Montgomery schools taking drills seriously

The Education Beat

Threats: The public school system is working to make sure it's ready for anything, including the possibility of a terrorist attack on its facilities.

April 27, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN THE BOMB drills of the 1950s, we dove under our desks, covered our heads with our arms - and prayed it wasn't an A-bomb en route from Moscow. Here's the 2003 "Code Red" terrorist drill in Montgomery County:

Children close the classroom blinds, huddle in a corner, stay quiet - and pray it's not some madman who has unleashed a chemical attack. If the kids are noisy during the drill, a note from a roving administrator is slipped under the door. "You're dead," it reads, meaning that those who don't take the threat seriously are risking their lives and the lives of others.

That's how seriously Montgomery takes the threat of a terrorist attack. And understandably so. County schools experienced the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, for which they were woefully unprepared. Then came the anthrax threat and the 22-day sniper siege. Hardened by threats that were unthinkable only a few years ago - but are now terrifyingly thinkable - Montgomery has developed safety and security procedures that are models for districts across the nation.

Last week, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and his staff staged a mock drill at Sherwood High School for Jim Lehrer's program on PBS. Montgomery leaves to "first responders" - fire and police officers - the heavy lifting in case of an attack. The primary duty of teachers and administrators is to protect children until other authorities arrive and return them to their families as soon as possible.

What's scary about all this is that Weast and others know that terrorist attacks are inevitable, that public schools are a likely target (on any weekday, one-fourth of the U.S. population is in school), and that schools in the suburbs of the nation's capital are especially vulnerable.

Reading to young children has proven benefits

Early childhood education used to be solely a matter of common sense. Parents knew that if they read to their kids early and often, they were more likely to grow up to be good readers. Parents knew that a steady diet of television was bad news and that very young kids exposed to nursery rhymes, songs, poems and word games grew up to be better readers and writers.

Recently, science has validated common sense. And so every parent, every early childhood teacher, every day care worker can be a scientist, employing proven techniques to help children become fluent readers and good writers. And telling their friends it's the latest "brain research."

Perhaps that's why there was a record turnout last week for the annual conference of Maryland's Ready at Five Partnership. As the name implies, the partnership seeks to bring the state's vast early childhood apparatus together in a common mission, to get kids fully ready for school at age 5.

It's a "terribly uneven landscape," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, but Maryland has "become a state of very strong activists and advocates for young children."

Just over half of Maryland children were fully ready for kindergarten when they arrived last fall, according to a survey of kindergarten teachers. But while 60 percent of white children were ready, only 42 percent of African-American kids were in that category, Grasmick said. "Many of these children struggle their entire school career unless we begin as soon as possible," she said.

The good news, said Dorothy S. Strickland, a Rutgers University reading authority who was the featured speaker at the conference, is that reading ability isn't fixed at birth. It's affected by a child's experiences and environment, which parents and teachers can alter from the day of birth. And some abilities are acquired more easily during "sensitive" periods.

Strickland said young kids learn through play, not drill, another lesson in common sense. Sitting a very young child at a desk to learn the "letter of the week," Strickland said, "is practicing cruelty to living things."

Magazine's college guide gets own consumer rating

Robert L. Woodbury, a former chancellor of the University of Maine System, has written a brilliant tongue-in-cheek critique of the annual U.S. News & World Report college guide. Published by the New England Board of Higher Education, Woodbury's article compares Consumer Reports' assessment of automobiles with U.S. News' rating of colleges and universities.

"If Consumer Reports functioned like U.S. News," he writes, "it would rank cars on the amount of steel and plastic used in their construction, the opinions of competing car dealers, the driving skills of customers, the percentage of managers and sales people with MBAs and the sticker price of the vehicle (the higher, the better)."

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