Your Stake in Local Schools TOO OFTEN PUBLIC SCHOOLS WASTE YOUR TAX MONEY. HERE'S HOW TO FIX THAT.
By DENISE M. TOPOLNICKI Reporter associate: Deborah Lohse

(MONEY Magazine) – America's 83,000 public schools are spending more but educating our 40 million schoolchildren less. Last year, U.S. taxpayers paid about $4,500 per pupil, up an inflation-adjusted 28% just since 1982. Yet all those dollars aren't buying much progress. For example, only 73% of today's ninth-graders will complete high school on schedule, compared with 79% in 1969. And scores on standardized college entrance exams have slipped 6% since the late 1960s. You may be tempted to shrug off that lamentable record, especially if you don't have children riding the familiar yellow bus each morning. Whether you acknowledge it or not, however, you have a direct stake in public education: -- As an employer, you depend on public schools for workers -- 88% of U.S. youngsters train there for jobs. -- As an employee, you consider how good an education your kids will receive before accepting a job in another city. In fact, nearly four out of five MONEY subscribers with school-age children rate the local schools as an ''extremely'' or ''very'' important factor in such a move, according to our latest Americans and Their Money Poll (see page 96). -- As a citizen, you count on the schools for the civil servants, soldiers, bureaucrats, scientists and myriad others who will determine our country's place in an increasingly competitive economic world. -- And perhaps most personally, as a taxpayer you are paying for public education. If you are like the MONEY subscribers we surveyed, you are probably aware of the schools' problems and are willing to pay more. Two out of five readers say their community's property taxes have gone up since 1988 because of rising school costs. Yet nearly 40% think too little is spent on education in their districts vs. only 10% who think spending is too high. Given our willingness to throw dollars at the problem, it's no wonder that the national debate about how to fix our foundering schools focuses on financing. Liberals argue that children from rich and poor districts won't get comparable educations unless schools stop relying so heavily on local property taxes. Conservatives, on the other hand, contend that competition -- not cash -- will make mediocre districts shape up. Their solution: give parents cash vouchers that can be used at any area public or private school. What both sides ignore, though, is that making a school system great takes more than money. Solid funding is important, of course, but it's hardly a cure-all. To discover what elements really foster excellence in education, MONEY set out three months ago to study two public school systems -- one that has consistently produced topnotch students, another that hasn't. To assure a fair comparison, we asked SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio firm that advises relocating individuals and corporations on school quality, to identify two systems that were similar by all standard measures except for scholastic achievement. It would be hard to imagine two communities more alike on paper than Geneva, Ill. and Delran, N.J. Both are farming towns recently transformed into bedroom suburbs for nearby metropolises (in Geneva's case, Chicago, and in Delran's, Philadelphia). Geneva's population is 12,224 and Delran's, 13,940; their median household incomes are $43,993 and $43,584; and their proportions of minorities are 3% and 10%. When it comes to schooling, Delran spends 4% more per pupil -- $4,521 to $4,358. Yet on academic measures, Geneva triumphs (see the summary above). Geneva's students score at the 83rd percentile on a standard college entrance exam -- 33 points above the national average for schools with more than 40 students taking the test. Fully 60% of its 164 graduating seniors went on to four-year colleges last year, six won commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Program, and one was an NMSP semifinalist. By contrast, Delran's college entrance exam scores last year ranked in the bottom half of New Jersey schools, which, as a group, are already slightly below the national average. Only half of the 170 graduates entered four-year schools. There were two NMSP- commended students and no semifinalists. To learn why these results are radically different, two MONEY reporters first consulted with leading educators and other specialists on school quality and then spent a week in each town. The reporters sat in classes, attended evening events, mingled with students in the halls and at after-school hangouts, and interviewed school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students. While we found good and bad in both systems, we identified six crucial factors -- described on the pages that follow -- that contribute to Geneva's success. Our aim, however, is not to point the finger at Delran (which is in the midst of shaking up its educational system) nor even to praise Geneva. Instead, this article presents guidelines for excellence that citizens and taxpayers like you can bring to any school system, beginning with your own.

