30 Kennedy prints are on display

Forty thousand negatives taken by John F. Kennedy’s personal photographer were probably destroyed in the World Trade Center. But 30 prints taken from them are on display at The Sixth Floor Museum.

Jacques Lowe followed JFK from his days as a senator through his brief presidency. His negatives, valued at $2 million, were stored in a heavily damaged vault in New York. Searchers continue to look for them but with little hope.

The 30 photos, part of an exhibit on Jackie Kennedy, are in the breezeway connecting the visitors center to neighboring Dallas County administrative offices. They can be seen without a ticket.

Joshua Benton

Jammed schools calling for help; Can DISD bond fix this? Lunch at 10:15, shifts for restrooms, patched roofs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 1A

At some schools, teachers know all the students. At Burnet Elementary, teachers don’t even know all the teachers.

About 1,550 students crowd into Burnet to learn everything from their colors to multiplication tables in prekindergarten through fifth grade. The northwest Dallas school was designed for about half that number. What used to be a playground is now a long line of portable classrooms on concrete islands.

The extraordinary has become dishearteningly ordinary: lining up during a scheduled five-minute slot to use the bathroom; eating lunch at 10:15 a.m.; attending assemblies in four shifts; learning to read in the same classroom where fifth-graders are holding play practice.

“The only thing the whole school does together is fire drill,” principal Judith Meyer said. “That’s not normal, is it? By now it all seems pretty normal here.”

Burnet has the largest population of elementary students in the Dallas district, and its overcrowding and varying levels of disrepair are evident in the main building and 23 portable buildings. The conditions are what Superintendent Mike Moses, the man pushing the $1.37 billion bond vote Jan. 19, means when he says the district is “hemorrhaging.”

More than 40,000 students attend class in portable classrooms, some of which are 40 years old. Five elementary schools are at 200 percent capacity or more. Eighty-three percent of schools are in need of critical roofing repairs. The list goes on.

For at least the last decade, Dallas school leaders have had little trouble identifying their facility problems. They have, however, struggled to fix them.

Mistakes of the past

Some reasons, such as the continuing population boom, have been beyond the district’s control. But current and former school leaders say the magnitude of the problem is linked partly to mistakes of the past – management instability that made a bond package politically impossible for too long and years of deferred maintenance that now contributes to $414.1 million in critically needed renovation.

“It’s always easy to second guess, and I hesitate to do it,” Dr. Moses said. “But obviously if things had been done differently five or 10 or 15 years ago, we’d be in a better situation today.”

If a man suddenly grew to twice his proper size, the strain on his body would be easy to see at certain stress points. The same is true of a school: Burnet Elementary is barely 40 years old, but the wear and tear makes it look older.

“You can only push the button on the water fountain so many times before the spring goes,” said Ms. Meyer.

High-traffic grassy areas have been reduced to dirt and mud by thousands of kids’ sneakers. Plumbing and air-conditioning systems are more prone to break down because of the burden they’re under. The roof is a quilt of orange, brown, and tan repair patches.

The extra wear on Burnet and other schools has been exacerbated in some cases by the district’s reduction in maintenance spending over the years – a decision not unusual across the country as districts cope with rising fixed costs such as electricity and teacher salaries.

Still, when the state comptroller’s office issued its performance review of the school district in June, one of its biggest complaints was about Dallas’ poor record of maintaining its $4 billion worth of buildings.

According to the review, the district’s maintenance budget has declined 17 percent in the last four years. During the same period, the number of students went up 13,000, and the square footage in buildings increased 3 percent.

Former trustees say the board decided over the years to cut maintenance in favor of other priorities, such as higher teacher salaries and smaller classes.

“It was a conscious decision,” said former trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, a board member from 1974 to 1997. “We didn’t have the money. You can defer for only so long. Then it catches up with you.”

Miguel Ramos, associate superintendent for auxiliary services, said the maintenance department has been making do with little for years.

