Seizing the day: Students learn about, embrace Mexican tradition of el D?a de los Muertos

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 21A

It’s not every day that a school can combine a centuries-old Mexican tradition with Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra and two dead Beach Boys.

Walk into the student art gallery at The Hockaday School in northwest Dallas, and you’ll see rows of small student-made altars dedicated to just those people, along with children’s author Barbara Cooney, Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno and a dozen others.

The altars are the centerpiece of the school’s celebration of the Day of the Dead (el D?a de los Muertos), the Mexican holiday celebrated Nov. 2 and in the days leading up to it. A mix of Catholic theology and Aztec traditions, it has become increasingly popular as a teaching tool in Texas schools.

“The students love it,” said Grace Butcher, the Hockaday Spanish teacher who coordinates the annual construction of the altars. “The colors, the smells – it touches all the senses and emotions.”

The Day of the Dead is traditionally a time for Mexican families to honor loved ones who have passed on. They visit cemeteries, construct special home altars and make offerings to the deceased. Despite its connection with death, it is a festive occasion.

Maribel Diaz, who teaches a bilingual third-grade class at J.O. Davis Elementary in Irving, has made the holiday part of her curriculum for four years. Each year, she invites a class where only English is used to join her class: “It opens their minds to another culture and the way another culture celebrates.”

The classes read a children’s book on the holiday, compare and contrast it with Halloween and make art projects involving skeletons and skulls.

“The children cut a skull out of a paper plate, decorate it with sequins and write the name of a person in their family who they were close to, a grandparent or an uncle,” Ms. Diaz said. “They share their stories.”

For teachers, the holiday can be a child-friendly way to teach about Mexican culture, particularly in districts with substantial Hispanic populations.

“It’s a very popular cultural activity to teach students about the holiday,” said Elaine Phillips, field specialist for the Languages Other Than English Center for Educator Development in Austin. “Along with holidays like Cinco de Mayo, it really lends itself to activities that are enjoyable and interesting to students.”

At Hockaday, Ms. Butcher began teaching her high school students about the holiday seven years ago after she saw a traditional celebration on a trip to Mexico. “I was fascinated as an outsider, seeing people eating in a cemetery,” she said.

Picnics at cemeteries are often a part of traditional Day of the Dead observances.

The altars’ subjects are voted on by the students and tend toward pop culture stars. Each altar has symbols of the person’s life: a Snoopy doll for Charles Schulz, a crown for Princess Diana, Olympic rings for Florence Griffith-Joyner.

The altars also include more traditional elements, including the special bread used for celebrations in Mexico and the monarch butterflies that, in Aztec tradition, carry the souls of the dead.

Ms. Butcher also erects two altars of her own, one for loved ones of the school’s faculty and one for their pets.

“I really like the idea that dogs and cats can go to heaven,” said Julia Reed, a boarding student from McAllen who gives tours of the altars to visitors in Spanish as a class assignment.

The students say they enjoy participating in a reproduction of a cultural event.

“It’s exactly like back home,” said Estefania Solana, also a boarding student from Puebla, Mexico, who helped build the Sinatra altar. “I was very happy to see there is a tradition in Mexico they also have here.”

For some students who have gone through personal tragedy, the altars can be emotional. Ms. Butcher said several have been driven to tears by an altar with personal meaning.

Some critics have said that public schools should not be teaching about Day of the Dead because of its strong religious overtones. Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead takes elements of traditional Catholic holidays – All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 – and combines them with native customs, in this case the Aztec conception of the spirit.

But Ms. Diaz said she is careful not to include Catholic symbols such as crucifixes in her classroom.

“I don’t focus on the religious part,” she said. “I focus on the traditions. I look at it as a holiday like Christmas or St. Valentine’s Day that has a religious meaning but also a cultural meaning.”

She said students who object to the activities because of religious convictions are free to sit out the events.

Teachers cite several benefits the holiday can bring for students, but they say one of the most important is the way it teaches children to accept death as a natural part of life.

“Some children are afraid of Halloween because it focuses on the gory side,” Ms. Diaz said. “This brings in a lot of emotions but not in a fearful way.”

