| Akron Beacon Journal
Mark Palchick couldn’t go to school so he learned from home.
In doing so, he became the first student in Akron Public Schools to participate in remote learning. This school year, more than 21,000 students in the district are receiving online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Palchick blazed the trail nearly 60 years ago by attending classes via telephone.
The 12-year-old boy had a hip disorder called bilateral slipped capital femoral epiphysis in which the femur disconnects from the ball joint. He had it in both legs and underwent two surgeries in the summer of 1962. It was one of the first times that doctors used a bone graft instead of putting pins in the hip.
“Part of that required me to be in traction for three months and then off of my feet for nine months,” recalled Palchick, who is now 70. “So I couldn’t go to school. My dad said: ‘There’s no way you’re not going to school.’”
I was known as ‘The Boy in the Box’
His parents, Dr. Yale and Elinor Palchick, arranged for the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. to set up a line from their Delaware Avenue home to Litchfield Junior High School about 2 miles away. Technicians wired four classrooms at Litchfield for a speaker-receiver system and suspended a microphone from each ceiling so the boy could hear lessons.
Palchick sat in a wheelchair at a card table in his family room and listened to seventh-grade classes through a toaster-size apparatus that resembled a radio. It had two-way audio, but no video.
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“At the school, there was a little box that got carried from classroom to classroom,” Palchick said. “In fact, I was known as ‘The Boy in the Box.’ Isn’t that great? My wife still laughs about that.”
He could hear everything that transpired in the classroom. During morning attendance, Palchick said “Present.” If the student had a question, he flipped a lever on the squawk box to speak to the teacher. The boy was an active participant in classes and was often called upon to answer questions.
Palchick studied math, science, English and social studies during the 1962-63 year, but for obvious reasons, he was spared gym class.
There were plenty of challenges for the student.
“You can imagine what it’s like taking a math course when you can’t see the blackboard,” he said.
It just so happened that the Akron district introduced “New Math” that school year, which emphasized a conceptual understanding of arithmetic instead of rote memorization.
“Which means that I don’t think anybody from that year can actually do math,” Palchick joked.
Another drawback for “The Boy in the Box” was that Palchick had classes with four or five boys named Mark.
“So I’m learning remotely and the teacher would say ‘OK, Mark, what’s the answer?’ I had no idea if he was talking to me or one of the other Marks,” Palchick said.
A lack of social interaction with remote learning
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage was the lack of social interaction. Students from multiple elementary schools were converging at junior high for the first time and making new friends.
“I did not have that,” Palchick said. “When I finally attended school in eighth grade, I was essentially the new kid in a social environment when most social bonds had been formed the year before.”
On the other hand, Palchick thinks he received some of his highest grades that school year because there were fewer distractions and he had to concentrate harder to understand. It also helped that he had a tutor, Joanne Shippy, who kept him on track with lessons.
Overall, he thinks his remote learning experience was excellent because the classes were “highly dynamic and bilateral,” with discussion and interaction between teacher and pupil. He worries that too many remote classes today are unilateral with the teacher “being a talking head” on video. When students are not actively engaged, they are likely to lose attention and focus, he said.
“I think remote education is a real challenge,” he said. “It’s a whole different type of teaching.”
After graduating from Firestone High School in 1968, Palchick attended Miami University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. In 1972, he married Rina Calderon, who was a year behind him at Firestone, and earned his law degree in 1975 from the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University.
He worked as an attorney for the Federal Communications Commission, served as general counsel for Cablevision Industries Inc. and taught for more than 20 years as an adjunct professor of law at Dickinson, including 10 years of teaching a remote class.
What a coincidence.
Palchick lives in Washington, D.C., and is a practicing attorney with a specialty in the FCC’s E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries to obtain federal funds for affordable broadband. That is vital for remote learning in today’s world.
So unintentionally, he’s come full circle. One of the first remote learners in the country now works to make remote learning more widely available, including in Ohio.
“All of these accomplishments were built on the foundation of education I received starting with remote learning in seventh grade,” he said.
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When the FCC introduced its E-Rate program in the 1990s, Palchick remembers telling FCC Chairman Reed Hundt: “Hey, this is no big deal. I went to school remotely in 1962.”
Palchick came back to Akron in 2018 for his 50th high school reunion at Firestone, and it was an interesting reception. Former classmates were surprised to learn that they had attended classes with him in junior high.
“People remembered ‘The Boy in the Box,’ but few knew that I was that Boy in the Box,” he said.
Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected]