Recently, I tried to evaluate my year as president of the Centralia School Board and what I may have learned during my 81 years that would help me assist Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant and the board in developing an excellent and modern educational program for the students in our district.
As I reviewed the year, several students submitted letters to The Chronicle expressing their concerns. I deeply appreciate their honesty and willingness to share their views in public. Then I received a long email from a very concerned patron. Again, I appreciate forthright comments and willingness to find solutions. Both events stimulated the following thoughts.
Our current national climate seems all too familiar to me. In the 1960-1970 era, our nation was terribly divided over Vietnam and emotionally and intellectually conflicted with the issues of the Civil Rights Movement. The effects of Vietnam are, in many ways, still with us. The Civil Rights Movement identified many issues, but too many problems still face the nation today. Unfortunately, 2023 seems to be another time of great crisis for our nation. Real and perceived problems seem to have captured our entire lives, resulting in a nation that is divided and polarized. Too many of our students don’t see a positive future or their place in it. When the effects of COVID-19 and social media are added to our culture, we are a nation without common goals and unity. The effects on our students are frightening. Educational achievement has suffered as students struggle to meet acceptable levels. Classroom behavior and bullying have become very serious issues. I fear our society will be faced with the effects of lost learning and interpersonal socialization for many years.
The current public education system is an extremely complicated system, controlled by federal law and regulations, state law and regulations, local legal requirements, labor contracts and local patron wishes and expectations. To understand and comply is extremely difficult and extraordinarily time consuming. Dr. Grant’s (any superintendent’s) job in this environment is almost unbelievable. There are over 1,000 policies and procedures that your local school board members must master. The Centralia School Board has committed to reviewing each and every policy and procedure; revising when necessary and then approving each one. The board has begun that task and plans to complete it this year. The board’s goal is to provide a superior education, in a safe equitable environment, for every student. The members of your school board have accepted a tremendous responsibility, donating their time, for the sole personal satisfaction of making our community better. It is an honor to serve with fellow board members Deb Parnham, Mandi McDougall, Maritza Bravo and Vickie Jackson. As I observe other school districts throughout the state, Centralia is blessed with board members who do not have personal agendas and are committed to a single focus: assisting in creating “great students.”
Many of our students come to school from challenging homes, societal divisions, poverty, language barriers and an obsession with their phones. Far too often, our teachers are expected to teach societal and interpersonal skills, while developing attitudes of self-esteem and self-worth in their students. While our teachers do an outstanding job, these tasks cannot be accomplished solely by classroom teachers and school counselors.
We, you and I, are raising our children in a politically divided world filled with animosity and violence. They are frustrated and fearful of their future. Our children, our most valuable treasures, are bombarded with the powerful and the negative effects of social media and interactions with their own peers. Then, like a nuclear explosion, COVID-19 entered their world. It was an unknown dark attack that seemingly upended everything they knew and rearranged their world. The short-term and long-term effects of COVID-19 will be with us for generations. School districts, and especially yours, tried to devise every vehicle possible to continue the education of students and create a positive environment for them. Your teachers were phenomenal. They jumped in, acquired new skills, created new programs, designed new lesson plans and learned to teach our kids over the internet.
Some programs were more successful than others. Teacher education programs did not anticipate or teach the skills needed in the new COVID world. While there are certainly instances where one might disagree with district strategies and plans, and where we could have done better, the teachers in your district were incredible. Please thank every single one when you have a chance. Please do not forget that the teachers also suffered personally from COVID-19 impacts.
This is not a crisis that public education can solve alone. No amount of money, no federal or state laws or directives will be sufficient. Unless our students acquire personal self-confidence and appropriate educational skills, they will be destined for unhappy and unsatisfactory lives. We, in each of our communities, must find ways to create a positive pathway forward for our kids.
So, here is the bottom line. Your school board, your superintendent and your teachers will reach out with as much energy and ingenuity as they can muster. They will work, learn and honor every student. But, if we expect public education to be responsible for changing the nation’s culture divide, developing self-esteem in each student, creating a safe environment, stopping bad behavior, and controlling bullying, then the end result will be an absolute and complete failure.
If we, as a community, fail to address and redress the issues facing our children, we will be leaving them in an impossible place. We will be failures as parents and adults.
Success will require a commitment by our whole community, individual families and parents, and various community organizations and services. Students, themselves, must commit to becoming not only critics but also a part of the solution. We are each other’s and our children’s role models. We must learn to respect our differences and work together on our commonalities. To blame education is an obstacle to finding solutions. Our personal criticisms must be turned into questions on how we can fix problems. Working together we can create the Great Society that was President Lyndon Johnson’s dream.
I am still inspired by the words that Sen. Robert Kennedy quoted from George Bernard Shaw: “I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” Young and old, students and young adults, parents and grandparents, please join me and your school board. We must all demand an answer to “why not” question. Your school board believes there is only one acceptable answer: “why not?”
Please join us and help us make our students Centralia’s greatest legacy.
Tim Browning, a former mayor of Centralia, is a 1960 graduate of Centralia High School and has served as president of the Centralia School Board.