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Christian Activists Seek To Torpedo NASDC Project

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GASTONIA, N.C.--School officials who last summer were celebrating winning a grant to create "break the mold'' public schools here find themselves now under fire from hundreds of conservative Christian activists who are questioning the project's academic integrity and saying it would undermine their children's religious beliefs.

In recent weeks, the "Odyssey Project''--an effort to restructure three of the district's 54 schools with a longer school day and year, coordinated education, health, and social services, and early-childhood schooling--has run into growing opposition.

A letter to the editor of the local newspaper speaks of the project as the work of the "Antichrist.'' A handout making its way around town links the project to "secular humanism'' and "new age'' teaching.

The project has even come under fire for its use of Greek terms, which one opponent decried because "the Greeks practiced sodomy,'' according to a project organizer.

One project planner has heard herself described by an irate parent as a Nazi, a Satanist, and a Communist.

While leaders of the formal opposition have distanced themselves from some of the more inflammatory rhetoric, they have vowed that, if the district does not abandon the project, they will demand the ouster of the superintendent and seek the defeat of several school board members who face re-election next year.

To compound the project's problems, its director was found dead in his garage Feb. 19, a victim of accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning.

A county medical examiner said Joseph F. Miller, the assistant superintendent of the county schools, had started his truck on a cold morning with the garage doors closed and was overcome by the fumes.

In the wake of Mr. Miller's death, Melinda Ratchford, the district's media and technology director, said that "with the massive . . . concerns of the 'religious right,' we felt we were under attack, and all of a sudden what we thought was such a bright spot for Gaston County had been turned against us.''

The Opposition Forms

Educators in Gaston County, a blue-collar, textile-manufacturing region outside Charlotte, had high hopes that the $2.1 million they received from the New American Schools Development Corporation for the first year of a five-year project would revolutionize county schools.

Their Odyssey Project was one of 11 proposals selected to receive a grant from the private, nonprofit corporation created at the behest of former President Bush to raise $200 million to create innovative schools.

The project plans to abandon traditional grade levels, introduce older students to weekly seminars on multiculturalism and current events, require community service of all students, and use an outcome-based assessment that focuses not on the number of courses taken, but on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students must have before graduation.

Ironically, while one of the project's primary goals is to enhance parental and community involvement, the unprecedented involvement of some community members now poses a challenge to its implementation.

Leaders of Concerned Citizens for Public Education, an organization formed to fight the project, have a long list of objections, but most of their ire is directed toward its outcome-based approach--often a target of conservatives, who say it forces schools to teach values at the expense of core subjects.

Some 400 community members met Feb. 28 at Catawba Heights Baptist Church in nearby Belmont, N.C., to hear the group's leaders criticize the project. Organizers distributed bumper stickers and literature critical of the program.

Standing under a banner reading "Being Who God Wants Me To Be,'' the Rev. Gregory A. Dry Sr., a local Baptist minister and one of the group's leaders, urged the audience to fight the program so their children "do not become the guinea pigs in a failed experiment.''

Mr. Dry said he did not object to the academic aspects of the project, but felt that its overall philosophy was designed to "teach in opposition to Christianity.''

Concerned Citizens has considered more formal ties with Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative Christian advocacy group that has worked to elect its sympathizers to school boards nationwide. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

NASDC's Role

Much of the furor over the project erupted the week before Mr. Miller died, as the school board selected the three pilot schools for the project.

Although the district's receipt of the NASDC grant was widely publicized last summer, several area residents said most people knew little about the program until the board announced its plan to vote on the sites.

The board decided to choose the sites before consulting parents so project officials could involve the parents of children in participating schools, according to Superintendent Edwin L. West Jr. He noted in an interview that students and teachers who object to the plan can apply to transfer to other schools.

Critics say the district should first have asked parents at each school if they wanted the program, or set it up as a voluntary magnet school.

Despite protests by several hundred individuals urging a delay in the vote, the board approved the three sites on Feb. 15. Over the next few days, observers say, debate over the issue intensified, each day bringing new rumors about the program, the design team, and NASDC itself. Mr. Miller's death four days after the vote fueled further speculation about the fate of the program.