The two communities Drive into Geneva, 36 miles west of Chicago, and you immediately sense a reverence for bygone days. Victorian mansions and modest bungalows are lovingly maintained. Antique shops line downtown streets. ''This is the kind of place where kids see their teachers outside of school, swimming at the town pool or bicycling downtown,'' says Kathryn Bleck, a native Genevan who teaches first grade at the Fourth Street School. Drive into Delran, 15 miles east of Philadelphia, and you're not quite sure you've arrived. Gertrude Stein's pithy description of her native Oakland -- ''There's no there there'' -- fits this south Jersey collection of shopping centers and cul-de-sacs. There's no downtown, just a neon strip of discount stores and fast-food outlets along Route 130. The community didn't have its own high school until 1975 and still lacks a library. Says Michael Gallucci, the principal of Delran High School: ''In a town based on automobiles and shopping malls, the schools are a lighthouse that people come to for socialization and sports.''

Establishing the right priorities That light was shining brightly one evening in March as more than 200 boosters packed the steamy spectators' gallery above Trenton State College's pool to cheer Delran to its first state swimming championship. It was a lopsided victory: Delran trounced Scotch Plains-Fanwood 99-57. ''Being a spectator at a swim meet is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but look at how many people came out for this,'' exulted school superintendent Bernard Shapiro. Physics teacher Daryl Taylor, wearing swimmer's cap and goggles, started the crowd undulating in the rolling cheer known as the wave. Afterward, the winners climbed on the fire department's hook-and-ladder for an 11 p.m. victory parade, as is the custom when a team wins a state crown. Incredibly, this was Delran's 10th (including six in soccer) in 15 years. This is what high school is supposed to be about, right? State championships, victory parades? Of course it is. But it's not all that school is supposed to be about. Unfortunately, Delran's academics suffer, in part because many teachers and administrators send students the message that sports are more important than books. At Millbridge Elementary School, for example, a third-grade teacher combines her class with another teacher's whenever it interferes with her duties as a high school soccer coach. And at the high school, guidance department head Sandra Wasinda thinks nothing of mailing a student's application to Rutgers University even though it is late. ''He's a good soccer player, so his application will go directly to Rutgers' soccer coach,'' she explains with a smile. ''There are deadlines, and then there are deadlines.'' Although no administrator could explain why the school day in Delran is shorter than the state average, Daniel Topolski, principal of Millbridge Elementary School, ventured a guess: ''Transportation is probably the issue. Most athletic games begin at 3:30, and we need to have the buses free by then so they can move teams.'' To their credit, the nine members of Delran's elected school board want more attention paid to academics. Last July the board replaced superintendent Joseph Chinnici, 56, who had been in the job for 24 years, with the affable Shapiro, 51, a butcher's son who was a strong academic leader as principal of a nearby town's high school. ''The board has made it clear that they suspect there's a great deal of untapped academic potential in the district,'' says Shapiro. Yet it's also obvious that Shapiro cannot push sports aside without alienating the community. Says Ralph Clifford, the district's business administrator: ''You'd have World War III at the next school board meeting if you even suggested cutting out the championship girls' and boys' soccer teams.'' Geneva's students, on the other hand, get a clear message about what's important. Says superintendent Donald Marcotte: ''This community's mandate to us is to maintain high academic standards.'' While Geneva hasn't won a state sports title since the 1930s, the school isn't filled with nerds feigning illness to avoid gym class either. In fact, 55% of Geneva's students play interscholastic sports vs. 33% in Delran. That's because all but one of Geneva's teams have no-cut policies -- since sports are for fun, not glory.

