Ron Berler's educational experiences have informed his life.
Long before kindergarten, his parents exposed him to books, flash cards, museums and classical music.
When he was in seventh grade, the Berlers moved to Westport. "I loved going to school," he recalls. "I loved learning. And of course that's where my friends were."
Berler thrived at Staples. Through Staples Players, he acted in a legendary production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Berler calls director Craig Matheson "creative and inventive. He inspired you to do your best. You can't ask more of any teacher."
Berler -- a 1967 graduate -- was at Staples "when things were blowing up, and schools were changing." Principal Jim Calkins "gave students freedom, and expected us to use it for good ends. Staples gave us independence, and a lot of students stretched themselves."
More writing followed, for publications like Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal, Outside and Wired. As a freelancer, his New York Times Magazine story highlighted young baseball pitchers who blow out their arms because of adult pressure.
Berler also wrote a "kids' issues" column for the Chicago Tribune. "That's the greatest beat I ever had," he says." Kids don't self-edit. If they trust you -- and they trust any adult who respects them -- they'll tell you whatever is on their mind."
He met a woman named Carol, a speech pathologist at Norwalk's Brookside Elementary School (and now his wife). Knowing his interest in children, she introduced him to her school's superb mentoring program.
Brookside -- just a few miles from where Berler's mother spent more than 20 years teaching elementary school -- is "failing." That's what No Child Left Behind says, anyway. But as Berler mentored a young boy, he got to know the Brookside students, staff and Principal David Hay.
Berler was tremendously impressed with Hay's passion, energy -- and results. He was willing to listen to anyone, try anything, and take any risk to make his school better. "The kids weren't passing the CMT (Connecticut Mastery Test)," Berler says. "But they were moving forward."
Hay gave Berler full access to the school. He sat in on classes, faculty meetings and strategy sessions. In exchange, the writer worked as a volunteer teacher's aide for a year.
The fifth-grade class was taught by Keith Morey. "He's superb," Berler says. "Just fantastic."
Morey was not the only excellent educator. "The big push now is for `better teachers,' " Berler notes. "But every one I saw at Brookside was dedicated. They knew how to teach. And I never saw a teacher give up on a kid. Not once."
But dedication and commitment do not ensure success. During his year, Berler realized that parents play a role in education that is "almost impossible to comprehend." With 38 percent of the school's incoming kindergarteners academically unprepared for things like counting and recognizing shapes -- even before their first day of class -- Berler asks, "How can that be the school's fault? Kids are in school six hours a day. The rest of the time, they're with their families."
Berler's mentee is the child of Mexican immigrants. "They speak virtually no English," Berler says. "How can they help him with his homework?"
Schools and teachers "are asked to pick up the slack," Berler says. "They do all they can. But they can't do it all."
All parents want their children to do well, he adds. But too many Brookside parents don't take advantage of resources the school already offers, like seminars on helping children read at home.
The result of Berler's year is "Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000 Failing Public Schools." It will be published by Berkley on Tuesday. The book hits the shelves just as Brookside students join thousands more from around the state for standardized testing.
Berler is not a fan. He interviewed Gerald Tirozzi, who as Connecticut commissioner of education from 1983-91 created the CMT. The purpose then, Tirozzi said, was not to judge students, but rather to show schools where they were weak, and how to improve.
That's one of the many things Berler learned in his year at Brookside. Another is that he could never be an elementary school principal. He says he lacks the patience of a Keith Morey, an educator who turns every interaction into a lesson, and whose students respect and admire him. "They know he cares for them, and has their back," Berler says.
Just as Ron Berler has the backs of elementary school students, all around the country.