Just a Thought: May 25, 2016
Eliminating the word "extracurricular"
If you happened upon the Blasco Library on Saturday, May 21, you were greeted by a scene that defied virtually every conceivable library stereotype. The Erie Library Comic Con attracted comic culture enthusiasts of all ages. Painted faces, billowing capes, and other colorful costumery made a trip to the fiction section a little redundant.
Embracing imaginative nonconformity has become the norm within the Erie County Public Library system. It's an exemplary model – should we ever need one (and do we ever) – of a forward-thinking, realistically optimistic, community-focused organization that prioritizes action over theorizing.
That Saturday, I chatted briefly with the always inspiring Marcy Hall, the library's head of adult services who catalyzes much of its community outreach. She said the library staff is always seeking ways to better serve the Erie area, by – get this – asking people what their needs are and then determining ways to meet them.
Hall also mentioned the recent reality-checking news surrounding Erie's Public Schools. Not surprisingly, library folks are already considering ways in which the library could fill gaps left by potential upheaval.
As we stood there in the Blasco lobby, Hall in her self-created "Danger Bunny" costume, the space swarmed with comic-loving characters. I've never been captivated by comics, but the youthful excitement was contagious.
I couldn't help but think about their return on Monday to school. Would they have outlets for their enthusiasm? Or opportunities to commiserate with like-minded souls?
In other words, were they lucky enough to attend school in a district with ample extracurricular options?
The threat to the arts, athletics, and other extracurriculars is nothing new. But it's rarely hit quite this close to home.
Meanwhile, what I wish we could be discussing would be the elimination of the word "extracurricular." That students' beyond-classroom interests were valued as much as their test scores. That a magic fairy would come down and wipe out all of their self doubt and worrying that they don't fit in. And also balance the budget.
High school can be a pretty dicey place. It's even less tolerable if a student marches to Thoreau's proverbial different drum.
Connecting students' out-of-school interests to their educational life validates them. Unfortunately, what often gets trotted out as justification for keeping extracurricular programs is something about how they improve test scores, or critical thinking, or earning potential, or college acceptance rates.
All are highly valuable outcomes. Obviously. But why can't it be enough that these programs are often where students find the approval and sense of belonging we all need as members of this diverse human tribe? That they provide students priceless pleasures and joy? That they give students reasons for living? Growing up in this challenging world, students need as many of those as they can get.
Where's that magic fairy?
As we keep the dialog going about the state our schools are in, let's talk just as much about the way we can strengthen students' access to the activities they love. The Erie area is full of organizations creating space for all sorts of students. They can't solve this crisis any more than a magic fairy could. But they teach students who they are, and what makes their lives worthwhile. There's nothing extracurricular about that.
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.