Getting the parents involved Geneva citizens communicate their passion for education through volunteerism. Three years ago, for example, the school system bought 80 computers with $125,000 raised from private contributions to the Geneva Academic Foundation, a nonprofit community group. The foundation was created by Warren ''Bud'' Gilligan, 60, a retired General Motors executive who has seven grown children, two of whom graduated from Geneva High School. ''I've lived in five states,'' says Gilligan, ''and these schools have more parental involvement on the academic side than any others I've seen.'' Geneva's parents give time as well as money. In all three elementary schools, for instance, five to six volunteers spend one morning each week helping kids illustrate their own stories and poems and bind them into booklets, each stamped with the imprint of the fanciful Pirate Publishing Co. The three schools also offer weekly after-school enrichment programs in February and March. At Western Avenue School, parents recently taught kids Spanish and chess. Other students brought in pets -- including two corpulent turkeys -- for show-and-tell. In Delran, parental involvement -- as described by students, teachers and parents -- usually means sports booster clubs or helping to make elaborate floats for the homecoming parade. Students who wish to attend enrichment programs have to travel to a neighboring school district on Saturdays. Faculty members, in fact, seem pleased that the adults don't interfere. Says Charlene Burd, a middle school guidance counselor: ''Parents here are interested in their children's education, but they're not overly demanding.''

Emphasizing scholastic fundamentals Many of Delran's brightest students say they can score good grades without much effort. ''You can get away with murder here, like cut class for two weeks but still pass,'' says Beth Carroll, a student who takes accelerated courses and hopes to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City next year. Students with high grade-point averages routinely skip final exams because the tests don't have much impact on final grades. Many kids also say it's easy to lighten up by choosing undemanding courses from a curriculum crammed with electives, including ''Science Fiction'' and ''Care and Prevention of Athletic Injuries.'' Compared with Delran's smorgasbord of offerings, Geneva's curriculum is as circumscribed as the Pritikin diet. Top educators say that's a good sign. ''In the 1970s, we went too far with curriculum options,'' says Gerald Grant, professor of education and sociology ! at Syracuse University and author of The World We Created at Hamilton High (Harvard University Press, $9.95). ''Kids took 'How to Fix My Bachelor Pad' but never really learned how to write a good paragraph. We need to get back to a common standard of achievement.'' At Delran, superintendent Shapiro doesn't want to toss out the electives, but he is trying hard to enrich all the classes. He's asked the school board to hire nine curriculum supervisors to help reform the content of courses from kindergarten through 12th grade. He has also tapped Stephen Falcone, the high school's assistant principal for academic affairs, to make final exams tougher. One of Falcone's first moves: asking teachers to submit finals to him for review before they are given to students. Says he: ''Parents may be satisfied, but I'm not. Our SAT scores are inexcusable.'' Predictably, his blunt manner hasn't won many allies. ''He thinks that we're all degenerates,'' grouses a senior planning to attend a local college. One teacher has vowed to organize faculty opposition to his exam plan.

Educating teachers to educate ''Close your eyes and see if you can see a little movie of Christina's story in your mind,'' says teacher Mary Bencini at Geneva's Western Avenue School. The 17 rapt second-graders, sitting on a blue rug in her homey classroom, obediently shut their eyes as seven-year-old Christina Maley starts to read a story she has written about a fairy who gives a young dancer a pair of pink ballet slippers. Several listeners squint in concentration as they imagine the fairy's ''flowing flowered lacy dress.'' When Christina is finished, Bencini sets off a lively give-and-take by asking the class to name fairy-tale elements used in the story. Bencini's ability to bring literature to life springs not only from her own talents but also from nurturing by Geneva's schools. Teachers are required to keep up their skills by taking college courses or serving on educational committees. Explains former Salt Lake City school superintendent Donald Thomas, now an educational consultant: ''A teacher who doesn't follow new developments is like a doctor who doesn't know how to use the latest equipment.'' Bencini has taken seminars on how to help children think more clearly by improving their reading and writing skills. And she heads a faculty committee that invites children's book authors to speak to students. The committee also gets students' stories and poems published in a local newspaper. Delran teachers aren't required to continue their educations, and only 32% hold advanced degrees, compared with 50% in Geneva. There are signs of change, however. Says Marge Gessmann, president of the union that represents Delran's teachers: ''Since superintendent Shapiro was hired, we've seen more educational committees formed and more of a focus on staff development. Teachers are now encouraged to attend training programs during school hours.''

