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In Missouri, Paige Again Calls Teachrs Soldiers of Democracy

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige's visit to Metro High School in St. Louis was billed as an effort to see firsthand the results of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But Metro is anything but a typical high school. The magnet school, at 4015 McPherson Avenue, serves 233 of the top-performing students in Missouri.

And those students had anything but typical questions Wednesday morning for the nation's top education official. Students peppered Paige with questions on issues such as school budget cuts, testing, the achievement gap and problems with housing and lead poisoning.

Paige spoke later Wednesday to about 800 school officials at an educational leadership conference at the Millennium Hotel. The conference focused on how to improve accountability and testing through technology.

Paige's visit came as St. Louis school officials are facing contentious meetings over how to balance next year's budget, something school leaders face in districts across Missouri and Illinois.

Craig Szczesiul, 18 and a senior at Metro, told Paige that St. Louis school officials were studying budget cuts of $23 million, including cuts in support for gifted, art, music and athletic programs.

"Everyone agrees there are problems, but we have no idea what to do. Can you help us with ideas about how to fix the problem?" Szczesiul said to thunderous applause.

Paige replied, "I think you stumped me with that question."

Paige went on to say that issues surrounding public education should be figured out by the residents of each state. He noted the success of Atlanta in attracting the Summer Olympics in 1996 after people of all races and economic and political backgrounds worked together.

After Paige concluded his answer, he said, "I didn't get any applause." The students clapped.

Another Metro student, Vannah Shaw, 17, said a lot of problems facing students occur outside school - problems such as housing and lead poisoning.

Paige agreed that a lot of issues have an impact on learning. "That puts a great burden on schools," he said.

Paige visited a class where students discussed the Holocaust.

He heard students in Peggy Lathrop's class talk about the value of reading news accounts in other languages because something is lost when information in other languages is translated into English.

In his speech to school officials at the Millennium, Paige called teachers "the real soldiers of democracy" and said "every teacher deserves our support." The conciliatory comments came several weeks after Paige apologized for calling the nation's largest teachers' union a "terrorist organization." Paige said the union, the National Education Association, had used scare tactics in its fight over the nation's education law.

Paige said federal funding for education had risen under President George W. Bush and was more than adequate to pay for the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

The 2-year-old federal law requires each state to test academic performance in reading and math in grades three through eight. By 2014, every child is supposed to be proficient. Schools are held responsible for groups of students meeting annual progress goals. The groups are broken out by characteristics such as race, income, special education needs and ability to speak English. If any group needs improvement, an entire school, district or state will fall short.

More than half of Missouri schools and nearly that portion in Illinois have failed to reach reading and math targets.

Paige applauded the academic accomplishments of Metro students. Still, many students in the nation do less well, he said.

Paige said he understands that superintendents are grappling with how to pay higher fuel costs of transporting students to school and higher health care costs for the people who teach those students. He understands the challenges presented by the neighborhoods where some students live.

"We cannot make excuses," Paige said. "When a child comes to school, we have to figure out a way to help the child learn to the child's maximum capacity."

E-mail: cbower@post-dispatch.com

— Carolyn Bower
U.S. education secretary faces tough questions at Metro High


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