Good behavior program merits a first lady visit

School: Laura Bush stops in Baltimore to highlight a strategy that helps keep pupils focused on academics, not gangs.

February 09, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

In the end, Laura Bush's visit yesterday to George Washington Elementary School lasted less than two hours. But preparations for it began well before the first lady arrived.

Secret Service agents were at the school Friday, scoping out the neighborhood and -- as a precaution -- noting the location of exits and the nearest hospital.

Over the weekend, Principal Susan Burgess and maintenance workers scrubbed down the school. A few teachers who figured out beforehand the identity of their important visitor -- Burgess had been told to keep Bush's visit a secret, but they heard about the phone calls from the White House -- went shopping for business suits.

"I'm nervous," said Burgess, whose school has had success with a program that teaches good behavior to first-graders. "I'm excited. I haven't been sleeping. The whole weekend, I was here."

The visit came on the heels of President Bush's State of the Union address last week, in which he said his wife would be leading a three-year outreach effort, Helping America's Youth, to encourage youngsters -- especially boys -- to avoid violent behavior and gangs.

Laura Bush, a former teacher, is touring the country to highlight programs that the administration believes help students remain focused on school. She was in Philadelphia last week, and Detroit is next on her list.

The visit to George Washington was choreographed down to small details. In the morning, pupils and staff waited in the gym as police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs performed a security sweep of the school.

Just before her arrival, a member of Bush's staff read aloud a list of dignitaries who would be permitted to greet the first lady at the school entrance -- including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland -- and shooed everyone else away.

Bush's first stop was Phyllis Davis' first-grade classroom, where she observed pupils playing a "good behavior game" as they worked on a reading assignment. The pupils motivate their teammates to follow class rules and are rewarded with small prizes.

News photographers and television cameramen were ushered into the classroom for a few minutes to capture images of the first lady with the children, then whisked out.

After the class visit and a private chat with school and government officials, Bush went to the cafeteria, where more than 100 guests stood to greet her. Dressed in a tailored red-orange jacket and brown slacks, she thanked the school and community for the warm reception and said how much she enjoyed visiting schools.

"Because, always, things happen at schools that are funny and unscripted," Bush said.

The first lady spoke about the importance of helping children develop good behavior at an early age and praised George Washington's program, which aims to curb aggressive behavior and increase academic achievement.

"This model is simple and inexpensive, and it can work for students in schools across our country," Bush said.

Sheppard Kellam, a researcher who has studied the "good behavior game" in a dozen city schools for 20 years, said he hoped the event would spur others to adopt the program.

"She's a perfect ambassador because she's respected as an educator and can carry the message," said Kellam, a director at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

As the first lady made her way out of the cafeteria, some fifth-graders milled around, hoping to ask Bush for an autograph. They had to settle for signatures from Secret Service agents.

Takia Thomas, 11, said it was interesting to hear Bush talk. "I think it's good to help the little children behave," Takia said. "When they get older, they might be bad ... and get locked up one day."

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