JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Education needs a Virgin Galactic Space School – Bemidji Pioneer

Remember when John Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” By the time you read this column Richard Branson will have traveled into space via his own rocket powered plane. Based on what I have heard and read about him, he likes to do hard things.

With all due respect to my fellow educators, we’ve been taking the easy way out for over 100 years. The result is we have schools where only about 40% of our students are finding success and far too many students fail to graduate. Isn’t it about time we create a Virgin Galactic Space School where there is no failure, where everyone graduates? We’re smart enough. Why can’t we do this? It doesn’t have to be just for a select few. It can be for everyone.

What would these Galactic Space Schools look like? I don’t know. No one has ever seen one. It’s kind of like asking someone, “What is it like to walk on Mars?” The answer is, no one really knows. No one has ever done it but it is fun to imagine; it’s fun to dream, which is exactly what Branson did in order to accomplish his mission.

What we do know is that if the Galactic Space Schools we have in mind look like today’s schools, we need to abort the mission. At no other time in the history of the world has there been a more drastic need for exciting innovation in all aspects of society and the most in need of this is in education. The more educated our society is, the more likely it is that we will have Virgin Galactic Space flights in science, environment, economics and medicine.

If we believe that all students can learn then why do only 40% of our students receive A’s and B’s? If we believe that all students are capable of graduating, why aren’t they? Something is not working. If spaceship earth is to survive, current educational models need to be aborted. They just aren’t accomplishing their mission for all students.

While educators are still grappling with the after effects of COVID-19, now is a good time to change directions. There are at least three hopeful things we can expect from educators. First, they believe that all students can learn. Second, they try to make learning an enjoyable experience. Third, they strive to find success for each and every student. I have faith in my colleagues. What we are now doing, however, is too easy. We really need to raise our level of expectation and, to state a well used cliche, we need to shoot for the moon.

Gene Kranz, the flight director for the Apollo 11 mission, said they had three options for the lunar landing. “We would land on the moon, we would abort trying to land, or we would crash. The last two were no good.” We know what happened. After years of experimentation, after years of some horrific attempts, the moon landing finally happened in 1969. My wife and I stayed up to watch it on TV and many of you did too.

The Russians launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Our space program received an “all systems go” sign and eventually we overtook the Russians. What if at the same time someone would have energized education and made it our mission to create a new kind of moon school?

Those scientists and engineers had to come from someplace. Weren’t they a product of our schools? That’s a valid argument.
What if we had undergone change to the extent that everyone received a space-age education and every student found success? If this were to have happened maybe we would have solved the environmental crisis. Maybe we would have eliminated poverty not only at home but around the globe. Maybe fossil fuels would be extinct. Maybe someone like Richard Branson would have made his trip 20 years ago.

Here are some ideas to kick around for those of you who really want to “dream big” to quote our mayor, Jorge Prince.

Let’s no longer think outside the box. It’s time to think outside the triangle which was the shape of the window in the Apollo 11 lunar module. To get us started and to paraphrase what my mentor Dr. Don Glines would say, “Let’s do away with grade levels. Let’s do away with letter grades. Let’s do away with schedules and requirements. Let’s do away with nine month school years. Let’s do away literally with everything that defines the current schooling system.” Let’s start over to build our own Virgin Galactic Space School.

What about our charter schools and alternative schools? We can do better. What about the good things that are happening in our schools where 40% of our students do find success? We can do better. While we are creating this Virgin Galactic Space School, what do we do in the meantime?

BSU has an interesting department called the Advising Success Center under the leadership of Zachary Johnson. What it does is that it helps students find success and, after talking with Zach, I know they really work at it. What if every K-12 system had a similar program? What if BSU’s department helped K-12 schools implement their own success center until our Galactic Schools were created?

While educators strive to accomplish their mission, we continue with the efforts of Project Graduate to work with communities to make sure 100% of our youth understand how important it is to receive a high school diploma.

It doesn’t take $250,000 to buy a ticket for our own Virgin Galactic Space School. It just takes a dream followed by hard work and as Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Are you ready? It won’t be easy. Many educators want to be astronauts and many can be found right here in Beltrami County.

Riddle: How do astronauts eat their ice cream? (Answer: In floats.) One thing we know for sure, creating a Virgin Galactic Space school will be fun, exciting and exhilarating, almost like floating in outer space.

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Thanks to Nei Bottling in Bemidji for creating 100% graduation rate banners. Look for them around Beltrami County.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.