When I hear friends talk about the cost of sending their children to private schools, I am always reminded of what a great bargain I get at the public schools. For $10,000 a year in taxes I get to send not one but two kids to the John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton. I could probably spend $40,000 or more to send the two kids to Princeton Day or Hun or Lawrenceville (assuming that they would accept them), and I would still have to pay those taxes.

So it’s a bargain, this public school system of ours, and I am reminded of that often.

But as the kids wound down their 2005-’06 academic year, I began to take a critical look at this bargain of ours. How much bang are we getting for our educational buck? And is it possible to raise the bar at a bargain institution?

A May 8 memo to eighth grade parents outlining the end-of-year schedule got me thinking. Here’s how the last two weeks of school broke down:

Monday, June 12: Check out procedures for eighth graders: Clean out lockers, turn in book (library and text), and pay book fines.

Tuesday, June 13. Awards assembly, 8:45 – 10:45 a.m. Field trip, Community Park Pool, 11:35 – 2:55 p.m.

Wednesday, June 14. Colonial History Field Trip — Washington Crossing State Park, 9:30 to 2:55 p.m.

Thursday, June 15. Eighth grade promotion practice, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Eighth grade picnic, Marquand Park.

Friday, June 16. Eighth grade promotion ceremony, Richardson Auditorium.

Monday, June 19. Field trip, Point Pleasant Beach.

Tuesday, June 20. Field trip, bowling (early dismissal at 1 p.m.).

Thursday, June 22. Last day of school (early dismissal at 1 p.m.).

I did some arithmetic and asked a few questions. My kids told me that Wednesday, June 21, was mostly spent watching movies. That meant that the last nine days of the school year were devoted to non-instructional events (and this does not include the three days in May spent on the class trip to Washington, D.C.). Assuming 180 days in a school year, that means that 5 percent of the year was squandered with picnics, pool parties, and bowling trips.

I asked my eighth grader how much educational value could be found in those nine final days. “The movie we watched was ‘West Side Story,’ and that’s an allegory for ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ which we studied in class,” he said. “Actually I’m not sure ‘allegory’ is the right word, but the movie is based on the play.”

Okay, good thinking. And I suggested that if he learned how to keep score when he went bowling then he got a math lesson, as well — something on the order of differential calculus, it has always seemed to me. The eighth grader nodded silently. But the sixth grader chimed in: “You don’t have to keep score, Dad. The computer does it for you.”

I going to give the school the benefit of the doubt. I am going to assume that the some of those extra days were tacked on at the end of the schedule because of earlier snow days. I am going to assume that the promotion day had to come before the last day of school because of scheduling requirements at the auditorium. I am going to assume that books had to be turned in earlier because of logistical requirements.

But even so I would have liked to have seen one fewer picnic, one more day of creating a special report, making a class presentation, or researching a topic not covered in regular classwork.

If I had to grade the school I’d give it a B- or C+ for the last two weeks. But I’d give an A for the rest of the year, one in which my eighth grader performed a trumpet solo at the Jazz Band concert and the sixth grader presented a monologue at the spring drama showcase — among other accomplishments that I didn’t dream of when I was their age.

At this year’s Princeton Reunions I got into a discussion about kids and how they were doing in school. When I mentioned that mine were at John Witherspoon Middle School someone noted that a JW teacher was sitting nearby. Minutes later Susan Kalmbach, a science teacher, introduced herself, noted that she had my eighth grader in class, and asked me how things were going.

I confessed to the classic concern that she has probably heard a thousand times from Princeton parents — that my son isn’t terribly motivated, looks for the easy way out whenever possible, and (though I didn’t say it this way) would probably rather go bowling than do a research project. She suggested that I remind him of a project that was due within a few days. “Just ask him if the phrase ‘sink the ship’ means anything to him,” she said. “It has to do with vectors.”

Later I did: “Hey, Rick. What’s up with ‘sink the ship’?” “Oh yeah,” he responded, in a tone that suggested he had forgotten all about it.

So on the report card I will add in one more grade: An A+ for a teacher who cares, even in the middle of a party weekend. As I said before, this public school is a bargain, and not such a bad bargain after all.

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