Angel was preparing to join the dozen or so children who commit suicide each year in Arizona when someone heard her cry for help. At a moment when her despair was so deep that Angel felt as if the earth was closing over her, a stranger reached out and infused strength into her weakening grip.
The stranger was a school psychologist, an outsider who recognized and responded to a need that went unseen by Angel's own family. The act may have saved Angel's life; it unquestionably turned her life around.
But events swirling just beyond her understanding make it uncertain if the next child to face her crisis will be so lucky. Angel is a sixth-grader in the Glendale Elementary School District, a system that is itself in crisis.
The district is under attack by ultraconservatives who've targeted school counseling services for elimination. Despite the unprecedented flood of drugs into American schools, the drug abuse prevention program is also a target.
The activists' agenda doesn't stop there, either. It reaches all the way into basic educational programs, where they want to mandate fundamentalist teaching methods in place of the district's much-praised reading and writing program. To eliminate what is perceived as a threat to the family, the fundamentalists have drawn up a hit list of administrators who must be fired because they are responsible for the programs.
Glendale is in the middle of a guerilla war against "secular humanism," a value system in which there is no absolute "right" and "wrong" and people are taught to trust their own moral judgment, rather relying on the Bible, explains Donald "Mac" MacPherson, a Glendale lawyer for conservative causes.
"Secular humanism is a religion," says MacPherson, explaining his religious objection to having his children participate in the school drug program.
The dissidents fear these programs to counsel kids, combat drug abuse and increase literacy, recent introductions in a community renowned for its conservatism, will undermine the education and emotional well-being of their children.
Administration supporters are terrified, saying they fear the demolition of a system that is gaining national respect among educators. They point to the district's large numbers of poor and minority students and express disbelief that the conservatives' simplistic morality will work even in their own homes, let alone in troubled homes like the one Angel comes from.
So deeply wounding is this war that it has spilled outside school walls, ripping at the tightly woven fabric of a proud community. The conflict does not separate conservatives from liberals so much as it draws divisions between conservatives and ultraconservatives. It has destroyed long-standing friendships among some of the principal antagonists, and spread such dissension that even the town's elected leaders and business people say they are worried about lingering damage.
Actions by the school board since the recent election of a conservative majority have spurred a recall movement in retaliation for the swipes taken at current school programs and officials.
Critics of the school programs say they are fighting for their children's interest. Armed with ammunition from such New Right groups as the Eagle Forum, they are feeding on the discontent bred by a school district in transition. Each unhappy parent, no matter the source of his or her concern, is a potential ally in their fight to overturn the reforms enacted by district administrators and their supporters on the school board.
But the conservative activists admit their solutions do not take into account children like Angel. She and the 160 other kids in trouble seen by Glendale school psychologists each year seem destined to be the casualties in the latest crusade to protect the family.
"I'M NOT WORTH ANYTHING. Life is not worth anything." Angel was only eleven, a student at Bicentennial Elementary School, when she wrote those words in a letter to a woman she had never met. "I feel like I don't want to live any longer."
Angel had been slowly suffocating beneath her parents' problems for years, a lonely child waiting for recognition from two adults locked in a furious dance of alcohol and emotional destruction. "It felt like I was in a hole in the ground being covered up," she says of the weeks before her suicidal letter. Angel thought about telling her mother, but says she had long ago decided it was futile to seek comfort from her tormented parents. She suspected it was the same with all grown-ups.
"Angel was in a crisis of despair when I met her," says Cheryl Batton, one of seven psychologists in the Glendale Elementary School District. Batton met Angel in October after another school official, sensing the child's deep sadness, persuaded her to put her feelings in a letter. "I did most of the talking in our first meeting. I told her life is worth living and that she is a worthwhile person."
After that, however, it was Angel who did most of the talking. She believed, as children do, that much of the family's pain was her fault. Her father drank because she, Angel, had failed him in some way. Even after her father quit his job last June, immolating the family's economic foundation and undermining his own mental stability, Angel clung to her guilt over his alcoholism.
