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Grant to give SMCISD history program a boost

San Marcos Daily Record (07/12/2004)
By Anita Miller

It's not about rewriting history, but rethinking and reworking the way it's taught.

That's the philosophy that drove the San Marcos CISD to apply for and secure a federal grant aimed at introducing a new way to teach history, first to teachers and then to students.

Word has been sent out from the office of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison that the SMCISD will receive a Teaching American History Program grant of almost a million dollars. The money comes through the Department of Education under a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It' a real feather in our cap," said Sylvia Garza, SMCISD assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Garza, along with Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez, were surprised on Friday afternoon to learn the district was selected. "I knew we were in budget negotiations with them in May, but we didn't know if we had made the cut or not," Garza said.

A core requirement of the grant is that local educational agencies work in partnership with either an institute of higher learning, a nonprofit history or humanities organization, library or museum. For SMCISD, that meant teaming up with Texas State University-San Marcos.

The Hays CISD received a similar grant last year and is already using History Alive!, a purchased curriculum, in its American history classes. Nina Wright, resource developer for the College of Liberal Arts, consulted with Hays officials and others at Texas State when she wrote the grant proposal that resulted in SMCISD being picked.

Crucial to the project will be the involvement of TxState, whose professors will act as mentors to SMCISD teachers and will observe classroom methods and interactions. SMCISD teachers will attend summer institutes at TxState and also attend one professional development meeting each month, during which substitutes will assume their classroom duties.

"Teachers teach in the manner they were taught," Wright wrote, which oftentimes means a structured approach of "facts and dates" but lacking nuance and perspective.

Wright's proposal noted that students who understand and appreciate American history are more likely to grow up to be fully participating citizens, and that schools serving a large number of first and second generation Americans have a particular duty "to ensure effective teaching of American history."

The SMCISD is 67 percent Hispanic and, Wright said in her proposal, 12 percent of the population of the Austin-San Marcos metro area in 2000 was foreign-born.

The proposal also cited a study by SMCISD's Dr. Lolly Guerra which found that "of ten fifth grade social studies teachers, none had more than the two required courses in American history at the college level," that "of the nine teachers in the junior high schools, six had only three college courses of American History" and that "of the four high school American history teachers one had only one college course, one had two courses, one had three and one completed four courses in American history."

Garza described History Alive! as an innovative and interactive that is "different" from traditional curriculums. "Kids have the opportunities to work with a lot of technology that many times textbooks don't provide," she said. "In my experience History Alive! kids and teachers really enjoy teaching that particular curriculum."

The actual grant totals $996,903 and Garza said there will be months of preparatory work before the curriculum hits the classroom. "It's a great opportunity to do some vertical planning and vertical networking for our teachers from junior high up through high school," she said. "Once you get notification it takes a few moths. I would anticipate that more than likely full implementation may begin in the spring" of 2005.

The grant application also noted the poor performance of local students in the history portion of the 2003 11th grade TAKS test.

"Hispanic and Economically Disadvantaged students in SMCISD consistently score below their white counterparts," Wright wrote. The TAKS test scores breakdown also listed "Economically Disadvantaged" as a separate category than "all students," "African American students," "Hispanic students," and "white students."

Percentages in those categories that reached the "commended performance" level were 25 percent for "white students," 18 percent for "African American students," six percent for "Hispanic students," and four percent for "Economically Disadvantaged" students.

"Because the TAKS measures minimum standards, the low success rate in all categories is disheartening, but the obvious gap between subgroups is particularly disturbing," the grant application said.

The grant is expected to cover the projected $676,559 expanses of the SMCISD, which include such items as personnel costs, benefits, travel, computers, LCD projectors and other equipment and stipends for teachers attending the summer institutes. Another $117,800 is budgeted to the Teacher's Curriculum Institute for purchasing and implementing the History Alive! curriculum and $227,909 in expenses for Texas State.