“We’ve been fixing things with bailing wire and duct tape when we have to,” Mr. Ramos said. “Our staff has done a lot with little.”

The comptroller’s report also criticized the district for lacking a program of preventive maintenance, measures that might stop little problems from turning into big ones. District officials say an outside firm has just finished a facilities inventory, and a preventive maintenance program should be in place within a year.

The bathrooms at Burnet can’t handle the onslaught of so many students at one time, so each class is assigned two five-minute periods per day – one each in the morning and afternoon. Exceptions are made for emergencies, Ms. Meyer added, because “you can’t put kindergartners on a clock.”

No place to plug it in

Burnet now has more than 70 teachers. Not all fit in the teacher’s lounge. If one wants to brew coffee, the microwave oven must first be unplugged. A much-needed photocopier has been delayed because there’s no place to plug it in.

Only students up to second grade attend class in the main building. Others walk outside to their portable classrooms. A covered walkway protects them from the rain but only if there’s little wind.

The student body outgrew the cafeteria long ago, and many eat in a satellite cafeteria, where food is rolled over from the main kitchen in heated carts.

Lunch comes close on the heels of breakfast. The first shift starts at 10:15 a.m. There’s not nearly enough room for all the food needed for 1,550 hungry children.

“That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” cafeteria manager Cheryl Irabo said, pointing to a pile of tomato sauce cans stacked on a milk crate in her office. They should be on shelves farther away from the floor. “That’s something the health department could write us up for. But we just don’t have the room.”

She’s looking for a way to keep chocolate and white milk available for the children, but her limited refrigerator space might be the end of one of them.

Burnet already was bursting at the seams in 1992, when Dallas passed its last bond package, for $275 million. At the time, school leaders knew the district’s needs easily amounted to $400 million, but they didn’t think voters would agree.

Officials also expected another bond issue to be approved in five years or so, as had been the pattern in DISD’s history.

But when the late-1990s arrived, the district was engulfed in so much turmoil – the public was soured on racial tension and management instability – that approval of another bond package was deemed out of the question.

Many of the facilities’ needs identified as far back as the 1980s have gone unmet since then. Now, because of explosive growth, the lack of a bond issue, and deferred maintenance, there’s such a backlog that not even $1.37 billion will fix it all.

Eager for relief

The total need, officials say, tops $1.8 billion, and Dr. Moses already speaks of another bond election in five years.

“Obviously, it would have been helpful if the 1992 bond issue had been larger,” Dr. Moses said.

“Most of those who look back on it now wish that. And it would have been helpful if the board had brought forth another referendum in the mid- to late-1990s. But it probably was not feasible politically.”

The effects of facilities problems aren’t purely physical. It’s difficult to lure teachers into working under such conditions. Teachers at Burnet say it’s harder to control kids in such a big school, and small-group learning sessions are tougher to put together. Arranging use of the library or the auditorium also is a hassle.

“Anything you do takes so much effort,” said counselor Anne Holley. “Somebody else is always using what you want to use.”

“It’s kind of like the saying, it takes a village to raise a child,” said teacher Patsy Vancill. “Well, we need a smaller village.”

For the most part, Ms. Meyer said, Burnet’s students seem oblivious to the conditions. Many of them have seen much worse. Most are recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America, and more than 70 percent have difficulty speaking English. Ninety-seven percent are poor. Only 39.3 percent passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills last year.

“They don’t know the school is crowded,” Ms. Meyer said. “They’re by and large happy with school – in comparison to what they’ve had before.”

Ask children if they’d like to see new schools built in the neighborhood, and they shout: “No!”

“They can keep putting more kids in here, because it means there are more who can be your friend,” said Blanca Gonzalez, 11.

But if voters approve the bond package next month, two new elementary schools will eventually go up in the Bachman Lake neighborhood around Burnet.

Teachers look forward to the relief, but they know Burnet won’t suddenly become a one-room schoolhouse. Teachers who have been there close to 20 years don’t remember having fewer than 1,000 students.

