Take a tour of the public schools in our neighborhood, and odds are you’ll came away surprised by what you find.

At Dan D. Rogers Elementary, for example, every student now has the option of enrolling in an accelerated learning program designed “to take them as far and as fast as they want to go.”

Also new this year: Everyday Math, a pilot program at Alex W. Sanger Elementary, is making math relevant – and understandable – to students in all grades.

Head over to Lakewood Elementary, and you’ll discover a  program sponsored by the PTA has ensured that students received art lessons even during lean years when the school couldn’t afford a full-time art teacher. This volunteer program also continues to bring community artists into the classrooms as instructors.

Or, pay a visit to Stonewall Jackson Elementary, where a long-standing Special Events program brings a new country to life for students each year.

Administrators, teachers and community volunteers give their time and energy to these kinds of programs, all which share a common goal: providing our children with a quality education.

But, unlike personality clashes between school board members or investigations of wrongdoing by the administration, these usually aren’t the stories that everyone has heard.

Can the people who are well-informed regarding the fate of former superintendent Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez also tell you whether the DISD favors using whole-language methods or phonics to teach children how to read?

Why not?

The Public’s Right to Know

A recent survey commissioned by the Education Writers Association and conducted by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda offers some insight into the public’s priorities for education coverage.

Between 65 percent and 77 percent of those surveyed were interested in more stories about raising academic standards, quality and training of teachers, school safety issues, the curriculum and innovative programs.

Issues holding less interest included disputes among school board, superintendents and the union, racial integration and comparisons of local to national schools.

In breaking down what the respondents wanted most, the survey found this: 54 percent, ideas and programs that offer solutions; 22 percent, good news; 15 percent, problems; and 6 percent, politics.

Are those topics the ones examined by the media in Dallas? Marian Ingalls, a PTA president and parent of a Woodrow Wilson High School senior, says no.

As with any topic approached by the media, she says, education reports lean toward “politics and other types of controversy.”

“Far, far too much coverage is given to the sensationalism in our community instead of the educators,” she says.

With serious results, she says.

“It influences peoples’ perceptions of the schools. If they perceive something in an unfavorable light, they are not apt to support it.” And it’s that support from parent and others in the community that will help any school – public or private – succeed, she says.

Ingalls, like those surveyed, wishes the media would do more to write about the educators “who work hard and give 100 percent of their time and courage.”

“There are thousands of kids walking into schools every day who are there to learn. Sometimes I think the kids are the last ones we read about.”

A Look Inside: Dan D. Rogers Elementary

“Simple and revolutionary at the same time” is how the teacher who introduced accelerated learning principles to Rogers describes the process.

“Kids are willing to do more than we ask them to,” says Dr. Miles Jones, an expert in accelerated learning. “Our ace in the hole is the children.”

Jones describes an approach that allows students to make rapid progress in mastering basic literacy and math skills, using specific concentration and memory techniques. Higher order thinking skills can then be taught to students at all levels.

Principal Shirley Yarbrough says the program will be conducted on a voluntary basis to all grades. Students who participate (and their parents) sign contracts agreeing to the course requirements, which include additional homework. One semester has been devoted to teacher training, introducing the program to the community and seeking volunteers; the next steps will be made in the classrooms.

Yarbrough says the school is “blessed” to have someone capable of implementing this program.

“It’s really exciting to watch the itty-bitty ones reading and doing advanced problems,” she says.

Yarbrough is ready to tackle any bugs in the system. When accelerated learning was taught (by Jones) only to first-graders at Sam Houston Elementary, several of those students were double promoted to the third grade. At Rogers, students will be able to participate in accelerated learning through each grade level.

Rogers hasn’t “really had any negative press,” Yarbrough says. Neither has the school received any attention for its efforts in starting a unique learning program that has received enthusiastic parental support.

Perhaps the road so far has been too smooth. “Jones’ geniuses,” as the Sam Houston accelerated learning students were dubbed, came under media scrutiny (in The Dallas Observer) only after controversy developed over double promotion of the students.

The Media and Its Mission

As managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, Stuart Wilk has certainly heard that “our reporters need to spend more time in the classroom and less time in the administration building.”

To some degree, he agrees: “You can get consumed by politics. The political story is an important one that needs to be covered. The danger is that the education story gets lost.”

Still, political issues with DISD are significant enough to warrant substantial coverage.

“You have to go where the story is. There is a cloud hanging over that district. It’s a political and a criminal issue.

“The district can’t move forward until we deal with these issues.”

Such controversy at the administrative level is nothing new, and has long posed problems for education reporters.

