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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Comeback Kids Should be Cheered, not Feared



From San Diego's North County Times


Americans have loved the underdog ever since a ragtag bunch of patriots whipped a king's army. But a darker side of our history reveals how often we label individuals who don't fit the norm; creating the very obstacles to success we praise them for overcoming.

Newspaper opinionators can do a lot to expose the damage done by stereotyping.
That's why it was disappointing to read local columnist Thomas Arnold's take on Carlsbad Village Academy students, ("Decision jeopardizes student safety," May 2).

Budget cuts have forced the closure of the CVA campus next year, requiring its students to move to Carlsbad High. That spurred Arnold to suggest CHS student safety will be at risk from those who "couldn't cut it in regular school because they got pregnant, were expelled, or have behavioral problems."

After quoting a Carlsbad High student who's afraid his new classmates might establish a "turf" and "start fights," Arnold concludes, "I'd be every bit as alarmed as this 10th-grader is."

That sounded like stereotyping to me, so I took a closer look at the school designed for students who fall behind. The main difference I found between CVA and CHS students is that more of them are English learners, Latino and economically disadvantaged.

Arnold may be surprised by what else I learned about the school from Suzanne O'Connell, the district's assistant superintendent for instructional services and CVA Principal Keith Holley's recent report to the school board.

O'Connell assured me students are not banished to the CVA for misbehavior. They enter the school voluntarily, most often in the 10th grade, to recover credits after falling behind their classmates in local middle schools. Their behavioral problems are no different from those of their peers at CHS. Arnold's young friend can rest assured the school's not a dumping ground for expelled gang bangers. He has nothing to fear from the return of his middle school classmates.

Carlsbad Village Academy is proud of its academic achievements, including a 98 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent passing rate on the High School Exit Exam, and an 86 point increase last year in its Academic Performance Index. Latino students and English learners led the way. Eleven percent of CVA students recover enough credits to return to regular classes at CHS at midyear.

O'Connell told me that planning has not yet begun on the details for transforming CVA into a school-within-a-school on the CHS campus next year. The objective is to provide a wider, college prep curriculum for CVA students, while retaining the individual support and fast-track class scheduling that will help them catch up with their classmates.

You'd think Carlsbad's comeback kids would be more cheered than feared.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Politics and Religion a bad mix

For San Diego's North County Times
Miss Manners tells us to avoid religion and politics in polite conversation. But the gloves are off in the letters section of this newspaper, where the link between God and government is the favorite subject of habitual letter writers. Depending on the individual's reading of the Bible and the Constitution, we live in either a Christian nation, assailed by the godless left, or a secular one, threatened by the religious right.

A local church leader weighed in on the God gap last month, writing, "We're out of our pews now, and we're coming in love to you at the polls ... to propose for conversion to God and peace in the heart." His name and denomination are not important. An Internet search of his homilies reveals the pastor's path from the pews to the polls.

Here's a sample of direct quotes taken from sermons he gave a month after the 2008 presidential election and a month before the midterms two years later: "Socialism is our god, and Obama is his prophet ... Jesus came to save us from abortion, homosexual lust, socialism, liberalism. ... We can establish the Kingdom of God here in the U.S. and still respect our Constitution. ... That means we exclude abortion, exclude gender confusion, exclude some people from marrying because they don't want to marry someone of the opposite gender ... and if we're the majority we have the right to do so, and we say no, the minority doesn't have the right to impose itself upon us."

During my entire Catholic education, from elementary school through college, I'd never heard of Jesus' plan to save us from turning gay, liberal or socialist, or that majority rule trumps minority rights.

In a recently published essay, "God and Caesar in America," based on their 2010 book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," a couple of university professors explained why mixing religion and politics is bad for both.

David E. Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, and Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam tracked the changing religious and political views of separate age groups from 2006 to 2011. They found "religion" to those in their 20s "means, 'Republican,' 'intolerant,' and 'homophobic.' Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves ---- or wish to be seen by their peers ---- as religious."

The researchers concluded, "All sides ---- progressive and conservative, religious and secular ---- should be concerned that placing a partisan label on religion has hurt the ability of religious leaders to summon moral arguments on behalf of causes that transcend left and right."

Before the pastor and his flock head to the polls, maybe they should think about what they're leaving behind in the pews.