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Project Seeks Meeting of the Minds on Reform

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Mendota Heights, Minn.

Something rare happened the other night in this St. Paul suburb: Residents got together to calmly discuss education and think about how to make it better.

They showed up at Henry Sibley High School not to respond to a crisis--as so often brings people out--but to take part in a town meeting about fundamental questions in education.

They talked about vouchers and about whether high schools should prepare students for jobs or college, or both. Though they didn't find all the answers, the participants at least agreed that they understood the issues better.

The Sept. 19 gathering was part of a national project to engage Americans in school reform, sponsored by two nonprofit organizations: Public Agenda, a New York City-based research group, and the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington.

The event drew nearly 100 people, among them a clergyman, a uniformed police officer, the manager of the local McDonald's, teachers, administrators, senior citizens, and parents of students in both public and private schools.

Some were satisfied with the district. Others decidedly were not. Still, they managed to spend more than three hours talking about schooling in a productive manner. To some, it was a revelation.

"It was civil discourse--what more could a person ask for?" said Barbara-Ann March, a parent who helped plan the event. "There is more common ground than we thought."

Similar gatherings, using a process and materials crafted by the two groups, are scheduled to take place this fall in nine urban, rural, and suburban communities. They are being sponsored by a variety of organizations, including chapters of the League of Women Voters, education foundations, and civic groups.

Eventually, Public Agenda and the IEL plan to make the materials refined in the meetings available for use nationwide.

'Crisis of Confidence'

The pilot meeting here tested the effect of having a district sponsor the meetings, said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership. One of the crucial questions, he said, was: "Do you get the same groupies, or is it a different debate and dialogue with people who aren't engaged?"

The purpose of the project is not to sell communities on a particular approach to education reform, but to help them find solutions in a way that allows a wide range of voices to be heard, said Deborah Wadsworth, the president of Public Agenda.

"It has taken these reformers a long time to get to some consensus among themselves," she said. "The public is entitled to work through the same process."

In Mendota Heights, the time seemed ripe to attempt a communitywide discussion of education. Superintendent Robert J. Monson, a native of the area, was hired two years ago from Westwood, Mass., to try to turn the 5,000-student Independent School District 197 around.

"It was in turmoil," Mr. Monson said. "We had a crisis of public confidence."

The district serves seven municipalities outside St. Paul, ranging from two of the state's wealthiest towns to less affluent communities with growing African-American and Hispanic populations. Twenty percent of its students are members of minority groups, making the district one of the state's most diverse.

More than 80 percent of the residents within its boundaries have no children in the public schools, and only about 5 percent of registered voters cast ballots in school board elections. More than 30 percent of the school-age children attend private schools.

Vouchers Debated

The district's 35-member planning group chose two topics from among six designed by Public Agenda and the IEL. Each question presented people with extremes, to force them to confront the pros and cons of each issue.

The Mendota Heights group decided to talk about whether high schools should be vocational or academic, and whether to pursue reforms in the existing public school structure or explore alternatives such as vouchers.

The voucher question was not an abstract one here: Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, has been pushing for a system that would provide low-income students in the Twin Cities with vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools. ("Minn. Agency Decried for Bad-Mouthing Schools," This Week's News.)

Public Agenda trained local volunteers to serve as moderators for groups of about 15 people. The groups watched a five-minute video introducing each question, then spent an hour per topic discussing their views.

In one group wrestling with the academic vs. vocational issue, participants struggled to suggest ways that schools can challenge all children without fragmenting the curriculum or alienating some students.

"If they're constantly asked to write and do high levels of math, it breeds discontent," said Debbie Smith, the parent of children she described as "underachiever types."

But others seemed reluctant to say that high schools should focus on preparing students for jobs. Few students, they argued,will follow a set career path.

"I think school should be about expanding a kid's mind so he's ready to follow a learning path," said Guy M. deLambert, an investment manager and the father of two children in the district.

In another group, the idea of a voucher system, which would allow the use of public funds to pay private school tuition, found little support. Many worried that vouchers would create a "two-tiered system" and drain resources from public schools.

Janice Chasman, a school board member, also rejected the argument that vouchers would force public schools to improve in order to compete. District 197 has lost plenty of students to private schools in recent years, she noted. ''Our schools don't seem to respond to the mass exodus.

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