Education Funding

Some Schools Blend Afghan Relief Fund With Lessons

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 24, 2001 5 min read
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When President Bush called on America’s youths to donate dollar bills for the children of Afghanistan, the teachers and students of C.W. Hill Elementary School sprang into action.

At exactly 1 p.m. on Oct. 12, the day after the president made his plea for aid, the teachers of the K-5 school in Atlanta simultaneously began a one-hour lesson aimed at helping students understand the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, the war those attacks sparked, and the suffering of Afghan children.

A team of teachers designed the lesson to encourage sympathy among the students for Afghanistan’s plight and clear up any confusion about the intended target of U.S.-led military action there.

“Locate Afghanistan on a world map. Discuss that the war is not targeted at the people of Afghanistan, but on the terrorist group, the Taliban, that is in power there,” the one-page lesson plan instructed teachers to tell their students. “Articulate that the Taliban is not the Afghan citizens, in fact the citizens of Afghanistan are attempting to escape the country in order to get to a place that is free from violence and oppression. They are called refugees.”

The Bush administration has been struggling in recent weeks to convince Muslim nations of those same points. As the United States pounds Afghanistan in daily bombing raids, protests have erupted in neighboring countries like Pakistan, threatening to break Mr. Bush’s fragile coalition against terrorism.

American aircraft are also dropping food rations and messages of good will on the impoverished country on a daily basis. President Bush’s call to enlist American schoolchildren, meanwhile, in what some may see as a propaganda offensive, apparently has not raised many eyebrows.

“I think it’s clear this is part of the ongoing effort to convince the Muslim world that the U.S. military actions are not aimed at the people of Afghanistan, but at terrorists within that country,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But Mr. Loveless said he saw no problem with the president’s call for American youngsters to donate dollar bills for the relief of Afghanistan’s children “because these are, indeed, needy children.”

“If it were a made-up problem,” he said, “I’d have trouble with it, but they’re not creating a fiction.”

Dollars for Afghans

President Bush announced the creation of “America’s Fund for Afghan Children” from the White House on Oct. 11, at the close of his first prime-time televised news conference.

“Their country has been through a great deal of war and suffering,” the president said. “Winter is coming and by acting today, we can help the children survive.”

The fund, modeled on the Roosevelt administration’s 1938 March of Dimes campaign for the eradication of polio, will be overseen by the American Red Cross. A spokeswoman for the Red Cross said the organization has systems already in place for monitoring large amounts of cash donations and guarding against possible fraud. And, at Mr. Bush’s request, donations to his new campaign will be reserved specifically for Afghan children.

“The funds will be kept separate. ... [W]e are working at the request of the president on this, who wants the project to be about kids helping kids,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Leslie VanSant.

Letters to the White House started pouring in to Washington last week, but security concerns impeded the handling of the mail. As news broke of exposure to anthrax bacteria caused by a contaminated letter delivered through the mail—this time to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.—Ms. VanSant said a dollar amount for the donations was unavailable because of “increased security around the mail.”

By Thursday of last week, the White House reported that it had received 166,000 letters to the fund. Many more donations were expected to pour in as schools and youth organizations gear up to help.

But it’s unclear just how much the children’s donations will be able to augment the $320 million in aid the Bush administration has already set aside for Afghan relief efforts.

Teachers at C.W. Hill in Atlanta asked students to try to put themselves in the shoes of Afghan children, many of them hungry and homeless right now. That inevitably raised the question of what American children could do to help, and the answer was to encourage donations to the special fund. So, students lined up outside Principal Theodoshie Walton’s office on Oct. 12 to await their turn to drop a contribution into a clear jug.

Many school districts left it up to individual principals to decide how and whether to raise money for the fund. In the 210,000-student Houston school system, students and teachers had just wrapped up a fund-raising drive for the Red Cross. While praising Mr. Bush’s recent call to action for American children, a district spokeswoman said there were no plans to coordinate another campaign.

“We thought, ‘Oh God, they’re asking us for a dollar and we just did this other campaign,’” spokeswoman Holly Roper said. “We don’t want parents complaining because we’re asking children for more money, but we’ll make sure parents have the address [for the president’s fund] and all.”

The 432,000- student Chicago school system, the third-largest district in the country, decided to take a more centralized approach.

In a letter from Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, the principals of Chicago’s 596 schools were urged to collect donations from students and send the cash to a central office so the district could write a single check to the new fund.

Other districts were pondering the difficulty of asking their poorest students to give money. At the beginning of last week, a spokeswoman for the 106,000-student Baltimore district said CEO Carmen V. Russo had not yet decided how to respond to President Bush’s request.

“We understand we have students in the system at or just above the poverty line, so we’re trying to find a meaningful way for everyone to participate,” spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said.

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