In response, the Morning News bolstered education coverage with Education Extra, a two-page, weekly section devoted to coverage of local schools.

Wilk says the section has helped the Morning News do a better job of “balancing so-called negative coverage with good news at the schools” and also to  “make some inroads in recognizing academic achievement the same way we recognize athletic achievement.”

Like any metropolitan newspaper, Wilk says, the Morning News faces a challenge in covering many school districts for a diverse community. One result is that major media outlets may cast more scrutiny on the workings of the Dallas school district than those in its surrounding suburbs. Stories about other school districts often must hold broader appeal to get on the “main sheet” rather than in zoned coverage distributed only to particular areas.

“Plano gets covered as aggressively as DISD, but not on the main sheet,” Wilk says. “Richardson has gotten extensive coverage. There are probably 20 districts in the area. I’m not going to say they get the same coverage. They don’t.”

The same challenges exist for broadcast news, according to Channel 8 reporter Doug Wilson, who covers education for the top-rated local newscast.

“DISD is in our backyard. It’s just a gold mine for any kind of story,” Wilson says.

Wilson rejects the common complaint that school coverage is too negative, saying that people often “remember the negatives and don’t remember the positives.” To some extent, the complaint is the old one: Kill the messenger.

“I wish the political scandals and corruption didn’t force us to shift our focus away from the students,” he says. “But we would be doing a disservice to the community to not cover it. That’s perceived as negative, but we didn’t create the problem.”

Such coverage issues are the subject of constant debate, he says, revolving around questions such as: Are we spending too much time on crises? Should we spend more time in the schools?

Intense coverage of administration woes didn’t keep the station from focusing on other kinds of stories, he says, citing a series on standardized testing scores as an example.

“From where I sit, the coverage is balanced,” he says.  “I’m interested in stories about people. I want to learn how the students are doing their lessons and how the teachers are helping.

“That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?”

A Look Inside: Alex Sanger Elementary

Lectures are the basis for most math classes. The hands-on activities of Everyday Math – such as determining the circumference of a tree – require every child “to be an active participant,” says Principal Larry Allen.

“The child takes an idea and applies it to the activity,” Allen says. “It really teaches them to reason and to apply logic.”

The program, developed by the University of Chicago, has traditionally been taught only to talented and gifted students in the other districts where it has been used. Last fall, Sanger began teaching Everyday Math to all students, including at-risk students, in grades K-6. This schoolwide effort (which includes incorporating math concepts in other classes) raises the expectations for performance and ensures continuity, Allen says.

Significant improvement in math scores were made in other districts using Everyday Math, which meets national as well as state curriculum standards. Allen expects similar results will be seen at Sanger.

“Even kids who have never been successful in math are enjoying it now,” Allen says. “The parents’ response has been really good as well.

“They are just really amazed – their kids are doing concepts they didn’t get until high school.”

With Sanger as a test cases, district officials will decide whether to use Everyday Math in other schools. There is also, Allen says, “talk of adding the program to the textbooks.”

Allen is not surpised that the pilot program has received scant media attention.

“I think a lot of times the schools have gotten ignored because of the politics at the higher levels,” he says.

Report Card: Views from the School District

As the school board representative for our neighborhood, Roxan Staff is disturbed by news coverage she views as shallow and stacked toward sensationalism.

“The increased number of children taking advanced placement courses doesn’t get on the front page, but sexual harassment does,” she says.

“I know I’ve only read half the story and that’s the half the general public gets,” she says. “In general, most of the reporters, especially the visual media, don’t go very deep.”

Staff says administrative problems mean the school district has a lot of ground to cover in regaining the public’s confidence. Doing that, she says, may require board members – who usually have no experience or training in talking to reporters – to become more savvy about the media and the advantages of presenting a united front.

“Right now, the media works us. We need to work the media,” she says. Reporters with a deadline will pull aside any available school board member for comment, she says.

“Our policies state that we have one spokesman and that is the president for the board. You’d never know that by watching the 10 o’clock news.”

She praises initiatives such as the Morning News’ Education Extra section, but says such steps aren’t enough.

“With 215 schools, I assure you that there something worth reporting every day,” she says.

DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander, a neighborhood resident, has similar concerns about how the DISD is depicted to the public. As a former reporter, he knows how easy it is to get caught up in only following the “day-to-day political machinations.”

But, he says, a deeper look at the district – touching on elements such as its changing demographics, the burdens placed on teachers, which teaching methods are working and why – would provide more of a service.

“We’re missing the larger perspective, more often than not,” he says. “What I would like to see is a very tall order – to transcend the day-to-day issues and take the coverage to the next level.”

The district and the media have both contributed to an image of Dallas schools that has convinced many parents to send their children to private schools, Dahlander says.

“The media do have the power to elicit change,” he says, citing the steps the community took to help get Woodrow Wilson High School on track after it received “low-performing” status as an example of the kind of stories that can help schools.

“These are real people stories that tell about our educational programs, or lack of educational programs, and it’s up to the media to put those out,” he says.

“The rise and fall of the DISD depends on the media as much as anything else.”

A Look Inside: Lakewood Elementary

The back-to-basics rush left some schools treating art classes as an afterthought. PTA volunteers refused to let this attitude into their school.

“Lakewood Elementary didn’t have a permanent art teacher, so we had volunteers and parents come in once a month to work on art projects,” explains volunteer Mary Guenveur. These volunteer-taught classes kept art alive in the Lakewood curriculum until a full-time art teacher and a full-time music teacher could be hired.

Following the addition of a full-time staff, these “Big Art” volunteers were dubbed “art assistants.” Instead of working separately, the volunteers now assist in regular art classes up to the third grade.

The PTA works in other ways to make art important to students. In conjunction with the Big Art work, the PTA created an artist-in-residence program in 1990. Artist-in-residence visits give students opportunities to observe and learn from professional artists in all disciplines, including theater, writing, sculpting, songwriting and dancing.

Often, these lessons tie into other subjects, such as science or social studies. The focus, however, remains on the arts.

“They get to explore art through the eyes of the artists,” says PTA board member Helen Delph. “It’s a unique experience for these kids. Not a lot of them have direct exposure to professional artists.”

Lessons Learned

The media and the public may never see eye-to-eye about the presentation of “good” and “bad” news stories. But the demand for substance over shouting matches is heard from all sides.

Lake Highlands resident Charles Davis, an SMU journalism professor who is also the president-elect for the Dallas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, is mostly complimentary of how the Dallas media covers our schools. However, he agrees that coverage too often gets stuck on conflict.

“There isn’t a deeper understanding of issues. That’s sad,” Davis says. “Accusations are not followed up on – I’d like to know if they are true or not.

“A lot of it is formulaic – talk to one side, then the other, then some parents, and it’s a wrap. I don’t know how much that helps.”

Longtime journalist Milt Capps, now with the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, says the lack of depth stems from many sources. Public education, he says, is a complex subject that features many players and reams of academic jargon.

So the first challenge is simply to understand “what’s behind all that busyness” and to present the issues in ways that are meaningful to the community.

Living up to that challenge is difficult for reporters who usually don’t see the education beat as one that careers are made of and who are being required to do more education stories but with less time for each story, Capps says. High turnover in turn contributes to a lack of continuity.

“They spend too much time trying to put out fires instead of communicating substantial stories in a relevant way.”

On the school district’s part, there is often an unwillingness to put resources into an effective communications department.

“Sometimes elected school officials are reluctant to let staff speak for them, or resent the money spent on media relations,” Capps says. “It’s sort of PC (politically correct) to not spend money on communicating with the public.”

Those behind the headlines and news bulletins say they do recognize the need to get substantial stories before the public.

At the Morning News, “We have been working on a major education project for several months, even though we have been putting a lot of our resources into the school administration,” Wilk says.

“Our challenge is to keep our eyes on the ball and remember what this is about: educating kids. We can’t let that get lost.”

A Look Inside: Stonewall Jackson

Students will explore the politics, customs, history, commerce and other aspects of Egypt for this year’s Special Events project.

The annual project singles out a particular country for in-depth study by students in grades K-6 over the course of the school year.

This experience teaches a great deal more about a country than can be learned by “reading about it in Social Studies for one week,” says Principal Olivia Henderson.

Nor is the effort only a Social Studies project. Teachers are provided with resource lists of information on the chosen country, along with suggestions for including the information into all areas of the school curriculum, including music, science and math.

In the final week of the year, students decorate the building to approximate the sights and background of the chosen country. On the final day, students and teachers arrive dressed in the fashion of the chosen country (historic, traditional costumes or modern dress) and the community is invited to view the work done by students and other festivities matching the study theme.

A fitting conclusion, says Henderson, given the support of the many volunteers who provide the research, contacts and materials needed to coordinate the event.

“The community is very supportive of this particular event,” Henderson says. “It is really exciting for students. They truly get involved.”

Special Events has been annual event since 1976 and over the years has been featured on Channel 5 news and in the Morning News.

“It’s really wonderful for the community, this year in particular when the press has been so negative about Dallas public schools,” Henderson says.

“We relish the opportunity to talk about the positive. There are so many wonderful things happening in our public schools. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always get out.”

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