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The closeness of recent visits to two high schools, one a large public institution and the other a smaller, upstart public charter, was complete happenstance.

The visits were separate, never planned to be related in any way. But when they were both done, one could not ignore the dramatic differences.

The names or locations of the schools are not important here. It’s what these two schools – which could be anywhere in the North Bay – tell us about what is occurring in education today, both inspiring and troubling.

The first visit was to a senior classroom at a large public high school. It was said that as much as a third of the 30 or so students were failing the course taught by a veteran, able, respected instructor.

The students were informed, in a way not too much different from a public announcement over the intercom, that senior failure notices were being mailed out soon to parents. This was, the students were told, so that parents could not say they did not know their son or daughter was failing and would not graduate.

The first thought that came to mind was, “How could parents not know? Didn’t they ask questions about the novels the students supposedly were reading, the papers they were writing? If the parents didn’t know, aren’t they the ones at fault?”

There were, of course, many, many bright faces in that room – surely multiplied many times through the rest of the school – all of them eagerly anticipating the next phase in their lives whether it was college or something else like travel or a job. On balance, it seemed like just another day in a modern high school.

But then a few weeks later came the visit to the charter public high school.

Here the energy among the students, teachers and staff was palpable. Faces beamed everywhere. Dozens of college pennants hung from the ceiling. The possibilities seemed limitless.

Now, someone will say, one can’t compare the goings on at a large high school three or four times the size of a young charter school.

Maybe.

But consider that the large public high school had a long tradition in the community and many beautiful new classrooms wired with the latest gadgets.

The charter school was in a converted industrial building in a low-income part of a city, not a blade of turf in sight. Some of the cramped classrooms had no windows, the only ventilation being an electric fan.

What makes one work for all the students and the other for not enough in a world that is more complex, more global and more uncertain than ever?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as it’s easier to hide in a large public school than a small one. Perhaps it’s a failure to show students the real-world opportunities that exist for them.

Or perhaps it’s a difference in the level of expectations, discipline and commitment required of students and parents.

But, clearly, what the small charter school really showed is what can be done.

Really, what has to be done.

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Brad Bollinger is editor in chief and associate publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.