Education and democracy

Editor’s note: The Buncombe County Early College recently asked students to write an essay on the recently conducted “democracy panel” and how it affected them as individuals. Mountain Xpress chose this one for publication; excerpts from others will be presented in a future issue.

The motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “Our children are our only hope for the future, but we are their only hope for their present and their future.” Of course, we—the students, or “children”—will be a part of the future. And I must ask what kind of future will there be for this country if it is led by high-school dropouts and young adults whose lives don’t revolve around the pursuit of happiness every day?

Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are two things our country strives to give its citizens. Teachers and students working together with respect and harmony in education is what will lead us toward this ideal.

A well-rounded democratic citizen is someone who loves his or her country, participates in voting, and receives an education worthy of representing America. Public high schools, however, are not creating well-rounded citizens. A thriving democratic society needs people who can stretch their minds and think of new improvements. Public schools are not teaching students how to think by having them memorize definitions before a test. This kind of “learning” won’t create open, strong-willed, intelligent citizens.

I’ve lived in North Carolina since I was in second grade and have participated in several styles of education: private school, charter school and home-school. I’ve developed long-lasting relationships with past teachers; I’ve gained a love of learning and a will to speak my mind. It was easy to speak my mind about improvements in schools that were open to new ideas, such as going outside the country for educational field trips, painting what we learned instead of taking a test, or going out into the woods and learning about ourselves in solitude. I had time to reflect and to learn at my own pace.

In seventh grade, I experienced public school for a short time. There I encountered large class sizes, distant teacher/student relationships, constant tests and memorization instead of real learning. I didn’t have as much opportunity to learn openly, and I didn’t have the motivation to speak up for what I believed in anymore. One time, in math class, some of the students hadn’t done their homework. When the teacher went around the room to check, they flashed a blank piece of paper in his face and he wrote it down as complete. This showed me that striving to achieve wasn’t worth it, because my hard work wouldn’t be acknowledged.

As a 10th-grader, I now attend Buncombe County Early College, an experimental public school. I was afraid that it would be the same as the public school I had attended before, but the Early College has proved to be different, because it is open to change. Being elected student-body president and studying democracy as part of the world-studies program have empowered me.

Our world-studies teacher has opened up creative learning by using a “democracy panel” including a number of North Carolina politicians. Panel member Tim Arnold, an economics teacher at the Early College, told us: “As citizens in a democracy, we have rights. We can make a difference—we just have to use our rights to speak up for change.” The thought of change was really what struck me. I realized that by speaking up, we can help our schools transcend the constant tests and busywork and become engaging places that nurture respect and trust among both students and teachers.

The Early College is now listening to the students through both the democracy panel and a constitution that will be written by the students, supporting our rights at the school.

I’d like to incorporate the First Amendment into our constitution, so we have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to assemble and petition. I also think we should be given the freedom to be individuals, so that we can develop ourselves and prepare for our future in a democracy. Class sizes should always be small, creative approaches to learning should be presented more often, and it should be evident that teachers will always treat us equally. Learning should be in-depth in every subject, tests given only when needed, busywork eliminated and hard work acknowledged. Communication should be encouraged through both homework assignments and a school newspaper.

Every student should feel empowered to learn every day on their own level; this kind of school will help students become independent people in our state and nation. When I reflect on my past school experiences and compare them to the public schools in our community, we need more than a constitution: We need a willingness to change and become part of a true alternative.

I’m ready to be part of this experimental schooling. Let’s speak up for a lifetime of liberty and happiness. Our education could be more open, with fewer tests, less stress and a deeper understanding of students’ political rights. I’m not afraid of speaking up—the study of democracy at Buncombe County Early College helped me feel strong enough to follow my instincts for change.

As John F. Kennedy said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Change is important for the cycle of life and the well-being of our citizens. Change is what will lead us all to better education in our community.

[Ariel Betancourt, a second-year student at Buncombe County Early College, is the student-body president.]

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