Good, bad memories of 15 years as local 9-R parent

My wife and I followed our two children through Durango School District 9-R, from kindergarten through high school. And, on balance, I would say my family’s experience was great – with some memorable outliers.

I learned that there are some wonderful people involved in education but also how insular schools can be, that principals are too important to ignore and that a back-to-basics focus on the “three Rs” is exactly wrong.

My most persistent complaint about 9-R, which may be true of all schools, is what I call the presumption of knowledge. From the time I graduated from high school until my wife and I walked our daughter to kindergarten was 30 years – three decades in which I don’t think I set foot in a school. Things had changed. (And to be honest, I hadn’t paid that much attention the first time around.)

I often felt that everyone but me knew what was going on and what I was supposed to be doing, as if I had missed a memo. There were times, I think, the kids suffered for it.

More basic communication would help, but one offsetting grace was that my wife and I both benefitted from employers who value education and who considered “I’m at my kids’ school for an hour” not only an adequate excuse for missing work, but also perhaps a mark in our favor. It is hard to overstate the importance of that.

How the kids fared with 9-R’s sketchy record on principals is another question. Our kids went to Riverview Elementary, Miller Middle School (yes, we still have the bumper sticker) and Durango High. As to principals, the experiences could hardly have been more different.

The principal at Riverview during our kids’ tenure was Jean Thweatt – and she was stellar. She knew the kids and the parents. The kids knew her. She was always present, visible, helpful and involved. Teachers, parents, students and staff members responded to her, respected her and listened to her. All concerned gained from it.

In contrast, I would describe the principal when our kids were at Durango High as missing in action. She’s gone now, and it was rumored, at the time, that she saw 9-R as nothing but a stepping stone to greater things. I’m not sure she ever did get Colorado plates.

Miller went through several principals in our kids’ time there. Sadly, only one stands out. From kindergarten through fifth grade, all the kids pretty much play and learn together. Then they go to sixth grade, and that unity shatters. While our daughter eventually found her own niche, for a time, she was trying on various styles and hanging with different friends, a couple of whom effected a mild sort of Goth look.

In a meeting with the Herald, and without knowing my relationship, Miller’s then-principal described my daughter and her friends as “losers.” No one who would dismiss students so callously and stupidly should be a principal. (For the record, our daughter is a college junior on track to graduate next year.)

Overall, 9-R has a lot to be proud of – and some things to fear. The reading program at Riverview was excellent and a big help to us. So, too, was the “mainstreaming” of special-needs kids. I don’t know how much it helps those kids, but it made ours and others around them better people.

At the top of my list, though, is music. Both our kids played violin at Riverview. Our daughter later went to Dallas for a concert with the DHS orchestra. Our son played with the Miller and DHS marching and jazz bands.

Mark Rosenberg, at Miller, has a real talent for inspiring young musicians – some of whom might not be obvious prospects. Meanwhile, Katherine Reed at Durango High has lit up that school’s music program in dramatic fashion. Her infectious enthusiasm is reflected in the sound and in the students’ all-around performance.

Our kids played sports, too – our daughter largely through 4-H, our son primarily cross-county and tennis at DHS. But while she found a home around horses, it was music where the schools best served him.

The music program offered emotional safety and a place to belong. It taught leadership, cooperation, mutual support and teamwork. Above all (4-H deserves credit here, too), it taught that discipline, hard work and constancy of effort are not the enemies of fun and fulfillment, but their basis.

That is invaluable. But cutting “extracurricular” programs is too often seen as an easy move. In my view that is not only shortsighted but profoundly foolish. Scores in math, science and language are only one measure of school success – and perhaps the easiest to misinterpret or misjudge.

You can’t fake live music. You can’t quantify the feeling of a child suddenly eager to participate or the joy of watching a student develop a well-earned sense of pride. And for most people, those qualities will go further than a simple grade-point average.

Those are just some of my thoughts about 9-R, and they are not without criticisms or concerns. But they are memories of time well spent.

Bill Roberts is the Herald’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 375-4560 or via email at wgr@durangoherald.com.

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