Why School Still Matters

By Mark Heller

Parents today have both the great luxury and the great burden of having many different educational options for their children. You can choose your local public school or you can venture into the world of school choice: public magnet schools, public charter schools, on-line options, dual enrollment, private schools (both parochial and independent), and, of course, home schooling. Each of these options has various attributes, strengths and challenges that every family must weigh as it chooses the best option for its members.

I believe in the power of schools. Online learning and home schooling may work for some people and purposes, but the experience of school, especially the educational experience in a great school, is transformative.

The true goal of school is not simply a score on a test, a diploma, or a degree; it’s the nurturing of a well-rounded human being, a citizen who is prepared to meet all of the challenges life will throw at her/him — workplace challenges, challenges in relating to other human beings, and challenges in making sense of the gift of life we have been given. This “product” is best developed through the many experiences that animate life in school each day and over a period of years.

Only about half of the power of school lies the “Three R’s,” the academic content: learning to read, write, calculate, etc. The true power of an educational experience lies in what exists beyond those “Three R’s.” The education of young people is a human-intensive endeavor. It is best accomplished through real-time personal contact with teachers of all kinds who care about transmitting important lessons to their students.

The best educational experiences offer crucial elements that are much more difficult to find in online or home-school experiences. These experiences are deeply personal and revolve around relationships. School involves meeting and interacting with many people who are not part of your family, people who are different from you in many ways and yet also similar to you in other ways. In a great educational experience each child must interact with a diverse set of individuals: teachers, coaches, other students, custodians, etc. Each has a different set of perspectives and expectations. Each child must learn how to communicate with them, how to collaborate, and how to function as a unique individual within structures and routines that are not made solely by that child or that child’s parents. It’s all great training for the workplace of the future and for citizenship.

In school, children learn how to be independent from their parents (a major goal of child-rearing). Finding your way and learning to work outside of your family is a vital life skill, college skill, and, ultimately, workplace skill. School is a great venue for children to learn persistence and resilience, that things do not always go their way, and that challenges can be successfully worked through.

Great classroom experiences are often conversations. These dialogues are very hard to replicate in on-line and home-school settings. They work best when they happen in the context of face-to-face relationships. They teach students how to think, how to learn, how to respect others, and how to grow in a world that is populated with others. Much of the work of school is individual. But much more is about how the individual learns to make his or her way in a sea of others.

In school, students develop networks and relationships outside of their families that are there to help them when they stumble or need support.

School experiences involve real-time responses to your learning, your actions, your mistakes, and your choices. School experiences provide real-time relationships and consequences that are more genuine than the stand-ins provided in the virtual world. But more than that, in school, students are able to learn not only from their own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others. This is part of the power of community to both teach and nurture.

Each school has its own unique culture. Great schools have cultures in which each student is deeply valued, deeply connected, and learns important lessons in Character, Collaboration, and Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Citizenship.

Ultimately, it all depends on the humans involved. It takes good people to grow good people. And that’s why a great school, one populated with many good people, can make such an important difference. It’s why school matters.


Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3 – 12th grade independent school in the North Tampa Area. For more information about the school, visit academyatthelakes.org.