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Back to School: A Study in Contrasts

Texas observer comment:
While the school finance reforms fell apart in the just-ended second special session, the major Texas dailies covered back to school stories in two districts considered property wealthy. Plano is also known for its high personal income and Texas City is within a stone's throw from refineries which have blown up.

It is truly hazardous duty to attend and teach at the latter, especially in light of diminished environmental standards under Gov/Pres Bush.

Ohanian Comment: I'm in such a rage over both these stories that I am speechless. I cannot fathom the Plano mindset for nurturing greed, nor can I fatham the corporate-industrial mindset that allows the Texas City risk to children.

Nothing But the Best from Mom and Dad
by Paula Lavigne Dallas Morning News

Nice cars, big allowances, fancy pedicures: In Collin County, parents say the urge to spend stems from their children.

It's the end of the day at Plano West Senior High School, and teenagers are pouring into the parking lot.

Kendall Compton of Plano was queen for a day as she celebrated her 11th birthday enjoying a pedicure party with seven friends at Seventeen*studio*spa*salon in Plano.

One jumps into a BMW M3. Another takes off in a Jaguar X-Type. A Land Rover joins the pack.

Senior Jodi Payson drives a black Hummer H2. She carries a Louis Vuitton purse and a credit card with no limit.

Last year, Jodi was among the privileged class at Plano West that sets the unspoken benchmark that many other students – and therefore their parents – strive to attain.

Plano West stands out for its students' affluence and their academic achievements, but it is as representative as any Collin County school in that parents say they feel pressure, from their children and their surroundings, to meet the highest lifestyle standards.

Competition starts early. Parents try to outdo one another on birthday parties with limousine chauffeurs and costumed characters.

By the time they're teenagers, children can shop on their own, which takes the spending to a whole new level.

They want bigger toys, including cars, and they won't settle for the type of jalopy their parents drove when they were 16.

This area is one of the wealthiest in the country, and it is also among the youngest. About three in 10 residents of Collin County are younger than 18.

Parents from all income levels say the urge to spend is most powerful when it comes to their children.

They might be in debt up to their eyebrows, but their child will have a cellphone and a Blackberry and a luxury car, said Mia Mbroh, a parent educator for the national nonprofit counseling organization Practical Parent Education in Plano.

"They do it out of love, and they don't want their kids to be the odd man out," she said. "Adults want to fit in as much as children."

All for the kids

On a spring night in Frisco, Jenny and Jeff Proznik invite six of their 30-something neighbors for an informal dinner party.

As they crack jokes and pass around a few beers, they talk about their lifestyles and priorities. While they're not the type to be obsessed about Rolex watches and the latest line of Vera Wang cocktail dresses, they acknowledge that they fuel the Collin County-area consumerism.

"A lot of our spending is what you hear upstairs," Mike Pettis said, gesturing toward a playroom where 11 children were giggling and trying out one another's toys.

"We're breeders," Ms. Proznik said. "There's something in this water. You just get into the mind-set that it's all about the kids."

They all have their own playrooms, Mr. Proznik said.

"There's more toys up there in that room than I had in my entire life. And that's just going to keep multiplying," he said.

Childhood has changed, said Mike's wife, Nikki Pettis. She recalled a Christmas party where the women passed around pictures of themselves as children.

"We looked at the backgrounds. There was a chair in the room or a couch. There were no accessories," she said.

"You do more for your kids than your parents did for you," Ms. Proznik said. "My responsibility is to make [my daughter's] life easier and better than mine. That's my job."

The Prozniks say they won't give in to a child's demand to buy something merely because one of his or her friends has it, but they also want their son and daughter to fit in.

"I don't want it to be that my kid is the only one who doesn't have a scooter, and every other kid is zooming by on the street," Ms. Proznik said.

Surefire lure

Susan Tierney said she opened the first, and only, Seventeen*studio*spa*salon in Plano based on the demographics of west Plano and the close proximity to 13 high schools.

Her salon caters to girls from 9 to 19, and their mothers, with hairstyles, manicures, pedicures and other beauty services. It's where Kendall Compton celebrated her 11th birthday, flopped on an overstuffed couch with seven friends – all soaking their feet in preparation for a pedicure.

Mom Cindy Compton wouldn't say how much she spent. Prices range from $40 per person for hair and makeup to $300 per person for a spa package with lunch, balloons, cakes and goodie bags.

The party was a special treat because it would be Kendall's last with her friends in Plano, Ms. Compton said. She and her husband, a corporate executive with Pepsico Inc., were being transferred to Chicago.

"A slower pace of life will be refreshing," she said.

Plano is too materialistic and overwhelmed with commercialism, she said. "Kids here don't have a very good idea of what the real world is like."

Cynthia Garrison, an educator at Practical Parent, tends to agree.

