A tall, thin man in a suit eyes a bicycle helmet sitting on the desk of a student at Ventura’s Pacific High School.
“You know who wrote the law that says you have to wear a helmet?” the man asks.
“No,” the boy says. “Who?”
“I did,” says the man, who happens to be Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, with a grin.
The boy does not appear pleased or displeased, but he does look surprised.
It was no surprise to Chip Fraser, a resource instructor at the continuation school, that O’Connell made the visit Monday that he promised to pay in the summer of 2005, after Fraser made a 522-mile trek to Sacramento on foot. His journey, embarked upon to increase awareness of issues in California’s educational system, was also designed to get Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attention.
With absolute conviction, but no guarantee from the governor’s office, Fraser, now 59, covered about 20 miles a day on his 24-day trip, believing all the while that he would meet the governor and tell him that the needs of the state’s children must take precedence over political issues. In the process, Fraser managed to raise about $20,000 for Pacific High School.
During the last leg of his journey, Fraser was met by O’Connell, local educators and administrators, Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara). O’Connell, Alan Bersin, the state’s education secretary and Nava promised Fraser that they would pay a visit to his school — and O’Connell became the last of the three to fulfill that promise.
On Monday, Fraser and Pacific High School Principal Peter Aguirre took O’Connell on a tour of the school, including several classrooms in which O’Connell chatted with students, and the school’s counseling and day care centers.
“This brings relevance to our work in education to the forefront,” O’Connell said of meeting students face-to-face. “This is a school that’s working very hard and that has high expectations — and it’s a great reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing in Sacramento.”
O’Connell went on to say that he acknowledges flaws in the No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, Act, a federal law designed to improve academic performance in public schools by increasing standards of accountability, which includes performance on standardized tests. Fraser has also expressed frustration with NCLB.
“We all support the goals of No Child Left Behind, but it’s the details and overly-scripted nature of No Child Left Behind that gives us concern,” O’Connell said. “We need full funding and flexibility — not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Fraser said he and others at Pacific are establishing a program to provide academic support to small groups of students as a means of improving the school’s performance on standardized tests. “They have so many things going against them that they need something else,” he said. “If we could build a core of 50 or 60 kids who are really focused, they could have a halo effect on everyone else.”
Fraser said that his vision of a better educational system would “incorporate more of what it takes to be a human being … Nobody gives us a handbook or a blueprint of what to do.”
O’Connell was also introduced to Raul Hernandez, a Pacific High School Student of the Year, a 19-year-old senior who plans to attend college and become an architect. Hernandez said one-on-one attention and recognition from staff and visitors had helped him improve his performance and take advantage of opportunities. “People think we’re a bad school, but we’re not,” Hernandez said. “We don’t get that many chances in our lives like this. It feels good.”