The elements of learning

Education writer Gail Russell Chaddock spends a lot of time in schools, particularly those in Washington, D.C., where she is based. Education is a hot policy topic, so of course there's no shortage of test scores and government studies to digest. But separate those from talking with teachers and students, from feeling the rhythms of a school, and you can't get a true picture of the daily task of educating America's children.

That point was driven home last week as Gail set out on visits for her cover story on how public charter schools are faring.

At one stop, Gail and photographer Andy Nelson had to pass through a metal detector. They shed keys, pocket change, even shoes as they tried to avoid setting the thing off. What happened each day as hundreds of kids came streaming through the doors? "If we paid attention to every beep, first period would never start," noted a school official, who says they simply do periodic searches.

At the end of her next appointment, Gail, who had been dropped off at the school, walked out with the secretary, hoping to find a bus. As she stepped out into streets where seeking taxis is futile, the secretary pointed her on her way, saying hopefully, "I think you'll be safe."

These schools were not in the toughest of neighborhoods. But the stops were a sobering reminder that amid pressures to boost scores, many educators confront an even more fundamental challenge: safety. Students, meanwhile, face walks to school that can be anything but relaxing. Day in, day out, both groups deal with a tough task, well before a book cover is ever cracked.

*E-mail newcomba@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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