Sunday May 30, 2021

Blueberries Prove Schools Are Different From Business

Good stories are worth repeating, and the following story is one of those. Jamie Vollmer wrote Schools Cannot Do it Alone, which tells the story of his evolution as a business leader who believed that if public education was run like a business all problems would be solved. Here is an excerpt loosely taken from his book, with his permission:

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson.

‘I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle 1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were out of step with the needs of our knowledge society. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We have all the answers.

A speech I gave to a group of educators made these points–equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite and pleasant. She was, in addition, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see a shipment of blueberries arrive that isn’t up to your defined standards, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

She jumped to her feet. “That’s right?” she barked, “and we never send back our blueberries. We welcome them big and small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, chronic illnesses and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And, that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s a school!”’

Our community has come a long way in understanding this concept, but reminders by community leaders also help. Oklahoma City leader and business icon Gene Rainbolt shared a very similar message at Rotary Club 29 last week when he said, “The only way to help our state grow and get better is not just by educating our children. It’s by educating ALL children.” It is a mind -set change that is a difference maker. In this columnist’s humble opinion, every child in our state is “our” child and they each deserve all we can give them.

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