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Schools gone wild
Diana Kapp | December 28, 2007
Bay Area private schools used to be mellow compared to places like L.A. and New York. Not anymore. We go inside a new world of hyper-frenetic building campaigns, over-the-top curricula, and relentlessly well-meaning parents at the mercy of market forces no one seems able (or willing) to control.
Every year, without fail, Bodie Brizendine’s phone used to ring half a dozen times with queries from private-school headhunters. Clearly, word had gotten out about the Marin Academy head who was cool enough to jam with the Doobie Brothers at the school’s 35th anniversary bash and classy enough to follow up all student performances with a personal note to participants. At a 400-kid high school with 12 musical ensembles alone, plus dance troupes and theater groups, this translated into a hell of a lot of handwritten cards.
Ultimately, though, the calls had more to do with Brizendine’s professional acumen than her impeccable manners and huge heart. In 12 years as head of the San Rafael school, she and her board raised more than $40 million, erected or renovated nine of the campus’s 12 buildings, and did so much to boost the school’s reputation—from that of a middle-of-the-pack, artsy enclave for rich kids to a top-notch (but still artsy) college prep with real soul—that the applicant pool doubled to six or so candidates for every freshman slot. Even in the big leagues of New York City prep schools, Brizendine’s achievements stood out: in 2005, her crop of suitors included the ultra-exclusive all-girls Spence School, in the upper-crustiest part of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This time, she accepted the call—and the job.
While Marin Academy’s close-knit community was sad to see her go, everyone understood this was a stellar opportunity for their beloved leader. They knew, too, that Brizendine’s tenure had been almost twice as long as that of the typical private school head (the U.S. average is seven years). As soon as she gave notice, 18 months before her departure this past June, an all-out search for her successor began. Parents and faculty spent four months narrowing down a pool of about 50 candidates to three finalists. In November 2005, the search committee met with the Board of Trustees to announce its choice. The unanimous pick: no one.
In fact, almost two years later, the search for the new Bodie is still going on. Brizendine’s dynamic personality, fundraising genius, management finesse, and easy rapport with teens make her a tough act to follow. Parents want someone who shares their commitment to both academic excellence and social responsibility. Teachers are pushing for one of their own (in addition to all her other duties, Brizendine taught English); indeed, the faculty has been so insistent, a search committee member quips, “If we had brought in Steve Jobs, they would have shot him down.” The passage of time hasn’t caused the school community to shorten its wishlist. As is all the rage among Bay Area independent schools, the campus has recently gone green, with a zero-waste policy and the lofty goal of being a role model for environmental responsibility. So now, on top of everything else, some in the Marin Academy community hope for a new leader who’s also an environmental visionary.
Salary may be another reason no one is willing to settle for anyone less than ideal. Brizendine made $323,000 in 2005, plus $65,000 in deferred compensation and expenses, plus use of a school-owned house. (For some perspective, University of California chancellors, who each oversee thousands of students, earned an average base of $322,000 last year, while the typical San Francisco Unified School District principal made $96,317). Her successor could command even more; according to a recent sampling of 50 elite private schools by the Wall Street Journal, head compensation jumped more than 40 percent in five years at over half of them—and the trend shows no signs of abating. Why shouldn’t expectations be sky-high for someone pulling in that kind of money?
Yet, given the ever-rising demands on Bay Area private-school heads, even a salary like that may not be enough. At many places looking for new leadership, potential candidates are taking a pass because the job has grown so big and brutal, says Jim McManus, executive director at the California Association for Independent Schools (CAIS). What was once an intellectual position driven by mastery of one’s discipline—thus the term “headmaster”—has morphed into the job of a harried CEO running a sprawling $10–15 million business, mired in serious finance, fundraising, and real estate transactions, and answering to a potentially volatile combination of bigwig trustees, high-maintenance parents, and underpaid teachers. Search committees have discovered that a mere mortal may not be up to the job—or may not be impressive enough to satisfy a demanding school community. What’s required, says McManus, former head at the all-girls Castilleja School in Palo Alto, is someone who can “heal the sick and raise the dead”—the phrase on many other lips is “God on a good day.”
