Across the nation educators complain that their students don't know where in the world they are. A recent survey in Dallas, for example, found that 25 percent of high school seniors did not know that Mexico borders the United States to the south.
For the last two years, students at Alice Deal Jr. High School in Tenleytown have been working against that trend. They attend one of two schools chosen by the National Geographic Society to help develop geography education.
Last week they celebrated, along with students across the United States, Geography Awareness Week. As part of the festivities, the students set aloft 500 balloons attached to self-addressed, stamped post cards that they hope will land in far-off places and be returned to them.
In April 1985, discussions between the D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie and National Geographic President Gilbert M. Grosvenor led to the designation of Deal as a pilot school in a Geography Education Program. The other school is in Los Angeles. In two years the program has swelled to include Geographic Alliances in 22 states and the District that coordinate the grass roots efforts toward improved geography education.
One of the results of this program is that Deal teachers in all disciplines are bringing more geography into their classrooms, according to Anita Henderson, who has taught geography at the school for the past 10 years. "It has been a consciousness-raising effort even for the other teachers."
Language teachers explore the geography of the countries whose languages they teach, home economics teachers are telling their students the origins of the foods they prepare and history teachers bring the geographic facts to bear in their lessons.
The National Geographic hosts the Summer Geography Institute at the Society's headquarters in Washington, and sponsors regional institutes across the country. But the first project of the geography education program was the sponsorship of the pilot schools, which includes providing the schools with visual aids.
"Geography is a visual subject," Henderson said, "and kids like maps." The National Geographic provided plenty of maps -- and globes, film strips, videocassette recorders and computers -- for the Deal school.
In the first year alone the geography education program provided $35,000 worth of materials to the school. By 1987 the cost of the program nationwide exceeded $4 million, and is expected to top $5 million in 1988.
"Initially we give the schools and teachers the materials needed to teach geography effectively," said Susan Munroe, public affairs manager for the Educational Media Division of the National Geographic Society. "Most teachers have not taken a lot of course work in geography. We try to get teachers excited about the subject."
Henderson said she has seen a resurgence of interest in geography among her students. During a recent school assembly, she had to turn away several students who wanted to answer geography-related questions. "At one time we would have had a problem dragging kids into that sort of program," Henderson said.
Henderson also has noticed a different reaction in class. "The great change is that I don't spend as much time motivating the students as I used to," Henderson said. "They're very eager to learn. When I walk in the class, they're already at the globes or maps looking for the answers to my questions."