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Three Cups of Tea: Educators mull halting support for Pennies for Peace

Amid allegations that 'Three Cups of Tea' co-author Greg Mortenson mismanaged money collected by thousands of schoolchildren for his Pennies for Peace program, educators are considering cutting off support.

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Mr. Mortenson stood by his story that he visited Korphe on the way back from climbing K2 in his interview with Outside, but said that the first visit was for only a few hours, though the book gives the impression he stayed overnight. Mr. Mortenson said in the magazine interview that during his second visit to Korphe, a year later, he talked with the village leader about a school, while the book gives the impression he returned almost immediately.

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Comprehension questions and answers in the Pennies for Peace curriculum guide include the following: “How did Dr. Greg end up in Korphe? (He wanted to climb the mountain K2, but lost his way.) How did the villagers help Dr. Greg? How did Dr. Greg help the villagers? (They nursed Dr. Greg back to health. Dr. Greg helped to heal the sick of Korphe.)”

When Education Week asked the Pearson Foundation, whose logo is on the curriculum guide, whether it is continuing to support Pennies for Peace, a spokeswoman sent an email saying that Three Cups of Tea is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, which is owned by Pearson. The statement in the email said: “Greg Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. ‘60 Minutes’ is a serious news organization, and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.”

Where It Started

Tom Westerhaus is the superintendent of the 3,000-student River Falls school district, in Wisconsin, where the Pennies for Peace program got started. He said in a phone interview late last week that students at Westside Elementary School in his district began collecting pennies for the Central Asia Institute to build schools when Greg Mortenson’s mother, Jerene Mortenson, was principal there. He said Greg Mortenson spoke to students in the school. The Central Asia Institute says that happened in 1994. The teaching staff made the decision to support the project, he said.

Just this spring, Mr. Westerhaus said, children in his district raised money for Pennies for Peace, and the money was passed on to the organization. He recalls it was less than $1,000.

Mr. Westerhaus has watched the “60 Minutes” episode, but he said he’s still reserving judgment on whether the Central Asia Institute has misused funds. Should children from his district collect money in the future, he said, it will be his responsibility to be sure the money is “well handled.”

In a column posted on the district’s website on April 21, Mr. Westerhaus wrote, “I personally believe that good work has been done by Mortenson to promote the education of Pakistani and Afghan children by Pennies for Peace. My expectation is that the money we’ve raised is being used for building schools, but if I find out differently, we will definitely have to reconsider our involvement with the program.”

Mr. Wilson of the NEA observed that many people have been touched by the book Three Cups of Tea and Mr. Mortenson’s work because “it’s a great story and a great cause.” He said he hopes the mission is salvaged from the current controversy. “The last thing you want to do is deny boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan from having schools. Somebody has to fill that void.”

Republished with permission from Education Week. Copyright © 2011 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For more information, visit www.edweek.org.

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