Airport School Diary

Going Back to Berkeley
Executive Producer Patrice O’Neill goes back to school in her hometown.

I was on familiar turf when we went to shoot the profile of teacher Jerie Rhode at Airport Elementary… I grew up in Berkeley, Missouri and went to Frostfield Elementary, about a mile away in another circa 1959 flat top brick school building. The linoleum looked exactly the same and as soon as I saw it I started a little jingle in my head – "Frosty Tiger is our mascot, glory to our school." I kept singing it and it really bugged the

Berkeley, Missouri in the 60s was 180 degrees from the California version. Our parents’ role in the war was not to protest (like the rest of the country; this would come later), but to build fighter jets at McDonnell Aircraft, the biggest game in town. Our neighbors who worked at Mac experienced the roller coaster of massive layoffs followed by bouts of grueling overtime.

Thirty years later, McDonnell Aircraft is now owned by Boeing and employs a fraction of the people it used to.  And the families in Berkeley seem to be having an even bumpier economic ride than we did.

Although my family left Berkeley in the early 70s, my mom now spends two days a week at Airport School reading books to kids who need extra attention. She was encouraged to volunteer by JoAnn Jasin, a friend from the old neighborhood who was the curriculum director for Airport’s (Ferguson-Florissant) school district. JoAnn’s passion for putting more resources into schools like Airport and her conviction that an extended school year is crucial to bringing up student test scores convinced me to look for a teacher profile in Berkeley.

Since we’ve covered education based workplace stories for many years, I knew finding a teacher who could go head to head with any dot-commer on the hours she spent on work would be easy. Airport’s fifth grade Italian wonder, Jerie Rhode, proved to be the perfect character to illustrate the time teachers devote to their jobs and their students (see Jerie Rhode interview).

Two things blew me away about life at Airport: the huge amount of caring and energy the principal and teachers put out for the students; and the stunning lack of resources they face everyday as they try to do their job.

There are scenes I’ll never forget, like Principal Rosetta Patton hugging every student as they walked into the building or when a group of teachers gathered to plan the next day’s field trip to Abe Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois. They had to pull their purses out to pool money for the several dozen kids who couldn’t afford the entry fee or bus fare for the field trip.

My trip back home was filled with flashbacks and inspiration from the people we met. But now, as I look outside my office window at all the shiny buildings being built for this new high tech economy, I feel a little sick about that linoleum and think about how just a spec of all this dot-com wealth could make a huge difference if it somehow could get to a place like Airport.

By Patrice O'Neill


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