Over the doorway to the altars room at Hockaday is a poster with a quotation from Mexican author Octavio Paz that sums up that lesson:

“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Area gets substantial soaking, no major problems from storms

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 15A

The weekend’s heavy rains might have been a bother for some North Texas residents, but for marathoner-in-training Michael George, it was a blessing.

“I love it,” said Mr. George, a 51-year-old corporate vice president from Irving who was setting out Sunday on a 14-mile run.

“When it’s hot and dry, you have to get up at 5:30, 6 o’clock to get cooler weather. This is like running in air conditioning.”

Mr. George was one of the few people willing to endure Sunday morning’s wet conditions at White Rock Lake, where he is training for a December marathon. But even those who stayed inside probably didn’t mind the rain, as North Texas continues to recover from this summer’s lengthy drought.

The storms, mostly arrayed in a tight north-south squall line, dumped up to 3 inches of rain on the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Low-lying parts of some city streets were left with standing water through Sunday afternoon. Forecasters say more rain is expected through Wednesday.

The National Weather Service issued eight severe thunderstorm warnings Saturday night and Sunday morning, along with one flood warning for the White Rock Creek watershed, between Greenville Avenue and White Rock Lake.

The creek’s waters spilled the banks about 8 a.m. Sunday, but subsided not long after as the water drained into the lake, said Steve Fano, a forecaster for the National Weather Service.

“I’ve only seen it flood once in the past three years, and it didn’t rain hard enough to do much here today,” said Hilda O’Neill, a receptionist at Royal Oaks Country Club, located on White Rock Creek.

No tornadoes or serious wind damage were reported in North Texas, Mr. Fano said.

The region has been in a drought for more than a year.

Although Sunday’s rain didn’t make up for the last two long, dry summers, it did help bring the region’s precipitation totals closer to normal levels.

As of 6 p.m. Sunday, 25.71 inches of rain had fallen in 2000, not far behind the 29.27 inches normal for this point in the year and well ahead of the 19.71 inches that had fallen a year ago.

At summer’s end, forecasters predicted that a wetter-than-normal fall and winter could help ease the pain of the drought.

This summer, no rain fell at the National Weather Service’s measuring station at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for 84 straight days, the area’s longest dry stretch since 1898, and temperatures breached the 100-degree mark with regularity, leaving cracked earth and dead fields.

The rain, which started falling in earnest shortly after midnight Sunday morning in Dallas, was caused by the collision of dry western air with a mass of low-level moisture over North Texas, Mr. Fano said.

But no matter what the meteorologists say, Sabrina Daniels, a Grand Prairie resident, believes the blame is all hers.

“I washed my car yesterday, so of course I made it rain,” she said Sunday as she went into NorthPark Center. “I take all the credit and all the blame.”

The thunder and lightning overnight between Saturday and Sunday were severe enough to wake Ms. Daniels from a sound sleep, she said.

“And nothing wakes me up except him,” she said, gesturing toward her smiling 5-year-old son, Reginald.

Although there is only a slight chance of precipitation Monday, the likelihood will increase Tuesday night and Wednesday, with scattered showers becoming thunderstorms in some areas, Mr. Fano said. The skies should clear by Thursday, he said.

Moses looks to Houston for DISD ideas

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 21A

HOUSTON – Mike Moses sees a lot to like in the Houston Independent School District, but he isn’t prepared to make the Dallas school system into a carbon copy.

“The idea is not to make Dallas into Houston,” said Dr. Moses, the former state education commissioner who has been designated the next superintendent of Dallas schools. “The idea is to get the same levels of performance and results, or better.”

Dr. Moses was in Houston on Tuesday to address a two-day conference on reforms in the district.

With its test scores rising and academic performance improving, Houston has been widely praised as a national model for reforming urban districts.

Superintendent Rod Paige, who has led the reforms, is mentioned as a candidate to become U.S. education secretary should Gov. George W. Bush be elected president.

Last year, Dr. Paige invited some of the nation’s top educational researchers to Houston to examine the job the district has done. On Tuesday, near the conclusion of the conference on researchers’ findings, Dr. Moses praised the district’s work and said there were some parts of the Houston model that could be used in Dallas.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

The Dallas Independent School District named Dr. Moses the sole finalist for the superintendent’s job on Oct. 9. Under state law, the soonest trustees may offer him a contract is Monday. He said that negotiations were ongoing with the district and that he expected a deal to be reached by the end of this week.

