SMALL WONDERS:

I was going to write a cuddly, poignant column about the first day of school this week. I'd have mentioned how in June I lamented the early Aug. 17 start date for Burbank schools, but by Aug. 1 praised the benevolent folks at the Board of Education for their selflessness in taking my children two weeks earlier than usual.

I was going to throw in funny anecdotes about how my girls woke up at 5:30 a.m. and were dressed and in the car by 5:35 a.m. There would have been touching insights about crying children being consoled by their parents; crying parents being consoled by their children. It was going to be great. You'd have loved it, trust me.

But, when we got to school on Day One, something changed my mind. Kids queued up in their new lines. There were hugs and smiles. There were new clothes, new backpacks and new lunch boxes. There were lost teeth and newfound hopes.

There were also fewer teachers, and the lines of twitchy young ones seemed miles long.

Children know nothing of student-to-teacher ratios. They don't understand the direct effect that politics and economics have upon them. Their concerns are whom to play with at recess, what's in my lunch box and how can I get attention and avoid it at the same time.

As all the little monkeys shuffled into their new classes, I felt a pang of distress for the others stuck in the middle of this circus: the teachers.

So I called the boss.

Debbie Ginnetti is the principal at R.L. Stevenson Elementary. I asked her if she had concerns that the quality of education would suffer due to the increased class sizes.

“No,” she told me definitively. With the readiness and commitment of a merchant marine about to set out on a long, hard voyage, she shared with me the reason for her confidence.

“Our teachers are well trained. The premise is still the same. We're going to teach to the class, and basically we want to aim to the top.

“Morale seems high. We're dealing with the reality. It's not our fault. We have no control over it. But we have control over the students that walk in through that door. From 8:30 to 3 they're mine. I'm going to do the best for these kids,” she said.

That sentiment is foreign in Sacramento, where education is a political platform to attain votes rather than an investment in our future.

What money there is for education is stuck outside the classroom, in the salaries, expenses and administrative costs of bureaucrats who think having sat in a classroom qualifies them to direct what happens there. I have 50,000 frequent flier miles, but I'm not qualified to tell the pilot how to fly the plane.

When I asked Ginnetti if she had any interest in assigning blame for the problems that plague our educational system, she shrugged with the resignation of someone who's been down this road before.

“I've been in education for over 30 years, and this is probably the worst I've experienced. Sure, I blame the government. I blame Sacramento. Because whenever they mess up, education is cut,” she said.

Education, like health care, is the business of caring for and nurturing people. The results of that are never fully quantified by spreadsheets, raw data analysis and lifeless test scores. Kids aren't widgets that can be shaped on an assembly line and summarized in an annual profit-sharing report.

Teachers got into the business of teaching for one thing: to educate kids. If you know a teacher who got into this field to make a fortune, you know a pretty bad teacher. So let them teach. Give them the tools to do their job, at the local level where funds are most needed and most effective.

Teachers don't need a litany of mandated tests and meetings and programs set by some remote body of so-called experts. They need pencils and paper and books and equipment and daily assistance and, most of all, time. Time to pay attention to the little humans sitting before them.

Recently released statistics from the California Department of Education show that students in Glendale and Burbank last year markedly improved their test scores. Those scores reflect upon one thing: good teaching despite all the obstacles thrown in a teacher's way.

And there will be more obstacles this year. Good teachers, and we have a lot of them here, don't need much more data than time with their students in order to know where there are struggles and successes. Cold data don't tell the whole story; children's lives are stories, not spreadsheets.

I understand that the government has been forced to make tough decisions. Yet we still see top-heavy bureaucratic spending, the continued bailing out of monolithic businesses that are “too big to fail” and obscene bonus payments to their employees. I'm convinced they don't know what it will take to weather this squall. But Ginnetti does.

“The professionalism of my teachers. The fact that as a teacher you know you're making a difference,” she said. “That's what motivates you to come into this profession. And the support of parents and the community.”

Like so many parents, I feel an enormous burden lifted when my kids go to school. I'm guilty of allowing the schools to become a baby sitter.

While I will continue to point the finger of blame at the governator, the state Legislature and bureaucracy, I'll also point it back at myself. We can help.

We can donate money, supplies and time to our kids' schools. All great movements start with one person taking one small step. Our schools are too big to fail too.

If you were able to read all the way to the end of this rant, thank a teacher.


?PATRICK CANEDAY is a Glendale native and freelance writer who lives and works in Burbank. He may be reached at patrickcaneday@gmail.com.

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