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Inspiring better education

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About 50 people came to hear Deborah Meier and Shadia Alvarez, both progressive educators and Antioch alumni, speak at the Herndon Gallery on Antioch College campus last weekend. Their talks about how to educate children to build a strong democracy were the second in the Future of Education lecture series sponsored by the village schools and the Antioch Morgan Fellows.

Meier has a long list of awards and honorary degrees from dozens of schools, including Yale, Harvard and Brown Universities, for her leadership in helping to change the public schools. She told many stories about her observations as a teacher in the Chicago public school system and later in public schools in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Her points included:

• If a classroom is boring to us, adults, it has to be boring to students.

• An environment that is disrespectful of teachers encourages teachers to disrespect their students.

• Public education is intended to prepare citizens to participate in a democracy, but instead of fostering the critical thinking and active debate necessary for a healthy democracy, the system relies on testing to meet its goals.

• Democracy is complicated and does not come naturally, but we can learn to be democratic if we stop teaching to the test and start teaching kids to love learning.

Alvarez was a student at Central Park East, the New York City school where Meier served as principal and which provided secondary school, or CPESS, a model for alternative public educational institutions across the country. Prior to coming to CPESS, Alvarez had been slow-tracked to the remedial classes in the NYC school system, where she was in danger of languishing for the next 12 years. But at CPESS, instead of labeling her, the school assessed her strengths and weaknesses and worked effectively to address her needs.

To honor that legacy which she benefited from, Alvarez went into education and is now an assistant principal in the New York City school system. She struggles daily to be a “courageous leader” and to overcome the limitations of the system to do what’s right for her students.

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