In his first trip to the West Coast since he tipped the U.S. Senate to Democratic control, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords visited educators, homeless students and veterans Friday to learn more about their education reform programs.
The Republican-turned-independent first spoke at Cal State Long Beach, where he said that Congress' failure to fully fund special education and the White House's denial of his plea for more funding for education were the main reasons he left the GOP.
"In the end, I felt the only way I could ensure that these priorities were upheld was to change the Senate," said Jeffords, who received a standing ovation from about 150 people at a university conference sponsored by the Long Beach Education Partnership.
"Congress' full promise to special education must be fulfilled," Jeffords said. "And proposals for excellent child care and preschool for all children must be designed and implemented."
Jeffords, who chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, singled out the Long Beach Unified School District and its "Seamless Education" program as a "national model for practical, bold and efficient school reforms." The program coordinates college and university courses with teacher training and kindergarten through 12th-grade curricula.
Long Beach Unified, the third-largest district in the state with 95,000 students, has a reputation for innovation. The district was the first in the nation to require uniforms in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the first to require mandatory summer school for third-graders reading below grade level.
Its 7-year-old Seamless Education program has been credited with bringing coherence and support to professional development programs for teachers, and has brought them closer to the university. As a result, district officials said, it has been easier for them to tailor curricula and easier for teachers to earn master's degrees while teaching.
Seamless Education, officials said, is one of the reasons that the percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased from less than 40% to more than 60%.
Jeffords said a program modeled after Long Beach's is now uniting colleges and universities, business and labor, and teachers and parents in the Washington, D.C., area.
A Wide-Eyed Reading Audience
Later, Jeffords visited the Mary McLeod Bethune Transitional School for Homeless Children, where he read a version of the Johnny Appleseed story from a book given to him by 10 wide-eyed students who only a few weeks ago had been living on the streets.
Bethune, which has helped 3,000 children get back into public schools since it opened in 1991, was among the first schools in the nation to address the needs of homeless children.
Leaning forward in a chair with the book on his lap, the 67-year-old lawmaker with tousled gray hair provided the children with a passionate rendering of the tale of the man who planted apple seeds across the frontier.
Jeffords, who reportedly spends time each week reading to a third-grader from a Capitol Hill school, had their complete attention.
No sooner had he completed the story than kindergartner Machell Corswell, 5, jumped up, grabbed his hand and led him on a spirited tour of the main attractions in her stifling classroom bungalow: a big brown teddy bear, a terrarium containing a live bullfrog, a computer terminal.
Beaming with pride and importance, the little girl found it difficult to let go of Jeffords' hand.
Machell's teacher, Bryan Dilts, could not help smiling at the girl who only a few weeks ago was being shunted from neighbors to friends to relatives.
"When she first got here, she would scream and cry for hours," he said. "Now, she's leading a senator on a tour of the place."