by SUSIE WALLACE
In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a kindergarten teacher asked her students what their dreams would be if they were Martin Luther King Jr. today. A five-year-old girl quietly said:
"I dream of a world where everybody can go to sleep at night and not hear gunshots, where girls are not raped and everybody is loved."
This somber answer points to the fact that todays students challenge teachers and school administrators in ways that did not surface 20 or 30 years ago. They say the U.S. educational system needs reform, and theyre working to be part of the solution. In classrooms, schools and school districts, teachers and administrators are developing new teaching methods that respond to changes in society.
Response asked four United Methodist Women members who are professional educators their views on public education -- what's working, whats not working, what needs to improve. These women and other educators didnt always agree, but they do share a goal of giving each child a quality education.
Women's Division Director Diane Clark Vogler is in her 13th year as principal of Sylvan Hills Elementary, a kindergarten through sixth grade school in the Pulaski County Special School District in Sherwood, Ark., near North Little Rock. The role of the classroom teacher has changed greatly since she began her career in the late 1960s, Ms. Vogler said.
"Then, teachers were the fountain of knowledge," she said. "Now educators are planners and facilitators, organizers and evaluators. We have to know each student's strengths and weaknesses as well as what motivates them. We have to have a strong knowledge of all areas of curriculum."
And the children have changed, Ms. Vogler said.
"Our children used to have the clothes, food and homes they needed," she said. "Kids were kids. Now they come to school with life experiences that make it difficult for them to be children. How can they learn until these things are in the proper perspective?"
Ms. Vogler feels fortunate to have excellent parental support in her school, she said. Ninety-nine percent of parents attend parent-teacher conferences, and parents volunteer many hours. Ms. Vogler listed positive programs in her school district:
Additional funding and space top Ms. Voglers list of things needed to improve public education. Many schools in her district need expansion and refurbishing, and money is needed to keep up with technology, expand computer programs and hire fine-arts teachers.
Ms. Vogler urged United Methodist Women to study issues surrounding education reform.
"Reforms need to be fair and positive for all children, not just in one particular area," she said.
"Whether or not we have school-age children, we all have a responsibility to be constantly involved in our local public schools. As taxpayers, we all invest a fortune in our schools. Have you checked in your local school lately to see how your investment is doing?"
Connie Mitchell teaches 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds at James Lane Allen Elementary School in Lexington, Ky. Shes also president of Kentucky Conference United Methodist Women and a former Womens Division director.
Ms. Mitchell has seen many changes in education during her 28-year career. In most families today, both parents work so there is a greater need for before- and after-school care, she said. And students now require a different type of instruction because they are exposed to mass media more than previous generations.
"Teachers often feel they have to perform, to be entertaining to compete with television," Ms. Mitchell said. "It is more difficult to get and keep students attention."
As students are attracted to magnet schools and travel across town to attend them, Ms. Mitchell has seen an end to neighborhood schools and the community support they enjoyed.
Kentucky schools are responding to changes in part by placing kindergarten through third-grade students in classes together rather than in grade-level classes. Students in these primary schools are in classes with students younger and/or older than themselves. When they have met the exit criteria, they move on to fourth grade.
"This benefits the students in that they are not limited to grade curriculum," Ms. Mitchell said. Students work at their maximum potential and keep a portfolio of their achievements. They learn from each other, which includes learning to read more quickly.
"The children seem more comfortable in this structure because it takes away the sense of failure and focuses on progress," she said.
Ms. Mitchell believes school reforms need greater teacher input.
"Decisions need to be made by people working with children every day," she said. "Legislators are not educators."
She also supports smaller classes, more individualized instruction, greater resources and teacher empowerment. Schools in Kentucky do have control of their own budgets with each school having a school-based decision-making council.
Ms. Mitchell is skeptical about school vouchers.
"I am afraid vouchers will take the best and the brightest away from the public sector," Ms. Mitchell said. "Private schools have a choice about whom they take. They will refuse students who present a greater challenge to educate.
"In public schools, we are challenged to educate whoever comes through the door. School vouchers will take away necessary resources from public schools, and we will have to use these limited resources to educate the students who are less motivated to learn."
