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Equal-Access-Law Story: 'Chicken Little' Approach?

To the Editor:

The article "Equal Access Law at Center of Utah Flap" (March 6, 1996) failed to meet your publication's typically high standards of objectivity, solid analysis, and accuracy.

Taking a "Chicken Little" approach to the important issue of the proper implementation of the federal Equal Access Act, the article appeared to urge school officials across the country to close down all extracurricular student activities in order to avoid a problem that, upon close reading of the article, has occurred at only a handful of high schools over the past decade. The source of this Draconian legal advice is a principal who lost 8-1 in the U.S. Supreme Court on another of his interpretations of the Equal Access Act. Surely your readers deserve a more thorough and expert legal analysis.

Closing down all student extracurricular activities is an extreme position that school officials should exercise only after all other options have been tried, if it should be exercised at all. It is particularly unnecessary to close down all student activities before a school has received any requests by controversial groups to meet.

Closing down all student groups is itself a politically risky option for school officials who value community goodwill. Parents of students who attend the key club, chess club, stamp club, or ski club will not understand why their children should have to forfeit their right to meet, simply because a school official fears that someday an unwanted group may possibly ask permission to meet. Even if the hypothetical unwanted group were to materialize, parents and students are likely to accept the unwanted group's meeting as a small price to pay for their own ability to meet.

Closing down student extracurricular activities is also a bad educational choice. Numerous studies reported by your publication over the years have demonstrated the strong correlation between students' academic achievement and their involvement in extracurricular activities. These educational benefits would be denied all students under the extreme position advocated by some in your article.

There are several interesting questions posed by the Salt Lake City school district's decision to close its forum. Unfortunately, the article ignored those questions and went with the "sky is falling" approach, despite its own admission that requests to meet by unwanted groups are rare.

In 1984, when the act was passed, its critics predicted that extremist groups would dominate high school campuses across the country. As your article demonstrated when it mentioned the actual facts, these critics were wrong.

Instead, the act has been implemented without problems in most districts in the country. Articles that try to scare school officials into avoiding compliance with the Equal Access Act do a disservice to those officials and the students and parents they serve.

Steven T. McFarland
Center for Law and Religious Freedom
Annandale, Va.

Wanting an Enumeration of 'Defaulted' Parental Roles

To the Editor:

"Telling Tales Out of School" (On Assignment, Feb. 14, 1996) tells about school personnel undercutting parents' authority by driving girls to clinics where they were provided with condoms and birthcontrol pills.

Superintendent Ed Mills was reported to have said, "Schools are now taking over responsibilities that aren't being covered in the home. When parents won't do it, we have to."

It would have been most helpful if Education Week had had Superintendent Mills enumerate those parental responsibilities which he feels the schools have inherited by default. His view on this subject is the heart of the whole problem. In a six-page feature story, you neglected to develop this critical point.

Harry Kyran Perry
East Rochester, Ohio

'Sesame Street' Initiative Targets Literacy Gains

To the Editor:

In your "Ideas and Findings" column, you recently included a summary of "Why Ernie Can't Read: 'Sesame Street' and Literacy," an article in The Reading Teacher by Barbara Fowles Mates and Linda Strommen (Research, Jan. 17, 1996). Unfortunately, the data in this article were collected prior to the start of our new three-year Sesame Street Literacy Initiative, which has included an expanded emphasis on storybook reading and the usefulness and pleasures of reading and writing.

Reading aloud to children from storybooks or showing characters engaged in reading or writing are inherently difficult to present in an interesting and engaging manner on television. Nevertheless,we have made some important strides in this direction recently, and our writers and producers deserve some recognition for these efforts.

Moreover, research has consistently shown that "Sesame Street" has indeed been successful in enhancing children's reading skills. For example, you recently wrote about a longitudinal study conducted by the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Kansas ("Effects of Educational TV Viewing of Lower-Income Preschoolers on Academic Skills, School Readiness, and School Adjustment One to Three Years Later," 1995). This study found that children who watched "Sesame Street" when they were 2 to 4 years old performed better than nonviewers on standardized tests of reading (including paragraph comprehension), mathematics, vocabulary, and school readiness, as much as three years later.

As part of our new literacy initiative, we have held two seminars with reading experts to introduce our writers and producers to the latest thinking about literacy education. We will hold a third seminar in the spring to review our progress and identify new directions. We greatly appreciate Ms. Mates' and Ms. Strommen's efforts to help us strengthen the show's educational effectiveness, and I can assure them that we will take their suggestions seriously.

Valeria O. Lovelace
Assistant Vice President
Sesame Street Research
Children's Television Workshop
New York, N.Y.

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