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The opportunity gap in public schools
With cutbacks, enrichment opportunities are reserved for the privileged few
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Like a lot of harried parents, I felt besieged by the usual round of end-of-year field trips and awards ceremonies last week.

First-graders don't really care that you have an intense week at work. They want to know if you are coming to the zoo. And what kind of a parent doesn't attend the all-school talent show at 2 p.m. on the last day?

Parents who have no flexibility in their jobs, that's who.

I was there. So was my kids' dad. But a lot of kids had to show off their talents only for their classmates, because there is just no way their parents could make it in the middle of a Thursday afternoon.

It hurts your heart, because the first-grade synchronized dance, the piano performances, the raucous standup comedy routine by two boys who laughed so much at their own jokes it cracked up the whole audience, the barely audible violin solo, and the teeny-tiny hula-hooper were knockouts. Every kid's parent should have seen that.

But here is the really painful part: During these performances there was a clear pattern of disparity between kids like mine, who were showing off gymnastics and piano skills they acquired outside of school in private lessons, and kids who don't have access to that and who seemed awestruck by the "talents" of their more fortunate peers.

That's not talent, I was thinking to myself, that's an opportunity gap.

My fourth-grade gymnast proudly showed her stuff in the outdoor talent show, while some of her friends in the audience were moved to try their own improvised flips on the lawn -- far more impressive, actually, since no one is schlepping them to lessons three times a week.

Why aren't we doing more to support the talents of these kids?

Our elementary school lost funding for after-school clubs two years ago. Fourth-grade strings was cut. Schools everywhere have less and less of the "specials" that ignite kids' imagination and natural joy.

We frantic minivan drivers racing from ballet to soccer to music lessons should instead be loading our kids onto buses with all the other kids in town who don't have the luxury of private parent-run taxi service to private lessons that cost an arm and a leg. We ought to have enrichment activities for all kids, supported by the community and open to everyone.

Watching the shy, admiring attitude of a certain fourth-grade boy who is quite a natural gymnast himself toward my daughter gave me heartburn.

What chance does he have to develop his talents if he has to compete against the squadron of semiprofessional miniature athletes who are heading to travel teams and summer sports camps starting in elementary school?

We are in the process these days of privatizing not only extracurricular activities, which used to be more accessible through the schools, but also school itself.

I recently went on a tour of Milwaukee voucher schools for an article in The Progressive magazine that left me in a cold sweat.

I saw kids going to school in a crumbling office building and in a corner store. There's a new voucher school opening in an old car dealership, and there are others in rundown factory buildings that have never been properly cleaned up. Students are being sent to such places at taxpayer expense thanks to Wisconsin's expanding Parental Choice Program. The vast majority of the kids in the Milwaukee voucher program are very poor.

What started as an idea that was supposed to expand opportunity for these kids to attend private and parochial schools has turned into a business opportunity for hucksters who set up fly-by-night schools that profit by taking public funds and running cheap, unregulated schools. You have to see for yourself how bad these places are to believe it.

At Milwaukee's "Academy of Excellence" -- the grungy office-building school -- they are teaching the Bob Jones University curriculum. There are posters in the hall that say "God can see your heart, and he knows that it is wicked." I looked in on a middle-school science class full of eighth-grade boys who were learning Creationism.

This is our vision for public school?

What chance do these kids have of ever climbing out of poverty or of connecting with the middle class? We are leaving them so, so far behind.

The worst of it is, kids like my daughter's classmates, who so admire the accomplishments of their peers with private lessons, see the opportunity gap as a talent gap. They internalize the feeling that it's their fault, that for some reason they just don't measure up. It's not their fault. We could do so much more for them.

Imagine what our schools, our state and our country would be like if we helped all of our children fulfill their potential and realize their true talents.

Let's start.

Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.

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