After the 1992 bond election, DISD built Saldivar Elementary just south of Burnet. It opened in 1996 with 1,091 students, and Burnet’s enrollment dropped from 1,602 to 1,247.

“It didn’t really help,” said physical education teacher Mary Ramirez. “I didn’t see much of an impact. It was still a big school.”

Five years later, Saldivar has more than 1,300 students. Burnet is nearly back to its pre-Saldivar size.

If two more relief schools go up, Burnet’s enrollment might drop by 500 students or so. But in the take time it would take for new schools to be built, Burnet’s enrollment might go up by another 200 or more; except for 1996, it has grown by about 80 students a year since 1993.

“But if we don’t get these new schools, the numbers are just going to keep climbing higher and higher,” said Ms. Holley.

With all the difficulties and mistakes in the DISD over the last decade, school leaders hope to convince the public that old problems won’t recur.

Dr. Moses has said he is committed to putting the district on track toward regular bond packages and increased maintenance spending.

“I can make it sound easy and say things are going to get better right away,” said Larry Groppel, the deputy superintendent who is overseeing the bond package and maintenance reforms. “But where the rubber meets the road, it’s going to be a challenge.”

At least one close observer said the district’s past sins are almost beside the point.

“You can sit around and point fingers all you want,” said Betty Ressel, manager of the team that assembled the comptroller’s review of the DISD. “But the bottom line is that they’re in this condition, and for them to get a fresh start, they’re going to have to spend a lot of money.”

United in public, not in private; DISD trustees’ intense disputes on redistricting revealed in transcript

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 35A

Dallas school trustees say they’ve found a way to coexist peacefully and effectively behind the high-profile chief executive they hired to turn the district around.

But transcripts of closed meetings that came out in the battle over the redrawing of voting boundaries indicate that, at least on one hot-button issue, their public unity masked intense private disputes.

The transcripts, hundreds of pages from meetings held between April and September, reveal board members who were highly concerned about their public image but who retreated to self-preservation and personal jabs behind closed doors.

At various points, trustees accuse one another of smirking inappropriately, use racially inflammatory language, and call each other “wimps” and “weenies.”

Trustees, whose comments are not attributed by name in the transcripts, acknowledge that redistricting was rough. It’s still rough – Friday a judge threw out their Oct. 1 approval of a new voting map because some of the meetings represented in the transcripts were illegal.

However, trustees stress that the private battles were an aberration from the positive working relationships they have developed. Residents, they say, should not think the board has resorted to fractious old ways.

“Redistricting is a highly intense, emotional issue, and I would respectfully ask people not to take little pieces of a supposedly private conversation and run with it,” trustee Ron Price said. “I think, personally, that the board’s behavior has changed 100 percent from before.”

“Sometimes politics is ugly,” trustee Roxan Staff said. “But in the last year, the school board has worked. We’re learning, and Dr. Moses is training us really well.”

Superintendent Mike Moses, who played no part in the redistricting process and attended none of the closed meetings, agreed that the board’s conduct has improved. During his time as Texas education commissioner, Dr. Moses once coached Dallas trustees to work together better.

“The board has done a 180 from the time I was involved with them as commissioner,” Dr. Moses said last week. “Are they perfect? No. I don’t defend them if they do something I don’t think is right, and clearly the redistricting issue has been difficult. But it’s a political issue, and it’s been tough for everyone who’s had to deal with it.”

The board’s public image is crucial to its No. 1 goal: passing a $1.37 billion bond proposal Jan. 19. Throughout the 1990s, the board’s division was one reason a bond proposal was politically impossible. The district’s last bond election was in 1992.

“We should have done this five years ago,” said Rob Steinhart, who is leading the bond campaign. “But everyone realized we didn’t have the credibility in the community to get it passed.”

Since Dr. Moses was hired last year, trustees have worked to present a unified front. Board meetings, once filled with dramatic spectacle, have become more sedate. An improved image followed.

