A Royal Pain, Philosophy on the Rocks, and Playing the Admissions Game

By Mark Toner — January 18, 2006 3 min read

Here’s something you ordinarily don’t learn in journalism 101: Watch out for convicted sex offenders pretending to be British royalty. Yet that’s exactly what the student journalists at the Pony Express, the paper of record at Minnesota’s Stillwater Area High School, recently discovered while writing a story about a prospective student. Claiming he was receiving treatment at the nearby Mayo Clinic, the visiting student spoke with a British accent and called himself “Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland.” Suspicious Pony Express reporters soon discovered a trail of Web sites he’d left behind, which led them to a national registry of sex offenders on which the Duke—actually 22-year-old Joshua Adam Gardner—was listed. “I still don’t understand how they found out,” the deposed duke said from his jail cell, where he was facing charges stemming from a previous conviction. Perhaps it was his request that the student journalists address him as either “His Grace” or “Your Grace.”

Another elective course, this one espousing the antievolutionary “intelligent design” concept, proved less successful in rural California, where a lawsuit prompted the El Tejon Unified School District to drop its “philosophy of design” class. While couched as a perspective-challenging high school philosophy unit—not a science class—the course was taught by a minister’s wife who showed such videos as “Astronomy and the Bible” and “Chemicals to Living Cells: Fantasy or Science?” and wrote that “this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach.” Not surprisingly, supporters of the ID movement distanced themselves from this particular cause, and a lawsuit filed by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of 11 parents convinced the cash-strapped school board to drop the class. “It could be that economics was a common denominator,” the district’s attorney said of the contentious debate over the cancellation.

Money’s on a lot of educators’ minds in Houston, where the nation’s largest merit-pay program has been put into place over the objections of the teachers’ union. Based on standardized test results, the program will reward individual teachers with up to $3,000 per year (administrators, perhaps not surprisingly, stand to gain even more). Critics called instead for across-the-board pay raises in the district, whose salaries lag behind those in other parts of the state. Ironically, Houston most recently made headlines for a test-cheating scandal that as recently as last school year brought results at 11 schools into question.

Test results matter for every student angling to get into college, but barring a perfect—or pathetic—SAT score, it’s difficult to get a precise fix on the odds of getting into the school of one’s choice. Enter Naviance, a Web-based planning and advice system that lets college applicants compare their chances of success with a database of previously accepted students from the same school. Adopted by overworked guidance counselors at more than 1,500 high schools nationwide, some 230,000 students are using the system this year. While students and parents find Naviance invaluable for narrowing down their lists of prospective schools, the anonymous applicant pools make for a bit of fun as well. “I can always guess the athletes who get into Ivy League schools,” says one high school senior. “You can see their grades are lower.”

In Missouri, school officials who’d wished a student’s kilt hem was a bit lower have offered the high school senior an apology. This past November, Nathan Warmack was barred from entering a school dance because he refused to change out of the traditional Scottish garb. Word spread, and an online petition sponsored by a Scottish heritage group garnered more than 10,000 signatures. District officials say they’ll offer staff training on dress codes; as for Warmack, we assume his debt to society was plaid in full.

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