One of the keys to Houston’s gains, Dr. Moses said, has been stability in its leadership. Dr. Paige has been HISD’s superintendent for six years, and before that he had served on the school board since 1989. The average urban district superintendent stays on the job for only about two years.

“The districts that have had success, like Fort Worth and Houston, have had people with six- or seven-year tenures,” Dr. Moses said. “It makes a difference because it gives someone a chance to succeed.”

He said five of the state’s eight largest districts were without superintendents at some point last year. Under Dr. Paige, Houston has become known for a straightforward, standards-based approach to education. Outside companies handle nonacademic tasks, from food service to garbage pickup.

Social promotion was ended, as were most of the exemptions that allowed some HISD students to avoid taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Houston also was early to start its own charter schools. The changes encouraged voters to overwhelmingly pass a $678 million bond issue for school repairs.

The academic results have been promising. According to research presented at the conference, Houston’s overall passing rate on the reading portion of the TAAS increased from 65.7 percent of students in 1994 to 81.7 percent in 2000. On the math portion of TAAS, 49.3 percent of Houston students passed in 1994 and 80.1 percent passed in 2000.

In Dallas, the improvement on the reading portion of TAAS was from 59.3 percent passing in 1994 to 72 percent in 2000. On math, 45.2 percent passed in 1994 and 71 percent passed in 2000.

Statewide, the reading test results improved from 76.5 percent passing in 1994 to 87.4 percent in 2000. Math results went from 60.5 percent to 87.1 percent statewide.

Among the elements of the Houston system Dr. Moses lauded: its flexible contracts with administrators, which are modeled on the at-will employee contracts used in private industry; its system of shifting the district’s best teachers to its lowest-performing schools; and its research department, which provides teachers with the data necessary to target the weaknesses and strengths of each student.

Dr. Moses gave a presentation at the conference on the state’s use of testing to create accountability in schools.

He said the most important part of the state’s accountability system is that it rates a school only at the level of its weakest subset. In other words, if a district performs well with most of its students, but it has unacceptable math scores among one racial group, it is rated as unacceptable.

“If there is a genius in the system, it’s that it shines a light on where we have gaps,” he said.

One of his priorities in Dallas, he said, will be to create a focused set of goals for teachers and administrators.

“It’s easy to add too much confusion to teachers’ lives with too many accountability systems,” he said. “I think we need to be very practical and very straightforward what student achievement is our top priority.”

The conference included academic papers on the effectiveness of some of Houston’s efforts, including decentralization, shared decision-making councils and district charter schools.

The first paper presented praised Houston’s business and civic leadership for its involvement in the schools.

Dr. Moses said he has similar aspirations for Dallas.

“My first impression is there is a lot of desire to find common ground for common action,” he said. “There is a lot of energy right now for the district, and one of my biggest jobs would be to see if we can channel it in the right direction.”

Can he do it again? DISD hopes Moses can repeat success

By Colleen McCain and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 1A

New Superintendent Mike Moses faced daunting problems when he took the job. The district was in debt, the school board divided and a bond program desperately needed.

“The district was pretty upside-down,” Dr. Moses said. “The board was in crisis.”

That was Lubbock in 1989, not Dallas in 2000.

Dr. Moses, the lone finalist to take over Dallas schools, is credited with a decisive turnaround of Lubbock schools. Now Dallas leaders are counting on the 49-year-old to do the same here.

When they started their three-month superintendent search, DISD trustees said they were looking for a leader who was “absolutely bulletproof.” In Dr. Moses, a former state education commissioner and current deputy chancellor of Texas Tech University, they think they have found their man: a back-to-basics educator with an unwavering focus on student achievement.

Interviews with dozens of people who know and worked with Dr. Moses throughout his 26-year education career indicate that the man touted by Dallas trustees, who must wait until Oct. 30 to officially hire him, lives up to his advance billing.

His career betrays hardly a hint of controversy, and in the Lubbock, La Marque and Tatum school districts, he has produced the kinds of results Dallas trustees are seeking.

“If I wanted a person to lead me to war, and I got to pick and choose, it’d be Mike Moses,” said John Washington, an assistant superintendent in Garland who worked for Dr. Moses in Lubbock and La Marque.

