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Joyce Lemke: Schools have changed, especially right here in Stark County

Posted Nov 02, 2009 @ 12:01 AM

The week of Oct. 12 was, in many ways, a watershed time for me. I spent the week visiting schools in Stark County. Truly, Virginia, Stark County’s schools are not your grandfather’s schools.

In fact, they are not at all like the schools you attended and remember.

The most memorable thing about our time in our schools is students with bright eyes, students who can hardly contain their enthusiasm for their learning, their teachers and the challenging opportunities they are grasping with both hands.

When my friend Adrienne O’Neill, president of the Stark Education Partnership, told me that I really didn’t know the state of Stark County’s schools since my retirement after 37 years as a Stark County educator six years ago, I thought she was a bit optimistic about the changes she has seen in the last few years.

When she said that many in our community have embraced the goal of “Stark County as the most educated county in America,” I thought that big hairy audacious goals are good to posit, whether they are realistic or not.

When I read the national and international literature, such as a recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman, about the shortcomings of today’s public schools, I often agreed with the writers that too much of our schooling was watered down and weakly delivered to disengaged students with limited skills.

Maybe that’s still the case in some places, but the learners we met during the week of Oct. 12 across Stark County are different in every respect from that depiction. They are learning at really high levels — robotics at Timken Senior High School; green technology at Project ReBuild, GlenOak High School’s senior capstone projects that look like my master’s thesis; North Canton’s mathematics by cell phone and Agape Girls; green screen presentations by students at Canton South and GlenOak High School; video streaming and students designing sound tracks for Shakespeare’s “Othello” at Canton South’s 5 R’s Academy, among many similar projects.

These students are enthusiastically supportive of their teachers and of the work those teachers are designing for them, while their academic skills are higher than ever before and increasing every year.

Challenged during that special week to think about “using existing knowledge to create new knowledge,” Stark County learners were quick to step up.

Asked to think about how to blur the lines between high school and college, they pointed out that those lines are already blurred by Early College, by dual-credit courses and by post-secondary option classes at local colleges and universities.

Then they began to ask their own questions: “What about blurring the lines between teachers and students, between school and the community, between learners and creators of knowledge?” The air in the room crackled with energy and cognition.

So what did we learn?

Well, that Adrienne was right — learning is happening at higher levels here than I suspect many in Stark County believe. At many of our schools, learners are doing cutting-edge work, with cutting-edge technology, while engaged with cutting-edge people in the broader community.

And they’re just getting started. When they talk about the near future, it is clear that they expect to achieve at ever higher levels, to impact this community, Ohio, the country and the world. Tell Tom Friedman to get ready — everything he wishes for is happening here, and is going to scale across the country as rapidly as a virus. It makes me so proud and hopeful for our future.

Joyce Lemke lives in Canton.

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