A group of Pasco residents has formed a county chapter of Citizens for Excellence in Education.
The national CEE, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., monitors and questions public education and has been linked with a conservative Christian agenda, including the return of prayer to schools and the questioning of assorted classroom reforms.
The group's national leader, Robert Simonds, does not try to hide his religious beliefs and neither do the local director and assistant director. However, anyone of any belief is welcome to attend the Pasco CEE's twice-monthly meetings, said assistant director Harriet Mathews.
The meetings have attracted up to 20 people so far, she said. The group also has garnered the notice of Superintendent Tom Weightman, who cites possible conservative Christian influence as why he has changed his mind about how his successor should be chosen. (See accompanying story.)
Mathews and her husband, Mark, have attended School Board meetings for the past couple of years and were instrumental in bringing to light widespread dissatisfaction with changes in the district grading system. Mrs. Mathews served on a committee that helped develop a new grading system to replace a controversial one, and she has stayed active in school issues.
Pasco CEE director Gus Swoboda started coming to board meetings a few months ago. He routinely speaks at the meetings, referring to the need for schools to teach values and offer stronger moral guidance.
Mrs. Mathews said the local CEE started as an outlet to find answers in light of the district's "failure to inform the public" about changes occurring in Pasco schools.
She said that the local CEE has targeted a number of important issues that parents consistently bring up. One is the need to have phonics specifically stated as part of the elementary language curriculum, she said.
Parents often complain that the district has moved away from using phonics, which helps children learn to read, she said.
New ways to assess progress are another area of concern, Mrs. Mathews said, calling those changes a "fundamental shift in education" and saying that the district hasn't explained the alterations.
Mrs. Mathews, who videotapes the meetings and then makes the tapes available to local cable access channels for broadcast, said her activism doesn't stem from an extreme point of view. She said her activism is the "gesture of a concerned person."
She wants others who are concerned to feel that their opinions count and that's the local CEE's purpose, she said.
"The district and the schools tend to take parents' complaints and dismiss them," she said. "We're someone they can come to and they won't be dismissed."