Supporters – they seem thick on the ground in every city where he has worked – say Dr. Moses has all the necessary skills: political talent to unite a fractured board, financial skills to strengthen a budget and sheer niceness to get along with everyone.

Academic ideology

In today’s maze of competing educational ideologies, Dr. Moses speaks not of philosophies, but of achievement.

“We don’t teach programs,” he said. “We teach children.”

His is a direct, no-frills approach with a singular focus. “We don’t have time for things that don’t work,” Dr. Moses said last week.

All programs, he said, should be evaluated with the same measuring stick, gauging whether student achievement has increased. Initiatives in Dallas that already have been approved – such as a new math program and seven Edison Schools – will be held to that standard.

Dr. Moses makes no secret of the importance he places on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. He carries test scores with him and retrieves them to illustrate how far Dallas lags behind most of Texas’ other large districts.

Educators who have worked with Dr. Moses said he was the same in his past jobs. Although some do not share Dr. Moses’ enthusiasm for TAAS, they agree that better test scores are indicative of better-educated kids.

“TAAS is not necessarily what lights my fire – it’s not why I come to work every day,” said Mike Bennett, principal of Lubbock’s Monterey High School. “But it does increase learning. And if it helps educate children, then it’s a good thing.”

Making the leap

While Dr. Moses has won accolades from his former colleagues, some people have questioned whether he is prepared to take on the problems of an urban district with more than 160,000 students.

The Lubbock district is less than one-fifth the size of DISD, and the cities are vastly different. Most Lubbock students are minorities, and agriculture remains the driving force in the West Texas city where the Goodpasture grain elevator dominates the skyline.

Dr. Moses said the formula for success isn’t much different.

“In a big district, all the numbers have more zeroes,” he said. “But I think the skill set is pretty close to the same.”

When he arrived in Lubbock in 1989, the district was in the red, a trustee was suing the school board and schools were still struggling with desegregation. Within a few years, debt was erased, trustees’ working relationships improved and desegregation efforts were complete.

Dr. Moses said he is confident that he can accomplish similar objectives in Dallas, and he points to his period as state education commissioner as evidence that he brings a broad base of experience.

But he acknowledges that leading a district this size can be a precarious balancing act – especially given the number of people who want his ear.

“I’m already learning that the most precious thing I have is time,” he said. “I don’t want to shut people out. I want to hear their concerns. But once I’ve heard them, I need time to work on them.”

Community relations

From baseball games to block parties, Dr. Moses has been a visible presence in the communities where he has worked, those interviewed said.

And already, in the two weeks since Dr. Moses was named the finalist for Dallas superintendent, he has met with leaders from every corner of the city, shaking hands for hours at a stretch and patiently explaining his vision for the district dozens of times.

T.J. Patterson, a longtime Lubbock City Council member, said Dr. Moses reached out to all groups, including minorities.

Many blacks think that Dr. Moses’ reputation was blemished when he converted the city’s historically black high school, Dunbar, to a junior high school, said Mr. Patterson, the first black person elected to Lubbock’s council.

In the early 1990s, enrollment at Dunbar dropped below 200. District officials said maintaining the increasingly empty building as a high school simply wasn’t feasible financially or logistically.

Mr. Patterson said he understands the reasons behind the decision, which came after a series of public forums. But he said many blacks saw the conversion as a slight.

“When you close Dunbar, you take something away from people,” said Mr. Patterson, who generally gives Dr. Moses high marks. “There’s still a void there.”

In Dallas, where more than 90 percent of the district’s students are minorities, some black activists complained when Dr. Moses was hired that the new superintendent should have been black.

In Tatum and La Marque, Dr. Moses ran school districts with substantial black populations and maintained generally good relations with minority leaders, community leaders said.

“He treated everyone fairly,” said Drenon Fite, a black school trustee in Tatum, which has a student body that is 35 percent minority. “Race didn’t even affect our relationship once.”

Dr. Moses’ success in Dallas could be determined by how well he can work with a school board often defined by public squabbles and divisiveness.

In the past, Dr. Moses has won favor by cultivating an atmosphere of professionalism and mutual respect, his former colleagues said.

