Tight security and missing the targets

29th October 2004 at 01:00
As the United States presidential race reaches its climax, Stephen Phillips reports on implications for education policy

Security at Ballou senior high, in Washington DC, is tight. Housed in prefabricated buildings behind chain-link fencing, with metal grills covering the windows, its 960 pupils pass through metal detectors, their bags scanned by an X-ray machine for weapons. Nine police officers and security guards patrol the hallways.

But that did not stop one youth smuggling a revolver into school last February and gunning down 17-year-old James Richardson. Last month a 15-year-old girl was shot dead off site, and in the past year six girls were arrested for brawling. A toxic spill sealed off the school for six weeks after students stole mercury from a lab.

Many parents view the teachers as glorified childminders, says principal William Hudson. "Students believe education is just a matter of putting time in school, not getting A, B or C," he said.

To stop such drift, president Bush's No Child Left Behind Act sets schools annual academic targets they must meet or face sanctions. But without adequate funding Ballou is being set up to fail, Mr Hudson said.

To resource compulsory comprehension and maths tests, Ballou axed language, humanities and music lessons plus vocational education - but is set to flunk the tests for the third year running. Just 18 per cent of students demonstrate better-than-basic grasp of maths and 23 per cent of reading.

"I've voted Republican before, but this time Kerry's got my vote," says Mr Hudson.

A visit to George Mason high school in leafy Falls Church, Virginia, just 20 miles from Ballou, reveals the inequities in the system. Situated in America's wealthiest community, with an average annual household income of $90,000 (pound;49,000), its facilities would make some private schools envious. Banks of computers line some classrooms and there is a performing-arts wing with a 500-seat theatre.

It is Washington's academically strongest state school, ranking sixth in America. Students romp through tests. Nevertheless, after February's killing at Ballou, George Mason staff organised a breakfast for shaken teachers.

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