Growing Up in Tallahassee
Technology, Society and New Opportunities are Just Part of Childhood in the New Century
Thirty-plus years ago, kids didn’t know what an Xbox was. They weren’t texting, they didn’t play video games, and MySpace couldn’t have been further from their minds.
In fact, some of them didn’t even have air conditioning at school. Retired Kate Sullivan teacher Jean Messer remembers those days.
“We would turn fans on, and the fans were loud,” she recalled. “And I remember if you turned them up high, then the papers would blow off the desks.”
She remembers the perspiration drenching everyone by the end of the day.
“It was interesting,” she said, “but we survived, and we had a good time. We didn’t know better.”
Life for kids certainly has changed over the years, especially with the advent of technology. Nearly all Leon County teachers and principals agree that one of the biggest changes to hit the school system was the introduction of computers to the classrooms.
Fairview and Raa middle schools were the first to get computers in the 1980s. Other schools followed later.
Marvin Henderson, Leon County’s associate superintendent of schools, was principal of Leon High School for seven years, from 1989 to 1997. He remembers that when he first arrived, the school lacked a computer lab.
“It was a shock, actually,” he said. “Middle school students were being exposed to technology, and the high school had no opportunities for them to continue being exposed to that technology.”
Henderson worked with some teachers at the school to apply for a technology retrofit grant and to pay for computers at the school, although other teachers couldn’t see the point of it all.
“One of my teachers asked the question, ‘Why do we need computers? That’s going to put a lot of stress on us,’” Henderson said.
He had to remind them that computers were opening the gates to the information superhighway, and if they wanted to stay ahead, they needed to learn how to navigate that highway.
Today, computers are being incorporated into all sorts of educational activities.
“I taught research writing and debate (at Leon High School),” said former Leon County School Board member Sheila Costigan, who recently returned to teaching at Leon High. “We were able to get into those computer labs and it changed the curriculum significantly.”
Teachers also enter their grades into the computers, and typing out comments instead of handwriting them makes the time-consuming process go by faster, retired teacher Messer said.
Although the Internet has made researching papers a whole lot easier, it also has a downside.
“Bullying has definitely become a much bigger problem because of technology,” said Carrie Lane, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University. “Because of the anonymity of technology, it’s a lot easier for kids to be bullied.”
Security measures at schools also have increased, especially after the Columbine shootings in 1999 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I first came on, not every secondary school would even have a school resource officer,” said John Hunkiar, the safety and security director for Leon County Schools. “Now it’s pretty commonplace that secondary schools have a full-time police officer at the school.”
In addition, schools make all visitors to the campus sign in at the front office, and copies are made of their driver’s licenses, which can be scanned into a database to see if any are sex offenders.
The Bell Curve
Technology was a big change, but it wasn’t the only one. Through the years, class sizes have changed, disciplinary methods have changed and P.E. has come, gone and come again.
Messer remembers class sizes yo-yoing from small to big and small again.
“I guess in the ’70s, maybe the early ’80s, I can remember teaching 36 students in my class,” she said. “And then I have seen a trend … where they’re capping class sizes.”
In response to the smaller class size requirements, schools have had to make sure there are enough rooms to accommodate the downsized classes, sometimes by bringing in portable buildings to serve as additional classroom spaces.
What teachers are allowed to do inside the classroom has changed too, in terms of disciplinary methods.
“When I started teaching, they had corporal punishment still in effect,” said Dick Hosford, physical education teacher and athletic director at Raa Middle School. “For like my first six years of teaching, it was an option. Nowadays, it’s not even an option.”
Susan Harris, who has taught in seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms for 37 years, said she remembers that corporal punishment was allowed at Nims Middle School when she started teaching there, but with some restrictions attached.
“Teachers were allowed to go up before an administrator and do the paddling,” she said, but they couldn’t paddle the children if an administrator wasn’t present.
In addition to disciplinary methods, testing modes have changed as well, with the FCAT making its debut in Florida schools in 1998. Standardized testing for students was not a new concept, since the state had implemented some form of it since 1972 as a yardstick to determine how well its schools were performing.
But using the tests to determine how much funding schools would receive has placed a lot of stress on those in the school system.
“It’s put a lot more pressure on everyone: the administration – both county-level administration and school-level administration – the teachers and the kids,” Harris said. “Even though most kids don’t like tests, they have to deal with the fact that testing is part of an education. (But) I think that there is too much emphasis put on one test.”
