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Lesson reaches beyond books

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in an occasional series of stories about the elementary school experience in the '90s. The series focuses on Rodney B. Cox Elementary School in Dade City.

I knew that I was in trouble when the dog walked through the door.

My only prop was a copy of the Tuesday St. Petersburg Times. And it won't leap, sit or _ to the dismay of some _ play dead on command.

But I bravely chatted with other Career Club sponsors at Rodney B. Cox Elementary School as I checked out the stuff they had brought for demonstrations or to give to the children.

Kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils break into groups for the clubs, sponsored by local businesses and agencies. When I started working on a yearlong project focusing on Cox Elementary, I volunteered to sponsor a Career Club.

The dog, a 2-year-old rat terrier named Hattie, was on hand to entertain a club sponsored by Nancy Rix, a Dade City animal trainer.

"You can't miss with this," she said as she gave Hattie the command to leap into her owner's lap.

As youngsters clustered around Rix and Hattie, I suffered an anxiety attack. My group was going to be bored. They were going to hate it. They would look forward to our monthly sessions the way they look forward to getting a shot at the doctor's office.

For them, hard lessons

learned outside of school

For many Cox pupils, school is a haven. A lot of these kids know firsthand about subjects the rest of us only read about: poverty, crack cocaine and hunger. They don't have to read the newspaper or watch the television news; they live what journalists write about.

Because most of the school's 500 or so pupils come from low-income families, Cox Elementary receives a federal grant that allows it to provide innovative programs, including lessons in social skills and an approach to teaching that shows the children how subjects they learn are related to one another.

Many of the youngsters at the school wouldn't thrive in a traditional setting. They need to be in smaller classes with more hands-on experiences like the Career Clubs.

The special programs offered at Cox are one of the reasons my editors and I decided we should write a yearlong project about what it's like to go to elementary school these days. Because it seems that Florida's education reform plan actually will get off the ground, we wanted to show readers what's happening in a school where visionary programs are already in place.

We also wanted to address the oft-heard comment that if schools would just go back to teaching the basics, then the education system would improve.

Schools do teach the basics, but the basics have changed over the years, just as society has been altered. These kids face issues and problems like substance abuse and AIDS at a very young age.

To learn the basics, the kids at Cox Elementary need to be drawn in to school. They have to see that education can make a difference in their lives.

Eat your heart out,

Michael Jordan

With all all this in mind, I started a discussion with the children in my Career Club about newspapers and writing. I held up Tuesday's front page and pointed to a large color photo of Ross Perot.

"Anybody know who this is?" I asked.

"The president," came a chorus of voices.

"Egad!" I thought as I tried my best to keep my voice neutral and objective.

The children tried again: "Clinton," "Bush," "the governor."

They were puzzled when I told them Perot's name and explained that he wasn't an elected official but he might want to be president. Then again, he might not. Their confusion was all too understandable.

On to a different topic. If they could interview anybody they wanted, whom would they pick? I looked around the room. Silence.

Anybody at all, somebody famous, maybe. How about Michael Jordan? How about Michael Jackson? Blank looks.

When Rachel Rizer raised her hand, I could have kissed her. Fortunately, Rachel, who is 10, and several other youngsters warmed to the subject and became increasingly animated.

Rachel said that she would like to interview Ms. Rodriguez. Linda Rodriguez is the principal of Cox Elementary and the object of much pupil adoration.

Here was a start. I pushed ahead and asked Rachel what she would ask Ms. Rodriguez.

"Why did she decide to become a principal?" Rachel said, "and how old she is."

Key questions for any interviewer.

Rachel and her pals, Dora Florez, 9, and Jennifer Patterson, 10, were encouraged and rattled off lists of story ideas and subjects. They taught me a lesson that veteran Career Club sponsors like Rix, who had a club last year, already know: It's important to stay within the realm of experience of the kids.

They aren't star-struck kids who dream of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. Their lives are right here and right now.

A couple of boys in the club didn't seem to be listening and weren't responding. To bring them into the discussion, I asked them why they were interested in journalism. They told me that they weren't, that they were assigned to be in the club.

They didn't pay much attention to what I said. Photographer Joseph Garnett and teacher Cheryl Brault and I tried to pull them in without success.

So I made a hard decision _ the kind of decision I have heard educators painfully discuss. I would concentrate on the kids who were interested, who did want to learn about journalism, and hope that their enthusiasm spilled over.

I recruited Dora, Jennifer and Rachel to report and write stories for the school newsletter that I had been pulled into helping produce. I walked them to the bus area after the club session, and we kept talking. All three said that they like to read and write and watch the news on television. They talked about how interested they are in learning about journalism.

Since I left the school last Tuesday, I have thought a lot about those three and how eager they are to learn. Their enthusiasm chased away my worries that journalism is no match for a leaping dog.