Friday, January 18, 2008

Farewell Stephanie Bernritter - is West really best?

I began the day in tears today. Stephanie Bernritter, a teacher at West High died recently after a battle with cancer.

I was innocently scanning the news and looking for articles to reference in my earlier post about the Tiger Woods/Golf magazine debacle. I know the president of Time Inc and have requested to meet with him and their communications person. This must not stand.

I went to the West High website to get the names of the Finau brothers - two men who grew up on the "west side/other side of the tracks" in Salt Lake City, Utah. They are West High graduates and are golfers - they are being courted by numerous high-profile universities. It was there that I saw Stephanie's beautiful smiling face and the tribute to her on the front page of the West High website.

I had a son who slipped through the cracks at West High. That is, he is one of the 40% of minority students in Utah who do not finish high school. Tye Daley is a gifted athlete - he ran track under the tutelage of Coach Unsworth at Kearns Junior High. Coach Unsworth works at Kennecott now because he makes more money there. He is one of the finest teachers my 3 sons had in Utah. My oldest son Ryan had an amazing art teacher - Ryan graduated Kearns High as an AP student with National Merit Scholar status. He is a great artist - see his work at

I would receive regular phone calls from Unsworth (as Tye called him) - he would remind me that a paper was due and that in order to participate in a meet, Tye would need to turn it in. Given my frenetic schedule, I was often not home until 8 or 9, sometimes 10.00 p.m. after my work responsibilities in Salt Lake City. I would fall into bed exhausted and listen to Unsworth's voicemails and drag myself out of bed and make sure that the work had indeed been completed. I only saw one of Tye's track meets during his two years - I was too busy working. How would I know if I could get time off in the middle of the day to attend his meets? I never asked after the first time. Those are the choices that working mothers and fathers are forced to deal with every day.

When I moved to the Avenues - to create work/life balance, get rid of the commute from Taylorsville and reduce my carbon footprint, I was thrilled to get the opportunity for Tye to go to West. I had heard of their reputation. I went to every single parent teacher conference - there were no phone calls from a live person indicating that Tye was missing classes regularly, though the teachers at conferences alluded to same.

There were, however, lots of emails from Stephanie Bernritter - Stephanie was the teacher advisor to the West High gay/straight club - you know - those clubs that Gayle Ruzicka and Chris Buttars would like to see abolished - the clubs that Utah schools have closed even at risk of lawsuits (East High comes to mind) from the ACLU. Stephanie Bernritter saw a vision and recognized Tye's potential. She was his English teacher and encouraged him to continue to write, even as his teen body was exhausted from those strange hours they keep, he would get to school just to be in her class - attendance at others was abysmal. He thrived under her love, care and tutelage. I do not know her political or religious affiliation - it did not matter to me. What mattered that my son was not just another number to her - he was a person whom she treated with dignity and respect.

When I met with the vice principal after having sent the school fees with Tye to register for his last year, she apologized that he had slipped through the cracks and explained that her staff is overworked - 600 students for each counselor, I believe is the statistic she threw out, as I sat sobbing in her office. How could this have happened? I am a former educator and realize that Utah's students do deserve more as do the teachers. It is, however not acceptable for 40% of minority students (I do not believe that sexual orientation and gender are in those statitistics) to continue to drop out of Salt Lake City schools. If (white) Mormon kids were dropping out at those rates, there would be a special session called of the legislature. Ralph Becker is going to appoint a liaison in his office to work with the Salt Lake school district - if I had the energy to do the Utah thing still, that would have been the ideal job for me - I love advocacy work - I was born to do it.

In the meantime, parents, check out my favorite charter school - Sharlee Schmitt is a remarkable, intelligent, effervescent and fearless woman - she is the director of the school - she is a great singer and has 5 children - one of whom is like a son to me and a brother to my son, Kyle - also a dropout of Utah schools.

Tye moved back to Michigan and got his GED - he now has a 5 year scholarship to Eastern Michigan University. McKell Withers told me that Tye was a great kid with amazing potential, but that he should go to Horizonte. That was not the best fit for Tye, nor for many children who are too smart for Utah public schools. Charter schools are an option.

Sharlee Schmitt and her husband Dave have followed their dream and created this amazing schol. Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts - housed in Highland High presently, but likely building their own space soon. Charter schools are on the rise in Utah in exponential numbers - parents want more - those of us who cannot even afford tuition at RHSM or get a phone call back from Juan Diego when one has applied for tuition assistance, as I did for one of my sons - we need options - the voters made a huge mistake voting down the vouchers. Utah's schools are a mess. Does Ralph Becker and the legislature/Governor have the political will to fix the mess?

Stephanie leaves behind a family. I don't know if she was married, but she had a family - I never met them, but they are grieving and have huge holes in their hearts. Please consider becoming a member of Equality Utah or making a donation to the Utah Pride Center in her name - membership is less than $40 a year - and Her legacy will live on.

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