A Tale Of Two School Districts

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 30, 2006
| Del.icio.us

All right. All right. I know my vast readership - all 11 of you - have heard enough, after one column, about my recent travels through the Great Midwest. But settle in, because you’re gonna hear more.

Don’t whine. The medium’s print, so at least I’m not sitting in your living room forcing you to endure a slide show.

Two weeks ago, exercising a 62-year-old’s penchant for nostalgia, I drove to Lake Station, Ind., a working class suburb of Gary. When I lived there in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they called it East Gary; but Gary has fallen on hard times this past half century and East Gary’s city fathers - via a new name - have distanced themselves from it.


During my visit, I made contact with the best friend of my youth. He and his sister were the children of Russian immigrants who had found their way to Gary to work in its steel mills. There they earned union wages; and they were able to send their daughter, an accomplished organist, to the prestigious music school at Ohio’s Oberlin College. She went on to receive a master’s degree in music.

Ivan, her brother and my friend, went off to Bloomington and the University of Indiana to study medicine. “As I went further in the IU pre-med curriculum, I realized that I couldn’t compete with pre-med students from better high schools,” he remembers. “In East Gary we got just the basic science courses and nothing more.”

If that. East Gary’s schools weren’t much. I remember some fine teachers there, but I also remember some certifiable lolos, some of whom seemed to be classroom fillers pulled off the street the afternoon before classes began in the fall. The physical plant wasn’t much either.

East Gary simply had no tax base. The steel mills were in Gary, and middle and upper middle class gravitated to suburbs farther from steel town.

Oh, East Gary had the local school board Hawaii’s current governor considers key to educational improvement; but without tax revenue, its members couldn’t do much.

Prior to my sophomore year in high school, my family moved to a small town in southwestern Michigan, a place called Allegan. My recent journey to the Great Midwest was to attend a class reunion. The festivities included a visit to Allegan’s new high school.

A decade or so ago, Allegan’s local school board began a modernization of the high school. They persuaded the school district’s voters to approve a 20-year extension of the school tax in order to support new construction.

The results are eye-popping. Allegan High School boasts a well-manicured campus and sports fields, a new gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool, new and reconfigured classrooms, a new library and media room, and a new auditorium.

And oh! That auditorium. With all due respect to Punahou and Iolani and Kapolei’s new high school, nothing I’ve seen in Hawaii secondary schools compares (or in Hawaii’s colleges, come to think of it). It’s beautifully done in dark woods and blue upholstered seats.


A friend of mine served on the school board that made many of the renovations. When I ran into him and complimented him on what the board had done, he said: “Yep. We spent some money, didn’t we?”

They sure did, but not just on the physical plant. They hired more teachers as well. Allegan High School maintains an average class size of 17-20 for freshmen and sophomores, 23 for juniors and seniors. Let me repeat that for the beleaguered secondary school teachers of Hawaii who routinely teach classes of more than 30: 20 students for freshmen and sophomore classes, 23 students for junior and senior classes. Again, private Punahou and Iolani don’t do much better than that.

Yes,Allegan had an enlightened school board that “spent some money.“And, if we are to improve public education in Hawaii, local school boards might help. Might.

But raising - and spending - money is absolutely imperative.

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