Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Former associate editor Tom Bradbury dies

We learned sad news today. Former Observer associate editor Tom Bradbury, long-time member of the Observer's editorial board, died today. He left the Observer in 1999 to head the local Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation (equivalent to today's Mecklenburg Advocates for Education). He later became a vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. He lived in Marietta, where he died after a long illness.

Below are excerpts from the farewell column he wrote for the Observer when he left 11 years ago. It says much about Tom, and how he felt about this community. He will be missed:

"I am enormously optimistic as I leave The Observer and 35 years in journalism to become the president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation. I am encouraged by the public participation in the foundation's community-visioning process, by the recognition in many parts of the community and government that the public schools are vital, by the efforts of educators - teachers and administrators and many others - to reach every child.

"There are several pieces of very good news that are sometimes overlooked. The first is that the phenomenal growth of the system means more than strains and instability. It reflects a huge personal investment in public education. Second, although we pay great attention to the failures of the public schools - and there are plenty here, as elsewhere - there is also great success. We are not starting from abject failure. Third, there are some very hopeful signs of attention to sharing facts and acting on them.

"The prescriptions for schools are as common and often as certain as the patent medicine ads a century ago, but improving schools is not a simple or one-dimensional matter. First, many of the disagreements over schools are more than simple misunderstandings. The differences often seen on the school board rise not from political friction among the members but from deep differences in the community that elects them. There is more involved than just wanting to do the right thing. Second, education is tough. Reaching every child is much easier to say than to do, much easier for editorialists to call for than for teachers and other educators to carry out. Home and neighborhood and social problems matter. Students aren't widgets, and teachers aren't machines.

"There are certain things that every student must master. As one educator puts it, students can't apply what they don't know. And students who are not prepared for citizenship and life - including functioning in a diverse society in a changing world - are not getting the education they need.

"That said, there is not one path that leads to success for every student. This is one reason I have favored the maximization of choice.

"As parents know, there are any number of practical problems and impediments. When you talk about the community vision for schools, you are talking about bus pickup times as well as test scores, about crowding as well as computers, about everyday details as well as curriculum, about national norms as well as local standards.

"Education is more than policy or operational issues. It is about being human, which means that it is as quirky as our kids and their parents.

"I remember not just the classes of my school years - which I mostly enjoyed - but a mother who stuck with me when subtraction of complex fractions made not a bit of sense and taught me that the world is wide and learning wonderful. As a parent, I remember the fifth-grade teacher at Dilworth Elementary who had my son talking excitedly about the art we would see on the family trip to Washington. I think of my daughter, who sweated for one of the first International Baccalaureate diplomas at Myers Park High School and valued the band as her link to other students and sanity. I look at their success as students and graduates of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's public schools and know firsthand that some wonderful things are happening.

"While life and education are more than schools, and social problems often reach into the classroom, the public schools are our central institution for reaching all children. What we really want for our schools is for kids to have those dreams and reach them. It is that which makes the talk about education so fascinating and so rewarding.

"We have a chance to do some wonderful things here in our schools and our community, to show that this American city - this region - is not like an artillery shell following a soaring but familiar trajectory that ends in a crash."