“The Case for One High School” by Jim Peters

Regular contributor Jim Peters, a graduate of Lowell High, a former teacher at Lowell High, and the son of a former Lowell Superintendent of Schools, shares his thoughts on the need for one high school in light of the possibility that the state school building assistance program might ultimately recommend that Lowell should have two separate public high schools.  Here’s what Jim has to say:

I am a firm believer in Lowell High School.  It is where I studied and graduated.  It prepared me for extremely good grades in my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree at UMass-Lowell.  Because I went to Lowell High School I met a number of interesting people, including the late Senator Paul Tsongas, U.N. Undersecretary General F. Bradford Morse, and Dr. Patrick Mogan, who served as our past School Superintendent.  I acted in plays in that school.  We did plays that other high schools would not touch, such as “Tom Jones,” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” as well as “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”  I met many interesting people in that school, many of whom became good friends.  Senior Class President Michael Viggiano stood out as did Bill Lekites, who ended up running the air force of the United Parcel Service (UPS).  Jim Neary was a good friend.  Most of the preparation for my life was done in my three years at LHS.  I have more than a passing interest in what is being promoted as a move towards educational excellence through the expansion of the current high school.

    My interest in LHS did not end with my graduation from the high school.  My interest in the school continues on to this day.  I taught there for fifteen years until medical problems caused me to retire.  In that time, I learned about a variety of things.  I learned that so called “Business” students were interested in being prepared for college.  I learned that a large influx of foreigners could not grind the school to a halt, but rather raise the school to new heights by preparing people with a very limited English background to acheive great success.  I learned that there was tolerance in this city for people who were not even “blow-ins” (which I certainly was) but immigrants.  I learned to love to teach American History to people who had just arrived in America.  I learned how to help deal with a student who lost a parent in an horrific accident and had to deal with a new life without that parent.
    My Freshman year, I was in Harvey, Illinois, attending a large high school in an integrated city.  The high school had over five thousand students, making it much larger than Lowell High School.  We had problems, and things got really difficult when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.  We moved from a high school that was over forty percent minority to one, LHS, that was largely Irish and Greek in inclination.  My brother was so bored, that he studied like crazy and soared to the top of his class at LHS.  I was not bored, I was challenged by my relationship with my father, School Superintendent Dr. Wayne R. Peters, to make the high school large enough to house the many people, over two thousand at that time, who studied there.  At the high school, I was not a good student, but I was good enough to get into Lowell State College, and I was well-prepared by the high school to excel at LSC.
    After spending my time at Lowell State College, I got the nod to write the headline story for the college newspaper, “The Advocate,” to write the main story about the formation of the university.  At the time, we did not know whether it was going to be Lowell State University or the University of Lowell.  My degree, as I was in the first graduating class of the university, was from the University of Lowell.  That was awarded in 1976.  John Duff was the President of the University.  We had presidents then.
    As a teacher at Lowell High School, I had the most difficult classes.  They were largely Business students, students whose study habits would see them having a difficult time outside of the menial section of the business world.  Vocational students attended the Lowell Trade School.  Business students graduated and were expected to take the most menial of jobs.  We educated them, but we did not prepare them.  At least, that was my thought.  I sat on a committee dealing with “tracking,” as it was called, which voted to remove the “Business” label and teach College and Honors students.  That happened early in my tenure at the high school.
    So, I taught College bound students.  With the assistance of the Memorial Library staff, we put somewhere around four hundred books on History, Politics, and Social Studies on stacks in my room.  Any student who found an interesting book there could take the book and read it and not bring it back.  It was their book to keep.  This was designed to start the students forming their own bookshelves at home.
    In my first years at the high school, I was teaching what we called “Communications,” which was really an English class.  My Master’s Degree was in English, so that was fine.  Then I got moved into History, which was my hobby and avocation.  I got classes that had more and more Southeast Asian students.  I had to make the school day interesting to those students, so I tried my best.  Souvanna Pouv of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, still calls me “Mr. Peters,” so I guess I had some respect somewhere there.  Recently, on one of the television shows I produce “This Town’s Character,” Bopha Malone asked Souvanna why he did not call me “Jim.”