The Bay Area’s elite private schools are in the midst of an unprecedented changing of the guard. In San Francisco alone, searches for new heads are under way or have recently been completed at the two big-name girls’ schools, Hamlin and Katherine Delmar Burke, as well as the Bay School, the San Francisco School, and San Francisco Day. Elsewhere, new or newish heads are in place at Branson in Marin County, Phillips Brooks on the Peninsula, and Windrush and Prospect Sierra in the East Bay—at least a dozen schools around the region. Though the numbers are striking, it turns out the reasons are mostly mundane: in a few cases, dissatisfaction with the previous head; more commonly, normal turnover. Some 72 percent of independent-school heads are expected to retire or change jobs by 2012, as baby boomers age out of the administrative ranks, according to a 10-year projection by the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS).
More significant, though, is what the spate of turnovers has revealed about the state of Bay Area independent education. In the past decade or more, many private schools here have gone from being relatively mellow and modest places, even at their wealthiest and snootiest, to tricked-out, turbo-charged, and over-the-top. More and more independent high schools are like “little colleges,” declares Tim Johnson, who headed Marin Country Day School for 15 years—highly engineered utopias that resemble educational gated communities or, as one top San Francisco school has been called, Oz. The private K-8s are swept up, too, intent on providing a model 21st-century education with every bell and whistle imaginable and then some. The changes have been gradual—a new program here, a new building there—and mostly well-meaning, propelled by dynamic, ambitious heads; superrich, super-driven parents; the Bay Area’s do-good/do-well ethos; and market forces that no one seems able or willing to control. As one San Francisco mom says of her child’s K-8: “I’m paying $20,000 a year. It better be pretty close to perfect.” This trend is affecting a surprisingly large number of families around the region. San Francisco leads major U.S. cities in the percentage of kids in private school—a whopping 29.3 percent in 2005, or nearly twice the national (and almost four times the statewide) average. More unexpected, given the steep housing prices families pay to buy into its excellent public schools, Marin County has the second-highest rate of indie school attendance in California, just under 20 percent. In San Mateo County, 16 percent of kids are going private, although not necessarily for the same reasons as in gritty urban districts. In parts of the Peninsula, it seems, some test-obsessed, homework-crazy public schools are almost too demanding; some parents are reportedly choosing private school as the sane alternative.
But even kids in public school are feeling the impact. The quest to make already excellent private schools even more so diverts attention, energy, and resources that could make public schools the kind of places where upper-middle-class parents would actually want to send their kids. “By going into independent schools, you take out all the people with the power to bring change,” Johnson asserts.
He isn’t the only one worried. Plenty of private-school parents—thumbing through books like The Price of Privilege and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee—feel like they’ve been caught on a fast-moving train that’s flattening all their good liberal intentions; they also feel like they can’t get off. (Full disclosure: I am one of these soul-searchers, with two kids in San Francisco private schools and another one headed that way in a few years.) In districts where public schools are overcrowded, underfinanced, and unable to provide much more than the basics, few parents who have tasted (and can afford, even if just barely) what private schools have to offer are willing to settle for anything less for their kids, no matter how egalitarian their principles.
The unintended result is clear: an educational arms race that’s almost certainly not in the best interests of the kids whose best interests we’re all trying to serve. What’s not so obvious is where or how it will end.
The more-is-better mentality at these schools is most evident in their facilities. Everywhere you look, there’s
a building boom. “All schools have edifice complexes,” says David Fleishhacker, who headed Katherine Burke for 25 years, beginning in 1970. Indeed, Burke’s is in the midst of its Second Century Project, which seeks to raise $17 million to upgrade its 3.5-acre Sea Cliff campus with state-of-the-art science, fine arts, and performance and gym facilities, as well as an expanded 25,000-volume library with dedicated women’s and global collections to serve its 400 students. In lockstep, the 400-student Hamlin School just purchased the lot next door to its existing campus on Broadway, in one of San Francisco’s ritziest neighborhoods. At Marin Academy, recent projects include new centers for the performing and visual arts, a new library, an $8 million administrative building dedicated to Brizendine, and a brand-new kitchen to whip up all-organic lunches. This fall’s unveilings include a new arts building at Prospect Sierra’s middle school in El Cerrito, a new World Languages Building at Head-Royce in Oakland, and, at the San Francisco Waldorf High School, a whole new, soon-to-be-green-certified campus in West Portal—the city’s first, though surely not its last.
