Class War

Marty Rochester wages war against the dumbing-down of public education -- even in the best of schools

"I don't really see a lot of what Dr. Rochester says as applicable," offers high-school junior Lake. "It seems like he's sort of reactionary. Maybe he's just looking to what he did in high school."

Rochester's voice does soften as he recalls his own public high school in Baltimore, where he wrote a footnoted paper on the Renaissance scholar Erasmus. Then he compares the assignment one of his sons brought home, a project expressing students' feelings about prejudice.

"My son Sean and another really bright kid got disgusted, so they went out and bought Play-Doh of different colors, lumped it together in a ball and titled it 'Unity Amidst Diversity,'" he says. "I was all excited. I thought he'd said he was going to use Plato."

Ryan Greis
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis
Amy Bautz
Marty Rochester in his digs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

"Educators never like controversy," says former Clayton School District board member Barbara Keene, dean of corporate and community development at St. Charles Community College. "But in Clayton, we have the kids of some of the most brilliant minds at Washington University. When their voices are drowned out, it becomes disturbing."

Keene says she doesn't always agree with Rochester, but she's glad he's speaking out, especially when he's warning of pack pedagogy. She remembers one board member, a physician, who used this analogy: "If doctors adopted changes in medicine the way educators adopt new trends -- with no proof -- they'd have a lot of dead patients."

Rochester certainly has spoken out, and for nearly two decades. At every board meeting, he would rise, reliable as the sun, to comment; and he and Senti drank many a cup of coffee together, like family members who care about the same crazy uncle but have different notions of where he should live.

"Some people enjoy Monday Night Football," says Senti. "Some play fantasy baseball. And some like going to school-board meetings." He gazes out his office window at Clayton High's athletic field. "What I want to know," he says, "is how he'd say his sons turned out. He has two wonderful sons that went through the Clayton schools, you know. One graduated from Northwestern, the other from Yale."

Asked what his sons think of his book, Rochester stops short. "I think they would agree with 95 percent," he says finally, "and say I maybe carry it too far."

He grins. "I probably do."

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