Gore tour turns school upside down

7-hour Mich. visit requires 4 draining days of preparation

May 08, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLT, MICH. -- Four frantic days of preparation had taken their toll by the time the Holt Senior High School faculty met Thursday for one last briefing on Vice President Al Gore's whirlwind tour of their suburban school. The excitement was building, of course, but so were the concerns.

If Gore did not stop by her class, would she still get to meet him, asked Beth Berwald, a math teacher, as she looked beseechingly at principal Brian Templin.

Would reporters be allowed to harass the students, asked Mary Boulanger, a science teacher.

If teachers did not want to be disturbed, one instructor suggested tartly, they should close their doors and post a sign that said "testing," or, perhaps, "Bush contributor."

"I know this is obviously very squirrelly and very tense and nerve-racking," said Amy Hart, a guidance counselor. "But it's really cool as well, so please keep that in perspective."

Friday was Gore's fourth "School Day" of the 2000 campaign, a seven-hour visit to allow the vice president to hear first-hand about the needs of U.S. education, and, of course, to showcase his heartfelt concern. But in doing so, he would wreak some havoc, turning a school upside down in exchange for giving students and staff what Templin called "an opportunity of a lifetime."

"There is a lot of anxiety around the school right now," Berwald acknowledged Friday morning as she clambered past a phalanx of camera crews to enter the school building. "All in all, the kids have tried to keep it under control, but it's been difficult."

The public school has become the backdrop of choice for a presidential campaign aimed almost exclusively, for now, at middle-class, moderate swing voters and their concerns. And education tops the agenda.

George W. Bush, Gore's Republican rival for the presidency, has made use of schools from Little Rock, Ark., to Mission Viejo, Calif., to showcase his education agenda - with mixed success.

The Texas governor's first attempt, in Little Rock in March, was greeted with tough questions from a principal seeking federal education aid and a student with harsh words for the governor's proposed school voucher program. Thursday's visit to Mission Viejo was a bit more rewarding. It yielded a telegenic moment when a teacher spoke hopefully of a Bush presidency.

But it is Gore who has transformed the school visit from a classic drop-by photo op to an all-day affair.

For public consumption Friday, there was Gore co-teaching a lesson on desegregation to a history class, talking physics with inquisitive students, lunching on pizza and french fries with the student body leadership, chatting with custodians, and answering questions from parents and teachers.

Behind Gore's media event were days of preparation that left much of Holt High School and the surrounding community, just outside of Lansing, panting. The Secret Service background checks, schedules made and remade, disciplinary concerns and news media inquiries left some wondering if it had all been worth it.

"It's just kind of havoc," said Denice Gipe, a voluble clerk at the 7-Eleven down Aurelias Road from the high school. "It's just freaking people out, and for what? Just a bunch of you-know-what."

Holt High's day in the sun Friday actually began after dark the preceding Sunday. Depth-charge blasts from the movie "U-571" were still ringing in Templin's ears that night when the phone rang after 10 p.m.

"How would you like a visit from the vice president?" a stranger's voice asked.

Gore's advance team had been trying to contact Templin all weekend, having been steered his way by the state's teachers union because of the school's experimental programs in teacher training and staff development.

But the principal's children, who had taken the calls each time, had garbled the message, telling him half-heartedly that some guys had been calling to sell him something. Now, he would have just four days to prepare.

"I said, `You bet,'" Templin recalled. "I didn't even hesitate."

With that, Holt's principal all but surrendered his school to an invading army. At 7 the next morning, the vanguard of Gore's advance team arrived at Holt. The Secret Service came that afternoon. They wouldn't leave for five days.

Shop was set up in the school's main office. Gore's security detail asked questions and checked backgrounds.

The advance team set out to identify a teacher who could play host to the vice president for a sleep-over Thursday night, to figure out which classes Gore should visit, which he should teach, which students should join him for lunch, which support staff he should greet. It was all choreographed to the minute.

On Wednesday, a student who indicated that he might be disruptive was hauled to the office of Assistant Principal Dan Plunkett for discipline, and suspended, no questions asked. When another student said he would bring an armload of Bush For President signs to school Friday, he was firmly advised against it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.