Riding the Storm, the Bare Truth, and Steering into the Void

By Scott J. Cech — September 23, 2005 3 min read
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Hurricane Katrina left more than just trees and buildings uprooted. Thousands of children who would ordinarily return to schools along the Gulf Coast are now scattered throughout the country, and the Bush administration is proposing $1.9 billion in aid to help them. Applause for the idea slackened, however, when details emerged. More than a quarter of the money, it turns out—as much as $7,500 per child—would be earmarked for private school vouchers, and some are accusing the administration of using the disaster to push school privatization through the back door. “It is really a tone-deaf response to the crisis,” says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It is a real grab to get an ideological position across that they haven’t been able to achieve under normal circumstances.” Susan Aspey, the education department’s spokeswoman, didn’t see what the fuss was about. “Parents may choose to send children to private schools,” she explained. “They may not. But this is their choice.”

No choice was available to students when classes started for the year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. If they wanted to enter the building, security officers told them, they had to line up, empty their pockets, take off their belts, walk through a metal detector, and surrender their book bags so they could be run through airport-style X-ray machines. Lunchtime jaunts off-campus were also banned, and newly installed security cameras now spy on students as they move through the halls. José David, a 17-year-old senior, decided to take a stand by staging a silent protest. At first, he stood alone outside the school on the appointed morning, but by late morning, about 1,500 teens had assembled for a two-mile protest march to confront school officials. A small delegation was allowed to meet with district administrators, who agreed to further talks. They haven’t lifted the restrictions, though, citing the school’s crime rate, which is 60 percent higher than the average for schools of the same size in New York City. Still, said 17-year-old senior Edward Jackson, “We got a chance to show that we care about what goes on in our school.”

Security cameras helped address a different kind of student dissent in upstate New York. When principal Kimberle Ward spotted a male student running along a Union Springs High School hallway clothed in nothing but a gorilla mask, she gave chase. Ward, who runs three to five miles daily, kept up with the teen as he sped past students boarding school buses and headed out onto Route 90, but she lost him as he neared a local business district. After interviewing witnesses and reviewing hallway surveillance footage, however, the principal was able to help investigators identify the culprit, and state police arrested the 17-year-old at school the next day. He faces charges of exposure, punishable by up to 15 days in jail, a $250 fine, or both, as well as disciplinary action at school. “There’s no way anyone in the district would consider this a prank,” insisted superintendent Linda Rice. “We’re here to teach children, and we do have high standards.”

Fear that American students will continue to lag behind international math and science standards has prompted IBM to pay employees to become teachers in those areas. The pilot program, to be offered initially to 100 IBMers, will allow them to take a leave of absence from the company, with full benefits and up to half their salary, plus as much as $15,000 in tuition reimbursements and stipends while they earn teaching credentials and begin student teaching. They would then become regular school employees—a transformation the corporation hopes other companies will offer to their own workers. But Stanley Litow, head of the IBM Foundation and a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City, warns, “It’s not an easy transition to make.”

Not nearly as easy as Rod Paige’s transition from education secretary to high-dollar education consultant. Just 10 months after quitting his post in the Bush administration, he’s become chairman of Chartwell Education Group, a firm offering assistance to school districts on complying with No Child Left Behind, which Paige helped create and enforce. In fact, he’s brought almost his entire education department leadership team with him, including John Danielson, Paige’s former chief of staff, who’s now the new company’s chief executive officer. Schools who hire the team for guidance, though, may want to consider this statement from Danielson: “We’re pretty confident that we’re heading into a place where there’s a void.”

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