Even top-tier parochial schools, which generally have a reputation for being more low-key than their non-denominational peers, are caught up in the building game. Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, for example, at Gough and Ellis Streets in San Francisco, has a $16 million glass-and-steel student center that includes an 8,500-square-foot workout facility with more than
40 cardio machines; pilates and yoga class schedules are tacked to the dance studio door. Its $65 million initiative includes plans for aquatic and performing arts centers and a new science facility. Across town, Saint Ignatius College Prep—whose 11-acre Sunset district campus includes tennis courts with spectacular ocean views—completed a $50 million endowment campaign last year and has already launched another one, this time to fund capital and other improvements.
Malcolm Manson, the founding head of the Bay School, which opened in the Presidio in 2004 (he previously headed Cathedral School for Boys for nine years and Marin Country Day for 13), says this kind of serial fundraising has become almost universal throughout Bay Area private schools. “As soon as they finish one capital campaign, they begin the next. They say they need it for their competitive edge. To get the best students and families, they have to be the best—the best facilities, the best teachers, the latest computers.” To be fair, plenty of schools are in genuine need of earthquake retrofitting and other repairs; once one room or building has been spiffed up, everything around it looks shabby. Manson thinks ego can also be a factor. Raising money and new buildings is a tangible accomplishment for the board and the head. “I’m guilty of it,” he admits.
Inside these buildings, the array of undeniably cool offerings would leave most public schools—or, for that matter, prep schools in most other parts of the country—dumbfounded (and parents wishing they could trade places with their kids). At the 400-student Town School for Boys, a K-8 in Pacific Heights, students can take a class in real estate or one called “Wall Street Week” (several sessions are devoted to the career of Warren Buffett). At Oakland’s Julia Morgan School for Girls, middle-school students can learn to write a business plan; Hamlin girls can boost their confidence on a rock-climbing wall. At the Urban School in the Haight, all 342 students get a school-supplied laptop (their parents get the bill); blackboards in the classrooms—where electives include such Yale-worthy topics as French novels of the Romantic period, marine biology, and neurobiology—have been replaced by “smart boards,” which transmit anything written on them directly into a computer. Branson has a writing center staffed by faculty to help kids edit and rewrite papers; Marin Academy has a professional-quality sound studio where students can record their own CDs. And as schools race to prepare kids for a post-9/11, rapidly warming, ever more
uncertain world, Mandarin courses are as ubiquitous as references to Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat.
As courses and activities have multiplied and intensified, so has the breadth of the services the schools oversee. Every one of them enlists an army of specialists; Urban has one adult on the payroll for every five kids. In recent years, Lick-Wilmerding High School, whose architecturally important Ingleside campus has been featured in Dwell, has added a Learning Strategies
Center where kids can receive peer tutoring or just learn how they learn best; the school’s expanded health curriculum focuses on stress reduction, backed by on-site psychologists. Another just introduced its first endowed position, the Henry David Thoreau Faculty Chair, a dedicated environmentalist who will spearhead the school’s greening efforts.
Two of the hottest types of specialists are directors of diversity (a sign of how determined these schools are to improve on this front) and “service learning,” the current PC term for community service. Typically, this civic-minded administrator ensures that projects like creek restoration and food donation are fully integrated into a school’s curriculum. At some places, the list of extras enters truly frontier territory. One school paid for a political consultant to help galvanize neighborhoodsupport for a new annex. Marin Academy now routinely posts security guards outside school dances, giving random breathalyzer tests and checking students and their cars. A San Francisco K-8 brought in a mediator last year to help resolve a conflict between a group of eighth-graders who had fallen out after being best friends.
It’s telling that many of these new services creep into the parenting realm. Overwhelmed, multitasking parents are increasingly leaning on schools to assume some of their burden. “Parents really look to us to confer values and meaning,” says Coreen Hester, who left Hamlin in June to become the new head at the American School in London. Schools now serve as social networks, spiritual centers, psychological healers—even nutrition cops. If parents at one San Francisco K-8 are concerned about their kids’ consumption of chocolate milk, they can check a computerized tracking system that posts every carton purchased (and some have actually bothered to do so).
Prospect Sierra and Berkeley Montessori are among the schools now offering support groups for parents. Three years ago, Redwood Day School in Oakland went so far as to hire a parenting expert as its head: Mike Riera, author of Field Guide to the American Teenager and four other books on adolescents and, until last year, the parenting correspondent for the CBS Saturday Early Show. The expectations have become so expansive that the outgoing head at Prospect Sierra found himself reminding parents that kids are still in school only about 20 percent of the time.
