When Tess Bernhard worked as a cashier at Wegmans in Allentown, customers would sometimes ask her where she went to school.
“I would have people take steps away from me when I admitted I went to Allen [High], ” she told me.
Yet, remarkably, she was never in a fistfight and has no visible gang tattoos. In fact, she says she never felt in danger at the school and had some very dedicated teachers, including those who challenged her in the 11 Advanced Placement courses she took.
“They really encouraged anybody to challenge themselves,” said Bernhard, who was Allen’s Class of 2010 valedictorian and is now a sophomore at Princeton University.
That doesn’t sound anything like the Allentown schools you read about regularly on the blogosphere or in online comments tacked onto news reports.
I asked her father, Don Bernhard, PPL community affairs director, about his daughter’s experience after reading a Patch story on a speaker brought in by the Lehigh Valley Tea Party who said all education should be privatized.
Andrew Bernstein, a philosophy professor at State University of New York at Purchase, told the group: “Almost 90 percent of American children are forced to attend abysmal public schools.”
There are about 124 traditional public schools - not counting charters - in the Lehigh Valley and I’m curious whether 90 percent of the parents who send their children to them consider their own schools to be “abysmal.”
But even local suburban parents who would defend their kids’ schools view Allentown as the bogeyman of school districts. About half the schools have repeatedly failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law. Students come from 46 countries and speak 26 languages; about 80 percent are low-income.
I asked Don Bernhard if he ever considered sending Tess to a private school.
“Learning how to deal with the real world is a good thing and she certainly got that at Allen,” he said. “The diversity of the school to her was a strength. The kids who were there to learn had no trouble learning.”
Tess Bernhard got a lot out of the extracurricular opportunities; she was a captain of the dance team and helped run a tutoring program, among other activities.
I asked Don Bernhard how he’d respond to those who say gifted students like his daughter might do OK, but what about average students?
He said he thinks most school districts have a special focus on students at the top and those who struggle. “The kids in the middle can be lost in the shuffle,” he said. But students of different aptitudes can be successful if they’re willing to work.
Tess Bernhard had a great biology teacher at Allen - Luke Shafnisky – who prepared her well for a special Princeton biology program for which she was selected.
“If education in Allen was so deficient, a) she wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton, and b) wouldn’t have been asked to join a class that the best science students were in,” Don Bernhard said.
Certainly, Allentown has its problems, but I think there’s a disconnect between how outsiders see its schools and the experiences of kids who go there. Maybe the “experts” and the rest of us should start listening to them.