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Teachers to get up-close history lesson

Local schools will receive almost $1 million from a federal grant to strengthen teaching of U.S. history by sending teachers to frequent weekend seminars and historic East Coast sites — a program demonstrated to significantly improve student scores in the subject.

The U.S. Department of Education grant of $983,000 to the Southern Oregon Educational Service District renews the program for a third three-year period, said Joe Peterson, project director for the Teaching American History Grant. The program will be especially focused on elementary teachers in schools tagged as needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The grant enables up to 50 teachers to be immersed in on-site learning, going the first year to 18th-century sites, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed, and also to the site of Washington's crossing of the Delaware River to engage Hessian soldiers fighting for the British at the Battle of Trenton, said Peterson.

The second year focuses on the 19th century, with trips to Civil War sites, including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania coal mines from the Industrial Revolution and the Ellis Island immigration center in New York City.

The third year involves the nation's capital, with focus on the World Wars, the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 20th century, but also takes in Ford's Theater, the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon.

"The grant focuses on history and on building teacher confidence in that area, but it also has spillover, improving student scores in other subjects, like reading, science and math," said Kathy McCollum, ESD director for school improvement.

Peterson, a political science and history professor at Southern Oregon University, emphasized the grant was not just for travel, but involves "serious academics" in the ESD's region of Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. The program will include quarterly weekend workshops where professors are brought in to develop "content knowledge."

One teacher who has been in the program for the past three years, Lois Cowell of South Middle School in Grants Pass, said that actually being at historic sites and being taught by experts made it possible for her to walk her students through the Battle of Gettysburg as they played parts in the unfolding drama.

"The devil is in the details — that's what kids buy into," said Cowell. "We were seeing these things for the first time, the Statue of Liberty, poor tenements in New York, and we got that first feel. I wanted them to experience that first thrill that I had. It was superb. We needed to know not just how to teach it; we needed more grounding in solid content, and we got it."

Independent evaluation of the program says student scores in history improve by 31 percent compared with groups not served, said ESD Executive Director Scott Perry.

"It helps good teachers become excellent teachers," Perry noted. "In times of reduced funding, there's all the more need for excellence in education. We can't lose that focus."

The ESD is serving elementary schools tagged for improvement — one in Josephine County, two in Jackson County and three in Klamath County, all of them receiving Title I funding for low-income families, said McCollum.

The program is popular with teachers, noted Perry, and many already have expressed interest in joining. Some 45 to 50 teachers will be selected, with numbers apportioned to district size.

"Each of our six elementary schools will have a teacher chosen," said Peterson, referring to Jackson County, "and they will be in fourth and fifth grades, where teaching of history starts."

More than $115 million in grants from the history project went to 124 school districts in 40 states. The Southern Oregon ESD grant was the only one awarded in Oregon.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.