Roni Kuester is immediate past-president of Santa Ana District, California-Pacific Conference, United Methodist Women. She has been teaching for almost 40 years and now teaches a unique psychomotor-education program at Village View Elementary School in Ocean View School District, Huntington Beach, Calif.
Ms. Kuester works with the approximately 575 students in her school through the non-remedial program she developed. The program uses physical activity and music to reinforce basic learning skills.
Like others, Ms. Kuester is challenged by changing family structures of her students. With a high percentage of homes led by single or dual-career parents, its difficult to schedule time for parent-teacher consultation, Parent Teacher Association meetings and other parent activities.
"The parents views and actions concerning the activities their children are involved in affect the kids' views," Ms. Kuester said. "Often, children devalue activities as a way to come to terms with the lack of parental interest or involvement. This is difficult for teachers."
The Ocean View School District, a culturally diverse district, has instituted school-site day care from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It supervised homework sessions, snacks and quiet time.
Technology is bringing positive change to her school, Ms. Kuester said. Each classroom, kindergarten through fifth grade, has computers, and teachers try to make sure each student has time on the computer every day.
"The downside of this is that as we have put more money into technology, we have had to let go of other things, such as art specialists, music specialists and physical-education teachers," she said. "My concern is that as we have rushed to meet the demands of technology, sometimes we have let go of things that are important expressions of our humanity."
Village View Elementary School has many students whose first language is Spanish or one of a number of Asian languages. Ms. Kuester believes schools should find ways to preserve these students cultures while helping them learn to think and speak in English. English-As-A-Second-Language students benefit from Ms. Kuesters psychomotor program because music assists them in grasping language.
As educational reforms are considered and teachers' workloads are increased, Ms. Kuester believes teacher salaries should increase.
Education should recognize students varying learning styles, said Merle Boxill, a 32-year veteran high school science and math teacher and president of California-Nevada Conference United Methodist Women.
"Our educational system tends to assume one size fits all," Ms. Boxill said. "But we don't all learn at the same rate, at the same pace, or in the same way."
Ms. Boxill is part of an innovative program designed to increase the number of students getting C or better in science and math. The program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, takes her out of the classroom to model teaching methods and to work with other teachers in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, Calif.
The program is one response to changes that Ms. Boxill has seen since she began teaching. Like Ms. Kuester, she has seen classrooms become more ethnically diverse, with many students facing language hurdles. More students enter high school unprepared and reading far below grade level, Ms. Boxill observed.
"This is a generation that just doesn't like to read," she said. "They are highly visual."
Before going on special assignment, Ms. Boxill taught in a school thats student population was approximately 37 percent Hispanic American, 35 percent Vietnamese American, 12 percent European American and 8 percent African American. Special programs have been initiated to help students prepare for college. The district's Puente Project for racial-ethnic students provides mentors, educational enrichment and visits to college campuses.
The district is also experimenting with single-gender classrooms. The voluntary program helps students concentrate on learning because it recognizes learning-style differences between girls and boys.
"We are always in the process of finding new things that work," Ms. Boxill said. "We have to reform the way we do things to meet the reality of what's in front of us."
Although she is unsure about school vouchers, Ms. Boxill said as a parent, she would welcome any system that would help her get something better for her kids.
The nation's two large teachers' union -- the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) -- believe modernization and maintenance of school facilities is important in improving public education. In January, the unions joined together to propose "Modern Schools, Better Learning," a $30 billion, 10-year federal effort to help states and communities improve public schools.
"Modern schools are basic for better learning," said NEA President Bob Chase. "Americans understand the impact that class size, discipline and learning technology have on the quality of education. They also understand that unless we take steps now to modernize school facilities, classes will become more crowded, technology more outdated and students less prepared to meet the challenges of the future."
AFT President Sandra Feldman added:
"In far too many schools in this country, students spend their days in conditions no adult would tolerate in the workplace. Some 14 million students attend public schools that need extensive repair or replacement. It's unconscionable."
School modernization is one collaboration between the unions. Last year, they announced the formation of a national joint council to work on three issues: school infrastructure, school safety and discipline, and teacher quality.
Susie Wallace is a freelance writer living in Oklahoma City, Okla., and a member of the Crown Heights United Methodist Church in that city. She is an author of a new book, Oklahoma City: A Better Living, A Better Life.