Dr. Moses said strong leadership and a willingness to listen will be essential in Dallas. “I think if I make suggestions in the right way, the board will listen to me,” he said.

It was as state education commissioner that Dr. Moses’ diplomatic skills faced the toughest test. He was appointed to the job by Gov. George W. Bush in 1995.

Taking the job, after about five years in Lubbock, meant dealing with a state board divided along political lines.

“When he talked to me about the possibility of applying for the job in Austin, I asked him why in the world he would want it,” said state Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, chairman of the Senate education committee. “We did have a very fractious State Board of Education, and the job was fraught with pitfalls.”

The senator said he sees similarities between those challenges in Austin and the ones Dr. Moses would face in Dallas: “I think they’re very comparable.”

In 1998, board member David Bradley of Beaumont wrote a letter to Dr. Moses accusing him of, among other things, “feigned ignorance,” “arrogance,” “pandering,” “stonewalling” and a “cover-up” on issues on which Dr. Moses had disagreed with conservatives on the board.

Dr. Moses responded: “I do regret your harsh and demeaning tone. It is obvious you wish to portray me as a villain in what clearly needs to be a working partnership. For my part, I will continue to respect your role as an elected official.”

Finances

At all three stops of his superintendent career, Dr. Moses has been able to persuade voters, through bond issues, to support schools financially.

“He was talking about the condition of the campuses even before he was hired,” said Jimmy Hayley, a former La Marque school board member. “He put a lot of emphasis on exteriors, on having the yards mowed and edged. His theory was that if the facilities look good and you’re showing you’re taking pride in it, the students will do the same.”

Dr. Moses’ salesmanship will be put to the test in Dallas, where district officials have said they need voters to approve a $1.6 billion bond proposal to alleviate overcrowding. Dr. Moses has said he first needs to improve student performance.

Officials across Texas also praised Dr. Moses for his financial skills; he left none of his stops worse off fiscally than he found it, they said.

Modus operandi

From almost the start of his career, Dr. Moses was pegged as a rising star.

He had been born into a family of educators and started his career as a teacher in Duncanville and a principal in Garland.

In 1982, school officials in Tatum, a city of 1,200 about 140 miles east of Dallas, were already talking about the 30-year-old principal as a possible superintendent.

The principal of their elementary school had just died, and their superintendent was planning to retire in a few months.

The late principal happened to be Dr. Moses’ uncle, and the district’s leaders brought him in to interview for the principal’s post with the idea that he might shortly take over as superintendent.

Some balked at his age, but his friendly demeanor quickly changed those minds.

“He just had a charisma about him that his age didn’t make a difference,” said Altha Reynolds, tax assessor for the Tatum ISD.

The same skills that won him notice early have served him well since, said Bill Miller, former Lubbock school board president.

“He will develop a rapport with a janitor just as easily as with Tom Hicks,” Mr. Miller said. “He takes his political skills and uses them in the best interest of schools.”

Mr. Miller is among Dr. Moses’ staunch supporters. But he acknowledges that his friend’s passion for education sometimes means that Dr. Moses is a bit thin-skinned when it comes to criticism.

“He needs to learn to withstand the slings and arrows that come with the job,” Mr. Miller said. “Sometimes he forgets that he’s a public figure, subject to criticism.”

On balance, though, Dr. Moses’ strongly held beliefs and passion for children generally translate into positive results, he said.

“He is a person who can get people to believe in a cause higher than themselves,” Mr. Miller said.

Groundbreaking today for Hockaday addition

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 21A

Officials of The Hockaday School will break ground Wednesday for an addition to its Lower School, the first step in a $27.5 million expansion and renovation of the school’s buildings.

“It’s a very exciting time for the school,” said Liza Lee, the school’s headmistress. “We haven’t really done any major building since the mid-1980s. None of our students has really seen a major building project.”

In April, the private girls’ school announced a five-year campaign to raise $50 million for facilities, endowment and operating support. Officials say the effort is the largest fund-raising campaign for a girls’ school in the nation.

Of that total, $27.5 million is being set aside for facilities, and Wednesday’s groundbreaking will be the first tangible evidence of that money being put to use. The 27,000-square-foot Lower School addition will include classrooms for kindergarten and preschool classes, art and music rooms and two commons areas. It also will include renovated space for science labs and a play yard. School officials expect it to be finished by August 2001 at a cost of $5.25 million.