Calling Mr. Miller's death "a terrible blow,'' Robin Murphy, a NASDC spokesman, said the organization was working with the design team to regroup in the wake of his death and the community opposition.

Although the recent events in Gaston County are "clearly a barrier,'' NASDC is "not alarmed'' about the controversy, said Paige Cassidy, another NASDC official, because some level of resistance to change was expected at all of the project sites.

As of last week, Ms. Cassidy said the organization was receiving about 20 calls a day about the Odyssey Project, about evenly split on the issue.

Preparing the Public

In the days since the sites were chosen, senior school administrators have attended meetings at the three schools to answer parents' questions and have distributed material explaining some of the project's controversial components, said Sandra G. Frye, the superintendent's executive assistant.

She and Mr. West also noted that extensive efforts had been made to inform the community about the program last fall through a regular weekly column by the superintendent in two area newspapers and numerous presentations to elected officials and business and civic groups.

But Saul Cooperman, the chairman of NASDC's education-advisory panel, observed that such outreach efforts to prepare communities for reform often go unheeded until changes are about to be implemented.

"When you have massive change, you can talk and you can explain and really do a fairly competent job, but many people don't really pay attention,'' said Mr. Cooperman, a former state education commissioner for New Jersey.

"But,'' he added, "then when you say in four weeks the training is going to start, and the bus routes are going to change, and your kids are going to have new books, then people wake up.''

In Gaston County, people also seem to be waking up to the fact that the project's outcome-based approach could affect their children's chances of being accepted into college.

Ashley Hartley, the wife of a high school teacher and a member of Concerned Citizens, said she called two higher-education officials in the state to ask what impact not having a grade-point average would have on college admissions.

One official she spoke to was Anthony R. Strickland, the associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mr. Strickland acknowledged last week that such a system could put applicants at a disadvantage. "It forces us to place more emphasis on standardized tests,'' he said.

However, he also cautioned that he was unfamiliar with specifics of the Gaston project and that, as more schools adopt outcome-based models, universities "will deal with whatever system they come up with.''

The state legislature has also mandated that higher-education institutions in the state develop mechanisms for accepting proficiency certificates in lieu of Carnegie units.

In addition, Mr. West noted, students will initially receive both traditional grades and outcome-based measures of progress.

Meanwhile, a noted academic whose research is cited in the literature distributed by the Concerned Citizens group said in an interview last week that his work had been distorted to reach false conclusions regarding outcome-based education.

"I think it's way out of context,'' said Robert E. Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, of several references to a 1987 report he described as a narrow study of "a particular way of using mastery learning in the classroom.''

"It does not at all apply to the situation they're relating to,'' he added.

Next Steps

But beyond the disagreements over the merits of outcome-based education, opponents say that they have been unfairly tagged as religious extremists, and, as a result, their concerns have not been addressed.

In addition, Ms. Hartley and Brenda White, another member of Concerned Citizens' steering committee, both say they no longer trust school officials because they feel the district deliberately misrepresented the program and failed to provide adequate information.

District officials reply that they have gone out of their way to answer questions during a difficult period.

Ron Hovis, the school board chairman, issued a statement last week supporting the project.

"The board of education is solidly behind the Odyssey project and has been since the beginning,'' the statement said. "I believe once it is presented to the public in the comprehensive manner we are planning that they will support it also.''

School officials attribute much of the conflict to confusion over the language used to describe the program.

"Every profession has its jargon,'' Mr. West said. "However, because a lay person doesn't deal with those terms on a day-to-day basis, it is understandable . . . that some individuals will experience those emotions.''

In the coming weeks, the district has planned a series of meetings for parents of children in the three Odyssey schools as well as seven town meetings for the general public.

"I think the opposition is basically based on lack of information about the program,'' agreed Tony Giacobbe, the president of the local affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "I would say the majority of teachers are in support of the program and the change it represents.''

Náóäã officials say they do not anticipate ending the project's funding.

"To assume 100 percent support of anything is pretty unrealistic,'' Ms. Cassidy of NASDC said. "We're not concerned to the point that we are worried about [the design team's] ability to make this design work.''

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