All the focus on children’s academic performance has left them with little time to do relaxed activities that are less classroom-based.
“When I taught at a private school, there were no seat belt laws at the time,” said Apalachee Elementary School teacher Pam Brewster. “I’d just pile my whole class – there was like 18 of them – into my station wagon, and we’d go to the pond on Friday and feed the ducks and talk about nature and go on nature walks. They learned so much from just those casual kinds of experiences that aren’t just ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry!’ And we just don’t have those anymore.”
Going Private or Staying Home
Public schools aren’t the only ones that have seen changes. Private schools have adapted too; some changes are technology-related, while others have to do with growth and faculty.
“I guess because of the fact that the kids have computers and video games and lights and brights and everything like that, I find they have a hard time settling down and being able to be in a classroom situation,” said Carol Pannell, who teaches fourth grade at Trinity Catholic School.
The number of children at the school has increased over the years too, she said.
“I believe when Trinity first started 56 years ago, it was just one building and it was just primary (grades),” she said. “And over the years, we now have three buildings, and we go all the way from the 3-year-olds to eighth grade.”
Another thing that’s changed is the teachers, says Trinity Catholic Assistant Principal Fran Hudson. The teachers were predominantly nuns in the past, but since there are fewer and fewer women seeking convent life, all of today’s teachers are lay people.
At Holy Comforter, changes over the years have included the addition of Chinese, Latin and French to the school’s language program, as well as teachers becoming more tech-savvy.
“Today in our school, every teacher has a laptop,” said Principal Barbara Hodges. “Teachers are using electronic and database information on a regular basis, plus we have two fixed computer labs, and we have four rolling labs. And then in every classroom we have stations. The change is amazing.”
Charter schools have taken off in recent years as well. There are five charter schools in Leon County, all of which receive government funding but have more freedom than typical public schools in choosing their curriculum and determining the approach they will take toward education. Debo Powers, principal of The School of Arts and Sciences, explains the appeal of charter schools this way: “The thing about a charter school is it gives parents, teachers and educators the chance to try something different and see if it works.”
Her own school, with its emphasis on hands-on learning, has been quite
“We get (the students) involved in the subject matter,” she said. “And kids love it. They love coming to school.”
Some people have chosen to bypass public or private school entirely and school their children at home. Home schooling became legal in Florida in 1985, and it was then that Jolie Emhof began home-schooling her children. Emhof, who started the organization TEACH – Tallahassee Evangelical Association of Christian Homeschoolers – initially planned to home-school for three or four years, but the advantages of teaching at home soon had her hooked.
“We loved it,” she said. “We loved the flexibility it offered.”
TEACH, which serves as a support group for home-schoolers, started out in 1985 with three families but grew over time to more than 200 families before it splintered into several smaller groups three or four years ago. The organization gives home-schooling parents a chance to ask each other for advice, share tips and also go on field trips with their children to places such as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University or the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
For Emhof, home-schooling meant the chance to give her children a good education, something she felt wasn’t necessarily being offered by Florida’s public schools.
“My husband and I are both from New York state, born and raised,” she said. “The school system we went through was excellent. We got an excellent education, and we wanted that for our children.”
Home-schooling also allowed them to give their nine children a Christian education, which they felt was important.
“We wanted to be the major impact on our children for good,” Emhof said. “I think that good and evil are sort of blurred nowadays.”
Changes in the Family Unit
Over the years, the number of parents who work full or part time has increased, requiring kids and their teachers to adapt. Messer said that at Kate Sullivan Elementary, the uptick in the number of working parents means the number of parent volunteers has declined a bit.
“When I had the most parental help was when there were fewer people working,” she said. “In the ’90s, you tended to see more working parents. And there was also the trend of … more single-parent homes where the parent had to work.”
Home life for a number of children has become much less stable because of parents getting divorced and floating in and out of the picture.
“Family life is falling apart somewhat, so it’s just really hard for children to be children any more,” elementary teacher Brewster said. “Like the little girl who was telling me about her mother, ‘Oh, she was so sad, I had to make her feel better.’ No child should feel like they have to make an adult feel better!”
Schools offer after-school programs to accommodate children whose parents work full time.
“We sometimes have kids from 6:30 in the morning until 6 at night,” Costigan said. “There’s good and bad parts to that. They’re getting good curriculum pieces at school, but the family unit suffers. That’s a new phenomenon.”
Teachers at the preschool level have noticed changes too.
“A lot of our parents, more are working part time, and we have more that are full time,” said Cristene York, director of Advent Preschool. “We have a lot of grandmas that pick up and that didn’t used to be the case.”
And Temple Israel Preschool Director Diane Atkinson said she sees more dads doing pick-up as well.
“This year, we have got a lot of stay-at-home fathers,” she said. “That was unheard of 30 years ago.”
Nevertheless, although more parents may be working and the roles in the family may have changed, parents remain pretty concerned about their children’s wellbeing and progress in school.
“I think there are more parents, particularly with the 4-year-olds, who are more curious about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” York said.
Technology has made it easier for busy parents to keep tabs on their children’s progress in school. Instead of scheduling a teacher-parent conference to talk about their child’s progress, parents can go online to access students’ grades.
“I’ve found teaching seventh and eighth grade, I don’t have as many teacher-parent conferences because they have easy access to see how their students are doing,” Harris said. Much of the time, parents will just e-mail her if they have questions or concerns.
Life Outside School
Kids these days spend more time in programmed activities rather than in free play, reports Ashley Edwards, assistant director of Tallahassee’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Affairs department.
This has its advantages and disadvantages, she said. It can be good for children to be on an organized team and learn the rules of the game and how to be a team player. On the other hand, “I think sometimes it is sad that children can’t do as much free play and be creative,” she said.
Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Affairs has the biggest sports program in town. In the 1950s, it offered baseball, gymnastics and swimming, but it has since expanded to football, basketball, tennis, soccer and even BMX biking.
The number of girls participating in sports has increased a great deal over the years, and so have the number of sports options open to them. When Edwards was playing sports as a child in the 1970s, girls were just starting to participate in the sports teams.
“We didn’t have girls’ basketball, but I was the first girl to play in the boys’ church league back then,” she said.
Overall, it seems that these days, parents are getting their children involved in more and more activities. This can pose a problem for music teachers, said Martha Stubbs, owner of Stubbs Music School on Timberlane Road.
“The biggest challenge today is that parents in the ’70s and ’80s had their children in two or three activities, and they could excel more in music,” she said. “Now parents feel like they have to have their children in an activity every day. And this is one of the few activities that they have to follow through with at home.”
Stubbs said it can be hard for families to make the commitment to practice consistently. Overall, children who take music lessons tend to stick with it for four or five years, whereas when Stubbs first started teaching, it was usually closer to eight or nine.
“The most misconceived thing about music is that it’s an extracurricular activity,” she said. “It’s not something you do once a week that you can walk away from afterward.”
Dance, a favorite pastime for many kids, especially girls, continues to grow in popularity in Tallahassee, with new studios popping up in different parts of town.
Sharon Davis, who started Sharon Davis School of Dance more than 30 years ago, said that through the years, her studio has taught various genres of dance, including disco dancing and break dancing.
She notices that her students are more plugged in these days.
“Children are smarter,” Davis said. “I’ve really noticed that. And I just think it’s because they’re exposed to so much – computers, TVs, iPods. They just seem like they are more worldly.”
Children today may be busier and more technologically savvy than before, but when given the opportunity, they still enjoy good old-fashioned outdoor activities, especially at summer camp.
Dana Bryan, who organizes Girl Scouts and 4H summer camps, said she enjoys taking children to Jubilee, a weeklong 4H day camp that teaches kids wilderness skills.
“They expose the children to the trees, the soil and the animal life,” she said. “Our children have a phobia of nature … so the more you can expose them to these things, the better.”
Bryan said she thinks camps help build children’s self-confidence and teach them critical thinking skills.
“I directed Girl Scouts camps for 15 summers,” she said. “I just watched girls bloom and become real good people. And they’ve all, as they’ve gone out into the world, really accomplished a lot.”
Regardless of how other factors change, that’s what parents and teachers want for their kids – to see them grow into good people who have accomplishments when they go out into the world.
“I think the best thing you can do for your children is love them,” said elementary school teacher and mom Pam Brewster. “You need to appreciate each child for where they are, who they are and where they come from.”
Some things never change.