US's strange yet familiar schools

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
The contrast of rural Scotland and urban Washington is a culture shock yet aspects of our education systems are similar, reports Lynn Gee

I never really thought of myself as naive but "teuchter heidi in Washington DC" is a fairly apt description of my experience in the US capital. I was there for four weeks last term, courtesy of the British Council and the Fulbright Commission, shadowing the head of an elementary school.

My own school is in the rural north-east. New Deer Primary in Turriff, Aberdeenshire, has 165 pupils, the majority of whom come from agricultural backgrounds. Despite the proximity of Aberdeen, the most multicultural aspect of the school is that we have several children who come from England.

In contrast, Job Barnard Elementary in north-west Washington DC has a roll of 370, a mix of African American and Hispanic children. The only white pupils I met were in private schools.

It was a culture shock, but of the most positive kind.

I had heard awful stories of drugs and murders and gun culture. I was told to be careful, not to walk out at night and to beware of terrorism. I quickly gleaned from television and newspaper reports that public education in Washington was not generally held in high esteem. Everyone from the mayor down was denouncing poor standards and failing schools. I experienced nothing that could back this up.

Job Barnard Elementary is not typical of the capital's public schools. It is a flagship school in a new building that opened almost a year ago and has facilities that are superior to most.

Shirley Hopkinson, a one-time American teacher of the year, is at the helm of its quest to be successful. Hers is a tough job and she deals with tough situations on a daily basis.

She is backed by a team of dedicated and in many cases talented teachers.

The children, many of whom come from difficult and deprived backgrounds, are receiving a very good education and this is reflected in rising attainment scores.

Job Barnard Elementary has resources we would die for. The average class size is 21. The school has its own psychologist, counsellor, speech therapist, literacy co-ordinator, librarian, science and computer teacher and gym. There are several educational needs specialists and vacancies for a music and art teacher. The teaching staff is also supported by a large number of teaching assistants.

I visited several schools in Washington DC while I was there and provision was superior to ours in every case.

I spent much of my time in classrooms. I told the children about Scotland and they were pleased to get letters from my pupils. I showed them a video my pupils had made about a day in the life of our school, including a rendition of Doric poetry. I fielded questions about whether we speak English and have McDonald's and KFC restaurants or cars.

I really enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the children, who often greeted me with: "Hi, Mees Gee. Are you da new principal?"

I visited the bilingual pre-school class where three-year-olds are taught in English and Spanish. I attended a Hispanic assembly where children were dressed in the costumes of their different countries. I even danced the salsa.

The curriculum was prescriptive, with the same textbooks being used throughout the city schools. Despite this, there was innovation and good teaching and a very positive approach to behaviour management.

Responsibility was always put on the pupils in terms of making the right choices about the way they behaved. I did not experience the answering back that has become such a common feature of Scottish classrooms and I felt that there was a general respect for teachers.

There are many similarities in the job Dr Hopkinson and I do. There is the same ethos of value for money and accountability in our two systems. We are both expected to solve the problems within our schools. The same criticisms are levelled against us. I attended a principals' meeting where the complaints about lack of support and workload were identical to those at a similar meeting back at home.

I attended a dinner for principals of private schools and there was little representation from the African American community. Even with scholarships and proposed voucher systems, it is hard to foresee greater mixing in the private schools.

Stepping outside our familiar educational system was a tremendous experience and one that I would recommend. My overriding impression was of the warmth and kindness of my hosts. I hope we will be able to match this when Dr Hopkinson comes to work-shadow me in May.

Lynn Gee is headteacher of New Deer Primary, Aberdeenshire

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