Roger Mudd has seen the stories -- probably reported quite a few of them -- and so has everyone else. The horror stories of individual disasters in school and the general dilapidation of many American school systems is no secret.
"We deliberately stayed away from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles," said Mudd. "Those schools and the problems that attend them have been so heavily reported, overly reported, that we took a different tack."
That approach involved finding and focusing on schools that work. Four of them, including Columbia Park Elementary School in Landover, are the subjects of "Learning in America: Schools That Work," a two-hour PBS special funded by the Chrysler Corporation. The program airs at 9 Wednesday on Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television.
"This is a different kind of broadcast," said Mudd, the veteran network television anchor and reporter, "Rather than again spending time on schools that didn't work, we would spend time on schools that did. That was the basic editorial premise."
The schools chosen for this close-up look are a diverse lot, both geographically -- "so separate that they didn't know what the others were doing" -- and in terms of the makeup of the schools. Each of them is a public elementary school.
Columbia is a 95 percent black school located in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Northview Elementary is an 87 percent white school in Manhattan, Kans. The City Magnet School of Lowell, Mass., is 59 percent white and 27 percent Hispanic. And Lozano Special Emphasis School is a 98 percent Hispanic school in Corpus Christi, Tex. None of the schools are for rich kids -- in three of them, from 51 to 82 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches; at Northview, 30 percent qualify.
"We took the camera into the classroom and let it run," said Mudd, "to see if we could capture the secret of those schools and pull out of them some common characteristics that might be passed on to other schools."
At Columbia Park, Mudd reported, one of the distinctions of the school was its tight discipline. "When a child comes to the Landover school," he said, "they walk in almost military fashion, single file, and are taught to put their fingers to their lips to be quiet in the halls. They are reminded that school time is so valuable they are not to waste it." The discipline is relaxed as the children get older, he said, but the point is made early on.
From this report emerge some common threads, common keys to success. "One was parental involvement," said Mudd. "Another was a willingness on the part of the principals and school boards to surrender some autonomy" to parents.
Another element was a belief in the value of public education. "A lot of people in public education really don't believe in its worth in a democracy and feel it has failed its mission to educate sufficiently," said Mudd. "We found that in those four schools there was almost a wordless reverence for public education and its value."
Another hallmark of the schools was their ability to meet needs of pupils that were not met at home.
"They had to be willing to give kids some discipline and order they lacked in their homes," said Mudd. "In Corpus Christi, for example, we found that kids were bing dumped on the playground well before schools started." This idle, unsupervised time on the playground was producing a number of fights, Mudd noted.
"So they opened the doors at 7 a.m. The kids could come in, sit in the gym, have cookies and juice and talk."
A key for minority students and their families, said Mudd, was to overcome their regard for the school as an institution of government, "a big building that didn't welcome them, equated to the police or social services department."
In Corpus Christi, the matter of parental involvement was complicated, Mudd said, by "a macho problem, the idea among Hispanic men that going to school, going to meetings was not man's work."
The school's principal broke down this male resistance by going on a Spanish-language radio station and urging parents to get their kids to school -- and to come with them.
"When we were there, toward the end of the school year, many awards were being given out at a ceremony," Mudd recalled. "The auditorium was full of fathers, grinning ear to ear."