Maintaining adequate facilities Gifted teachers can work their magic anywhere, but experts contend that kids feel better about themselves -- and consequently do better academically -- if their school is clean, well equipped and cheerfully decorated. ''Ill-tended buildings don't promote self-worth and pride,'' observes John Goodlad, director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington in Seattle. Although none of Delran's schools are dilapidated, two of its elementary schools, Aronson Bell and Cambridge, look as if they don't belong in the same district with the third, Millbridge. More than 600 students, mostly from Delran's most affluent subdivisions, attend 21-year-old Millbridge, which has 29 classrooms. The two other schools serve older, less pricey neighborhoods. Aronson Bell, built in 1907, accommodates just 150 students in seven classrooms. Kids eat lunch in a dreary basement cafeteria and have music class in a corner of the gym (see the photograph on page 88). At 72-year-old Cambridge, which handles 165 youngsters in seven classrooms, a movable partition divides a basement room that's used for art and remedial courses. No such disparities exist in Geneva's schools. Administrators were careful to create equal facilities when they added on to the Western Avenue and Harrison Street schools, on the town's moneyed west and less affluent east sides, respectively. Says Ronald Anderson, principal of Harrison Street: ''People on the east side feel slighted because the pool, high school and library are all on the west side. We made sure that this facility would be equal to Western Avenue.''

Nurturing a cooperative environment On the playgrounds at Geneva's Harrison Street or Western Avenue elementary schools you will see a wonderful sight: specially trained pupils, called conflict managers, helping to settle disputes. They are taught by two teachers and a social worker to listen to combatants' complaints and guide them to solutions. Is the program working? All too well, in the view of bored peace officers who were hungry for action. Fifth-grader Chris Goebel complains: ''I haven't had any conflicts for two or three months.'' The program's purpose, of course, is to minimize school-time disruptions without creating a police state. Delran's administrators and teachers have been less innovative and successful at peacekeeping. You could see it during a lunch period at Aronson Bell, for example, when an aide with a whistle dangling from her neck shouted kids into silence, or as teachers stood guard outside Delran High rest rooms signing students in and out.

Sharing a vision Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from these schools has less to do with education than with consensus and purpose. In Geneva, administrators, teachers, parents and students work together to achieve common goals set down in writing in the district's mission statement, which is updated annually. At Delran, unfortunately, the same players sometimes operate at cross- purposes because they haven't agreed upon an educational mission for the schools. To transform the system, superintendent Shapiro knows he must sell everyone -- administrators, teachers, students and their parents -- on the importance of academic success. ''We'll all have to agree that learning is important,'' he says. ''Then we'll have to convince students that learning isn't threatening.''

BOX: TWO SCHOOL SYSTEMS HEAD TO HEAD

Money alone doesn't improve education, as these statistics show. Though Delran, N.J. spends 4% more per pupil than demographically similar Geneva, Ill., its students rate lower in several leading indicators of academic success.

Geneva, Ill. Delran, N.J. Population 12,224 13,940 Median household income $43,993 $43,584

Residents age 25 and older who are high school graduates 87% 77% Public school enrollment 2,388 2,219

Spending per pupil $4,358 $4,521

Students taking college entrance exams 77% 78% Average college entrance exam scores 20.6 (ACT) 876 (SAT) State average 18.8 (Ill.) 896 (N.J.) National average 18.6 (U.S.) 903 (U.S.) Graduates attending four-year colleges 60% 49% Graduates attending two-year colleges 15% 27%

Sources: National Planning Data Corp., Census Bureau, Delran and Geneva school districts

BOX: AMERICANS and their MONEY HOW PARENTS HELP OUT AT SCHOOL

Nearly all of the 150 MONEY subscribers with children in public schools who were polled recently by the Gallup Organization said they, their spouses or both participated in programs at their kids' schools.

WHO'S INVOLVED 14% Father only 30% Mother only 43% Both parents 13% Neither parent

Note: The statistics on parental participation are based on a telephone survey of 150 MONEY subscribers in late March. The margin of error is plus or minus eight percentage points. Poll results elsewhere in this article are based on a telephone survey of 300 randomly selected subscribers with an error margin of plus or minus six points.