Seeing ourselves as others do can be a strange experience. Here’s an article in the Humboldt County Times Standard that discusses Morris, Minnesota, and pretty much exclusively praises us.
Recently I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” I had to pull my car over to the side of the road after he said that Morris — a city located in Stevens County in his home state of Minnesota — had a high school dropout rate of less than 1 percent. In addition, 95 percent of the high school graduates in that city and county go on to some kind of postsecondary education.
Well, yes, that’s true, near as I can tell. The article goes on to talk about the culture here that promotes that, and some of the consequences. It doesn’t mention everything, though.
One of the things I first noticed was the community focus on school events. The plays put on by the high school are huge draws—the auditorium is always nearly full, and it isn’t just the parents showing up. The prom is also big here, and our local grocery store sponsors prom pictures. You haven’t been shopping until you’ve popped into the store for a gallon of milk to find milling mobs of teenagers in tuxedos and slinky dresses in your way. Also, one tradition at the graduation ceremonies is a powerpoint display of baby pictures of each graduating senior, along with a note saying what they’ll be doing next. That’s how I can say the statistics are accurate, near as I can tell: I’ve sat through a few of those shows, and although most are going off to a community college for a two-year degree or one of the local tech schools for training in a trade, they are all going on to do something.
There are a few partial omissions.
They admit that one problem in Morris is the flight of those educated youth—they’re all taking off for the big city. One significant impetus for getting some kind of further education is that the students can look around here and see that there’s very little economic opportunity here, so they’re motivated to graduate because it is their ticket out of here. That’s not so flattering.
They mention the passage of our recent construction and operating levies. They don’t mention that it took a lot of work by a pro-schools group in opposition to resistance from our school board, or that our school’s support was grossly below that given to surrounding school districts. There is a conservative element in town that sees little virtue in education, and would rather starve the public school. The presence of the university skews the student body to include lots of smart students who are pushed to excel, but there’s also resentment and anti-intellectualism countering it to some degree.
There’s also a socially conservative element here…nah, that’s too kind a term for it. There’s raging bigotry here. The schools have pandered to that bigotry out of fear of offending that conservative/religious gang far too often.
One other very troubling thing hidden in that 99% graduation rate is that it has become a mark of pride in the district, and administrators try to keep it high now not by encouraging excellence in education and making sure that every student has earned a diploma, but by pressuring teachers not to fail any students under any circumstances. We’ve lost one good teacher at the school already because he refused to go along with that policy (and also because some of the growing discipline problems there were just too frustrating.)
Kids here are not smarter than the ones in Humboldt County, I suspect. There are just as many slackers and juvenile delinquents here. It’s just that they’ll get to graduate no matter how worthless their efforts are. While we’re doing a good job of promoting education here, I think that lack of discipline devalues the worth of a Morris Area High School diploma, unfortunately.