Ironically, while the schools primp and jostle, they seem to have actually forgotten the first rule of marketing: always differentiate. Offerings and missions at many Bay Area independent schools have become almost indistinguishable. Every school spouts the same catchphrases: diversity, service-learning, teaching the whole child, creating global citizens. San Francisco Friends School head Cathy Hunter’s take on why they all seem so alike: “They’re trying to be all things for all people.”
David Fleishhacker is as much of a private-school insider as exists in the Bay Area. Beyond leading Burke’s for a quarter-century, he attended the Town School and later taught there; he also taught at Marin Country Day and Lick-Wilmerding and helped found University High School. And he’s a real talker. His view is that the private-school universe today revolves mostly around one thing: money. “It changes the nature of what schools do, and that is not a good thing.”
Over a long coffee on Fillmore Street, after a slight detour about the book he has just self-published about Afghanistan, Fleishhacker explains that these schools are facing a real problem: they’ve made themselves so expensive to run that they must constantly raise money. But the more parents pay, the more they feel justified in determining in how their big bucks should be spent. “The school better listen, or the parents will walk out—and take your next building with them.”
Tuition is the most obvious manifestation of the way money has taken over. The cost of attending Bay Area private schools has jumped 70 percent in the last decade—more than twice the national rate, according to NAIS data. Marin Academy and Branson parents will pony up almost $30,000 per kid this year—just a shade under what they would spend on tuition at Harvard. The average Bay Area first-grade tuition is $18,080, second only to the New York metro area; parents of 12th-graders pay an average of $27,355, the highest in the nation. By contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District had $8,900 per kid to work
with last year.
But even at these levels, tuition doesn’t stretch far enough. Every year, schools need to raise another 10 percent of their operating dollars, typically around $1 million, to cover salaries, financial aid, and facility upkeep. So on top of tuition, private-school families are expected to write another check to the annual fund.
(As a reality check, last year the extremely active PTA at public Miraloma Elementary School on Mount Davidson was thrilled to have raised $135,000 in extra money, which went to pay for such basics as teacher supplies, library materials, art and P.E.) This is in addition to donations to the capital fund and long-term endowment.
Endowment funds, which help ease yearly budget pressures, supplement tuition, and pay for scholarships, are relatively meager at Bay Area schools. Many local independents have been around for three or four decades—barely adolescents in private-school years, and not long enough to accumulate a sizable stash.
At Spence, Brizendine now has $69 million at her disposal, built over the school’s 115 years of operation. At Marin Academy, she and trustees managed with great focus to grow the endowment tenfold, to $11 million. Phillips Exeter Academy, founded the same year (1781) the British surrendered at Yorktown, has socked away
a staggering $806 million. Meanwhile, Hamlin has managed to amass just $8.6 million in 144 years.
When Fleishhacker was at Burke’s, the school operated on a very different scale. The tuition bill when he arrived in 1970 was $1,200. His starting salary as head—a job that also included admissions and development—was a measly $18,000. When he left in 1995, his salary had climbed to around $125,000—a sevenfold increase, but still less than half what his successor was earning when she announced her departure this winter.
The dot-com boom—specifically, its impact on salaries, which typically account for 65 percent of a school’s budget—helped set off the jump in local tuitions. A decade ago, Bay Area salaries for teachers with three to five years’ experience were in the low $30,000s, Cathy Hunter guesstimates—hardly enough to recruit top talent during the go-go years. A glut of retirements made the shortage even more critical. Today, the Friends School pays a teacher with equivalent experience $44,000. But the instructors Hunter most wants to hire, with 10-plus years’ experience, will cost her about $70,000 annually. Two other factors that affected tuition, the CAIS’s McManus says: the Bay Area’s real estate prices and all those experts and specialists.
The Internet rush’s effect on Bay Area private schools went way beyond jacking up salaries. The sudden wealth of parents made demand in some areas almost price-insensitive; many more families were also capable of making big donations. Checks flowed in for new performing arts centers, second gymnasiums, shinier libraries, and more. (One school’s initiative to raise $1 million for new FieldTurf was completed by a single family in one week.) Education became another commodity, with wealthy parents seeking features and extras like they would for their newest-model Viking range, and less wealthy ones getting swept along in the current. The outpouring of money resulted in the struggle these institutions now face: the bigger and brighter the school, the more pressure it feels to stay ahead of the competition.