As she released her private sorrows, she began to blossom, Batton says. Angel began to see that the child who struggled to mother her younger brother and sister, and tried to shoulder her own burdens alone, was a caring and courageous person. But Angel's parents, though they struggled briefly to reinforce her progress, remained mired in their own hell. In February, a frightening incident destroyed the family's illusion of healing.
"Things had been going okay, but then my father got depressed and started drinking again," Angel says. One night, she recounts, she was awakened by her mother. "She said she'd overheard my father saying to someone on the phone, `Tonight's a good night to die,' and that my mom wouldn't be around much longer."
After overhearing her husband threaten to kill the whole family, Angel's mother quietly gathered her three children and they slipped out a back window, fleeing to a friend's house to call for help. Police later invaded Angel's house and captured her father asleep in a drunken stupor. (Angel's parents separated permanently afterward and she remains with her mother in Glendale.)
The incident made the six o'clock news, a humiliating experience in Angel's eyes. Worse, the latent savagery of it sent her into a prolonged tailspin. Angel's grades deteriorated and she once again was overwhelmed by anguish and guilt. "I know in my mind that I'm not responsible for my dad's problems, but I still have trouble feeling that way in my heart," she says.
Again, it was Batton who pulled her through. Batton helped Angel to sort out her feelings, understand the limits of her responsibility for what happened, and see how people sometimes make mistakes. Calmed by Batton's reassuring presence, Angel faced the worst crisis of her life without running away or yielding to her fear and anger. In recent weeks she has pulled her grades up and begun to feel hopeful again.
She is back to the business of growing up.
IN THE EYES OF PARENTS like Deborah Burns, the Glendale school psychologists are a threat. Their methods are a potential intrusion into family privacy, and their well-intended meddling may even encourage children to reject their own parents' values, as she sees it.
Burns is a central figure in the upheaval reverberating through the Glendale elementary school district. To her and like-minded parents, the district's vaunted programs may have laudable goals, but they are flawed in conception. "I have a big problem with humanistic values clarification," she says. "It tells the kids, `Your parents are emotional cripples and their values are outdated for today's world so you decide what you want to do.'"
She much prefers the approach taken by private fundamentalist schools such as Grace Lutheran Academy, which her youngest child now attends. There, she says, a no-nonsense teaching staff drills the children on basic skills with an emphasis on memorizing information. She attributes much of her daughter's success there to the school's "very creative" approach to discipline. She recounts an instance in her daughter's fourth-grade class in which the teacher caught a boy shooting baskets into a trash can with wadded-up paper: "`You're pretty good at that,' the teacher said with a smile. `Think you can hit ten out of ten?' The kid made all ten shots.
"`Say, that was pretty good. Now I want you to copy a page out of the dictionary, word for word, for each basket you made,' the teacher told the boy. `You can have until the end of the year to finish the assignment.
"`But you can't have recess until it's done.'"
"I think that's so creative!" Burns says delightedly. "I mean, he learns something while he's doing it . . . it's really a creative approach."
Burns lives with her husband and children in a neighborhood of comfortable homes, one of many newer areas of the city more reminiscent of Southern California than Arizona. Not far away lives ex-Governor Evan Mecham, whose daughter Chris Marsh is among the most vocal dissatisfied parents.
The Burns' neighborhood public school, Horizon Elementary School, gives little evidence of the burgeoning numbers of low-income and minority children that now make up almost 50 percent of district enrollment. Most of the "at-risk" students live nearer the town core, in homes built when Glendale was a little farm center separated from Phoenix by miles of irrigated fields.
Burns expresses sympathy for children like Angel, whose very survival depends on not repeating their parents' mistakes. But she admits she doesn't know how to prevent them from becoming the victims of her effort to rid the Glendale schools of "secular humanism."
"I know there are families where children can't look to their parents for positive role models," Burns says. "It is just so different from the world I know. It's boggling some of the problems those children face, I know that.
