Texas Town Improves Schools Its Way

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WITH her hand on the Bible, Katie Meiske takes the oath of mayor of Excel City. Then she thanks an assembly of her constituents - fellow fifth-graders at Berkman Elementary in Round Rock, Texas.

Excel City is a microcosm of society contained entirely within Berkman's painted cinder-block walls. Just a year old, the experiment emphasizes student responsibility and mastery of real-world skills. One result: improved test scores at a school where 71 percent of the 418 students are officially labeled "at risk."

The idea was patterned after a microsociety at another Texas school, but with a key difference: The original relied on a $500,000 federal grant. At Berkman, "we're not spending anyone else's money," says Linda Wiley, the teacher who initiated Excel City.

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The program is a standout at a time when Congress is pushing local solutions to school problems and is debating what role - if any - the federal government should play in American education.

The dispute is symbolized by controversy surrounding Goals 2000, a program that dispenses federal aid to states for innovative projects intended to make American students the best in the world.

Texas, which ranks 39th in state spending per pupil, received $29 million in Goals 2000 funding last year, second only to California. But the homegrown success of Excel City poses an enduring question at a time of tight public finances: Is more money the answer to boosting student achievement?

Ms. Wiley admits the benefit Berkman received from seeing the federally funded microsociety in action. But, she argues, local support in the form of donated time, services, and goods is the real key to her program's success.

Other Texas educators beg to differ. "You have to have dollars to foster innovation," says Brad Duggan, president of the Texas Elementary School Principals Association.

President Clinton initiated Goals 2000 in 1994 to provide teacher training, set voluntary academic standards, and focus on improving student math and science skills. That year, $105 million was distributed to 47 states. The amount grew to $372 million last year.

This year, Mr. Clinton requested $750 million. The Senate voted to approve $310 million; the House, nothing. The final figure will be decided in the next few weeks as part of the overall battle over the federal budget.

"Goals 2000 is more of a political slogan than anything else," says Frank Kemerer, director for the Study of Education Reform at the University of North Texas. "It has lost its allure."

At the IBM International Foundation, President Stanley Litow admits that Goals 2000 money adds less than 1 percent to the $300 billion the United States spends annually on K-12 education. But he worries that killing the program would signal that high academic standards and accountability for performance matter less.

"While we're very strongly in favor of a balanced budget," concurs Bob Wehling, senior vice president of the Procter & Gamble Company, "we think this is a program that deserves to move forward."

No matter what the fate of Goals 2000 funding, Berkman Elementary will continue to shape its new curriculum around the "real life" lessons that Excel City emphasizes. Students will go right on earning Excel City money called "Bee Bucks" for attendance and good behavior. They can save it at their own bank or shop at the thrift store, which is stocked with items donated by Goodwill. They can mail letters to other students and teachers via the inter-office mail system, which boasts its own stamps. Students run Excel City's post office, snack bar, crafts factory, and other enterprises, all governed by their elected city hall.

Not only does the experimental program take no federal money, it rarely taps local funding sources, either. Area businesses are eager to assist, though. "I ask them for expertise, not money," says Wiley.

To be sure, Round Rock does have some advantages that schools in rural and inner-city areas don't. Its populace is affluent and well educated.

Wiley admits that the school's main building, though the school district's oldest, is a "Taj Mahal" compared with other Texas campuses. Teachers can also draw on a community that includes many successful businesses willing to volunteer services and donate goods to the schools.

Still, most of Berkman's students are minorities. Most live in single-parent homes. Wiley says that if a microsociety can succeed at Berkman, the worst of Round Rock's 20 elementary schools, it can succeed anywhere. Every town has certain businesses - post office, bank, grocery store, garage - that can help get a microsociety up and running, she says.

But at Liberty Hill independent school district, northwest of Austin, Superintendent Paul Curtis says community involvement is already high. Cash is the missing ingredient. "We're a low-wealth district," says Mr. Curtis.

Thanks to Goals 2000, Liberty Hill just hired a "master teacher." The new instructor will show other teachers how to help Spanish-speaking students learn math and English. "It's going to help us quite a bit," says Curtis. Even so, his district got so little Goals 2000 money that it will have to share the teacher with a neighboring one that also got a grant.

Liberty Hill, of course, could have raised local taxes to get more money. But "no one wants his taxes to go up anymore," Curtis notes.

The same tight-fisted attitude prevails at the state level, where a complex revision of the Texas education code is undergoing revision - with federal funds.

Which is another reason why Annette Cootes, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Teachers Association, calls Goals 2000 a "wonderful thing."

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