Lawmakers Meet To Talk Shop, Schools

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They came, they schmoozed, they talked about education and other weighty matters.

More than 5,000 state lawmakers and their staffs, educators, corporate moguls, and lobbyists converged here Aug. 6-9 for the National Conference of State Legislatures' 23rd annual meeting.

The conference, housed this year in Philadelphia's sprawling convention center, provides an opportunity for state lawmakers to swap ideas on public policy.

With education typically the highest-ticket item in state budgets, the education sessions here were, not surprisingly, well-attended.

School-to-Work Issues

Forty-two states and 81 communities have accepted federal funding to support school-to-work activities, which seek to prepare students for the world of work through rigorous academic and vocational standards in schools, and partnerships with local businesses for hands-on learning. At one of the convention's sessions, Miss America 1995, Shawntel Smith, and former Maine Gov. John McKernan Jr.--two school-to-work champions--debated staunch opponent Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group.

Ms. Smith, who spent her reign as Miss America promoting school-to-work opportunities, said such programs help high school students who are not college-bound "see their potential and achieve their dreams."

But Mrs. Schlafly said school-to-work programs represent the efforts of the "very strange marriage between the U.S. secretaries of labor and education ... to structure the public school curriculum to serve employer needs" over the needs of the student.

Going to the Source

Whom should schools look to for guidance? Attendees at an NCSL session on urban education heard one innovative teacher's take.

Milo Cutter, a co-director of City Academy in St. Paul, Minn., said when it came time to launch the academy--the nation's first charter school, opened in 1992--she and others talked to young people who had dropped out of school. The teacher-founders of the school asked the former students why they left school and then designed a curriculum around their answers.

The result? A 100-student high school with high expectations for students and a year-round, extended-day learning strategy.

The publicly funded school is flourishing with coursework designed around individual students' postsecondary needs, Ms. Cutter said in an interview later. The school's success ultimately gives "a life-building" charge to the surrounding neighborhood as well, she said.

During the same session, attendees heard about one state's experience with HOSTS--or Help One Student To Succeed--Corp., a for-profit company that helps schools find mentors for their lowest-performing students.

Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat, has set a goal of recruiting 10,000 mentors by fall 1998.

His state has budgeted $800,000 for mentoring services, including HOSTS, since the start of fiscal 1996, including $500,000 in the current fiscal year.

Delaware Rep. Donna D. Stone, a HOSTS volunteer, appealed to her NCSL peers: "I challenge each one of you personally ... to become a mentor."

Then, the Republican lawmaker added, "as a legislator, I'm going to ask you to consider finding the money for mentoring in your own budget."

Arts in Education

At a session on integrating the arts in education, a panel of experts and educators discussed recent scientific research and its link to supporting arts education in public schools. The research showed that studying the arts helps young children's brain development and academic achievement.

Martha Erickson, the director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth, and Families Consortium, said the latest data confirm what arts advocates and educators have long suspected--that the arts are "central to all aspects of healthy human development."

Doug Herbert, the director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts, said that support among lawmakers for arts education has been buoyed by the new research.

And Chris Horton, the principal of the Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Norwalk, Calif., gave a presentation on how the arts have benefited his largely poor, immigrant students.

He said arts education has helped the students and their families cross language and cultural barriers and get excited about learning.


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