Last week I wrote my first impressions of last week’s page-one story about an apparent racial incident, threats stemming from that, and follow-up actions at Platteville High School.
The follow-up plan is on page 1 of your favorite weekly newspaper this week. This is, I must say, not my favorite story to cover, as a parent of Platteville Public Schools students. It is, however, news, and those whose tax dollars fund PPS deserve to know what’s happening in the schools, whether the news is positive or not.
That has to be the frustrating part of this for PPS generally and PHS teachers and staff specifically. Platteville High School has received repeated high ratings and, the last time the state report cards were released, scored second highest among high schools and sixth among all schools in Southwest Wisconsin. The PHS honor roll printed on page 11B this week isn’t of a certain percentage of students, it’s students who achieve at least a 3.4 grade point average.
PHS principal Tim Engh talked to parents who attended the parent–teacher conferences Thursday about what happened two weeks ago and what PHS has been doing since then. From that and from conversations I’ve had with other people connected to PHS, I wonder if the issue is less about racial differences and more about treating each other in a civil fashion, even when walking past each other in the halls.
As I mentioned last week, high school is a cauldron of different levels of personal maturity, different family backgrounds, hormones and people who lack perspective about things that happen to them because they aren’t old enough to have had very much happen to them. An incident where, say, one student snubs another can be attributed to teens being teens a quarter century later. But high school counts for one-quarter to one-third of the entire life of a high school student up until graduation, so to all except the very well-adjusted, what happens to a high school student in high school is a big deal, whether or not it seems that way to adults.
Adults are role models for students — parents first and foremost, then authority figures like teachers, but others too. We adults need to realize we are showing kids how to act, positively or negatively. (Which is why I tend to think, perhaps unfairly, that certain racially pejorative terms that are not used in polite company and shouldn’t be used anywhere get used in certain homes more often than they should.)
One of the most interesting things I read and have since heard about from the student survey was the phrase “go-to teacher,” which gets to the second of the three bullet points on which PHS will be focusing this year, “building positive relationships.” People who didn’t have a uniformly negative school experience can probably remember their favorite teachers, and those teachers stick in people’s minds not just years later, but even after that teacher no longer has the student in a class. I noticed at the conference that students were talking to some of their former teachers, and those teachers must be the PHS “go-to teachers.” A teacher doesn’t necessarily have to have a student in class to be a teacher for that student.
The third of the three bullet points is “increasing school spirit and pride.” Similar phrases have been used the past couple of years after PHS has gotten less than positive publicity — namely the non-renewal of sports team coaches. Related to “school spirit and pride” have been observations of people going, or not, to sporting events or other PHS events.
It will be interesting to see what PHS comes up with to increase “school spirit and pride.” I only have 3½ years of observation to draw from, but one reason for diminishing athletic attendance may be a diminishing number of athletes because of a diminishing number of students. PHS’ enrollment is now a little more than half what it was when it was an 800-student high school. PHS isn’t dropping in enrollment more so than other schools; nearly every area school has fewer students than they used to simply because of smaller families and people moving out of the area in search of more opportunity elsewhere in the state.
For those who think this is one big overreaction, consider the observation years ago from author Kurt Vonnegut, who said that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” A 2013 New York Magazine essay, “Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” adds that high school is the last cultural experience someone has — generally an experience you didn’t choose to have — before the experiences you choose to have, namely your post-high school plans.