And, of course, the harder it is to afford. Mark Salkind, who has been at the helm of the Urban School for 21 years, says that the most worrisome part of his job is how to avoid becoming an institution that only ultra-elite and financial-aid kids can attend. Salkind and other Bay Area heads call this “the barbell phenomenon,” and even the relatively affordable religious-affiliated schools (which account for 58 percent of private schools in San Francisco) are concerned. Saint Ignatius has raised tuition 63 percent since 2000—although, at $13,950 for the current fiscal year, it remains a relative bargain. Overall, local top-tier parochial schools are increasing tuition at the same 5 to 8 percent annual rate as most independents. “The population of parochial schools was phenomenally middle-class, even lower-class,” says Saint Ignatius’s president, Robert Walsh. “That has changed. All of a sudden, the middle-class kid in the Sunset—that family is finding it much harder to keep up.”
On the upside, parochial schools still manage to draw a more ethnically and economically diverse group of students. Many Bay Area private schools remain largely white, and few, if any, can equal Sacred Heart’s claim that 75 of 1,250 students are poor or close to it, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
But progressive-minded parents and faculty want their elite preps to become melting pots, too. At his first official gathering with San Francisco Day parents, new head David Jackson, whose previous job was in Baltimore, made a few enthusiastic comments and then asked for questions. The first one lobbed from the bleachers was a Bay Area indie school cliché: “How do you define diversity?” (Most places include gay and single-parent families in the mix.) “Diversity takes up 25 minutes of the 30-minute kindergarten pitch,” says a parent who recently did the private-school rounds.
The endless quest for diversity by parents and promoting of it by schools—from one institution’s explicit goal to enroll 1 in 4 students of color to the current mini-trend of hiring admissions directors of color—can be traced directly to the reality that achieving broad diversity is harder and harder as the schools get fancier and more expensive. (The more precious these worlds become, too, the less likely a child from a very different background is going to feel comfortable enough to thrive or stick around.) The parochial schools achieve diversity by heavily subsidizing tuition, increasing average class size—23 at Sacred Heart versus 13.5 at Urban, for instance—and cutting back on perks and electives, but most private schools are not willing or able to follow that path. Instead, they try to add diversity on top of everything else.
Thus, achieving diversity only intensifies the pressure to raise more dollars. Yet despite what parents claim they want, money for financial aid for working-class or nonwhite kids is harder to drum up than money for, say, another arts complex. This isn’t simple hypocrisy; it’s just humans sticking within their comfort zone. “People like to build buildings because you can see them,” Fleishhacker says. And so the cycle continues.
Cathy Hunter’s view of what kids today need most is not immediately apparent from the pristine, whitewashed campus of San Francisco Friends School, where she is the head. Her ideals, though, can be quickly discerned from a number of practices that set her six-year-old Quaker school apart. Starting in kindergarten, students are responsible for cleaning the place up, including the toilets. They spend recess playing on an asphalt playground—“a very happy place,” Hunter says. When Friends opened, the library consisted of a few shelves of books. On all school-related matters, Hunter is guided by a simple, tongue-in-cheek philosophy, articulated at a recent speaking engagement and repeated to Friends parents: “Kids really just need to suffer more.”
These are worrisome days for children, Hunter believes. Her concern comes with the valuable perspective of experience. The British-born physician’s daughter began her teaching career 32 years ago at New England’s super-elite Phillips Andover Academy.
Immediately before launching Friends, she spent 12 years leading the upper school at Head-Royce. She has also raised two sons of her own. As she sees it, today’s parents, especially those who are über-educated and affluent, have a “pathological aversion” to their kids’ experiencing boredom, frustration, or disappointment. This has led to a “cushioning and bumpering” of children that is potentially quite destructive. Hunter sees this phenomenon played out in the way some parents micromanage their kids’ educations—at Friends, she has ordered parents to butt out of homework, restricted their participation in assemblies and the class camping trip, and declared Wednesdays a Sabbath from their many emails—and in their attraction to tricked-out schools and misguided notions of excellence.
“I don’t like to be a prophet of doom,” Hunter says, “but I think it’s very hard to build up the internal drive of a child when the external drive is always in overdrive.” Her point: elaborate programs and over-the-top facilities can actually impede children from developing into creative, competent beings. “We need to help kids build up the traits that matter for learning and a fully functioning adulthood—qualities like patience, tenacity, and organization.” Hunter insists that “all kids need is a great teacher and a simple room.”
