In the past I have written columns devoted to Q&A sessions with people who had stories to tell. I thought I would try it with myself. It’s a good strategy to use to think through things.
Q: How old are you?
A: I will be 78 sometime this year.
Q: Why don’t you retire and go fishing?
A: I hate the word "retire." I don’t think I would be very good at it. Besides, I love what I do even though fishing and writing and buying and selling antiques full-time are very appealing. I feel I still have something to say about education and maybe it will make a difference in the lives of a few kids. That’s really what all educators strive to do. I am no different.
Q: You forgot to mention taking care of your wife. What about Kathy?
A: As long as we can manage our time and keep it as flexible as possible, we seem to be able to accommodate Kathy's needs as it relates to multiple sclerosis. When we can no longer do that, then it will be time to re-evaluate our situation.
Q: How are you doing with your goal of 100%?
A: My first response is "lousy." Our graduation rates are still terrible. If we were in a business, we would have to close our doors and start over. My second response is, "It could be worse." One thing for certain, the word is getting out about the need to graduate 100% of our youth not only in Beltrami County but in other places. Just this past week we received the support of the Academy For The Relentless Exploration of Space (ARES) in Irvine, Calif. Their sole interest is in preparing students to study and explore space. They are in the process of creating a school to do just that.
Q: You talk a lot about developing different kinds of schools. What do you mean?
A: If today’s schools were effectively working and 100% of our students were graduating, I would be fishing more and devoting more time to writing. Unfortunately today’s schools are meeting the needs of just a fraction of our students. What if we had a school that was built around the outdoors or around music and art or even around sports. Why not have a sports academy? Do you think we would have any students interested in attending? We could easily raise our graduation rates if we created schools like ARES or like the Wilson Campus School that I have spoken about so much and even the former Four Winds Alternative School at Red Lake.
Q: Don’t we have different kinds of schools in the form of charter schools?
A: Yes, they help a great deal. Our graduation rates would be lower if not for them. Unfortunately, they, too, have problems with graduation rates and need to look closer at how they can better serve their students. When all is said and done, we still have great public schools and we need to support them 100%.
Q: You talk a lot about helping kids find success. What do you mean?
A: The A and B students in school are finding success. The rest of the students are still looking for success. I believe that given the right program to choose from, every student is capable of enjoying learning and being an A or B student.
Q: Where is the hope?
A: Project Graduate focuses on getting the community involved to help schools. This is where the hope is. If we can get all parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, employers and citizens to ensure that all our young people have a desire (I like the term mindset) to graduate, just like you and I did, we can get the job done. This is why it is so important to keep the goal of 100% in front of the people. It’s so important to keep talking to kids about the value of education.
Q: What about schools? What can they do?
A: First, they need to take stock of the situation and create schools where all students will find success. Second, they need to adopt a 100% graduation rate goal to keep in step with the community and involve the total community. Third, all teachers, K-12, need to take ownership in the graduation rate. It’s not just the responsibility of the principal or counselors or superintendent. Every teacher, really every employee and board member, needs to ask themselves, “What did I do today to help our students graduate?” Fourth, we could also develop specific strategies that focus on graduation like having all students, annually, sign a graduation pledge.
Q: How long will it take to accomplish your goal of 100%?
A: If we did nothing significantly different, we will never accomplish the goal, which is sad because the No. 1 goal of schools is to ensure that 100% of our students graduate. On the other hand, if we got behind the need to relentlessly make graduation from high school part of our culture like saying “please” or helping our neighbor, or hugging our grandparents, we could accomplish the goal in just a few years. Wouldn’t that be something? This is doable.
Q: Do you have any special requests?
A: Yes, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz needs to support Beltrami’s goal of 100%. The Red Lake Tribal Council needs to do more. Bemidji State needs to do more. Sanford Health needs to do more. The Chamber of Commerce needs to do more. The leadership of International Rotary District 5580 just endorsed the 100% goal and is exploring what more they can do. I am confident that the Bemidji Lions will do the same. They recently did a PSA for 100%. We all need to step up for kids.
Q: Is the public missing something?
A: We don’t seem to be making the connection between having all of our students graduate and, for example, having a healthier community all around. A 100% graduation rate means having a reduced poverty level, fewer homeless, more people in the workforce, more college graduates, more people voting, more people making better decisions and the list goes on and on and on. In today’s world where we have robots on Mars taking photos, education needs to keep pace with the future.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for your ideas?
A: I have known many fine educators over the 50-some years in education. Many are right here in Bemidji and Beltrami County. They are inspiring and want the best for kids. We are capable with the help of the community of doing anything we choose to do, which includes creating Galactic Space Schools and having our kids, someday, actually walk on Mars.
Riddle: What keeps the moon from falling? (Answer: It has beams. Education keeps moving forward because of teachers who have ideas and have the courage to try them.)
Thanks to the Academy For The Relentless Exploration of Space (ARES) in Irvine, Calif., for giving their support for our efforts.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.