Back To School: In 1950, Life magazine devoted an issue to the state of education in America. The cover shouted, "U.S. SCHOOLS: THEY FACE A CRISIS." An article about New Trier High, in Winnetka, Illinois, showed "how good a high school can be." For the other end of the spectrum, the magazine visited the Wonder School, in West Memphis, Arkansas. A startling photograph told the story: A lone teacher stands in front of a ramshackle classroom, packed to the gills with poor, African American children. "The Negro takes the leavings in education as in other things," the magazine concluded, "and Americans have come to accept that fact." Nearly 50 years later, Life revisited the schools for its September issue. New Trier remains one of the nation's top high schools. It's also one of the wealthiest-teacher salaries average $67,000, about two-thirds more than the national norm. It's a good school, but not perfect. For one thing, there is little diversity: African American enrollment is less than 1 percent. "[But] if a school's job is to excite its students about learning," Life's reporter, Sora Song, writes, "then New Trier generally gets that job done." Meanwhile, the Wonder School is no longer the poor, overcrowded place it used to be. But in some ways, the elementary school is worse off than ever. "The money is here today," principal Ora Breckenridge-who was a student at the school when Life visited back in 1950-tells writer Rick Bragg. "We have one of the poorest schools, but I have funds galore. It's not that I can't hire enough teachers, or that books are outdated. We get all new books, we have a 20-to-1 student ratio. The problem is teaching the children character, responsibility, which comes from home."
Sex 101: Whatever happened to sex education? In many states, reports Ms. magazine in its August issue, it's been replaced by "fear-based" abstinence-only programs. "While a uniform national curriculum does not exist," writes contributing editor Carolyn Mackler, "barrels of federal money are being siphoned into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, frequently laden with wrath-of-God scare tactics." In Franklin County, North Carolina, she reports, "a scissors-toting parent-volunteer was summoned to the high school to slice chapters 17, 20, and 21 out of 9th graders' health textbooks." The offending sections covered contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and relationships, which didn't comply with the statewide abstinence-only guidelines. Some districts continue to teach comprehensive sex education; Ridgeway, New Jersey, high schoolers, for example, delve into everything from masturbation to family planning. But such programs, Mackler says, are available to only about 5 percent of American schoolchildren. See "Sex Ed: How Do We Score?,"Ms., August/September 1999.
Vol. 11, Issue 2, Page 14Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as Clippings