That’s a hard concept for some Bay Area parents to grasp. This region is a mecca for achievers and seekers, self-starters, and the extremely competitive. “It’s a little bit like the Lake Wobegon phenomenon,” Hunter tells me. “We are all terrified that we might be just average.” Parents here tend to be keenly aware of the vicissitudes of economic success and the fragility of the planet in general. We want to give our kids the best possible chance of surviving and thriving in this scary new world—and more than that, the intellectual tools to help save it. All of which is perfectly understandable, even admirable. Still, when parents spend $1.5 million on hiring tutors over and above what the school recommends, as happened at one local K-8 last year, something is seriously out of whack.
“Parent anxiety is worse in the Bay Area than in Manhattan or Chicago’s North Shore,” observes Washington, D.C.–based author Rosalind Wiseman, who came to town earlier this year on a speaking tour for her latest book, Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads (her earlier Queen Bees and Wannabes became the movie Mean Girls). “You’re perfectly smart. You’re perfectly everything. There’s no room to be anything but perfect.” Adds a national consultant who recently conducted several head-of-school searches here, “Bay Area parents are type A people masquerading as type B. In some ways, that makes it worse.”
The good news is that some heads are calling for change, and some parents seem eager to listen. The dry-witted, tell-it-like-it-is Hunter, for example, is idolized by parents throughout the indie world, while Friends has proven to be hugely popular despite its startup status (now up to fifth grade, it’s on track to becoming a K-8).
Across the Bay Bridge, ex–New Yorker Janet Stork, the newish head of the K-8 Berkeley Montessori, is talking about starting a Slow Schools movement in the tradition of Slow Foods. She says, “It’s an attempt to move away from the more-is-better mentality, which ends up being a mile wide and an inch deep in terms of quality—kind of like fast food. Empty calories.” Stork’s rule: “To start with what’s right for students and not be swayed by cultural expectations and pressures. If anything gets added to the plate, something will have to come off.”
Meanwhile, Stanford professor Denise Clark Pope’s education reform organization, Stressed Out Students (SOS), whose agenda includes limiting the homework load and counseling kids against too many AP courses, is making inroads at a number of area private schools. Even University High School in Pacific Heights, known as the ultimate pressure cooker, last year added more breaks to its daily schedule—which, believe it or not, is lauded as a significant advance.
But bucking the prevailing trends won’t be easy. To fund scholarships, teacher training, and other improvements that Stork sees as necessary to compete in the marketplace (in the East Bay, she explains, private K-8s are fighting to keep kids from switching over to increasingly strong public elementaries in hillside communities), she’s had to implement a big tuition increase. Meanwhile, at just under $20,000 a year, Friends costs
as much as many of its glitzier peers, and the cement yard now includes a solar-powered playhouse installed by parents, complete with running water. Next year, the school will move into the landmark Levi Strauss building (renovations paid for by an $8 million capital campaign and a matching gift from a single family). Though students will do without a gym for several years, the facilities will eventually include music and art studios and a nature lab (nothing more than a big table full of shells, rocks, and maybe a rat skull or two, Hunter swears).
In 2003, Marin Country Day head Tim Johnson chose to leave the private-school realm entirely—“I needed a bigger dose of the real world.” He turned his focus to helping Oakland’s public school system, and he is also directing a nonprofit that brings sports to disadvantaged neighborhoods. He laments the elite prep-school mentality that if one gym is good, two must be better. He decries the fact that Bay Area private schools are the essence of possibility, where the only limit is what can be dreamed up—while a few miles or blocks away, public schools are struggling to succeed at the most basic tasks, like helping kids read at grade level and keeping them from dropping out. The result, he warns, is an ever-more-gaping canyon between the haves and have-nots. “Opportunity exists for such a small slice of students,” he says wistfully. With much of the public system gone to pot, and the richest and most promising able to opt out of the mess, “We’ve absolutely trashed the American dream.”
Though less alarmist, Fleishhacker, too, is disturbed by the arms race accelerating around him. Ironically, he says, the fundamental building blocks of an enlightened education are being buried in all the new construction sites. “If you want to waste money, build a library. If you want to teach your kids, teach them to use a public library. These are all rich kids,” he points out. “They own computers. They have these books. Does building a big new library add anything to their education?”
Contributing writer Diana Kapp’s last major piece for the
magazine (march 2007) examined the suicide of UC Santa Cruz
chancellor Denice Denton.