"I'm the first to admit I'm not a professional, I don't have all the answers," she says. "But I am a parent and I think there's some credibility in that." Her oldest daughter is Senator John McCain's top nominee to the U.S. Air Force Academy this year and her younger daughter was in the "gifted" program while she attended Horizon school.
Much of the current conflict in the public school system can be traced to a point three years ago, when Burns learned of a new "behavioral modification" program from her daughter's teacher, who thought the child might benefit from it. (At the time, Burns' youngest daughter was bored in her regular classes and drawing teacher complaints that she was disruptive, says her mother.)
But when she sought information about this new program, Burns says, she became alarmed both by its content and by the attitude of school officials toward her questions. "The `behavior modification' program was actually part of a drug prevention program which seemed to me to undermine the family," Burns says.
"It employed a lot of psychoanalytical techniques and was going to be woven throughout the school day in writing exercises and class discussions.
"Everything seemed aimed at getting the kids to make their own decisions and establish their own values, instead of listening to their parents," she says. "This was right at the time of Nancy Reagan's `Just Say No to Drugs' program, and yet the Glendale program didn't say drugs are bad, it said it was all a matter of moderation."
The Glendale program contains an emphatic "Just Say No" message, say school officials who reject Burns' analysis. What really irks the dissidents, say district administrators, is that the program, called "Children Are People, Too," doesn't stop there. "The reason we didn't want to end with `Just Say No' was because we didn't feel it was effective to stop there," says Marilyn Henley, assistant superintendent of the district.
The intent of the self-analysis and discussion is to build self-esteem and problem-solving skills--psychological armor the children will need in order to resist drugs as a way out of their sometimes-formidable personal problems, says school board member Sandra Malone, a supporter of the program.
But Burns wondered why the schools couldn't instead send a clear moral message. "When I asked Henley why they didn't just come straight out and say drugs are bad, she told me they couldn't because a lot of these kids' parents do drugs and it would make them mad," Burns recounts.
Henley denies making such a statement and says, "All the research we looked at showed that educating children about drugs is important, building self-esteem is important." The program on which Glendale's is based, she adds, is nationally recognized for its effectiveness.
But when Burns showed the drug prevention program to fellow parents in her school, she says, each had their own objections as well, concerns that ranged from invasion of privacy to involuntary religious indoctrination in secular humanism. So she gathered some friends together and went to the school district officials who, she contends, "made us look like fools, like we were religious nuts."
Burns says she had never been political up till then, but discovered Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum shared her concerns. She joined the Eagle Forum, she says, in order to have a source of national research on school programs. "We didn't see ourselves as extremists," she says. "We just wanted our questions answered."
School officials and their parent advisers, however, recall being beset by a group of jargon-spouting reactionaries who had nothing to offer as an alternative to the drug program they were attacking. "They came in carrying these three-ring notebooks with preprinted material, asking all the standard Eagle Forum questions," recalls Jeanette Weis, a parent on the district's advisory committee and supporter of the drug prevention program. "They would not engage in a dialogue at all. They just kept throwing around phrases like `secular humanism,' which they couldn't even define."
"Someone asked me to define `secular humanism' and I couldn't then, because I really hadn't been religious up to that point," Burns recalls. "But I knew what my concerns were. And I know what it means now."
MacPherson, legal adviser on Mecham's new campaign for governor, says he joined Burns in objecting to the school's drug program on the grounds that it violated families' right to privacy and free religious practice. School officials say the fundamentalists had a significant impact on the program by establishing a mechanism for parents to withdraw their children from objectionable portions of it.
But Burns felt-- still feels-- that district officials had colluded with Weis and other parents to smear her as an extremist, and she withdrew her child from the school district. MacPherson, Marsh and a few other parents followed suit at about the same time, meaning that many of the district's harshest critics no longer have firsthand contact with what is going on in the schools.
The clash over "Children Are People, Too" ended with the district retaining the drug prevention program essentially intact, Weis says. But it permanently scarred people and friendships (including her family's long-time friendship with Donald and Barbara MacPherson, she says) and left a bitterness waiting to erupt again.
