BBC radio crew visits Poplar Bluff schools to talk politics

Friday, October 3, 2008
COREY MATTHEWS ~ Daily American Republic Poplar Bluff School District families and faculty, as well as interviewers from the BBC, listen as Poplar Bluff School District assistant superintendent Sarah Long discusses small-town values and how Poplar Bluff, Mo., is a family-oriented community.

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. — A few Poplar Bluff School District educators, students and parents had the opportunity Tuesday to share their views on education and the upcoming presidential election with the 150 million listeners of BBC Radio World Service.

The United Kingdom's British Broadcasting Corp. is sending a crew on a 15-state tour covering presidential debates and holding town hall-type conversations.

"The whole aim is to reach communities international broadcasters don't normally reach," said Paul Rasmussen of the BBC. "We're going to places like Poplar Bluff, where the average American is thinking about the issues and talking about the election."

A team of 12 BBC reporters and technicians, as well as education experts, visited the district's fifth- and sixth-grade center and Poplar Bluff High School on Tuesday morning.

The program they recorded at the center and interviews from the high school will be broadcast internationally in at least 30 different languages.

Clips also appear on the BBC website,

BBC correspondent Alan Little began the debate at the grade center by welcoming the world to Poplar Bluff. It is a place with strong community spirit, where everyone knows their neighbor and pulls in the same direction, he told listeners.

For more than one hour, Little directed conversation between area residents and two education experts on subjects such as how the economy effects education and what the nation's next president should do to better support schools.

He is very worried about funding for schools being cut because of foreclosed homes, said sixth-grader Buddy Field.

There is a very immediate connection between the economy and education, said education expert Dr. Eric Cooper, who joined the debate via telephone.

While Cooper argued the federal government needed to be more involved in education and funding schools, expert Krista Kafer, present at the debate, contended education should be left to state and local governments and advised schools to prioritize funds when the economy takes a downturn.

"We spend $500 billion on public education. We have the second highest per pupil spending in the world," Kafer said. "We spend a lot on education [but] we are unconscious of our own wealth. The quality of education comes down to what goes on in individual classrooms."

Cooper discussed unfunded requirements in federal legislation No Child Left Behind, which demands all students be proficient in math and communication arts by 2014.

"I think the legislation has good intentions. The problem I see is that no child should be left behind, but no child should be held back," said Dr. Dean Dye, who has children in the district.

Both parents and students expressed concerns that while trying to meet NCLB benchmarks, schools weren't as focused on low-performing students who are unlikely to meet benchmarks or on high-performing students who do not need help scoring proficient.

Twins Kayla and Lexi Dixon, in sixth grade, spoke both during and after the debate about the need for more classes that focus on high performing students.

"NCLB does help learning disabled students and regular students who need help getting to grade level, but gifted students still need special teachers. I think [the government] needs to find an equal way," 10-year-old Kayla Dixon said.

Parents Andrew and Loretta Jefferson, with three children in the Poplar Bluff School District, said parents also need to remember every child is important, not just their own.

"Not everyone is college material," added Jefferson. "Sometimes we focus too much on that. We need to look at pushing our students to become productive citizens."

Parent Maria Acevedo pointed out parents are an integral part of education as well.

"Since when do the duties of educating children fall completely on the schools?" she asked. "What are we doing as parents?"

Grade center principal Patty Robertson agreed, saying later educators must deal with a lot that goes beyond the scope of academics, including problems in the child's home life. Robertson also argued NCLB isn't so confining that it prevents teachers from being creative in the classroom, that the law has increased accountability and it has narrowed the scope of what is taught at different grade levels.

Little finished the debate by asking those present who they would support for president and why.

With only about 10 percent of education from the federal government, Kafer said it was state and local elections that had the most potential to affect schools.

"Who you pick for governor of the state, for school boards — they are hands-on with budgets and rules and regulations," Kafer said.

The BBC's experts brought a big city perspective to the debate, but didn't really have an understanding of what happens in small towns and small school districts, according to assistant superintendent Sarah Long. "We have never been a wealthy district and, because of that, we know how to maximize what we need for students and teachers," Long said. "If we have to cut, it goes into the meat of what happens in the classroom."

The next president must realize portions of NCLB are unrealistic, she said.

The world is composed of average people and every student, especially those with severe cognitive disabilities, cannot make proficiency targets, Long continued. Schools need help with unfunded NCLB mandates and they need assistance, not punitive measures when they struggle.

"No matter who is elected, I think it will change the face of education. But I am realistic enough to know it will be slow," Long said.

Participants said they felt it was a good opportunity to start a dialogue on education.

"[The debate] has brought to our building and students and teachers a global perspective," Long said. "It also teaches us what happens in the U.S. does impact the world. It is good for us to realize that."

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