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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Back to School Food, Tests, and Propaganda

Dennis Fox

September 9 , 2004

Despite the calendar's insistence we have two more weeks of summer, this week's back-to-school rush marks the real seasonal change. Three school topics come to mind.

First is food. Three years ago I asked Brookline's food service director to remove the junk food from elementary school vending machines and cafeteria lines. Caramel Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats, artificially flavored and colored "fireworks" Popsicles, Pop Tarts, and something called Coffee Milk supplemented the fat- and sugar-heavy breakfast and lunch choices. Every parent I spoke to about the topic was dismayed.

Although Coffee Milk was soon banished, the director refused to eliminate more junk because snacks bring in money. Since supposedly healthy options were also offered, he explained, the system was doing everything required. Nothing could be done to stop children from making bad choices.

So I was pleased to read about the town's new healthy school lunches, spurred on by Runkle School parent Vince Connelly -- a chef and cookbook author -- and his physician-wife Hope Ricciotti. They persuaded a new, more-flexible food service director to replace the warmed-over, pre-packaged, artery-clogging meals heretofore inflicted on our kids with fresh ingredients cooked on site. The next step, while all town schools shift to the new lunch system and revamp breakfast as well, should be making sure healthier meals are not undermined by junky snacks.

The second issue is student testing. MCAS -- the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System -- continues to damage children's education even in Brookline's high-quality schools. My wife and I are glad most of our daughter's teachers have opposed the MCAS test because of its punitive nature, misplaced priorities, and general time-wasting. We're less pleased that those teachers must prep kids for MCAS -- in keeping with the School Committee's mania to ensure Brookline schools score high -- and that the test regularly throws off normal routines.

We've never let our daughter take MCAS; she skipped the test in third, fourth, and fifth grades. When she gets older, she'll decide for herself whether to take it, though unless state law changes she'll have to pass to get a high school diploma. In the meantime, we hope more elementary school parents take advantage of the local policy that lets them exempt their children. True, the School Committee shows signs of clamping down now that the federal No Child Left Behind Act threatens to replace school administrators when too many students fail, but the disheartened parent/teacher movement against high-stakes testing would still do better to escalate its tactics rather than accept testing's institutionalization.

My third concern is the town's DARE Program, scheduled this year for my sixth-grader. According to the Police Department, Drug Abuse Resistance Education is supposed to "help students recognize and resist the many direct and subtle pressures that influence them to experiment with alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, or other drugs or to engage in violence."

Learning to analyze and resist advertising, peer pressure, and other stimulants to destructive behavior is crucial. I wish our schools would focus more effectively on related interpersonal problems like bullying and teasing and on the lures of fashion, appearance, and general consumerism. Schools could also facilitate parent-to-parent communication about problem areas from clothing to chores to curfews.

But I don't like uniformed police officers entering the classroom to teach my daughter.

Research nationwide shows the traditional DARE Program does not even reduce drug use, its primary goal. Indeed, by relying on scare stories and threats and minimizing the distinction between responsible use and dangerous abuse, DARE's oversimplifications frequently backfire. Teenagers who learn from observation and experience that all drugs are not equally dangerous and that an occasional beer or toke doesn't inexorably lead to escalation, addiction, destruction, and death are more likely to reject than internalize DARE's never-touch-any-of-it message.

I've been told that Brookline's DARE Program is better than the national model. This year I'll learn what that means. Even if that's the case, though, the police mission of enforcing every law, no matter how pointless, conflicts with school's educational mission of providing accurate information about complex issues. In Brookline, we should opt for accuracy and complexity instead of propaganda. Health and safety should be taught by health education instructors, not cops.

More on school testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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