Snow Days, Making Hay of ID, and
A Year(book) to Remember

By Mark Toner — September 29, 2005 3 min read

While Hurricane Rita appears to have caused considerably less destruction than its sibling Katrina, its effects were felt at schools far removed from the Gulf Coast. In Georgia, all but a handful of districts closed schools for two days to conserve fuel at the request of Governor Sonny Perdue, who feared widespread shortages. The out-of-season “snow days” saved roughly 250,000 gallons of fuel by keeping buses off the streets. But parents forced to make last-minute child-care arrangements for an unanticipated four-day weekend were less sanguine. “People still have to go to work, and the freeways are still going to be packed,” one said.

Similar worries prompted Utah high school senior Mellissa Evans to find a more cost-conscious means of transportation. Last week, she and junior Chapa Stevenson rode their horses on the 30-mile trek to school, where they were housed in stalls at the campus’s animal laboratory while classes were in session. “When you have a car that gets 10 miles per gallon, you have to do something,” Mellissa said. But officials reined in the girls’ equine commute just days after it began, saying horses aren’t allowed on school grounds—much to the disappointment of their parents. “Hay is much cheaper than gas,” Mellissa’s mother said ruefully.

Meanwhile, in Dover, Pennsylvania, much hay has been made following the district school board’s decision last year to require the teaching of “intelligent design” in its classrooms. Now, in nearby Harrisburg, the theory’s backers and opponents are squaring off in the first legal challenge to the mandatory teaching of an alternative to evolution. The ongoing trial is a pro bono free-for-all: The school board is backed by the conservative Thomas More Law Center, which defends Christians’ religious freedoms, while the parents challenging the decision have the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on their side. What’s telling, though, is one group that’s not involved: the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, one of ID’s strongest proponents. “This is a sideshow where politicians are trying to hijack and mandate [ID],” said one research fellow.

Perhaps another reason they’re steering clear is because of the religious overtones alleged by the plaintiffs, which counter the notion that ID is a secular, scientific alternative to Darwin’s theories. A onetime Dover teacher testified that school board members called those who balked at teaching the theory atheists, threatened to fire educators who didn’t comply, and made explicit religious references. “We would repeatedly tell them, ‘We’re not going to balance evolution with creationism. It’s an inappropriate request,’” said former high school physics teacher Bryan Rehm. One board member was said to have declared, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” Defendants say the board member’s comments were taken out of context.

Context is causing some headaches in tony Princeton, New Jersey, where despite the stellar academic performance of its students, the high-performing district is in trouble under the No Child Left Behind law. For the second year in a row, Princeton High School was flagged because its small contingent of minority students fared far worse than their white counterparts on standardized tests—even though overall, 98 percent met NCLB requirements. While the law has been criticized for targeting underfunded urban schools, in Princeton it’s forcing school officials to address an ongoing achievement gap between white and African American students that parents say has existed since at least the 1960s. Administrators say they’re committed to tackling the disparity, but there’s clearly a bit of defensiveness among their ranks. “We’re proud of our F,” said an assistant superintendent. “It’s as if you handed in your homework, and the teacher handed it back, and you got a 98 on it and an F.”

Alumni of Thornton Township High School near Chicago are equally proud of their yearbooks. So when district officials announced plans to eliminate the school’s annual publication as part of more than $20 million in cuts since 1998, former students created the Thornton Alumni Legacy Fund, which provided a $10,000 emergency grant to make sure the class of ’06 gets yearbooks before they graduate. “That is one of the things you take from high school that will last you a lifetime,” says a Class of ’66 alum.

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