Since Burns withdrew her daughter from school, she says, district administrators repeatedly have rebuffed her attempts to participate on advisory committees. But the election of a third conservative to the five-person school board last fall provided an opening for Burns and other unhappy parents to turn the tables.
The outcasts became the new inner circle revolving around the conservative board members, says Fred Wood, a former ally of board president Lloyd McCormick. The conservatives' new target, according to Wood, was the district's reading and writing curriculum and its libraries.
"They said children were being told to read whatever they wanted to, or not read if they didn't want," Wood says. "These Eagle Forum ladies [Burns and a friend] also claimed there were books with hard-core pornography on our library shelves that kindergarteners and first-graders had access to."
Burns denies advocating censorship, but cites analyses by Eagle Forum researchers that purport to show how some children's books are riddled with subliminal sexual images. "The idea being to get them started early," she says.
When the rhetoric is trimmed away, the conservatives' discomfort with the Glendale reading program, as with the drug program, resides in its departure from rigid teaching guidelines.
The Glendale schools use a combination of techniques to teach reading and writing, and teachers are expected to combine methods creatively to reach each individual child. The program focuses on encouraging children to love the language and make it their own, to experiment and become familiar with expressing their own thoughts. Teachers in the early grades operate by reinforcing what the child is doing right, rather than focusing on mistakes.
Proponents of the Glendale approach define "failure" as a child who thinks of reading as a chore.
As if by instinct, the district's conservatives rally around the opposite approach, the most extreme of which holds that children should not even be exposed to books until they have first memorized 75 "phonograms," or word sounds. Even in a class of beginners, the emphasis in a "phonics-based" program is on learning the rules of language and correcting mistakes of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
"How is a child to learn if they aren't told what is right and what is wrong?" says McCormick, a staunch proponent of the conservative approach. "My daughter is from [such a] program and she reads fine, when she's not being lazy."
TO FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS, the phrase `secular humanism' is more than a buzz word. And its appearance in the debate surrounding Glendale's school drug prevention program signaled the involvement of an important institution in the community, the churches.
Within the large fundamentalist congregations that straddle the Phoenix-Glendale border, secular humanism is both a competing religion and a battle cry.
With parishioners drawn from both Glendale and Phoenix, the churches can influence parental thinking not only in the Glendale school district but in nearby Phoenix school districts. And they have done so, school officials say.
Several years ago, parents in the neighboring Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix sought to ban a basic writing text because they, like the Glendale parents, perceived a threat to the family there, says Sandra Harmon, president of the Arizona English Teachers Association and a former administrator in the Washington district. "This group denied they were religiously motivated, but some of our teachers belonged to the same congregations and heard the sermons blasting our writing program as an invasion of privacy," Harmon says. Among the passages these parents found intolerable were exercises that asked children to write about their siblings or parents, their own problems or what worried them most.
The same parents demanded the district adopt teaching methods that reflected their rigid values but ignored accepted educational theory. They were led by parent Laurie Schenkel, head of the Arizona branch of the American Freedom Coalition, an organization founded and funded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. The Washington district group succeeded in forcing the district to adopt, in some schools at least, the same fundamentalist teaching method dissident parents would like to see in Glendale.
Last fall, the conservatives finally managed to capture a slim majority on the Glendale district's governing board. The third, and deciding, seat was won by Janette Kimble, a candidate whose campaign literature advertised her membership in one of the biggest fundamentalist congregations in Glendale and her activism in the local Republican party. Kimble admits, however, that she had no prior involvement with the local schools as a parent or community volunteer and says, "There are a lot of retired people in the district who deserve representation, too."
Allies of the board's ousted moderate call the new majority the "Gang of Three."
Within weeks, school officials branded "secular humanists" realized they might as well have targets painted on their backs. Rumors surfaced of a hit list involving superintendent Ronald Crates and a half-dozen other top administrators. The rumors gained strength after Wood, saying he was disenchanted with McCormick's tactics, claimed in January that McCormick had discussed a hit list with him. McCormick calls the statement "a flat-out lie."
