Strangers no more

"Strangers No More" is a documentary that will screen at the 10th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival. It's remarkable.

This Academy Award-winning short film is set in Bialik-Rogozin, a school in Tel Aviv. The students come from 48 different countries, children of transnational workers who have arrived in Israel having escaped poverty, war, even genocide. And so the process begins to acclimate the children, to instruct them, while teaching them one common language, Hebrew.

What takes place at Bialik-Rogozin is magical. The students are unequivocally embraced, taken into an extraordinary community. Watching them respond and grow, opening like small, parched flowers, is both moving and inspiring. In return, they eventually share their stories, wrenching tales of deprivation and loss, and in the case of a 16-year-old boy, Mohammad, horrific. He watched his family shot as he hid under a bed in their home in Darfur.

The meta-message of the film, so powerfully delivered, is that our schools are communities in which children can be educated and nurtured. Schools can be that singular place where young lives are transformed, where all things are possible, no matter the histories of the young people who arrive each day at the door.

Bialik-Rogozin is testimony to a powerful truth: Our public schools can be a panacea. They can, in effect, be all things to all children — that is not hyperbole — if we simply have the will as a nation to make them our national priority. Educating our children is as vital to our homeland security as is the Pentagon. We must reframe not only our view of public education, but of the teachers who choose to step into the classroom.

Yet, the reality is that across America our public schools are being systematically truncated if not dismantled. Teachers are released, class sizes are increased, funding is severely cut back, instructional programs dropped. School districts are asked to do more with less. Teachers are targeted, their value as public employees called into question, their right to bargain collectively challenged. All in the name of balancing budgets. How to even begin to understand why we are strangling the one institution that offers our children a chance at an education that will enhance their options and allow them to compete in a global economy, call it the information highway, where literacy is paramount.

Instead, against our own best interests as a nation, against all wisdom and common sense, we are devaluing our children's education. And the rationale proffered by our representatives at every level of government, from Florida to the heartland to the West Coast, is anemic if not fraudulent. We are not broke. Indeed, we have a monster deficit. But we also have the largest economy in the world. What we cannot do is conduct wars without end or nation build, at staggering costs to our troops and our treasury. The education of our children should be the one thing above all others that we put first. It is an investment in the common good that is immeasurable.

Part of the assault on public education is the rubric of accountability and testing, started by the calamitous No Child Left Behind and now carried forward in a different incarnation as the Race to the Top. From Washington to local school districts, administrators and policy-makers worship at the shrine of the standardized test, one of the most misguided and wrong-headed forms of assessment to be foisted on our schools.

And not only is the current application of testing a pedagogical disaster, it is used punitively against teachers. Student test scores are now linked to teacher evaluations, in effect scapegoating teachers.

We know that there are countless mitigating factors that make educating our children profoundly difficult: poverty, neglect and family dysfunction, realities that have only been exacerbated by the current recession. Plus, culturally and historically, we are suspicious of education and the denizens of what is disparagingly referred to as the ivory tower.

Schools can level the playing field. They can be an important force for democracy and should be funded in a completely different and egalitarian way. Schools are, after all, the place where a literate citizenry is formed.

As well, schools can offer our children a safety net that is wide and resilient and caring. We know that many arrive at our schools damaged and struggling; some are mirror images of those youngsters who arrive at the Bialik-Rogozin School. But, against all odds, they come. They step through the doors. And once there, is it not our fiduciary duty to offer them the very best that we, as a people, can provide? How can we not allocate every possible resource, to include mentors, programs, rigorous curricula and an abundance of individual attention?

As a nation we are not broke. Wrecking public education and demoralizing our teachers is about something else.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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