    “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said.
    I learned more from the students than they ever learned from me.  I learned about respecting the individual, promoting a work ethic, and loving a course of study.  I learned that Lowell absorbed thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thailand immigrants who looked at you with expectation and the hope of a promise.  I learned that my own children would embrace the differences between their friends and give back more than they ever took.  I learned all that from the students, both Asian and Caucasian.  It was a lesson that I learned well.
    Now, we have a responsibility to all of the students at and coming to the high school.  That responsibility is to build them a school that promises what this city always promised, to give our students the right to graduate with high expectations in the Math and Sciences; the Languages; History and the Social Sciences, and other areas of interest to them.  If we build two schools, will there have to be busing to handle the fact that a great many students will be minorities from the various sections of city?  Will we be in compliance with state regulations at a separate but equal level?  Is there such a thing as “Separate but Equal, in our planning for the new school?
      Lowell High has always worked because it integrated the Irish with the English, the French Canadians with the Irish, the Greeks with everyone else, and the Southeast Asians with the populace.  Its saving grace is in its diversity.  We have to be careful to maintain that diversity as we go forward.  The building of a high school needs to be done at one level, that level being the one that  educates the greatest number of students with an eye towards integration.  We cannot build two high schools.  That would pull apart what Lowell has been so successful at acheiving, a greatness because of our diversity.  Integration of separate cultures as part of our code of honor.
    Lowell needs one high school.  LHS should be left standing.  All of my children are graduates of Lowell High School, so I practice what I preach.  It needs to be built as an adjacent building to the existing high school.  The only way I see that happening is building it on the site of the past Merrimack Mills, which is the headquarters for the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank.  That would put it next to the Riverview Towers but also next to the Merrimack River.  That would be the least expensive, even if we have to buy out the bank, option.  Somewhere, especially at Cawley Stadium, we would have to buy out all of those lienholders who have businesses near the baseball and soccer fields.  That would be extremely expensive.
    The trick to understanding education is that there is little that really significantly changes over the years.  True, some people do invent wonderful inventions and open up new areas of opportunity.  However, the words used to describe an educational innovation seldomly are altered.  In 1836, Lowell’s School Superintendent required teachers to give up their Saturdays to study “White’s Pedagogy.”  According to Webster’s Dictionary, pedagogy is just a fancy word for teaching.  Why do we demand that new words describe old actions?  Education is nothing if not a study of the obvious.  We think we know more than the teachers because we went to school.  The teachers make up new words and rules, more phrases and degrees, to separate themselves from the basics of teaching.  Those Saturday classes could probably have been shortened by allowing the teachers to interact together and determine what drives Johnny to learn.
    Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wrote the “Declaration of Independence” together.  But, they disagreed on just what education was about.  Jefferson saw it as an academic exercise, while Benjamin Franklin saw it as a vocational exercise.  We still argue about those goals two hundred plus years later.  Some parents and teachers define education in terms of vocational goals, while some see it as something to make you “think.”  It is academic.  I have a large library.  It contains approximately three thousand books.  I picked a few to make a point.  In “The Qualitative School” Duane Manning says “In what other way can mathematics become a part of people’s lives to the degree that a modern technical society demands?” (1963)  Sound familiar?  Content validity was just as important in 1963 as it is in 2015.  What we need to know, I believe, is to what extent we are reteaching, and to what extent people learn.  Louis Armstrong sings that we will never know what young children will know.  He may be right.  The question we have to ask is what degree is comfortable.  Education is a well-taught and well-thought-out topic that we will study the way Jefferson and Franklin did hundreds of years ago.  The technology changes, but the basics of learning, and the need for greater learning stay basically the same.  Let’s support the professionals who donate so much of their time to learning how to teach.  And, let’s not repeat ourselves ad nauseum.  Parents need to be active in their children’s learning, how we do it will help decide how we rebuild Lowell High School.