The school’s kindergarten and preschool classrooms originally were designed for first through third grades and lack some of the space and amenities that research suggests is optimal for early childhood education, Mrs. Lee said.

“This has been in the planning stage for about two years, and in the wishing stage for about 10 years,” she said.

Next summer, the old kindergarten and preschool classrooms will be torn down to make way for an academic research center. Hockaday also has plans for a new wellness center and a major renovation of classrooms for middle and upper school students.

The overall project is the biggest building effort the school has had since its current campus was built in 1961, Mrs. Lee said.

Only six months after announcing the campaign, Hockaday has received commitments totaling $28.4 million, including eight gifts of $1 million or more. Beyond the facilities upgrades, the campaign will fund financial aid, technology upgrades and the school’s endowment.

“Dallas has always been an incredibly generous community, but with these economic times, it has been especially generous,” Mrs. Lee said. “Every school in town has a capital campaign going on.”

Despite all the planned construction, Hockaday officials said they do not plan to increase the school’s enrollment, which is a little more than 1,000.

The Hockaday School, on Welch Street in North Dallas, was established in 1913 as a college-preparatory school for girls. It has an endowment of more than $50 million.

No easy cure seen for youth-vote drop Larger role by schools encouraged

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

RICHARDSON – There’s no better excuse for a party at Rose Harp’s house than a presidential debate.

For each election of her 30-year career as a government teacher – the last 25 of them at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson – Mrs. Harp has invited her students to her home for a debate-watching pizza party.

“We’d have so many cars, we’d have parking problems,” she recalled.

But over the last few campaigns, Mrs. Harp said, she has found it harder to get students excited about politics. The Young Politicians club she sponsored has gone dormant. She has found fewer students paying attention to the candidates. And now she even has trouble getting them excited about a pizza party.

“Free food is usually a big draw for kids,” she said. “You see how far it’s dropped if you can’t get teenagers excited about free pizza.”

With this year’s election only weeks away and turnout among young voters continuing to tumble, some are looking toward the educational system for a solution.

“These kids’ parents are not really role models themselves as far as voting goes,” said Carolie Mullan, president of the Texas League of Women Voters. “The schools have to play a role.”

Eighteen-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1971, with the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. The next year, amid raging debate over the Vietnam War, young people showed up at the polls in force, with 43.4 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds casting ballots.

But by the 1996 presidential election, only 28.2 percent voted, compared with 49 percent of all eligible voters. Only 12.1 percent of young voters turned out for the 1998 midterm election.

The trend probably won’t reverse soon, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group that focuses on citizen engagement in politics.

“I expect that the turnout this year will be even lower than in 1996,” he said.

Solving the problem has proved more difficult than identifying it.

“It’s very unclear what, exactly, it takes to get kids involved and engaged,” said Dr. James Kracht, a Texas A&M professor of education who has spent the last three years helping to train Texas teachers to teach government.

Nationwide survey

In a nationwide survey of 18- to 24-year-olds conducted in June by the Medill News Service at Northwestern University, 63 percent said they mostly or completely agreed with the statement that schools aren’t doing a good job of helping young people get the information they need to vote. The poll of 1,008 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Since 1990, with the birth of the recording industry’s Rock the Vote campaign, many such efforts to get more young people to vote have met with little success.

All Texas high school students are required to take a semester of government, and some districts require a year. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the statewide curriculum standard all public schools must follow, requires that students be taught how to “analyze and evaluate the process of electing the president of the United States.”

But that requirement doesn’t always turn into student interest. Mrs. Harp’s 10-student advanced placement government class is certainly more interested than most in things political, but they say their peers find talk of things such as Social Security and prescription drugs boring.

“They’re so apathetic,” said Lindsay Garrison, 17. “They go, ‘Even if I could vote, it wouldn’t matter.'”

“Some kids get a bad rap, because they do care about the issues,” said Melissa Moreno, 18. “But most of them don’t pay attention.”

Mrs. Harp has made the fall election a major thrust of her teaching this semester. Her classroom is decorated with campaign posters, and each student is required to write a candidate biography, collect newspaper articles and assemble a campaign portfolio.

