Schools close for holiday, but pupils open to challenge

Program celebrates the teachings of King

January 17, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might have moved from current events to American history in Carroll County, where schools were closed today in his honor. But some students will take up a challenge tomorrow to carry out his ideals.

Last February, the county school board decided to change this year's school calendar and hold class on the holiday -- becoming the only school system in the state not to observe the slain civil rights leader's birthday.

Widespread criticism caused the board to reverse the decision, and the General Assembly has since made King's birthday a mandatory, rather than an optional, school holiday.

"I believe the board members had a sentiment that it was in the better interest of Carroll County students to be in school that day, to be sure that they received instruction about Dr. King and his legacy," said school board President C. Scott Stone. "But after discussions with members of the majority community and the minority community, especially African-Americans -- well, my unscientific canvass of this was wrong. They said, `You've made a terrible mistake, even if your intentions were admirable.' "

Stone said he believes government should never hurt people, but in that instance, the school board did -- though unintentionally.

"The decision was in no way intended to slight Dr. King," he said.

Since then, Scott and school officials have met with members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to discuss the issue. School officials also agreed to increase diversity among its workers.

"I would say they have made an effort. They have definitely made an effort," said Leon B.

Dorsey II, president of the Carroll County branch of the NAACP. "There's still a long way to go in terms of bringing diversity and multiculturalism to the program. I know it takes time."

A quick survey of county schools from elementary to high school found many planning activities to honor King's memory, from music and art to history and writing assignments.

Realizing King's vision

But at Manchester Elementary School, pupils plan to do more than watch and listen to videos of decades-old speeches. Almost all pupils will take action toward realizing King's vision, as part of the Do Something Kindness and Justice Challenge, co-sponsored by his son Martin Luther King III and actor Andrew Shue.

The challenge, which starts tomorrow and runs through Jan. 28, has an Internet link for the children on its Do Something Web site, said Rafe Bemporad, spokesman for the nonprofit foundation Do Something Inc. in New York. Pupils and school administrators have seen potential there to combat school problems, from teasing to violence.

In the challenge, the participants log their acts of kindness or justice for two weeks, with teachers' supervision. Prizes and national recognition will be given to students and schools for the most good deeds logged in two weeks. But the underlying purpose is to inspire young people and create a lifelong commitment.

"Like my father, I believe in the power of young people to change the world," King said in a statement. "Through the Do Something Kindness and Justice Challenge, students can put into practice the ideals to which my father devoted his life."

Joining the challenge

Fifth-grade teacher Barbara Bucher came up with the idea for her pupils to join the challenge.

"We're always trying, talking to the kids within our curriculum to be kind and respectful to other people, and I just thought this would be a terrific way to honor Dr. King and talk about kindness and justice," she said. "We're more or less trying to enact what he taught and what he believed in: standing up in a nonviolent way."

Some of the children can't wait, said Bucher, who is in her 14th year at the school. "They are excited," and parents are already telling tales of good deeds, such as giving up a chair or jumping up to do the dishes.

Other participating Carroll schools include Freedom Elementary and Mount Airy, Oklahoma Road and Sykesville middle schools, Bemporad said. Baltimore accounts for at least 63 of the 269 Maryland schools participating.

"Many more are registering every day," Bemporad said. This marks the third year of the national challenge, and 2.4 million students at 12,400 schools nationwide had registered to participate by last week.

"The Internet makes it kind of fun for the kids. They can go online and see the acts that are posted," said Manchester Principal Robert E. Mitchell.

Although the program isn't mandatory at Manchester, teachers expect almost 100 percent participation, Bucher said.

"The best thing is what Martin Luther King III said, that young people are learning the values taught by his father, especially compassion, nonviolence and moral courage," said Gail Riley, an instructional assistant at Manchester who is helping with the project. The pupils will receive certificates signed by King's eldest son.

"We've never done anything like this," Riley said. Before this year. "each class did something different, usually a lesson."

"It's a very nice tie-in to our character-education program," said Mitchell, referring to a countywide values program.

This month's emphasis is on integrity.

Character education

"Obviously, we want people to learn from this man," said Dorothy D. Mangle, the county schools' assistant superintendent for instruction. "We believe in continuous instruction. We try to avoid events [such as] only recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King on one holiday.

"Character education will be a priority forever," she said. "So when you talk about Martin Luther King, you have an opportunity to discuss Martin Luther King and what he contributed as an individual of integrity to our nation."

"I remember when he was part of current events back in '68," said Mangle, who joined the school system in 1971. "Now, he'd be in American history."

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