There's no problem with a wealthy couple living in a $500,000 home and driving a BMW, she said. The problem comes when their children expect a BMW without earning it.

"That sets the child up for problems when he gets out into the real world and he gets his $50,000 or $60,000 a year job ... and he can't afford the half-million dollar home or BMW," she said.

Adult children who can't fend for themselves take a toll on some parents – all the way to bankruptcy court. Janna L. Countryman, standing Chapter 13 trustee for the Eastern District of Texas, said about 15 percent of the cases she sees involve parents still footing the bills for their adult children.

While the parents are asking the courts to forgive their own debt, they're buying food and making payments on new cars for college kids who don't have jobs, she said.

Parents of teens going off to college often want to know how to pull back, but they don't know how, said Mark Hundley, director of guidance and counseling at Plano Senior High School.

Students with parents who begin to let go and make their children responsible for their own purchases take pride in their resourcefulness and independence, he said.

"They become more responsible. They fend for themselves. They tend to be their own advocates," he said.

John Weeks' oldest son attends the University of Texas at Austin. The Plano dad agreed to pay for room and board, but he told his son to find a job if he wanted extra spending money. He plans to do the same for his younger son, a senior at Plano West.

"All the kids want is they want the box built for them," Mr. Weeks said. "Show them where it is, how big it is and where the boundaries are and what's in it for them."

'Too much' is relative

Parents diverge on the definition of reasonable spending.

A dad who gives his son an allowance of $200 a month believes he is just as rational as the mom who gives her daughter $20 a month.

Julia Gossard, a recent graduate of Plano West Senior High School, was given a $20-a-week allowance, money for gas and a new BMW M series sports car.

It might seem like a lot, but mother Dawn-L Gossard points out that her daughter was president of the speech and debate club, vice president of the French Club, a member of the National Honor Society, a volunteer at Children's Medical Center and received a $30,000 scholarship, which she will use to study corporate communications at Southern Methodist University.

"The impression you get about Plano West is that these kids get things and they don't deserve them. They do," she said.

About 92 percent of the students here sailed over Texas' standardized tests, compared with 73 percent statewide. Students aspire to tougher classes, with 43 percent taking advanced placement (or college level) tests in 2003, compared with 16.1 percent statewide.

Plano West has a reputation for having "bratty" kids, but Julia said just because she's from an affluent family doesn't mean that she falls into that stereotype.

She got her nice car because she met her parents' requirements: work more than 400 hours of community service, make the top 10 percent of her class, get into a good college and score high on the SAT.

"I had proven myself as a leader at Plano West, which is something hard to do. I don't think if I had not done all that, my parents would have bought me a car," she said.

Julia – like any American teenager – shops. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, she and three of her friends tooled off to The Shops at Willow Bend.

As they walked out of Jacqueline Jarrot, a high-end accessories store, Julia said, "Twelve hundred dollars? Twelve hundred dollars for a purse? Who would buy that?"

Later, over pizzas, the friends debated whether they envied their classmates whose parents went over the top.

Emily Tett spoke with defiance in her eyes when she insisted that she was not jealous and that, furthermore, she was proud to own a Ford Escape. She was incredulous when the group talked about a boy who was driving a new Hummer H2.

"What were their parents thinking?" Emily said.

"It's to say, 'I'm driving a big expensive car so you can enjoy its view,' " Nash Gammill said.

Jodi Payson, the girl who drives the black Hummer H2, said she's not trying to show off. She requested a Hummer because she wanted something safe for driving around her friends, whose lunch tabs she picks up from time to time. T-shirts and sweats are more her day-to-day style than $400 designer outfits.

"My parents didn't always have money, and I know what it's like not to have it," she said. "I know not to take things for granted."

Same wish, different scale

Jodi's $1 million house is worth almost four times as much as the home where classmate Abby Taylor lives on the easternmost boundaries of Plano West's territory.

Abby's mom, Sally Taylor, said she was thrilled that her daughter made drill team captain even though she came from a family of more modest means.

"Jane might be driving a new BMW that her parents gave her. Well, Abby's driving a new [Honda] Civic, and that's pretty wonderful in my opinion," she said.

Ms. Taylor said seeing the other mothers dressed to the nines at a drill team booster club meeting was intimidating at first.

"I'd think, 'Maybe your day was a tough day because you couldn't fit in a nail appointment between the hair and personal trainer,' " she said. Whereas she had to figure out how to get through an eight-hour workday and then finish housework.

"But once you find out that everyone has their kid's best interest at heart and wants to help out, you quickly get over that," she said.

Parents Concerned as Children Return to Classes Near BP: Three Incidents of the Past Year Are on Their Minds

By Dina Cappiello Houston Chronicle

TEXAS CITY - It could have been a typical first day of school. Buses idled at the curb. A crossing guard directed traffic. Parents walked hand-in-hand with children sporting shiny new sneakers and bulging backpacks.