"I think he forgot, in the euphoria of realizing he was now in control of the board, that I'd never been privy to any `hit list' conversations before that," Wood says. Wood claims McCormick listed half a dozen names, including the superintendent, assistant superintendents and even some school principals.
Although McCormick denies such a list exists, administration topsiders say one person cited by Wood, school principal Richard Thomas, resigned in April under pressure from McCormick. McCormick subsequently attempted to fire assistant superintendent Marilyn Henley--another name at the top of the rumored hit list. Pressure on other top-level administrators to resign began to come to a head last month, when the school board discussed renewal of professional contracts. However, McCormick's power over the board suffered a setback recently when Kimble and board member Hal Blake defected and voted to retain Henley during a tense board meeting attended by over 200 people.
"I don't know what happened," says Burns. "They told us going in to that meeting they were voting against her. I think they caved in to pressure from all the people--mainly teachers--who were there. Lloyd [McCormick] is such a wimp, he should just arrange to have security guards throw people out when they start acting up."
By the time McCormick and his fellow conservatives parted company over Henley's contract, however, their assault on disputed programs was well underway.
McCormick successfully pushed a resolution to reverse the district's existing multifaceted approach to teaching language, which has been praised by education experts at the college, state and national level. McCormick's resolution mandates that district teachers adopt a phonics-based approach.
"It's educational malpractice," Harmon says. "Phonics teaches you how to diagram a sentence but not how to write well. That can only come from exposure to the rhythm of the language, but the ultraconservatives aren't comfortable with literature-based teaching because it doesn't divide up the answers into clear `right' and `wrong' columns."
Not long after Valentine's Day--as Angel was struggling to maintain her own sanity after her alcoholic father threatened to kill the family--conservative board member Hal Blake opined that he'd "like to see our school psychologists get out of the counseling business." Subsequently, McCormick proposed cutting the number of psychologists by nearly 50 percent. McCormick has not asked for formal action on the proposal, pending his collection of additional information on school psychology services.
Education experts at Arizona State University, the state Department of Education (DOE) and elsewhere say the conservatives' attacks come at a time of unprecedented improvement in the district. Last year the state school superintendent cited Glendale schools for improving standardized test scores more than any other school district in the state.
"This district represents one of those truly cutting-edge districts nationally," says California education consultant William Spady. Spady is a nationally recognized education expert, according to ASU and state DOE officials. "Drs. Crates and Henley have been tremendously enlightened leaders. I would not want to be a parent in your district facing the prospect that all [they] and their colleagues have worked so hard to accomplish over the past four years is to be dismantled and disregarded."
Glendale school officials, who agreed to talk with New Times only if their anonymity was preserved, say the school system is slowly being paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. "Everything is shadow and hints and innuendo," says a first grade teacher in the district.
"The terrible thing is that they are attacking programs they don't even understand," says Weis, a member of several school advisory committees. "Our district is one of the most open you could find, everything is done by committee. Yet not one of the [conservative] board members has ever come and sat down with the teachers or advisory committees, or spent a day in a classroom or with a school psychologist. They just drop things, major policy shifts, on you out of the blue."
The conservatives' efforts have so angered administration supporters that they recently launched a recall movement. McCormick and Blake are named in the petition and recall leaders say they have notified Kimble her name will be added as soon as she's been in office the required six months.
The recall movement is aimed chiefly at McCormick, a ferociously intense man described by Wood, his former ally, as "the most dangerous man I've ever known to hold elected office--interested solely in personal power."
Weis accuses McCormick of being "secretive, paranoid and obsessed with control." She claims McCormick has surrounded himself with disgruntled also-rans and radical right-wingers and, since being elected board president in January, has advanced their causes in payment for their help getting him elected.
McCormick rejects critics' claims that he is obsessed with controlling the district. However, he defines recent events almost entirely in terms of their effect on the board's power. His failure to oust Henley, for instance, means "the teachers' union is in control of the district."
He also dismisses criticism that he is using the ultraconservatives to gain power. McCormick contends he is only trying to give a voice to parents cut off by the district's "liberal" leaders, and harbors no hidden agenda or hit list of enemies.
