herd can travel."


s the ponies entered the starting gate, some shied away from the tiny metal enclosures. They were urged forward, at times physically prompted to enter that box. A horse wants to run free. But the race horse must learn to squelch his claustrophobic tendencies and enter the box. There is only one way onto the race track.

Is this about education? Yep. It's the horse race analogy. And in the month of June, we see the winners coming in for their diplomas. Hundreds, nay thousands of them. They have triumphed in the system.

Some have come through with help in special education. Others leaped off the track for a while and chose independent study, adult school, or home school. Others went to private institutions. Some were waylaid by life and circumstance, taking detours through hospitals, jails, and family catastrophes. The playing field is not level, even though we might like it to be.

The starting gate of public schools is Day One of kindergarten. Now, a race horse has presumably been in training since birth, bred to run. But with children, some have trained and some have not. Some enter school with a background of early childhood education. Some love to sit and listen to stories, some are ready to rock and roll, some just want to run free.

If you ask a 5 year old whether he likes stories, you will learn a lot about his readiness for a traditional school experience. Those who like stories are those for whom language has become a tool with which to appreciate the world. And much of what a child is to learn in kindergarten is going to be acquired through those language tools. Books for tiny tots have pictures because the little ones are not yet ready for words alone. Words become more and more useful as children get comfortable with them. Then children paint their own mental pictures when they hear stories.

Differences among children are a given. There's no denying these differences in readiness levels as children enter kindergarten. And yet we are told to fix our schools so that "no child is left behind," and that "all children must read at third grade level by third grade." If your primary goal is to get those under performing, or not-ready children to catch up with the herd, then what will happen to the leading edge of that herd?

Let's think about that. The herd of kids. Moving towards their diplomas. They have 13 years to do it. But they're not all the same. They don't all start in the same place, they don't all have the same equipment, and they don't all even want to go in the same direction!

Now, I believe in standards in education. Teachers know what's expected and they have tests to show whether their lessons are effective. My problem is not with the standards, but with the concept of the herd moving along at a pace set by the standards and the speed at which the entire herd can travel.

Thank goodness there are alternatives in education! Now to many people, alternative education means remedial education, at-risk students, and smaller classes with extra support. While there are programs which do address those needs, alternative education is not synonymous to remedial education. Possibilities abound.

Recently, at an alternative education graduation ceremony, I listened to a story about an animal academy in which the squirrels were taught to swim, and the fish to fly, because these skills were part of the standards. Needless to say, there was a huge failure rate! It was the groundhogs who organized an alternative school at which individual student's talents and interests were the key factors affecting the curriculum.

Alternatives include charter schools, which provide a "free and appropriate public education" option for kids and families who make that choice. If you think your child would benefit from an alternative education, and you haven't explored the possibilities, now would be a good time to check these out. Some schools have waiting lists.

There are schools for students who love the arts, schools at which the whole family gets to be involved, and schools that prepare youth for specific careers. There are also schools for students who aren't comfortable for various reasons with regular schools. Home schooling is now recognized and supported for families who have the educational energy, commitment and time.

You have many educational options. Check them out. It's not one-size-fits-all any more. Call the office of your school's superintendent. Get the answers.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, June 16, 2001. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2001