Get our newsletters

Charles Meredith: How the other half learns


Dear Friends,

Good morning. I’m reading “How the Other Half Learns,” by Robert Pondiscio. He says that parents make all the difference … especially in schools where the children come from poverty households and are mostly children of color. In the Success Academy a charter school in the poorest part of the Bronx in New York City, the children outperform their peers at every NYC public and private school.

How is that possible?

Parents are the answer.

At the Success Academy, all parents must perform important tasks or their children may not attend. What are they? Get the child to and from school promptly; ensure that the daily homework is done; and, read books to the children.

“Decades of well-intended efforts to improve our schools and close the achievement gap have set equity and excellence at war with each other,” the book tells us. “If you are wealthy with the means to pay private school tuition or move to an affluent community, you can get your child into an excellent school. But if you are poor, you have to settle for “equity” and a lecture about fairness and the need to be patient … And about how school choice for you, only damages public schools for everyone else.”

But Success Academy is not for everyone. The author raises uncomfortable questions we’d rather not ask, let alone answer. What if the price of giving a first-rate education to children least likely to receive it means acknowledging that you can’t do it for everyone? What if some problems are just too hard for schools alone to solve?

“How the Other Half Learns” is important reading.

Turning to a different subject, I was impressed by the Philadelphia Latvian Concert Choir that recently performed in Applebachsville. Sixteen Latvian Americans sang and played instruments at the Stokes House, the home of the Haycock Township Historical Society. The Philadelphia Latvian Concert Choir is the oldest continuing Latvian choir in North America.

Gunta Plostnieks is the conductor. Her daughter, Julia, was the mistress of ceremonies and also sang. The musicians grew up in the Haycock Township area. The Latvian Americans have a lengthy tradition in the Quakertown area beginning after the end of World War I and World War II.

I sat with Karina and David Rilling. She used to play in MB’s tennis group. As a youngster, Karina emigrated from Latvia with her parents and two sisters. At the end of the program, I asked Karina whether Latvia had seen a remarkable change after the end of the Cold War and the Russian domination of the Baltic states? She answered yes.

About 20 years ago, MB and I spent about a week in St. Petersburg, Russia. We found it bleak and drab. People did not appear to be happy. That atmosphere turned into a startling contrast when we left Russia and entered Estonia, Latvia’s adjacent neighbor. There, people were warm and friendly. The buildings bright, colorful and cheerful.

Was Latvia similar, I wondered. “Yes,” Karina told me.

The Latvian Choir closed its programs with two beautiful songs: “To My Native Land” and “Song of the Soul.” Although I didn’t understand the language, we appreciated the musicians’ passion.

Two days ago (Oct. 8), Mighty Betsy and I attended the memorial service for Nancy Pannebaker Barclay, the wife of our friend Charles Barclay of Hatfield. I always called her “Nancy Prancy,” because she was so feisty. MB and I served in their wedding party 46 years ago.

Nancy was a highly respected elementary school teacher (fifth grade) in the Pennridge School system and a high ranking leader in the teachers’ union. That’s where we often disagreed vigorously. I believed that the union protects teachers who were not measuring up. She argued that teachers needed the union to fight for higher wages and protection from arbitrary discipline.

Looking back at those arguments from the benefit of my accelerating antiquity, we were both probably right. I have always been a proponent of high salaries for teachers. They are at the forefront of America’s future success. But there should be a faster, more efficient method to rid the public schools of ineffective teachers.

When I was in elementary school in the early 1940s, most women had only three professional choices available to them: teacher, nurse or secretary. In Quakertown, for example, the school board preferred single women because they presumably wouldn’t be bogged down by parenthood. As a result, female teachers were underpaid and overworked. It’s no wonder that teachers organized unions. Alas, we’re stuck with them today.

Nancy’s life was full. The Presbyterian Church was important to her. She was an elder and clerk of session at her church at Deep Run and a trustee at the Bay Head Chapel at the shore. Nancy enjoyed skiing, creating festive haunted houses and lining her driveway with hand carved jack-o-lanterns at Halloween. She was an avid paddle tennis player, sailor, and race committee member at the Bay Head Yacht Club on the Barnegat Bay.

Nancy was a wonderful, energy-packed, fearless friend.

Sincerely, Charles Meredith