Ethics in Leadership

Speaker says educators, public need to talk about schools

By KATE SCHOTT La Crosse Tribune

When his parents sent Jamie Vollmer to school in the 1950s, they expected his teachers would provide an education.

But his parents knew they ultimately were responsible for what he needed to know, Vollmer added.

Today, parents arrive at the school and say, “Raise my kid,” Vollmer said.

Elected officials have decided schools not only should handle reading, writing and arithmetic, but dozens of other topics, such as nutrition, keyboarding, teen pregnancy awareness, HIV education and conflict resolution, he said.

Vollmer’s “Welcome to the Great Conversation: Increasing Community Support for Wisconsin’s Public Schools,” opened the D.B. Reinhart for Ethics in Leadership fall lecture series at Viterbo University. The event was co-sponsored by the La Crosse School District.

Vollmer, a former business owner turned motivational speaker, said the founding father of America’s public schools wrote a design flaw into its blueprint. “The purpose of our schools will be to separate the genius from the rubbish,” he said, quoting President Thomas Jefferson.

Today’s schools still do that, he said. Students are sorted into those going on to higher education and everyone else. All students must finish school in a set amount of time and are sorted by how quickly they learn. It doesn’t take into account students who learn at a slower pace or who aren’t visual or auditory learners.

“Woe to the child who doesn’t keep up,” he said. “They are socially stigmatized.”

Schools cannot educate all students well in the current system, but change only can happen with community support, he said — and community members usually think of a “real school” as the same type they attended.

Anything that might alter that concept — such as a new schedule or grading system — is seen as a threat.

Trust needs to be built between schools and the public again if change is to occur, he said. Educators should meet community members in places where they are comfortable — such as churches, work or neighborhood groups — and open a dialogue.

Ask what they like about the community, Vollmer suggested, and what would it take to make it better.

Then ask what schools can do to accomplish that.

“We can have that conversation,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Kate Schott can be reached at or (608) 791-8226.

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