"This board has been a rubber stamp for the administration," he contends, waving a copy of the state education statute. "The state has laws, codes and policies that we, the board, are supposed to enforce. That's all I'm interested in."
In the next breath, however, he acknowledges he's keeping files on district superintendent Ronald Crates and other administrators. He also says he's conducting a detailed critique of the district curriculum, written by the superintendent's staff in conjunction with teacher advisory groups. Both, he contends, are part of his legal responsibilities.
Professionals dispute the claim, saying a change in board leadership does not usually signal open season on professionals in the district administration. "It's not unusual for a new school board to change superintendents, but it is unusual to change the folks below that level," says Carole Edelsky, an education professor at Arizona State University with fifteen years of experience teaching elementary school. "Oh, boy, is that ever unusual. I don't think I've ever heard of a similar situation."
Edelsky characterizes McCormick's penchant for micromanagement as "unusual," as well. "Most school boards don't try to take over the design of the curriculum," she says. "They don't make policies that mandate teaching methods. They lay out goals."
McCormick, however, sees himself instead as a careful collector of information, a man dedicated to executing his duties in fine detail. He does admit he's often accused of being "inflexible," but denies his critics' claims that it reflects an obsessive temperament. "I do my homework," he says. "I collect all the information I can about something before I make up my mind. But once I make up my mind, I stay there.
"So if you challenge me, you better have done your homework because I've done mine and I'll stand my ground," McCormick says, wielding his pen like a baton.
Currently, his self-assigned homework includes an evaluation of the school district's team of psychologists. As he carefully sifts through the
minutiae of a bureaucracy, charting comparisons in student/counselor ratios and the like, McCormick is asked if his evaluation includes spending a day with the psychologists or their young clients. "I haven't sat down with the psychologists," he says. "I do plan to look at what they do. I've asked for their job descriptions."
Then he quickly refocuses on the statistics he is developing, leaving unanswered the question of whether he'll find time to learn from children like Angel what the program means to them.
McCormick says his proposal to make drastic cuts in the school counseling staff was only a suggestion, made when it looked as if the district might be heading for red ink. But when he discusses the district's psychologists, he voices more worry about the potential legal liability to the district of counseling children than about the consequences of ending such services.
The war over the Glendale Elementary School District has attracted an audience of anxious observers. Glendale's reviving downtown is buzzing with uneasy conversation about it, with business people and politicians alike worrying that it's a turnoff to potential new employers.
"The people mounting this recall are not rabble-rousers," says Glendale Mayor George Renner. "On the contrary, they are respected members of the community, all with long involvement in making it a better place.
"I share the perception that the district has made great strides forward under the present administration and, frankly, I share the concern about divisiveness that can bring that program to a stop," Renner says.
The brawl also is being watched closely by school officials in the Phoenix Union High School District, where two fundamentalists gained seats on the five-member board last November. Some Phoenix teachers see only one board seat between them and what is happening to their colleagues in Glendale.
Among education professionals, at least, interest extends far beyond Arizona's borders. "I would urge your district to recognize the excellence which is in your own midst," said Eugene Garcia, chairman of studies in education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in a recent letter to Weis. Garcia said the Glendale schools have been used as a model for school restructuring in Denver, Los Angeles, and El Paso, Texas.
Spady, who says the Glendale district has a national reputation as a model program, says "many other districts" will watch to see if it can sustain the educational reforms of recent years.
"If allowed to continue, this upheaval will damage this and other districts for a long time to come," Spady predicts. "The risk-takers will leave, the skeptics will harden their resistance to change. The chances for conciliation will evaporate."
Conciliation is about the last thing on the minds of fundamentalist Christians, even though most express contentment with their private-school choices. People's rights are involved, says MacPherson.
"When we took our children out of public school it was like the end of the American Dream," MacPherson says. "We moved into this home with the specific idea that our kids could walk to elementary school and walk to high school, and now we feel that's gone."
Burns makes it clear there's a lot of hash to be settled: "I'm not giving up. I'm not going away.