But she said there isn’t much excitement among her pupils. When she asked her students this week whether they were interested in having a party for Tuesday’s debate, the excuses came quickly: They had meetings, they had commitments, they were too busy.

“Everybody yawned,” she said.

“They reflect the apathy in the general public. It’s really sad for those of us who try to motivate them and energize them about the subject. But they don’t see the relevance to their lives.”

Mrs. Harp said she doesn’t think young people are completely withdrawing from public life, noting that more volunteer for causes they believe in than previous generations.

She added that she thinks schools don’t emphasize government enough. Earlier in her career, government was a yearlong course in Richardson, not just one semester, she said. Now the year is split between government and economics.

It doesn’t appear that students become much more politically aware once they reach voting age in college.

Dr. James Anderson, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, is teaching an honors section of American national government this semester, and he said his students have been unexcited by this year’s Gore-Bush matchup, the closest in decades.

“They don’t seem to be particularly interested or informed,” Dr. Anderson said. “I’ve been trying to get them focused on the presidential election, and I don’t know that I’ve had vast success.”

He said he would consider himself lucky if, after weeks of encouragement, “half, maybe two-thirds of his students” tuned in to Tuesday night’s debate.

Dr. Anderson said the lack of interest is understandable: “When I was 18, I don’t think I was particularly interested in politics, either.”

But he also lays part of the blame on high schools, which he suspects don’t put enough emphasis on government.

Dr. Kracht, the former co-director of the Social Studies Center for Educator Development, defended the Texas government curriculum, noting that elements of civics are taught in other social studies classes from fourth grade on.

“There is a disengagement among young people, but it probably doesn’t come from the knowledge base they get in the schools,” he said.

He pointed to research done at Indiana University that showed that the quality of a child’s civics education can have an impact – but only a small one – on how politically involved he or she will be as an adult.

Targeting earlier grades

Dr. Kracht, whose specialization is elementary and middle school education, said the solution should be a greater emphasis on civics in earlier grades.

“We need to get them when they are still at the point of forming opinions and core values,” he said. “We know that most of the important learning children do happens before age 10.”

He said that with so much early emphasis on reading, writing and math – the subjects of annual statewide testing – social studies and other fields are often squeezed out.

Mr. Gans said improved civics education is “an absolute pillar” in the effort to bring young people to the polls. But he cautioned that schools alone can’t get the job done.

“A majority of children today have parents who don’t vote, so there’s only so much that educators can accomplish on their own,” he said.

Ms. Mullan, president of the Texas League of Women Voters, agreed with an earlier start to civics education.

“I think we have to re-educate children, starting at the elementary level,” she said. “The schools are absolutely essential, but the problem is that the schools don’t have the time to do it.”

She said the rise of the Internet gives her hope that young people might find ways to be more involved. That hope might find an outlet in several current online youth voting initiatives.

One, called Youth-e-Vote (or, for the more hip, “You The Vote”), aims to have 10 million votes cast in a nationwide mock ballot of schoolchildren.

“It’s a way to get the next generation engaged before they get a chance to vote for real,” said Donald Tighe, spokesman for Youth-e-Vote.

Last week, Youth-e-Vote mailed unique codes to the principals of 103,000 schools nationwide. Later this month, students at those schools will have the opportunity to cast a vote in the presidential race online. The results will be announced Nov. 2.

The group is asking newspapers across the country to publish a full-page ad urging involvement in the project. Robert W. Mong Jr., president and general manager of The Dallas Morning News, said the newspaper has agreed to run the ad next week.

The news media also are being asked to publicize the results.

“It will allow young people to see their voice be a part of results,” Mr. Tighe said. “They’ll have a sense that ‘My voice matters; it mattered as much as some rich person’s or powerful person’s or a person out in the suburbs.'”

One of the biggest components of the Youth-e-Vote plan is a series of curriculum plans and other teaching tools for educators to use with their students.

“Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and we were very sensitive to give them as complete a package as possible to help them in their teaching,” Mr. Tighe said.

Whatever form a solution might take, activists such as Ms. Mullan say it must be found quickly, or else society risks losing potential voters for generations.

“Someone, like the schools, has to do something,” she said. “Otherwise these kids’ll grow up and be just like their parents.”