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CANDIDATES DIFFER ON SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION

This is the latest in an occasional series focusing on the issues,

 

records and platforms of the state's candidates for governor.

 

Today's installment focuses on education.

 

 

There he was, the governor of West Virginia, standing behind the

 

lectern inside the Harts High School gymnasium, doling out grant

 

money for a new kitchen in the senior center, and he got to talking about

 

that one-room schoolhouse in Tyler County.

 

 

Underwood always talks about the one-room schoolhouse. He has a model

 

of the schoolhouse in the governor's reception room at the state Capitol.

 

The one-room schoolhouse he attended as a boy. The one-room schoolhouse

 

where he worked as a janitor for three years.

 

 

And then - and this is where everyone in the packed Lincoln County

 

gymnasium started to listen - he started talking about technology, wiring

 

  • chools, distance learning, classes transmitted by satellite and - what's
  •  

    this? - about keeping Lincoln County's four high schools open, about

     

  • aving Lincoln County schools from consolidation.
  •  

     

    This from the Republican governor who never spoke against a single

     

  • chool closing since he took office in January 1997.
  •  

     

    "We need to look at putting together a network to provide services and

     

    eliminate the need for consolidation," Underwood said.

     

     

    And like that, the people were on their feet. They were electrified.

     

    They were applauding, hooting and hollering. Before Underwood, every state

     

    and local education official had vowed to shut down the four high schools

     

    and build a new one.

     

     

    But the governor, he was on a roll now, he sensed it, and he was

     

    talking about using the Lincoln distance-learning project as a model for

     

    the rest of the state. The rest of the state.

     

     

    Say what?

     

     

    Underwood had just put the state's most contentious, most divisive

     

    education issue - consolidation - back on the campaign table.

     

     

    "This is absolutely amazing," said Beth Spence, co-director of

     

    Challenge West Virginia, an organization that

  • upports small schools.
  • "The

     

    ramifications could be unbelievable. It could change education policy. It

     

    could stop the freight train of closing down schools."

     

     

    - - -

     

     

    Congressman Bob Wise's camp was quick to respond to Underwood's

     

    proposal. They dismissed it as an 11th-hour campaign ploy, a cruel

     

    election ploy at that, one that would raise false hopes for Lincoln County

     

    parents and children. Everyone knows the schools are going to close.

     

     

    "After you do distance learning you're still going to have four

     

    crumbling structures," said Wise, the Democratic challenger. "He walked in

     

    and simply blew up that plan. It shows he's ignorant of the issue or just

     

    used bad judgment."

     

     

    Underwood hadn't talked about his proposal with state schools

     

    Superintendent David Stewart and Lincoln County Superintendent Bill

     

    Grizzell.

     

     

    Before they debated consolidation, Wise and Underwood discussed

     

  • chool safety hot lines and other initiatives, "Promise" and
  •  

    "need-based" college scholarships, raising teacher salaries, raising

     

  • tandards, raising "the bar." Underwood wants to put the Ten Commandments
  •  

    up in schools and supports voluntary school prayer. Wise does not.

     

    Neither candidate has come forward with an education plan, platform or

     

    position paper.

     

     

    But consolidation, closing schools, will tug, wake and stir the

     

    West Virginia electorate.

     

     

    The state's education establishment has dug its heels into the notion

     

    that "bigger is better." With a bigger school, you can offer more

     

    advanced courses, more technology, more foreign languages, more counselors

     

    and nurses.

     

     

    West Virginia's student population is shrinking - and fast. Young

     

    families are leaving the state in droves. Enrollment has declined faster

     

    than any state in the nation. Fewer students, fewer schools needed. End of

     

  • tory.
  •  

     

    But not everyone buys it. Research shows that disadvantaged kids do

     

    better in small schools. The bus rides are shorter. More students

     

    participate in extracurricular activities. The schools help to keep

     

    communities afloat.

     

     

    Before Underwood walked into that Harts High School gymnasium,

     

    it seemed Wise had the small school supporters on his side.

     

     

    It was something he said last year, something deep and personal that

     

    caught everyone's attention. Wise said he sometimes felt lost in high

     

  • chool. There were too many kids in the school.
  •  

     

    The comments came a few months after the Columbine tragedy when some

     

    elected officials, such as North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, started talking

     

    about small schools as a way to curb violence.

     

     

    Wise stated he didn't think a high school should house more than

     

    1,000 students, a middle school no more than 800, an elementary

     

  • chool no more than 500.
  •  

     

    You won't hear West Virginia education officials rattle off those

     

    limits - though for the most part West Virginia schools are small by

     

  • ational standards. The state's high schools, for instance, average 700
  •  

  • tudents. You won't find but a handful of "mega-schools" in the state.
  •  

     

    But Wise had given the anti-consolidation folks a glimmer of

     

    hope.