“We know what all is at stake here,” one trustee said in the transcripts. “We don’t want to be looking defensive and going back to the kinds of things that took place a number of years ago.”

But the tenor clearly was different during some of the private discussions.

One trustee interrupts a comment to say, apparently to trustee Lois Parrott: “Lois, stop it. Just stop. I would like to say something, and I would like your attention. I’m asking you not to laugh while I’m speaking.”

Trustees also address the political implications of their actions openly. At one point, trustees say that Dallas’ black population would object loudly if they felt slighted in the redistricting process. “But I’d submit to you that in the Anglo and the Latino communities, there wouldn’t be an outcry at all,” one board member
says.

Another trustee answers: “They don’t care at all.”

Throughout the transcripts, several trustees say they are being singled out for political mistreatment by proposed district boundaries, and some say they will take their case to the media.

“You know, it is not about trying to smear one another in front of the public,” one trustee said. “That’s what it [redistricting] is not about.”

Several trustees said the political nature of redistricting – which can go a long way toward determining who gets re-elected and who doesn’t – made the battle more tense than fights over most issues.

“Redistricting was emotional and personal from the get-go,” said board President Ken Zornes, who has said trustees thought the closed sessions were legal because of pending lawsuits over redistricting. “Any time you have those characteristics in a debate, it fosters more heated exchanges. …We are just regular folks who sometimes let our emotions get carried away.”

Mr. Zornes said that, while “some things might not have been said” if the board had been meeting publicly, he thought that trustees would have reached the same decisions on redistricting if the closed meetings hadn’t taken place.

Advocates of open government, however, said the process might have turned out differently if the private discussions had been held publicly.

“Because we, the public, would have been observing and able to hold them accountable for their decisions, their comments, and the process they went through,” said Wanda Cash, vice president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and editor-publisher of The Baytown Sun.

Ms. Cash said the release of the transcripts, and their contents, shows the importance of laws requiring government to keep discourse on almost all issues open.

Judge: DISD broke open-meetings law; Ruling on closed-door talks could void redistricting vote

By Tawnell Hobbs
Staff Writer
Page 35A

A judge ruled Friday that Dallas school trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by haggling behind closed doors while redrawing district boundaries.

Attorneys for the Dallas Independent School District and Latino plaintiffs who sued the board said the ruling by 191st Civil District Judge Catharina Haynes could lead to trustees’ 5-4 vote on a new redistricting map being voided. At least one trustee has said she would change her vote for the map.

“These trustees were essentially discussing what map they would adopt and what their story would be,” said William A. Brewer III, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Well, they’ve lost. Now it’s a question of what the punishment will be.”

School board President Ken Zornes said he was disappointed with the ruling but said the district would probably not appeal.

“The judge made a ruling based on knowledge of the law, and I’m going to go along with that decision,” Mr. Zornes said. He added that trustees never took a straw vote on any maps and never intended to break the law.

“The board during this entire process acted in good faith,” he said. “In closed session, some things are said that people don’t want to be said in public.”

The judge set a trial for Dec. 17 to decide what to do about the violations, Mr. Brewer said. Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, Judge Haynes could void the board’s vote.

Eric Moye, an attorney for DISD who said he was present during the closed meetings, agreed that the judge could force a revote on the map, but he added that another vote would probably have the same outcome.

“I think there’s probably more support for the plan now,” Mr. Moye said. “I’m confident that a majority of the board supports this plan.”

During a months-long redistricting process, all the trustees stated a desire to create at least one more mostly Latino voting district. Two of nine districts currently have a Latino majority. The district’s overall population is about 40 percent Hispanic.

But trustees were unable to create another Latino seat without cutting any board members out of their districts or dividing other constituencies. On Oct. 1, they voted 5-4 for a map that essentially kept district boundaries the same. Mr. Zornes dissented, along with trustees Rafael Anchia, Roxan Staff, and Kathleen Leos.