Yet, over their shoulders, at the top of one of BP refinery's many flare towers, a flame flickered.

In any other year, the plant looming over the one-story brick school might have gone unnoticed. But after a deadly explosion in March required the school district to lock students inside, and two smaller accidents this summer kept people temporarily indoors, many parents dropping their children off at Franz Kohfeldt Elementary Monday had more than first-day-of-school jitters.

"It's a big concern, they've had three incidents over the last year," said Angela Motal, as she stood in line with her first-grader Monday morning.

Kizzie Mason, escorting son T.J. Webb to the first grade, couldn't help thinking the refinery was too close for comfort. The plant's fences are less than 3,000 feet away.

"BP's just five blocks over that way," Mason said, pointing south. "The last six months it has been really scary. You don't know what to expect ... it's real dangerous for the kids."

According to the national advocacy group Refinery Reform Campaign, almost two-thirds of Texas schools and 142,000 school-age children are located within two miles of a chemical plant or refinery. Many, like Kohfeldt, which has more than 400 students in grades K-4, were built before environmental laws scrutinized where and what pollution plants emitted. Kohfeldt was erected in the mid-1950s.

More recently, Cιsar Chαvez High School, in Houston's East End, was built in 2000. It's just south of a cluster of three chemical plants off Route 225. A Galena Park middle school sits across the street from an air pollution monitor that recorded some of the highest levels of benzene, a carcinogen, in the state in 2003.

A plan for emergencies

Today, nearly all schools have elaborate emergency plans for plant explosions, chemical leaks, or pollution.

The state environmental agency also reviews health effects on children from facilities applying for a permit to release air pollution if a school is located as close as Kohfeldt Elementary.

Dede Heidt, deputy superintendent for Texas City ISD, said that in response to recent incidents, the district plans to educate parents about what should happen in an incident.

But some public health advocates, citing children's increased vulnerability to pollutants, say that instead of the school reacting to industries' emissions, industries should minimize the pollution .

"Parents need to let industry know how they feel about their child going to school so close," said Jane Laping, executive director for Mothers for Clean Air. "Some people want the schools shut down. We want industry to clean up."

Only one incident recalled

Despite lingering fears, some former students and at least one teacher at Kohfeldt remember no accidents, except for the recent one in March, that required the school to shelter students. According to local records, of the four incidents that have required a shelter-in-place since 2002, three were this year, and only one of those — the March explosion that killed 15 workers — occurred during school hours.

Oneida Ruiz , 28, attended classes there. On Monday, she was dropping off the next generation: her children, Laura Ruiz, 8, and Erik Yglesias, 5.

"I've lived here all my life," Ruiz explained. "When it happens, it happens."

For years, BP has also been a big contributor to the district, sponsoring mentor and tutor programs, graduation nights, even the sign outside the district's headquarters. Of the $43 million budget for the 2004-05 school year, the company, the city's largest taxpayer, was responsible for 35 percent, according to the district.

Being a 'good neighbor'

In Monday's early morning light, BP's logo glowed beneath a message board advertising Texas City ISD.

And recently, in response to the deadly explosion in March and the other incidents, the company has expanded its outreach to the community.

"That school has been there for quite some time, and we work hard to be a good neighbor," said BP spokesman Neil Geary, who would not say how much money BP — a company that made $10.5 billion in the first six months of this year — has contributed to the school district. The refinery has been there since 1934.

"We keep in mind their location, and that's one of the reasons we are working so hard right now on safety of that plant," he said.

While many parents expressed confidence in the measures the school — and the company — take in an emergency, others said it doesn't help.

"We are now dealing with the fear factor," said Margerette Taylor-Williams, whose son John Eric Taylor Jr., 10, a fourth-grade student at Kohfeldt elementary, has trouble sleeping because of nightmares about plant explosions.

Fearful of plant alarm

John Eric, recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, also runs into his mother's room every time he hears the refinery's alarm sound.

"I'm concerned about the effects on kids with special needs," Taylor-Williams said.

Other parents took issue Monday with the district's policy of locking kids inside during plant emergencies. Several said children should be released to their parents.

"Your kids are scared there inside the school. They know what's going on," said Belinda Medina, who transferred her daughter, Selena Tobar, to Kohfeldt last year. A lifelong Texas City resident, she was part of a group of parents who demanded that their children be let out of the school during the shelter-in-place on March 23.

Medina said tales of the infamous 1947 ship explosion — 581 people were killed, 3,500 were injured — taught her one important lesson.

"Every time it blows up, I'm outta here," she said. "I used to be married to another man, and he was in the 1947 blast, and he said half the people died because people went to watch the fire. You don't wait, you leave."


— Paula Lavigne and Dina Cappiello
Dallas Morning News & Houston Chronicle



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