Back-to-basics movement heads for high school in San Francisco

. . .m That refrain from the past isn't precisely applicable to a new-old type of public school that is popping up across the United States. At least, the hickory stick is only figurative now.

But "back to basics" elementary and high schools are being started in apparent reaction to a long-term trend toward having schools cater to an almost endless variety of student and community needs -- or wants.

Here in San Francisco, James Cearney is to be principal this fall of a new back-to-basics high school. The city school system already has one such elementary school, and superintendent Robert Alioto says response to it has been so good that he hopes to open a second elementary and a middle school (grades 6 to 8) in September, too.

Mr. Cearney says there were more than enough applicants for the 325 places ( 100 freshmen and 225 sophomores) in the new high school and that parents are enthusiastic about the concept. Ninety San Francisco teachers applied for the 13 faculty spots available, he said, probably because they feel that in the more disciplined atmosphere they will "really be able to teach."

"Back to basics" in the new high school means the teaching of English, mathematics, history, science, and foreign languages -- period. It also means, Cearney says, emphasis on "responsibility, self-discipline, and citizenship, as well as scholarship." Teachers as well as students will have to adhere to a dress code. Rules will be clear and punishment for infringement certain. Grading will be specific, and students will have to pass all required subjects to graduate.

At stake in San Francisco is not only the welfare of students, but perhaps the survival of the school system itself. In the last 16 years, enrollment has dropped 40 percent -- from 94,000 to 56,500. The city has lost population in that time, but Mr. Alioto says that a significant portion of the enrollment drop is attributable to pupils leaving the public schools for private and parochial institutions that provide a more traditional curriculum. For every student lost , the system loses about $1,000 in annual state aid, the superintendent notes, and the enrollment drop is severely affecting the budget.

The San Francisco system has other "alternative" schools -- such as two high schools that cater to youths who might not remain enrolled if they were not permitted to go to school part-time. Both Alioto and Cearney say that if the response to the "back to basics" curriculum continues to be good, more such schools probably will be started. They do not foresee, however, abandonment of less-structured schools.

Gerald Elbers, deputy director of basic education for the US Department of Education, says the "back to basics" trend is strong across the country, especially at the elementary school level.

Involved since 1954 with the US Office of Education (it became a department in 1978), Mr. Elbers sees the back-to-basics movement as a natural reaction on the part of educators and parents to the long-term trend in public education that climaxed in the late 1960s and early '70s -- with schools simply trying to do too many things for pupils (and parents). This attempt weakened the basic curriculum, he argues, and although it came in the guise of expanding horizons, he says it actually was anti-intellectual.

Now, says Elbers, people are waking up and realizing that they have not really been reading and writing -- even teachers have not -- "visited on a younger generation that can't communicate."

But, he cautions, the "essentials of education are more than reading, writing , and arithmetic." Back-to-basics programs must take care not to neglect the differences in young people. Also, says Elbers, since these programs usually require that all students meet "minimum standards," instructors may gear their teaching to the minimums, a disservice to students capable of greater achievement.

Dennis Gray, deputy director of the Council for Basic Education in Washington , D.C., says the term "back to basics" has become as inexact as it is commonplace. His organization, founded 25 years ago, holds that all children can and should learn the basic subjects; and that the primary mission of schools is to teach English, mathematics, science, history (including geography and government), foreign languages, and the arts.

Mr. Gray, who taught at the college level before joining the Council for Basic Education (a private group) in 1978, says that while most people would agree with those premises, many schools do not accept them in practice. The basics, he argues, have been overwhelmed by the great variety of subjects taught in the schools -- and the assignment to schools of roles they should not have to assume.

Basic education, Gray says, is not simplistic or narrow education. In the area of arts, for example, his organization favors not so much participation -- say, classes in finger painting -- but rather conveying a sense of how basic the arts are to life. Pupils should learn, he says, that art preceded such "basics" as writing and reading. Art classes might include "performance," but the basic goal should be to convey an understanding of art as a human activity that can enrich experience -- and carry over into adult life.

Neither Elbers nor Gray puts much stock in overt teaching of "values" by schools -- private or public.

There is danger of "overemphasizing" the impartation of values, Elbers says. And Gray cautions that there have to be limits on the school's role in building character. That really is a family responsibility, he says, and Americans should have learned by now that "schools can't do everything."

However, Gray adds, all schools teach values indirectly. "There is no school ," he says, "that doesn't have a 'hidden curriculum,'" -- imparting habits of work and relationships.

"It has been a delusion of public schools for the last 25 years that they were value-free or neutral -- or should be," he continues. "They can't escape it [imparting values]. But they don't have to preach patriotism, morality, and other standards. They should simply impart "commonly held civic and social virtues."

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