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Placing learning priority on places

For Mona Rossignol, discussing the complexities of Hitler's reign of terror during World World II can be quite a challenge with some of her 11th-grade students.

Why? They don't know where Germany is.

"Some kids don't even know north, south, east and west," said Rossignol, who heads the social studies department and teaches American history at Nature Coast Technical High School.

Her students aren't alone. American students fare poorly when tested for their command of geography, whether it be pinpointing a state on a map or having some clue about the culture of people who live there.

Students in Hernando County high schools are at a greater disadvantage than many of their peers, School Board Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said last week. The district is one of the few counties in Florida that doesn't offer any geography courses at the high school level.

At Tuesday night's School Board meeting, Nicholson asked staff to find a way to re-introduce geography as at least an elective class next year.

"It's mandatory in middle school," she said. "What I'm hearing from college students is it would be really beneficial to have in high school."

Local educators favor the idea. But they must balance meshing mandatory tests and federal and state achievement standards with the duty to provide students with a relevant education.

Nicholson's request breathes new life locally into what has been the roller-coaster history of geography's prominence in secondary schools nationwide.

Back in the early to mid-1980s, the subject wasn't getting a lot of play in most high schools, and it showed. Studies indicated that students in the United States scored abysmally on their geographic know-how when compared with their peers abroad.

"It was alarming," said Michal LeVasseur, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education, which is based in Jacksonville, Ala. "That caught a lot of people's attention."

In response, the National Geographic Society pushed during the early 1990s to get geography back into K-12 schools and to better train teachers in the subject. It created state alliances between university geographers and primary and secondary teachers, including one that still exists in Florida, and also broad-based standards toward which students could strive.

Those standards, known as Geography for Life, set benchmarks at the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, with the idea that students at those levels should have grasped certain skills, LeVasseur said. Most states adopted them in some form and reinstated geography in their schools.

But the victory was short-lived. The emphasis placed on reading and math by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the federal No Child Left Behind Act has once again pushed geography and other disciplines to the back burner, experts said.

Students at all grade levels lose out when the curriculum narrows, they warned.

"They have no access to this entire world of ideas, and then we get mad at them because they can't pick out their state on a map," said Elizabeth Yeager, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Florida.

But, she added, "I'm sure some people would ask, "Well, where does geography fit in when it comes to the FCAT?' "

Experts said the discipline goes far beyond coloring maps. It includes understanding population changes, migration patters and political systems.

"There's a complexity to geography that most people miss," LeVasseur said. "It's not about looking at a phenomenon in isolation. It's understanding systems. It's looking at how things are connected."

Hernando County offered geography until about 10 years ago but dropped it to make room for courses mandated by the state, officials said. The subject isn't entirely ignored: Elementary and middle school students get geography lessons, and some related instruction is interspersed with the history classes required for graduation.

But high school students in surrounding counties get more. World geography has been part of the ninth-grade curriculum in Citrus County for 20 years and, two years ago, became a yearlong class required for graduation, said Bobbie Dilocker, coordinator of secondary education.

In Pasco, high school students can take geography as a semester-long elective, though only one-fourth of the schools offer it, said social studies supervisor Kathy Steiner.

Across the state, the majority of Florida's 67 counties offer at least world cultural geography in their high schools. Only a handful provide the fairly new advanced placement human geography or International Baccalaureate world geography, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

Nicholson said a conversation with a former Hernando County student prompted her suggestion. The student, who had just finished his first year in college, told her he would have benefited from taking the subject in high school and was at a disadvantage because he had not been given the option.

The School Board chairwoman would like to see at least a semester-long course become mandatory. Getting it as an elective would be a start, she said.

"I think it's vital in this day and age to know where things are, where people are," she said in an interview. "We need to make sure our students have some idea what in the world and where in the world things are happening."

The idea is young at this point, but Nicholson already has the backing of secondary curriculum coordinator Mary Krabel. A former social studies teacher, Krabel said she knows the value of geography education and will talk to high school principals about adding it as an elective.

"I think it would be an excellent addition to the high school curriculum," she said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or