Trustee Lois Parrott, who voted for the map, said she was concerned from the start that the process was improper.

“I was concerned during the redistricting process that, indeed, some of our closed sessions were improper,” Dr. Parrott said, adding that she would not support the map in a revote.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that the board illegally discussed the redistricting process while in closed session. According to the law, matters such as lawsuits, personnel decisions, and property negotiations can be discussed in closed session.

Judge Haynes ruled that the law was violated during at least nine meetings, Mr. Brewer said.

Several hundred pages of transcripts from the closed meetings, made public through the lawsuit and released by the plaintiffs, appear to support her ruling. Trustees are not identified except by gender in some cases, and their discussions included redistricting. Superintendent Mike Moses did not attend any of the closed meetings, Mr. Zornes said.

One trustee complained that his or her district was not being drawn with re-election in mind.

“That’s not protection. That’s killing me,” the trustee said.

In another section of the transcripts, a board member said: “If we come out of here with less then three Latino seats where Latinos can run and win, public perception will be shock….We’re going to get hammered communitywide.”

In sometimes-tense exchanges, several trustees expressed highly personal reasons for wanting certain maps rejected, including one member who didn’t like a map because it would move his grandmother out of his district.

In one passage, when members express concerns about how redistricting could affect their chances for re-election, a trustee told them that if the district continues to produce good news, all will work out in the end.

“I think we all agree that [Dr. Moses] has a very good executive team in place. I think that tomorrow he is going to have a press conference and start pretty much a public relations blitz on just how good everything is going,” the trustee said. “I think all of those things scheduled, we will get a bond package out there in January which will get passed.”

Throughout the meetings, trustees were clearly concerned about keeping a united front in public.

“We know what all is at stake here down the road with other issues like a bond,” one trustee said. “We don’t want to be looking defensive and going back to the kinds of things that took place a number of years ago.”

Staff writers Joshua Benton and Tony Hartzel contributed to this report.

Rare heart-lung transplant may give woman new life; Operation is 2nd done at UT Southwestern

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 36A

After surgeons filled the gaping cavity of Susan Gunia’s chest with someone else’s heart and someone else’s lungs, one of them noticed something different about her:

“For all the time I’ve known Susan, this is the first time she’s not been blue.”

Blue as in lips the color of a fresh bruise. Ms. Gunia was born with a hole in her heart and, for 37 years, she’d had a sky-blue tint to prove it.

The hole in her heart forced too much blood into the chamber that leads to her lungs, which put too much pressure on her pulmonary system and delivered blood with too little oxygen to the rest of her body.

Since the time she collapsed singing a song in the first grade, she had fainting spells. For 13 years she’d been tethered to an oxygen tank.

Now the tank sits unused in her East Tawakoni home. On Monday night, Ms. Gunia received a new heart and two new lungs from a donor who is unknown to her.

“I told her that even if something eventually goes wrong, getting the transplant was the right decision,” said her father, Charlie Gunia. “Because then at least she would get to know what it feels like to have normal capabilities. She said, ‘Yes, it sure feels great.'”

Dr. Michael DiMaio, one of her surgeons, said that this was the second operation of its type performed at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Only about 40 are performed each year in the United States.

Multiple-organ transplants are much more complex than single-organ ones, primarily because the odds of a body rejecting an organ are much higher.

Ms. Gunia was born in a small town in northern France, where her father was stationed in the Air Force.

Mr. Gunia and his wife, Dorothy, did what they could, moving to lower altitudes to make their daughter’s breathing easier. But as her condition worsened, the blackouts became more common.

“If she got out of bed and walked to the kitchen, she had to sit down in a chair to rest,” her father said.

She got onto a waiting list for organs about three years ago.

“The call came about 20 till 4 Monday morning,” Mr. Gunia said. “They said they had organs, and how soon could we bring her in?”

The organ-harvesting team went to work on the donor, and the surgeons were ready about 7 p.m. Monday.

