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Class Notes
New school year is new beginning
(Published September 8, 2003)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Welcome back. Itís been a long wet summer and, no doubt, parents were ready for schools to open. Whether they want to admit it or not, kids were also ready to go back to school and, for the most part, the schools are ready. D.C. Public Schools has had a busy summer, with three high schools being transformed and a host of other changes throughout the system. On Sept. 2, we began to find out whether these changes are for the better.

There is a lot riding on it, too. It is vitally important that our children receive the education they deserve. As an educator, I often fantasize about going out of business Ė imagine if all children in the United States were self-motivated learners with access to all the information they need to teach themselves about the world. There would be no need for teachers. Since this is not the case, weíve decided, as a country, to create a system of schools that tries to ensure all citizens have an opportunity to learn and develop as thinking human beings. For those of us living in the District, like it or not, our system is D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).

This year will be my first as a columnist for The Common Denominator. I hope to bring you, as readers, into DCPS with me, both into my school, Bell Multicultural High School (or for the longtime D.C. folks, what used to be Bell Vocational), and into the many other schools across the city. There are a lot of unsettled issues on which to report: rumors of a teacher strike; breaking stories all summer long of corruption, embezzlement and just plain disorganization in schools; transformation of Anacostia, Eastern and Woodson; No Child Left Behind; standardized testing; the list goes on and on. As they say around DCPS, every day is an adventure.

But a window into the school system is not a window into sorrow. The story of DCPS is complex and contains a lot of good teachers, great principals and tons of fantastic kids. DCPS also contains classrooms where little learning takes place, and degrees of dysfunction up and down the line. I hope that you, like me, believe that quality public education is important and that DCPS is actually improving. Part of the purpose of this column is to continue making DCPS better by informing you what is really going on and also hearing from you what you think needs to be changed.

Iíve had the privilege to work closely with the previous columnist, Wells Wulsin, and I hope to maintain his high quality of reporting and eagerness to clearly speak the truth. So let me begin by speaking the truth: DCPS is a wounded system. There are a lot of challenges here. But let us take heart.

The new school year is a new beginning. As it says in the Bible, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, And the earth was without form, and void. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness." Ė Genesis 1.

Education is a light. It is easy to be cynical when you work in DCPS. It can be difficult to keep your focus on the real reason why we have teachers: to illuminate the darkness of ignorance with the light of knowledge. The beauty of teaching is that itís not a mystical quest that only saints can pursue. Teaching is done by humans. Like all humans, we sometimes make mistakes, and our everyday activities are not something you would think of as heroic: drawing a line on a board, typing up a handout, giving a word of praise, making a phone call to a parent. That said, as the new school year starts, the hundreds of new teachers joining DCPS, and the thousands of veteran teachers returning, are a thunderous vote that each teacher believes he or she can make a difference.

There is another vote here as well: The vote by parents to re-enroll their children. It is deeply humbling as a teacher to once again be given that trust. Think about it. Itís pretty wacky to consider that parents give their children to the government to be put with a group of about 20 other kids, to be cared for by a complete stranger, seven hours a day for 40 weeks.

Iím personally very excited about this year. In my preparation over the summer, I had the opportunity to re-read a diary entry I wrote the afternoon of the first day of school last year. I wrote about the nervousness, the joy, the excitement and the chaos of the first day of school. As a third year teacher, Iím confident it will be the same gut-churning, neurotic, happy mess every year Ė and, once again, it feels good to be back.

One other thing: if you see them, please thank the custodial staff, who work year round, and especially hard over the Labor Day weekend, waxing the floors, hauling boxes, painting and all the other jobs required to get the school in top shape for the kidsí arrival.

Itís going to be a wonderful year; I look forward to having you along.

***

Matt Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator