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Rumors Behind the News
THE MAZOOKMOBILE -- substituting for the beleaguered Noe Valley Bureau of Investigation (NVBI) -- recently stopped by two local schools, looking for answers to our pesky public education problems. Wearing my Mazook hat, I asked to interview some new grads from the Class of '99, fifth-graders at Alvarado Elementary School on Douglass, and eighth-graders from James Lick Middle School on Noe Street.
I met with Bonnie Kuczborski's class in Room 22 at Alvarado, and Roberto Pena's GRIP group at Lick (Gang Response Intervention Program), who gave up part of their lunch hour to answer this question: "If you were governor of the State of California, what is the first thing you would do for your school, and why?"
The students had 15 minutes to write their answers down, and had no advance warning of the question. I told them to think about it first, and not to worry so much about spelling ("I am looking more for what you have to say than how you say it").
Oh, and make sure you write legibly, so I can read every word of your expert opinions and pass them on to the Voice readers, who might then pass them on to our newly elected "Public education is my top priority" governor, Gray Davis. (You all remember that Gray beat Dan Lundgren in Noe Valley by a ratio of 10 to 1.)
Davis presented several education initiatives, both in his budget proposals (not yet passed) and in "emergency" legislation passed by the legislature in special session in March. The numbers added up to $1.3 billion for schools, half of which would come from the March legislation and the other from the proposed budget. Line items included improving the quality of teachers, school safety, and the accountability and performance of students, particularly in reading.
As you will see, however, the students are crying out for some very simple and inexpensive things to improve their learning experience. And they need these things now!
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IN A NUTSHELL: Alvarado student Megan, age 11, has summed up the feelings of kids at both schools, and probably the students at all public schools in California. Hey, Gray, check this out:
"If I were governor of the State of California, the first thing I would do for my school, Alvarado, is to buy more equipment and supplies. We are always running out of markers, colored pencils, crayons, and chalk. Also, most of our equipment is old. Our desks are stained and people have cut bits off the tops. Our chairs are old and cracked and not all the same size. Our books are old and icky.
"I would also get our school repainted and the floors re-done. The floors are full of holes and covered with marks. The paint is starting to fade and peel, and the varnish is coming off the woodwork. The chalk boards are also covered with old bits of tape.
"School is fun just the same," she winds up (giving us a small crack of light).
Classmate Emily, age 11, was even more specific about the supplies needed: "[As governor, I'd] supply more school materials like textbooks, paper, pencils, erasers, chalk, and chalk erasers.... I would supply those things because we are always running out." Emily also insists, "I would also pay the teachers more," and concludes: "I would stop the people who are making better jails than schools because schools are more important."
Concurring is Daniel, also 11 years old, who says, "I think Alvarado needs more money for supplies, such as scissors, rulers, computer programs, pencils, markers and crayons, and other necessary supplies for a better learning experience."
Ten-year-old Nick wanted $100,000 right away as extra pay for the teachers, and money "to buy new school sporting equipment, school supplies, new science kits...up-to-date encyclopedias and maps and other stuff." Pleads Nick, "I would try to make school much more fun for kids, so when kids wake up they won't groan 'oh no, school,' but they'll say 'all right, it's a school day!'"
Isn't that the essence of it all?
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WITH HIS FINGER ON THE PULSE, 10-year-old Desmond wrote that he had a different priority, one which permeated the responses of almost all the soon-to-be sixth- and ninth-graders:
"If I were governor of California, the first thing I would do for Alvarado would be to give the school updated encyclopedias and better bathrooms, and more education in math, and have more hands-on activities like photo developing, better art classes, and more hands-on experiments in science. I would give the school better encyclopedias because most of them are old and need more info. The bathrooms are always smelly and don't get cleaned very well. Math is a very important subject, and everyone should be well educated in this subject. Hands-on activities are important because it makes learning a lot more fun."
The first thing Madeline, age "10-and-a-half," would do is "get the school new window shades," because the sun gets into "your eyes, on your back, and is reflected off book covers. I also would clean the bathrooms up because they are slippery and stinky. Some doors don't have locks."
For 10-year-old Alex, the first thing to do is get new desks and chairs because "it will help us by being comfortable doing our work."
But Ariel, age 12, would make sure the art program lasted all year.
For Erin, 10, the priorities are to "expand the library, expand the music program ... and have more athletic sports, because I think everyone should be getting exercise and I think everyone has a sport that they like."
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THE LICK STUDENTS who role-played as governor are in GRIP, an after-school activity and tutoring group. Their coordinator, Roberto Pena, is a Lick alumnus who graduated in 1988.
Eighth-grader David, 13, set the tone for most of his classmates: "If I was the governor of the State of California, the first thing I would do would be to put more research materials inside the classroom. I think that the classes could use more informative textbooks and more computers with the Internet. I would have one computer with the Internet for every four kids. I would do that because a lot of kids don't have the Internet at their house, and they need to have access to a computer."
Terse but true is 14-year-old Ray's response: "I would put more time for kids to learn. I would put [more] activities. I would put more money to buy more books."
Terser still was David S., age 15: "I would rebuild the school because the school needs a lot of work."
Eben, 13, wants first to fund "good art and music classes.... Next, not just for this school, but for as many as possible, I would develop a better free lunch...and I would fix up the building itself."
And Priscilla is a 13-year-old who knows her priorities:
"The first thing I would do is make gym optional, make electives your own choice. [I'd also] make a no-uniform policy; however, students wouldn't be allowed to wear certain gang-related clothes or things that are obscene or offensive. Make graduation caps and gowns free. There would be more field trips. Summer school would take field trips."
It looks as if Jimmy and Herman think Lick's hours should change. Says Jimmy, "Make it start a little bit later like at 8:50 and end at 2:30." Jimmy also wants enough money "to fix it all [Lick]...and buy more school materials."
Herman, agreeing with his friend, says, "The first thing I would do for James Lick School is to make it start at 8:40 every day."
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WRITES 14-YEAR-OLD ISAAC, perhaps a future governor of this great state: "If I were the governor of the State of California, the first thing I would do for James Lick Middle School is give James Lick more money to pay for better supplies, such as new textbooks, better computers, [and] a paint job, because you are a product of your environment, and if James Lick is a positive environment, it will make the kids positive, too."
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BEFORE I GO, I want to thank all the kids who gave me their valuable time and energy, and most of all, their thoughts. I also want to thank the governor's office and Ann Bancroft in the Office of the Secretary for Education for getting me the very latest figures on the $1.3 billion education budget.
Almost $200 million is targeted for "reading improvement," and $150 million is for "teacher quality," with $100 million for "teacher performance bonuses."
There is also $25 mil for "middle school after-school programs" and $10 million for elementary after-school programs. Then there's $40 million for "parent involvement."
I found $143 million earmarked for "deferred maintenance," which is probably about 10 percent of what is needed.
On the textbook issue, I was informed by Ms. Bancroft that there was about $250 million left over from last year, plus $250 mil allocated this past January, plus another $144 mil allocated by the legislative special session, plus an additional $25 million for "classroom books." That gives us a grand total of 669 million bucks for books.
Now, if we could just get a few thousand dollars in paper, pencils, and other basic teaching supplies into our neighborhood schools, we could move on those million-dollar items that will make our schools places our kids want to go.