“It looks amazing: a completely empty chest cavity,” Dr. DiMaio said. “There’s nothing in there. The new lungs look like a butterfly, with a heart in the middle.”

Dr. DiMaio said Ms. Gunia should be able to lead something approaching a normal life, assuming her body doesn’t reject the organs.

“There were three things she said she wanted to do” after getting her new organs, her father said. “She wants to take a college course on Spanish. She wants to go to Disney [World], to Epcot Center. And she wants to go to France and see where she was born.

“She can do all those things now,” he said. “She’s very pink, very rosy. You can tell she’s very alive.”

2,000 lights to glow on ‘Peace Tree’

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 25A

With a quick plug into an electrical outlet, the most visual signal of the impending holidays will get switched on Wednesday.

At noon in downtown Dallas, the “Global Peace Tree” will be officially lighted at City Hall Plaza. The 18-foot-tall tree will be decked with 2,000 lights and hundreds of hands drawn by area schoolchildren.

Many of the decorations will be red, white, and blue to reflect the events of the year.

Three things this year’s tree is meant to stand for: global friendship, dialogue, and unity.

One thing it isn’t: nature. The tree’s a fake.

— Joshua Benton

Despite educational success, Japan plans to change system; Some leery of radical reforms to country’s rigid school curricula

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 1A

TOKYO – From American shores, it’s hard to imagine that anything is wrong with Japanese schools.

Japan has finished ahead of the United States through decades of test-score comparisons. And educational success has played a role in building the world’s second-largest economy.

But Japanese leaders think their system is deeply flawed, and they’re out to fix it in a way that might seem unthinkable in the contemporary United States: teaching children less.

A series of national reforms to take effect in April will radically change Japanese education. Saturday classes, long a symbol of Japan’s extraordinary commitment to schooling, will be eliminated. Class time for traditional subjects such as math, science, and Japanese will be cut.

Why? Although it’s true that Japanese students perform well on tests, some educators believe the test scores have hidden a problem: Students lack creativity, and they don’t enjoy learning. They know many facts, but too many don’t know how to apply them.

“If you ask Japanese children what they know, they finish at the top of the world,” said Satoshi Ashidate, the national government’s director of curriculum planning. “But if you ask Japanese children if they actually like learning, they’re at the bottom. That’s what we are trying to fix.”

Some parents and educators are uncomfortable with the pace of reform and some specific changes, including an experimental new class that will have no textbook, no structure and – so far – no explanation for confused teachers trying to make sense of it all.

“People feel lost,” said Hiromitsu Muta, a professor and educational researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “We’ve had the same system for 100 years, and now people are being told to do something new and very different.”

By the numbers, it’s hard to tell there’s a crisis in Japanese education. The 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which compared performance in 38 countries, ranked Japan in the top five in both subject areas. The United States was 19th in math and 18th in science.

But for decades, a minority of critics have said the uniformity in Japanese schools ignores the needs of individual students in the interest of delivering huge amounts of information. And Japanese leaders have long envied the creativity, independent thinking, and innovation exhibited by American students.

Economic doldrums

Those long-held views reached critical mass in recent years, spurred in part by continuing economic doldrums that have many Japanese searching for answers.

Although Japanese officials are quick to say the reforms are primarily being instituted for educational reasons, they acknowledge an economic motivation. Some Japanese think a more creative next generation will be a key to snapping the nation out of its decade-long recession.

“For many years, we Japanese could count on the United States or Europe to do research and make innovations,” Mr. Ashidate said. “But if we are going to be successful, we need to be making those innovations ourselves.”

The centerpiece of the changes is a new class called “general studies,” which is unlike anything Japanese education has ever seen. For decades, what students are taught and when they learn it has been determined by the national government. Third-graders, for example, all do the same math problems and learn the same science lessons at the same time, whether they’re in Tokyo or Kyoto.

What is taught in general studies classes will be left up entirely to individual schools and teachers. The only guideline is that classes encourage creativity and student initiative and integrate knowledge from other classes through projects or real-world activity.

