For the last few weeks, public school districts all over Texas, including Nacogdoches ISD, have welcomed more than five million students to their classrooms.

The birth of the new school year, like the birth of a child, fills the heart with anxiousness, wonder, hope and, for many, optimism.

On Monday, a good supply of tissue was warranted for parents dropping off their student for the first time. A carton of chocolate milk, accidentally tipped over in the cafeteria of one of our elementary schools, had staff spring into quick action to salvage as much as they could while preventing new clothes from being stained. At another NISD campus, the principal modeled for the younger students how to properly carry a tray of food to the table.

At our middle schools I observed students dance the delicate balance of being happy to reconnect with friends and teachers with the timeless need to “get their cool on.” Meanwhile, at Nacogdoches High School, a couple of students and I navigated the many hallways to locate their classroom. (And I’m thankful for the principal along with a number of teachers who actually knew where those rooms were located.)

These experiences are typical for the beginning of a school year. One of the strengths of public schools is the ability to provide certain common experiences in our quest to sustain democracy. There is something wholesome and, to a degree, innocent about this optimism and hope.

For some students, especially those who come armed with focus and a strong sense of purpose, this feeling lasts through the school year. For others, coming to school might be more about compliance, or even a temporary escape. The sense of hope or even the slightest connection of the school and their lives may not be as evident.

For some students and families, school is a critical pathway of their ambition. Other students and families may not truly appreciate the opportunity before them, let alone be able to link the hope that quality educational experiences offer.

I am very much aware of the criticisms of public schools and the reinforcement these sentiments receive due to our over-reliance on obfuscatory standardized test-based accountability systems. But I also recall a statement from my mom that influenced my focus, sense of personal responsibility and self-motivation.

My own schooling began at the start of integration in Nacogdoches County. Needless to say, there were concerns teachers at the “other school” would not be fair and would not care about kids from my neck of the woods. There were many stories around that supposedly demonstrated that’s what took place.

But my mom was having none of it. “If anybody in that classroom is learning you better be one of ‘em!” she said, with emphasis. It’s fair to say I had a few clashes… and most were of my own making, due to the natural hormone-driven departure of good sense that can plague students.

Because of my mom’s perspective, my own focus and some developing ambitions, none of this proved debilitating. Nothing and no one held me back or provided any justification to quit. In fact, I had a number of teachers from that “other school” support me in ways it took years to understand.

On my many visits to see Mr. Mobley, the principal, I recall how he always ended our meeting with, “Alton, you have a lot of potential.” To Mr. Mobley, Superintendent James Johnston and the host of teachers, coaches, parent volunteers and, above all, my classmates, I say, “Thank you!” Since returning to Nacogdoches I have reacquainted with many whose lives certainly benefited from their educational experiences and personal ambitions.

The purpose, hope and optimism that compels a continued investment in public education may not be as relevant to some as it continues to be for those of us who can trace a direct line from current reality back to the schools we attended and the learning experiences gleaned. As a result, we must help more of today’s students and families establish their own connections.

When those critical bonds are formed and positive personal ambitions come into being, the power of public education becomes quite obvious.

Alton Frailey is interim superintendent of Nacogoches ISD and a member of the SFA board of regents.

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