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A somewhat extraordinary hour of high school on an otherwise ordinary day

Clarke Central High School in Athens, Ga., enrolls some 1,500 students, half of them African American, 23 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 3 percent multiracial, and 2 percent Asian. The high school is in the Clarke County School District, which has led the state in making gains to close the achievement between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. In 2015, the district’s superintendent, Phil Lanoue, was named the National Superintendent of the Year.

In this post, an Athens resident describes a recent event that occurred at Clarke Central High School. Famed Irish writer Colm Toibin visited and engaged with students, not the usual activity on a regular school day but one that captures some of the extraordinary things that happen in this school district.

Toibin writes novels, short stories, essays, plays, criticism, poetry and more, and is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. His 2009 novel “Brooklyn” was turned into a well-received film in 2015.

This post was written by Bertis Downs, a parent and an education activist who lives in Athens. He was legal counselor and manager of the now disbanded band R.E.M., and he spends a great deal of time advocating for public education in Clarke County. Downs is a member of the board of the Network for Public Education.

How one impoverished public school district is making strides

By Bertis Downs

Our town was just treated to a three-day visit by the Irish writer Colm Toibin. He stayed busy presenting readings, public conversations and classes at the University of Georgia as the Delta Visiting Chair for the Willson Center for the Humanities and Arts, our remarkable and vital public humanities center. Thanks to the efforts of the organizers of his trip, he spent an hour with some of the students at Clarke Central High School.

I came along as a parent interested in this sort of opportunity for our students, the kind of experience students anywhere rarely get. It was a real pleasure to hear Toibin discuss the writer’s process and discipline, and reflect on his own personal and professional experiences in becoming a writer.

Clarke Central is a high-needs, high-achieving high school, one of two large high schools in our diverse and multicultural district, which faces the familiar challenges of our times. The students who attended the special class in the small auditorium were drawn from all the various English classes; each teacher and both librarians had each been given three invitations to invite interested students. The room was packed and clearly reflected the school’s student body.

In the few minutes before the students arrived, our guest had a brief tour of the newly refurbished school, centering on the media center/library which is impressive in content, design and personnel. He learned about the challenges our local schools face as well as about some of measures being taken to help our neediest students by people from organizations such as Communities in Schools and the College Advising Corps, both of which are producing tangible gains in student achievement and college access.

He asked about cost and access to the school and we all chuckled as we replied that as a public institution, the school is completely free and accepts all students. He then related a quick anecdote about visiting a high-needs high school in Chicago and being so impressed with the students, faculty and programs there that he asked whether it was well-known as “good school.” One of the students answered him by saying, “No, but we are working to make it one!” We understood that response.

It was a nice moment and soon the students filed in and the session began in earnest. Toibin started by relaying the story of the real-life family in his tiny hometown that gave him the original idea for the book “Brooklyn,” which has recently been turned into a movie. Before long the students were peppering him with questions, several of which produced fascinating college seminar-level answers by Toibin. Others were more practical, such as this one from a young student rapper, “When did you write your first book?”

Toibin’s simple advice to aspiring writers was this: “Finish what you start.”

The whole session had an earnest but conversational feel to it — a real opportunity for learning and of course it was over all too quickly.

I relate all this for three reasons:

1) To highlight such a marvelous opportunity for our local public high school students to learn from this remarkable guest on an otherwise ordinary school day morning;

2) To publicly thank Colm Toibin for his generosity of spirit and all the time and effort he put into his Athens visit, including this morning class time at Clarke Central High School;

3)  To illustrate how easily these kinds of things can be arranged.

Just think of all the various lecturers visiting college campuses today, tomorrow, next week, next year. All it takes for this kind of successful interaction is for a couple of adults to simply arrange such a visit to a local high school. The good that comes from these exchanges are incalculable to students and adults.