Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where the Magic of Learning Began Is Changed

Teachers and students at J.S. Clark Magnet School. Photos from

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

MRS. WRIGHT, (no relation), my 2nd-grade teacher stands out in my mind for two reasons. First, she assigned me to a left-handed desk. No doubt, she thought she was doing a good thing because it would be easier for me to write. After all, I was – and still am – left-handed. While I had to twist and contort my body in the right-handed desk to write, and it sometimes put too much pressure on my dangling lower arm, I was managing just fine, thank you very much. I was mortified. My staring classmates were mystified. No one teased me, but I know they were thinking about it. Why couldn’t Mrs. W. just mind her own business, my 2nd-grader’s mind groused.

The other reason I’ve never forgotten Mrs. W. is because it was in her 2nd-grade class that I learned comprehension. “No calling words,” she would warn, meaning that we students not only had to read a passage but had to write and recite what it meant. One did not leave her class until one had such mastery and proficiency. I had many other fine teachers at J.S. Clark Elementary School. No one taught math like Mr. Martin or spelling like Miss McCaa.

In subsequent years, particularly living in places like Boston, Paris and New York where I encountered and befriended people who received what are considered elite educations in European and Eastern boarding schools, I always declared that I received a comparable primary school education. I still stand by that claim. A primary school is like the foundation of a structure. If the foundation is weak, so is the structure. I could cope with pre-calculus and trigonometry in high school because of the fundamentals I learned in Mr. Martin’s 5th-grade math class. Likewise, I scored well on standardized tests for comprehension and distinguished myself on many college papers because of Mrs. W's good work. I had a good start.

All of this came flooding back to me a couple of weeks ago when I was driving along Washington Street – one of the many streets in Monroe – that has been transformed, almost beyond recognition. In my peripheral vision I saw J.S. Clark on a structure and thought nothing of it. Seconds later, though, I realized that I just passed my elementary school. How changed it was! What happened to the two modest partial-brick buildings standing parallel to each other like two planks? They’d been obliterated, I believed until the next time I drove across Washington. This time I saw that the familiar structures were still intact, only that a new front had been constructed to adjourn them and add new office space and an entryway. There were other changes, too. The playground had been transformed with more swings and such. And a building that was across the grounds from the auditorium had been torn down and was now a parking lot. Yet another change was the school’s name: J.S. Clark Magnet School, serving students PK-6, not 1-6.

One morning after observing my mother’s physical therapy at the nursing home, I stopped by this J.S. Clark Magnet School. I walked around the grounds, allowing the memories that would to wash over me. I remembered all of the stray pencils I collected and the many recesses I spent on the monkey bars. Unsuccessfully, I tried to remember what stood once upon a time where new things now did. And after fruitless efforts to find the principal’s office after walking in the direction of the cafeteria, I just walked into the nearest opening confident that I would find my way.

Students get their exercise on in physical education class in the gym.

The halls seemed smaller, naturally since I was now larger. The walls were covered with drawings and decorations that spoke to their surroundings. One familiar object on the walls was a picture of and plaque about the school’s namesake, who was amongst other things, a Louisiana native, Harvard man and the first president of my undergraduate school, Southern University.

A few minutes later I was standing at the school office where I introduced myself to the secretary, Mrs. Yerger. She is an affable woman of retirement age with a pleasant countenance and with lots of handy information about the school and surroundings, including the graveyard next door, which I vaguely recalled. “It has a lot more people in it,” she volunteered when I observed that it seemed smaller when I was a student.

Mrs. Y. introduced me to Dr. Susan Cole who is Clark’s Program Coordinator and possibly its biggest cheerleader for the magnet school. “People are fighting to get into this school. We have a waiting list for students and teachers,” she boasted.

And Dr. C. stuffed me with myriad facts and figures and accolades that spoke to Clark’s status as one of the best magnet schools in the city, state and country. Dr. C wasn’t just talkin’ either., a school search tool for parents that rates schools on scores, class sizes and other variables, gave Clark a perfect five stars. Only one other local public elementary school earned the distinction. Clark, too, is one of the few public schools in the state to earn a perfect 10 rating from the nonprofit education resource, GreatSchools. Further, the school is highly ranked on the LEAP21, though its ranking dropped 11 points from school year 2006-07 to 2008-09. This could be explained in part by higher scores at other schools in the state, because the performance of Clark students on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program for the 21st Century tests has changed very little. LEAP21 tests are designed to measure the proficiency of 4th- and 8th-graders in English language arts, math, science and social studies.

Alas, Louisiana still has one of the worst educational systems in the country – even at the primary school level, according to the latest “Nation’s Report Card” from the U.S. Department of Education. Of course not all primary schools are created equally. Clark is one of the best schools in the city, and the city has one of the best school districts in the state – better than many schools/districts in higher-ranked – states, which is why I believe I got such a good primary school education. So will current Clark students.

While Clark is still predominantly black, it is now integrated, attracting students from both the predominantly black south side of the city and white students from the predominantly north side. “I tell people that we’re not South, we’re not North. We’re midtown,” Dr. C. asserted about Clark, which is her custom for all who have ears.

I was a student at Clark in the late 20th century during the waning years of the Industrial Revolution. In the early 21st Century, near the beginning of the Technological Revolution, primary school education is a very different animal. Clark has a Young Astronauts Program, DARE, Gifted Program and an In-House Zoo. The students are required to wear school uniforms. There is a Technology Club and Student Council. Parent contracts must be signed before students can be enrolled at the school. Little of the Clark I knew exists because it is a magnet school, with a specific mandate, Dr. Cole explained. “Magnet schools are encouraged to create a new identity for themselves.”

From some angles the exterior of Clark is unfamiliar.

And so Clark has. Schools like it all over the country have had to change to meet the challenges of educating young minds in a far more complicated and sophisticated world than the one in which I came of age.

It is bittersweet. I am sad that I do not recognize the place where so many rudiments were poured into me. Yet, it’s heartening to know that Clark is still providing the kind of primary school education that can stand proudly with The Dalton Schools (current tuition, $34.1K) of the world.

Learn more at;;;;;

No comments :

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
Based on a work at .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at .