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Education Opinion

A Somber Reminder, Alphabet Soup, and a Revealing Debate

May 01, 2004 4 min read
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Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, April 19-30.

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, but even amid the renewed attention to the tragedy, an upswing in school violence has gone largely unnoticed. While on-campus murders and suicides fell drastically in the wake of Columbine, this school year will go on record as being the deadliest since 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed a teacher and 12 students before taking their own lives at the Colorado school. Since then, no more than two students have died in any single school shooting in the United States, and the scattered nature of the incidents belies a growing problem, argues school-security consultant Kenneth Trump. “The sad reality is that the spike ... is not even on the radar screen of the general public, or even flying on the stealth radar of those who should be in the know,” he says.

At Columbine itself, fund-raising for a memorial to the victims has stalled, with less than a quarter of the needed $3.1 million in hand. Nestled alongside a hill where impromptu displays appeared following the shootings, the memorial would feature an inner “ring of remembrance” and an outer “ring of healing,” each featuring writings from victims, families, and the community. “It is one way to bring closure,” explains Lee Andres, a Columbine teacher, coach, and graduate. “It has taken so long to get this memorial done.”

Of course, it takes time to get just about anything done in most school systems, even when it’s something as elementary as the ABCs. Consider Montgomery County, Maryland, which has considered eliminating a 23-year-old alphabetization policy. Sounding more like a Jumble clue than an administrative guide, Policy JFA-RA suggests that principals and teachers consider reversing alphabetical order for class seating and other activities. “I don’t think it will be missed,” says one assistant principal. He would know—his name is Michael Zarchin.

Meanwhile, a suburban Chicago school has found a way to home in on overcrowding problems—literally. Piper Elementary in Berwyn, Illinois, uses a modest brick bungalow to house art, band, and other classes. Other than walling off the bathtub and altering doors to comply with state code, the house looks like, well, a house. Bilingual classes meet on the bungalow’s back porch, while gifted students meet in the bedroom. The plan certainly shows market savvy: “Mobile trailers go down in value. We felt a piece of property only goes up in value,” former superintendent Gary Smit says. Indeed, the house, which the district bought for $80,000 in 1991, is now worth as much as $250,000. With student numbers continuing to grow, that’s one real estate bubble that seems unlikely to burst.

In rural schools with dwindling enrollments, finding classroom space is often the least of the worries. Consider Paisley, Oregon, where the 80-student public school has been faltering since the local lumber mill failed in the early 1990s. Even after shuttering the cafeteria, library, and its foreign language and business programs, the school faced an additional $286,000 in budget cuts that threatened to shut it down for good. The solution? Turn to the federal government, which is always willing to help—help charter schools, that is. By converting to a charter school, Paisley won $350,000 in federal startup funds, which have given the school a new lease on life—at least until next May, when the money runs out and it’s forced once again to rely on state funding. “If it is postponing the inevitable, well, then we are going out in an exceptional way,” says teacher Linda Banister.

Other rural areas are appealing to a still higher authority. In southwestern Wisconsin, one district has created an Amish school, whose 89 devoutly religious students—more than two-thirds of whom will come from outside the district—will offset declining enrollments. It’s a popular idea, says superintendent Joe Galle: “I receive three to four calls a week about how to do this,” he says. The biggest potential hurdle? Believe it or not, it’s NCLB. Many Amish families are likely to opt out of standardized testing, which could put the school below the law’s 95 percent test-participation threshold.

And speaking of NCLB, while Education Secretary Rod Paige continues to insist that the law isnot an “unfunded mandate,” some lawmakers are revealing new ways to scrape together money for schools. In Paige’s home state of Texas, Governor Rick Perry has proposed a range of new “sin taxes” earmarked for education, including a $5 tax on patrons of topless bars. Texas legislators are in the throes of debating the proposal, with Perry’s opponents decrying it as an assault on the state’s “Robin Hood” system of funneling real-estate taxes to the poorest schools. And not far from the capitol, at Austin’s Yellow Rose, it’s also led to differing opinions. While 26-year-old dancer Vanity says she’s “all for more school funding,” her coworker Rio demurred. “The governor wants to give the owners of the biggest houses a tax break, and he wants women who have to take their clothes off for money to pay for it.”

Who says budget deliberations have to be boring?

—Mark Toner

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