Pontiac Central's crime 

The enemies of public education have a new poster girl — Willie B. Aldridge, principal (unfortunately) of Pontiac Central High School, who is at the center of a new scandal involving pressure put on teachers to change the grades of student sports stars.

Earlier this week, the Oakland Press’s Wayne Wilson did an excellent job exposing the mess. Jimmy Williams, a longtime NFL player who recently quit in disgust as Pontiac Central’s head football coach, blew the whistle on what was going on.

“There’s obviously going to be a lot of anger and resentment,” said Williams, who has moved on to Grand Valley State University. “But I have to say this. If my kids were in that school I would have to say something. The parents and community need to know.”

The newspaper (for which I am a consultant) then impressively documented a wide variety of abuse, much of it traceable to a bizarre counselor named Mike Paquette, a shameless creature who happily admitted trying to get teachers to change grades.

“What’s wrong with that?” Paquette told a reporter. He called himself an “advocate for kids,” all except, apparently, those who work hard to try to learn something.

One of the victims of his “advocacy” may have been one Donte Robertson, a superb quarterback who wasn’t much on book learning. He claims Paquette told him to spend the fall of his senior year sitting in the counselor’s office instead of going to class.

When, after football season, he found out he wasn’t going to graduate, he quit.

Donte is on the streets with no future now, except the vague hope of catching on with an arena football team.

Paquette says his account of events shows the teen “is either in complete denial or a liar.” Another youth remembers things Donte’s way. Be that as it may, the real question is why this troubled, parentless youth was allowed to play.

Aldridge, a woman who was described by a previous interim superintendent as incompetent in an internal memo, neither confirmed or denied any of the charges. Instead, when the newspaper attempted to ask her about them, she immediately filed a lawsuit, asking the courts to prevent the newspaper from writing any stories critical of her!

Whatever else that revealed, it showed astonishing ignorance of a little something called freedom of speech. Attempting to prevent something from being published is called “prior restraint” and has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. About the last person to try it, incidentally, was Willie B.’s spiritual soul brother, Richard M. Nixon, who could at least make the false claim of national security when he tried to get the Supremes to block publication of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

The court told Tricky Dick to stuff it.

Naturally, the courts did nothing to protect Willie B. from the truth, either. The real scandal may be why she has been left on the job. Last spring, Deborah Clarke, an assistant superintendent, gave Willie all unsatisfactory marks on her annual evaluation. Her performance had, Clarke said, “resulted in major district problems, specifically in athletics, performing arts, budgeting and educational delivery of services in classrooms.”

“I am amazed that … you find time to sit and plan every practice and game strategy with the coaches, yet you can’t demonstrate the time to monitor classroom instruction,” the evaluator wrote.

Naturally, there have been many incompetent and even crooked school officials over the years, and not just in Pontiac. But this is especially unfortunate now, when public schools are under attack by the ideologues of the “charter” and “home” school movement, who think that everything private is almost always better than anything public.

That’s far from the truth. For more than a century, kids all over this nation, poor and immigrants included, always had one shot at getting the tools they needed to succeed — the public schools. That’s long been one of the better things about this country.

Our national ideology has been one of universal free education, in which children would learn the basics, along with some nationally shared “good myths.”

Yes, the public schools were never perfect, and along with our shared national values and traditions, unsavory stereotypes were also too often reinforced. But the benefits greatly outweighed the harm.

Now, I worry that if the schools break down, we may end up looking more like Lebanon than the old melting pot.

Incidentally, this isn’t a case of suburban whites beating up on inner-city blacks. Though Aldridge is black, so is Jimmy Williams, apparently the authentic hero in all of this. Paquette, the grade-boosting counselor, is white.

Thirty-some years ago, my wife got an excellent education at Pontiac Central, and is now a high-school teacher herself; Richard Whitmer, who went on to become head of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, is another of many successful PC grads.

Nor can anyone say that’s because they are white. Pontiac kids Maurice Searight and Jermaine Gonzales are now doing well, academically and athletically, at the University of Michigan. Grant Mason has accepted a football scholarship to Stanford.

Unfortunately, however, the tragedy is that they are doing well … because their families sent them to a Catholic school, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, instead. Those who run Pontiac’s public schools need to fix the situation, fast. How they start is up to them. But fish, as the old saying goes, rots from the head.

P.S.: Ironically, if you assumed this meddling has made Pontiac Central an athletic powerhouse, prepare to be surprised. In the last three years, the varsity football team has won 3 games and lost 24. Could the bright kids have done much worse?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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