In areas where the concept is already being tested, some schools are tracking pollution in a local river or researching the history of old buildings, projects that would have been rare before.

At Tokyo’s Azabu Elementary, one of the test schools, students have been involved in service projects, such as cleaning city streets and researching a neighborhood.

“If you stop at memorizing, you don’t have active knowledge,” said Takahashi Takemasa, a fifth-grade teacher at Azabu. “You have to show them the connection between what they learn and aspects of real life.”

The new class, coupled with the decision to eliminate Saturday classes, means other areas in the curriculum will be cut. Earlier this year, the government released a list of skills that will be delayed or eliminated in the new system. Among them:

* Math lessons on greater-than and less-than signs will be moved from second grade to third.

* Adding and subtracting two-digit numbers will move from the first to the second grade, as will learning how to read a clock.

* In science class, hibernation and human bone structure will all be booted from elementary school to junior high.

* The time allotted for learning to read and write a specific set of Japanese characters will be increased from one to two years.

“We want students to learn how to learn,” said Toru Hase, principal of Azabu Elementary, in the busy Roppongi neighborhood. “Yes, they will know less than before. But they will know the information more securely.”

As one might expect, making the switch isn’t easy for teachers used to instructing by rote formula handed down from above. Japan has historically focused on uniformity in education; students who learn quickly and slowly are taught the same materials at the same pace, all across the country. Because individualized instruction is not a priority, elementary school classes often have up to 40 students.

Teachers are especially vexed by the unfamiliar format of the general studies class. “If you say math or science or social studies, people know what you’re talking about,” Dr. Muta said. “But if you say general studies, people say, ‘What is that?’ No one can say what it is students will have learned at the end of class.

“Somebody had the idea to publish a book with ideas for teachers on how to teach general studies. It sold a million copies.”

Mr. Ashidate, the government curriculum director, said changing teachers’ nature is part of the goal.

“We are trying to develop children who can think for themselves,” he said. “If we are to be successful, we have to develop teachers who can think for themselves also.”

Thinking skills

At Azabu, the new approach has gone beyond the pilot general-studies course. Other lessons also are being changed to emphasize thinking skills rather than memorization.

In one of Mr. Takemasa’s classes recently, students surveyed their classmates on a variety of questions, from their thoughts on school lunch to their favorite TV shows. Then they presented findings to the class, using charts and graphs.

“We found that nobody disliked noodles,” one boy said while pointing to a poster filled with bar charts. “Five people disliked shellfish. Most people disliked liver.”

“We want to do things that go beyond what our classes used to,” Mr. Takemasa said. “They didn’t just have to memorize facts. They had to come up with an idea, research it, compile their data, and figure out the best way to present it to the class.”

Some parents have expressed worry that the reforms will cost their children knowledge they need to get into the most competitive high schools and universities. Most of the Japan’s private schools are not adopting the same changes and the admissions tests for top schools won’t get easier just because public schools teach less.

“I expect a decline in the quality of education,” said Kodo Matsuura, father of two students at Azabu Elementary. “When a child is young, he should try very hard to memorize information. It’s part of the training of the brain. Parents are very anxious.”

Some say they will teach their children the missing lessons at home. Others plan to increase the time their children spend in juku, or “cram schools,” after-hours classes where students memorize information to pass entrance exams. Some schools are even planning to go against the concept of general studies by filling
that class’s hours with extra math or science instruction. Although that goes against the reformers’ intent, Mr. Ashidate said schools will have the leeway to do as they please with the class time.

If many parents and schools follow that lead, it would thwart a major goal of the reforms – to reduce test stress and the emphasis on memorization.

“I think cram school might be the only way to fix it,” said Yoshiki Hosotani, mother of a third-grader at Azabu. “When I was a schoolgirl, I was told that studying very hard was a good thing. Now, they’re being told to learn less. I don’t think it’s a good message.”