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Nathaniel French

A failing school success story

I'm the product of a failing school. At least that's what the state of Florida says. Two years ago, I graduated from Gibbs High School, which recently received an F grade based on its FCAT scores. The school has a long and proud history. Gibbs is a traditionally black school that now has a wide range of races from all socioeconomic backgrounds. This combination occasionally leads to tension; my senior year, reports of racially charged violence and disrespect toward teachers made it into the newspapers. At the time, I thought these claims were exaggerated, but it would be impossible to deny that fights broke out often and that students tended to wander the halls with impunity. Despite these issues, I never felt unsafe and even the most flagrant issues rarely disrupted the school day.

Given its socioeconomic diversity and issues with discipline, I'm not surprised that Gibbs fared poorly on reading and math tests. Without a doubt, the school needs improvement. Some problems — like racial tension and the disadvantage low-income students face — are the product of broad social problems that trace back decades. There is no short-term fix for these ills. But significant gains can be made by strengthening the resources the school already has.

My experience at Gibbs speaks to the potential of our public schools. While I had a few weak teachers, they were the exception to a dedicated rule.

My American government teacher, Mr. Zuercher, felt that the curriculum wasn't difficult enough and so he devised alternative assignments to challenge me. He worked with me after class and gave me feedback on papers that covered the American presidency, upcoming Supreme Court cases and the First Amendment. At his urging, I entered a national essay scholarship contest on religious freedom; I won $1,500. My musical theater teacher, Ms. Bail, gave me voice lessons on Saturday mornings. Because I was her student she couldn't accept payment. She did it for free anyway.

My English teacher, Mr. Lamore, remembered my passing remark about my love of medieval Arthurian epics. One day, he handed me a biography of Sir Thomas Malory that he'd seen on Amazon. I tried to return it to him after I read it, but he said I'd appreciate it more than he would.

I wasn't the only one whose horizons were broadened, either. Teachers frequently brought in articles from the New York Times and the New Yorker to share with the class. My European history teacher, Mrs. Lee, chose to use a college-level textbook rather than the simpler book recommended by the district. My brother Sam, who goes to Gibbs right now, read Max Weber and Eric Hobsbawm in class. I can't imagine too many students — even the very brightest — would have stumbled across The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism without the guidance they got from school. I could continue naming any of the dozens of teachers and administrators whose dedication to their students made me who I am today. Their example proves that the tools of success are there.

After graduating, I went on to Macalester College, an elite liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minn. There, I was surrounded by kids from some of the best high schools in the country. I was shocked by how prepared Gibbs had made me. My education hadn't been as rigorous; I had taken far fewer AP classes than some. But it had been more expansive. The teachers at Gibbs had prepared me to make my own education, to explore my curiosities down whatever avenue they led.

This past year, I transferred into Southern Methodist University's acting program. Although I'd been successful at Macalester, I realized my heart was in the theater. From my time in the arts program at Gibbs, I knew I had a need to create. I'd discovered the passion that drives me. Nothing could have prepared me for life better than learning to trust myself. I would not be where I am now without the self-confidence I learned in high school.

My experience at Gibbs will not be everyone's. The school's poor performance on the FCAT speaks volumes about how much needs to be done to guarantee everyone a sound education.

But my experience also convinced me that the problems that schools like Gibbs face are more complex than a single standardized test. To boil the schools' performance down to one letter grade is to ignore the tremendous potential they have.

School officials should consider Gibbs's F not as a sign of failure but as just one indicator of performance. Students' stories like mine are another. I hope Gibbs and the rest of Pinellas County's schools continue to give the opportunities I was given to as many students as possible. That's where progress begins.

Nathaniel French is a 2007 graduate of Gibbs High School and a junior at Southern Methodist University.

A failing school success story 06/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 9:06am]

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