     

     

    "Bob is in no rush to consolidate schools," said Mike Plante, a Wise

     

  • trategist. "He thinks it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. He
  •  

  • upports the community-based school concept."
  •  

     

    - - -

     

     

    Bob Wise huddled with 70 Riverside High School students in the

     

  • chool library last week. There was a $3,000 check handed out by
  •  

    AT&T. The company had invited him to chat with students about

     

    leadership.

     

     

    Wise asked for a show of hands: How many planned to leave West

     

    Virginia?

     

     

    The hands sprang up; he was surrounded by hands, a sea of hands.

     

    Everyone, it appeared, had raised a hand.

     

     

    This frustrates Wise. He says this is what the campaign is about:

     

    keeping West Virginia kids at home.

     

     

    Wise left the state himself after graduating from George Washington

     

    High School in Charleston. He lived in New Orleans and North

     

    Carolina. He returned to West Virginia 10 years later.

     

     

    "West Virginia is changing," Wise said. "We need you on the ground

     

    floor to make that change."

     

     

    And then he made a pitch. "In West Virginia a person can move farther

     

    and faster," he said. "I've never seen a place where a person can move

     

    ahead as fast."

     

     

    Wise fielded questions from the students. Most wanted to know his

     

    position on student dress codes. (He supports them. Students oppose them.)

     

     

     

     

    Joey Connard, Riverside's student council president, asked about Wise's

     

    position on school size.

     

     

    Riverside has 1,300 students. Some feel that's too many. Not Connard.

     

    He wanted the congressman's opinion.

     

     

    "How do you feel about big schools?" Connard asked. "Are you in favor

     

    of a big school like Riverside?"

     

     

    "I happen to believe education needs to be small," Wise responded. "But

     

    that doesn't mean it cannot happen in a large school. You have to

     

    make sure students don't feel isolated."

     

     

    Another student jumped up and said many Riverside students feel left

     

    out because they don't participate in extracurricular activities.

     

     

    "There is a need for all of us to be engaged with one another," Wise

     

  • odded.
  •  

     

    - - -

     

     

    Mountain Party gubernatorial candidate Denise Giardina and Libertarian

     

    Bob Myers also want to stop the outflow of students from West Virginia.

     

     

    And they believe education can play a role.

     

     

    First Giardina: Giardina was talking about consolidation months

     

    before Underwood showed up in the Harts High gymnasium.

     

     

    Giardina supports small schools - no more than 350 students in an

     

    elementary school.

     

     

    She thinks schoolchildren spend too much time on buses, not enough in

     

    band and chorus.

     

     

    She calls the state School Building Authority, which allocates

     

    money for school construction, the "School Bullying

     

    Authority." She says the authority forces consolidation on

     

    communities, using policies that favor "massive educational factories."

     

     

    She worries about the dozens of elementary schools across the state

     

    that may close in the next 10 years.

     

     

    "You take the heart and soul out of the community and you waste

     

    resources," said Giardina, a novelist.

     

     

    Giardina also supports a curriculum rooted in community.

     

     

    Educators call it "place-based learning" or "experiential learning." A

     

    social studies class interviews seniors about a town's hi

  • tory.
  • A science

     

    class tests the water in a local stream. An economics class organizes a

     

    meeting of local business leaders.

     

     

    "If you want to learn about plants," Giardina said, "you go out in the

     

    community and explore plants."

     

     

    Bob Myers, former president of the state Board of Education, also

     

  • upports small schools.
  •  

     

    "Consolidation is more of a public works project than an

     

    education project," Myers said.

     

     

    Myers wants to abolish the state Department of Education and

     

    School Building Authority.

     

     

    He wants to "shatter the education monopoly" (West Virginia has one of

     

    the most centralized education systems in the nation) and establish

     

    independent school districts across the state.

     

     

    In Lincoln County, for instance, he'd encourage Harts High

     

    School residents to set up their own school board, which, he

     

    asserts, the state constitution allows.

     

     

    "There are only two elements in our society we institutionalize," Myers

     

  • aid. "One is the prisoners. The other is students."
  •  

     

    - - -

     

     

    Bob Wise had just finished his clogging routine for Riverside students

     

    - "Anyone have a zither or banjo?" and Connard and Arpan Kohli talked

     

    about their efforts to unite their classmates. Many attended the former

     

    East Bank and DuPont high schools.

     

     

    They rattled off all the activities at the school - civil rights

     

    club, Spanish club, foreign language club, and the "best football team in

     

    the state." Connard plays wide receiver.

     

     

    "But some people you can't help," Kohli said. "They just don't want to

     

    get involved."

     

     

    "We've got a great group," Connard said. "Everybody still loves

     

    everybody."

     

     

    And then they watched Wise, the AT&T folks and the television

     

    reporters squeeze out the library doors into a mist of cold rain.

     

     

    "You know, Governor Underwood came here last year," Kohli said. "He

     

    gave us some money, too."

     

     

    To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.

     

     


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