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Shiny things sidetrack board from job: school

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


For lack of a better term, call it the Shiny Object Syndrome.

It's the tendency of people who are walking a difficult path to be distracted by a shiny object off to the side, veering into the wilderness while losing sight of the more serious matters at hand.

You see it a lot in government, especially during elections, when something as benign as a candidate's new hairstyle or an unscripted comment distracts attention from the real issues.

For months, our School Board has had a bad case of the Shiny Object Syndrome.

A debate has raged since before Christmas over the role of religion in the school system. While there is merit to this discussion, and the press certainly can be blamed for giving it undue attention, it is surely not the most important educational issue of the day.

But it is a nice, shiny object that can get people fired up and distracted from the serious work of improving our schools.

On Feb. 27, there will be a School Board workshop at Forest Ridge Elementary School so people can shout about what prayers should be said before School Board meetings and whether a religious group crossed the line in holding what amounted to a recruitment drive at Inverness Middle School during the school day.

Are these interesting topics? Sure. And there has been ample opportunity in recent weeks for reasonable people -- even the School Board -- to settle these issues peacefully. Instead, the board leadership has allowed these matters to fester.

It doesn't take a genius to predict what will happen on Feb. 27. A roomful of zealots will argue that their religion is better than someone else's and belongs in the public school. Others will strongly disagree. There will be hurt feelings and dissension.

No one's opinion will change, of course, and the exercise certainly won't improve the curriculum or better prepare a single child for the future. What it will do is waste more precious energy and resources while distracting attention from the real challenges.

And what are they? Glad you asked.

Kids today need a cutting-edge education to prepare them to be the workers of tomorrow. Technological advances are happening so rapidly that students often are far ahead of their teachers in computers, learning more at home with their own more powerful systems than they do in the classroom. Through no fault of the teachers, who can only use outdated equipment provided by a cash-strapped school system, the kids are often bored in these classes.

But there is an exciting project in the works that could change that. It is an idea that we all should pay attention to and help get off the ground because it could really take off with the children and faculty.

It is getting no notice, however, because the school leadership and many in the community are allowing themselves to be distracted by those shiny objects.

Called the Oracle Internet Academy project, it essentially would create an academy, or magnet school, for advanced computer education at Lecanto High. Led by a highly qualified instructor, Bob Chambers, the academy would not just teach teens

real-time advances in technology, it would give them practical experience at any of a host of local businesses that have already expressed interest in having these students serve as interns.

To no one's surprise, the proposed academy faces the unenviable problem of having to select 15-30 students from hundreds who are qualified to attend. There is minimal cost involved because the school already has managed to gather almost all of the equipment it will need.

It is a no-brainer that the School Board should be encouraging this initiative and looking for ways to make this sort of essential education available to all interested students. We're always talking about being a "world class" school system; here's one way to make that more than just an empty slogan.

Just imagine what could be accomplished if the dozens of folks who plan on attending the religious shouting match would close their Bibles long enough to look into Bob Chambers' classroom and see what's being done to really help our kids.

Given the current climate, though, that sort of thinking doesn't have a prayer.

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