Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hi-tech toothbrush shuts down airport but no one bristles

You don't have to be a toll booth attendant to know there are two sides to every coin. A few headlines in the news this week may have left readers with elevated levels of ambivalence, a condition that can only be rectified by a definitive dose of hearts and darts.2 So you're sitting in an airplane parked on the runway for hours while authorities deal with a possible explosive device in a passenger's luggage. The device turns out to be an instrument for cleaning one's teeth, precisely as the passenger - who turns out to be a dentist - says it is. By this time, the flight is cancelled and you're stuck overnight in Kinston.

Are you ticked?

Opinions differ, even in the same brain.

You're glad someone is paying attention to possible explosive devices in passengers' luggage. You're happy that even so small a facility as the Kinston JetPort has a planned response to such emergencies and you're relieved that no harm was done.

Still, you have to be at least a little miffed - and mystified - that a high-tech toothbrush could shut down an airport, cancel one outgoing and one incoming flight and inconvenience scores of people. Worse, no one in authority seemed particularly concerned about the problems this false alarm created for passengers, much less embarrassed by the over-reaction.

Instead, the sheriff's department spokesman focused on the efficiency of the emergency response and put the onus for heading off future incidents on passengers, who must pack more carefully and anticipate what will cause baggage screeners to hit the alarm button. That's a tough one, judging from the standards applied to a dental device. The spokesman's explanation of how an instrument dedicated to the destruction of tooth decay caused such a ruckus - "It didn't look like what it was" - says a lot about the bizarre times in which we live.

Expectations of inconvenience in the post-9/11 world have created more compliant personalities. At the airport, at the gas pump, in the checkout line - where there's no control, there's little reason to complain. Or is there more?

Y The good news about Lenoir County schools' performance in 2005 ABC testing is that more schools did very well and most schools did well enough. The bad news is that poor-performing schools continue to perform poorly.

There's no mystery as to why. Poverty, lack of a stable home life and little parental involvement in education top the list. Low-income students have issues that supersede a reading lesson. The challenge for educators here is to figure out how to level the playing field, to give all students the same chance to learn.

Needless to say, they'll be working on that one for years. And all the while, they will be prodded by requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind program. For all its faults, No Child Left Behind does shine a light on children that might otherwise fall through the cracks. With the state's ABC program, a school with a high percentage of students testing at grade level will score well, but might be masking the failure to educate those students in the minority. That's not possible with the federal program, which looks at the performance of groups of students, segmented by income and ethnicity, at the same school.

Ten of the 12 county schools that met improvements standards under ABC also met No Child Left Behind standards. The flip side of that success story is that five schools in the system fell short by both measurements. Three of the five repeated their poor performance of a year ago.

Opportunities for ending this cycle appear on several levels. A model for what works in Lenoir County already exists. Four schools did extremely well in 2005 testing - three more than the previous year - and they did it by energizing the faculty and mobilizing the parents. Moreover, the system, its students and parents are primed for change, a consequence of new leadership, new policies and impatience with the administrative strife that overshadowed any progress in education in the system for years.

Though not directly related, the discussion sure to come soon about new school construction - how to meet $200 million in physical needs - will raise the same question that testing does: How good is good enough?


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