Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Education

Veteran objects to 'antiwar' lesson at Wiregrass Ranch High

WESLEY CHAPEL — Sitting at his computer at Guantanamo Bay, Daniel Eller decided to check his daughter Coralia's advanced placement summer reading assignment from Wiregrass Ranch High School.

The retired Army sergeant turned military contractor couldn't have been more upset with the selections. They included the prize-winning book of short stories The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and the song lyrics of What's Going On by Marvin Gaye and War by Edwin Starr.

"The themes are all antiwar," said Eller, 55, who has served in Iraq, Panama and about a dozen other countries. "Even worse, they give the kids the impression that nothing is worth fighting for. That is just completely wrong."

The assignment is an AP-recommended lesson that Wiregrass Ranch teachers received at an AP seminar and decided to use.

Disturbed that the assignment offered no counterpoint, Eller complained to principal Ray Bonti.

"Mr. Bonti, bottom line is that I have a very low tolerance level for those sneaking in indoctrination in the disguise of 'approved' teaching material," Eller wrote to the principal. "I am in fact 'offended' that my school allows this to take place. You put me in a position to either have my very advanced and gifted child not do the 'required' reading and 'required' essays and suffer the consequences in order to not (be) indoctrinated with a message that is against everything that I have risked my life for over the past 30 years."

He asked for a more inclusive reading and writing assignment that offers other points of view.

Bonti quickly set up a phone conversation with Eller to deal with what he saw as a touchy situation. He said he's definitely promilitary, noting the Secretary of Defense recently recognized him as a "Patriotic Employer" by supporting employees' participation in the National Guard and the Reserves. He did not want to come across as dismissive of Eller's views in any way.

So they talked.

Bonti acknowledged Eller's point, to a degree. He offered Coralia an alternate assignment, and also had the AP language and composition teachers add more material to the original assignment, including the lyrics of the highly patriotic Ballad of the Green Berets.

Coralia, a 16-year-old rising junior, said she was willing to do the work. She was, in fact, somewhat mortified that her dad had instigated a battle with her school, where she wants to do well and fit in.

"My initial reaction when I heard my dad was complaining was like a punch to the stomach," she said via email. "I was surprised and a bit irritated that he was taking it this far! I did ask him to stop."

But Eller did not stop.

He didn't accept the idea of a separate assignment, suggesting his daughter wouldn't be able to participate in classroom discussions and activities in that scenario. And the additional materials did not impress Eller, who saw the slant of the assignment as still evident.

He proposed adding The Killing Fields to the selections, as one example to show how lives change because of war and ideology — an offer that wasn't taken.

"I can't see how anyone could look at this material and not see it as … influencing to be antiwar," Eller said.

After what he has seen, it seemed obvious. During his years of service, Eller did stints in Afghanistan, Kuwait and throughout Central America. Part of his work included assisting other countries' armies in psychological operations to improve their image.

"I see my own public school doing the same thing I was seeing overseas, to influence others," he said.

Unable to win the school over to his point of view, Eller next contacted veterans groups, School Board members and lawmakers, upping the ante on the dispute.

School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley applauded Eller's activism and interest.

"The more involved parents are, the better off our schools are," Hurley said. "He has every right to question what we are doing. He is correct to bring up something he doesn't like."

The district must follow its policies and procedures for challenged instructional materials, she added. Eller took the appropriate first step in seeking redress with the principal.

If still dissatisfied, she said, his next act would be to file a formal complaint that would require a committee of educators and parents to review the materials.

Eller said he would like to do so, although he worried that the distance and the time constraints might make that difficult.

"I'm not sure how I can meet all of the requirements," he said via email. "Also, by the time I got all of this done, all of the kids would have completed the assignment and the damage would be a completed action. I think the best that can be done is to shame them into doing the right thing."

Bonti suggested that whatever the outcome, the assignment is one of hundreds that students will complete during the school year. That gives the class plenty of time to explore other points of view, he said.

"I think everything gets balanced out in the long run," Bonti said.

Meanwhile, Coralia waits.

She'd like to do the work and get it completed, "since it is a grade." But at the same time, she sees her dad's side, too.

"In regards to the original assignment, I saw that the content of the readings ARE one-sided. For an AP assignment, I expected to see something with dual perspectives in order to allow students to determine their own views," she said via email.

The altered assignment did little to fix this, Coralia contended. "Hopefully all this (the article, the exposure …) will change something, if anything, so I can move on with my summer!"

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Comments
Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Editor’s note: Ethan Hooper wrote today’s column to give Ernest Hooper Father’s Day off.In May, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education, and I recently secured a job as a first-grade teacher with Orang...
Published: 06/18/18
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/17/18
Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum...
Published: 06/14/18
University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

The University of Chicago will no longer require ACT or SAT scores from U.S. students, sending a jolt through elite institutions of higher education as it becomes the first top-10 research university to join the test-optional movement.Numerous school...
Published: 06/14/18
Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano presented to the School Board Tuesday nearly $53 million worth of budget priorities, asking them to choose which will be funded in the upcoming school year.The board voted 3-2 later Tue...
Published: 06/13/18
UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

The University of Tampa’s MFA program will host the June 2018 Residency Visiting Writers Lectores Series that runs from now until June 21 on the ninth floor of the Vaughn Center, 401 W Kennedy Blvd. Each reading will be held at 7:30 p.m.Each January ...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/15/18
Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano will step down at the end of this month following a 3-2 vote by the School Board to terminate its contract with her amid increasing concerns about her ability to lead.Romano has suffere...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18
Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

NEW PORT RICHEY — The dozen Fivay High school students and their administrators arrived at the Pasco County school district’s annual Together We Stand conference with a clear goal in mind.With hundreds of former Ridgewood High students arriving in th...
Published: 06/12/18
Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

BROOKSVILLE — Historic Camp Perry is where it’s at. Located near Clinton, Ohio, the National Guard training facility is where the nation’s top shooters go to compete.Next week, some of Hernando County’s top shooters compete there in the Civilian Mark...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/14/18