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Gruff, Retired Teacher has Tough Solution for Education

By Fred Dickey

March 3, 2014

Since we’re having little luck with rainstorms, other than this past weekend’s, maybe we could try a storm of another name. For that, we need a cloudburst type of guy named Allen Stanko.

Stanko, who’ll turn 59 this month, was a career-long algebra teacher at Santana High School in Santee. He retired after 27 years in 2010 to take care of his infirm parents. He’s never regretted leaving the classroom. What he took with him was a nice pension and a hatful of impressions of how our kids can be better educated. He not only stirs the pot, he sloshes it …

A couple of weeks ago, when Alpine teachers first started picketing for more money, Stanko got on one of his motorcycles and tooled over to where the picketers were standing. He went up to some sign-carriers and in his profundo voice told them they were already making enough money and to get back to the classrooms. He did not say it in a consoling way. To say Stanko is assertive is to say a snake bites or a dog barks. Just born to be.

“You always hear teachers don’t make a lot of money, (but many make) around $70,000 a year if they’re long-timers with a master’s degree, which basically means nothing because you (only have to) jump through hoops to get a master’s in education. That’s good money. I think a lot of them just listen to what the union says. (I say) go out and find a different job if you don’t like this one.

“What I’m reading is that they’re going on strike because their wages are getting cut and their benefits are getting slashed from $13,000 down to $8,000; I know a lot of people who wish they could get $8,000 worth of health benefits and that pay. They keep saying, ‘Oh, I’d rather be in the classroom.’ Well, then, be in the classroom.”

Stanko draws a pension of about $36,000, which he says is more than many families earn. He gets by just fine on it. He lives in Alpine with his longtime lady and his fleet of aging vehicles and motorcycles. He says all of them combined wouldn’t equal the price of a new car.

You put Stanko — he of the longshoreman face and backwoods-preacher beard — on one of his bikes with a leather jacket, black boots and one of those German army “coal scuttle” helmets, and if you watched him thunder by on the freeway, you’d make sure your car didn’t crowd him, and you’d wonder what prison just turned him loose.

He’s been known to walk into a bar in an armless T-shirt flashing his tats. They’re not the usual dragons and daggers. High on each shoulder is a tattoo of an algebraic equation.

I can imagine a bottle-smashing bar brawl if some of the biker guys got to arguing over the solutions to the math problems on Stanko’s arms.

But if you put aside the dude’s gruff and a-bit-bombastic manner, he has some serious thoughts about the drift of elementary and secondary education.

For more than two decades, he did battle with the system that he believes winked at the quality of instruction being spoon-fed to youngsters today, especially in math.

Stanko was not shy about handing out D’s and F’s when he was teaching because he said students were coming into his freshmen classes from middle school without a foundation in what we call simple arithmetic.

“A lot of these kids come into high school and they can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide unless they have a calculator. If I had kids who knew how to (do those things), I could teach them algebra. But when they don’t know how, it makes it very difficult.”

Would you allow calculators in the classroom?

“No, no, no, no, not in my freshmen classes or in elementary school, either. I mean, they need to learn those skills.”

You’re saying, go back to rote arithmetic education?

“Yes, yes.”

He complains that, “They no longer hold students back. They don’t flunk them. That’s a bad word, flunk. That hurts their ego. So they just pass them along, which means you don’t get complaints from administrators, parents or the kids. Everybody’s happy and you’re a great teacher, and the next teacher gets them, and if that teacher passes them along, then they get into college. Then they have to take remedial math in college. Why is that? Because everybody’s just patting him on the back and passing him along.”

Are teachers afraid of parents?

“Sure. The parent comes in complaining; they go to the principal, and then the principal comes to you. We had a principal who called me into her office one day, and said, ‘Al, why are so many kids failing your class?’ I told her, ‘Because they don’t know algebra. They can’t do arithmetic. And if they can’t do arithmetic, I can’t teach them algebra.’ The principal was concerned with the grades, not with the learning.”

What’s the solution?

“Somebody should come up with a revolutionary new idea and say, ‘You know what, I’ve got a great idea: Let’s go back to basics. Let’s teach them how to add, subtract, multiply, divide correctly, and know how to write a complete sentence in cursive with good penmanship, and write a complete paragraph. Go back to basics, period.”

Stanko doesn’t let parents escape his roundhouse swings. He knows we’re not going back to Ozzie and Harriet households, but he just wishes parents — both of them — would pay attention, and at least require kids to do their homework, and do it with the TV and the cellphone turned off.

How about grade inflation?

“Teachers get fewer complaints from everybody if kids get better grades. If all your kids in your class are getting A’s and B’s, you get no complaints. You get the same pay check. If you don’t want to make any waves, give them all A’s and B’s.

“Then we had the self-esteem movement. That was right about when everything started going to crap in a hand basket, because you didn’t want to hurt a student’s self-esteem if they got a D or an F. Then they didn’t want you to use red (ink in grading) because red was bad. A red F on a student’s paper? Oh, boy, you ruined that kid for life. He’s probably going to be a serial killer.”

Stanko believes high school kids are not too young to handle the truth, even if that truth is a D or F. In fact, to not be truthful is being deceptive with students who have a right to honest assessments.

Now, I am going to make you the czar of San Diego education …

“Oh, OK, yeah, yeah. I would start (kids in school) at age 3 right after they’re potty-trained. They start learning then. Don’t wait for 5 years old to go to kindergarten. I would start earlier. Maybe they could call it pre-kindergarten at age 3, then kindergarten at age 4.”

Not just milk and cookies and taking naps on a rug …

“No, no, no, because you know how much little kids are learning? They’re learning a language. If two languages are spoken in the house, guess what? That kid at 3 is going to start speaking two languages.”

That would be a revolution in education.

“Bring on the revolution. That’s what they need to do. (However,) the teachers would cry because they need more money because we’re teaching younger this and that.”

Do you have a lot of respect for teachers?

“Yes, because I know what they go through and I honestly believe most teachers are there to teach and they want to teach and they try their best, but there are lots of obstacles.”

So Stanko gets on his motorcycle and roars off, leaving behind some bombs that leaders in education won’t go near, fearing the explosion might crack the walls of the house of conventional wisdom.

Stanko, to some, might seem a scary character, either physically or intellectually. His vocabulary contains many polysyllabic words of educationese, but he’s got a whole list of four-letter words available that are polished from frequent handling.

Reading this, you might slap the kitchen table and say, “Finally, someone who talks common sense!” Or you might think Stanko’s a taskmaster time-capsuled in from a Dickens novel who would return children to the workhouse, where they would labor the day away over their slates, learning their ciphers and practicing to write in the “big round hand” of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

If you happen to dwell in the comfort of education’s sanctum sanctorum, that rumble you hear going by is Allen Stanko on his motorcycle. His is the voice of protest. Let him disturb your sleep.

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