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Mr. Hart's Teachable Moment

The former state education secretary stressed accountability. Now back in front of the class, he finds that ideals and reality often clash.

November 19, 2002|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gary K. Hart, teaching his ninth-graders about the Sept. 11 attacks, launches into a discussion about state-sponsored terrorism.

Confused looks dart across the classroom as one of Hart's brightest history students raises her hand. I don't understand, she says quietly. Are you talking about Nebraska and Wyoming?

No, Hart gently explains, he's talking about countries suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

It is an eye-opening moment for a man who once virtually presided over California's public schools -- first in the Legislature as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and then as Gov. Gray Davis' first education secretary.

At 59, when Hart could cash in on his connections or coast toward retirement, he has come home to the classroom, to the profession he joined fresh out of Stanford and Harvard 35 years ago.

In the last three months, he has discovered that it's one thing to issue edicts about test scores and academic standards from the Capitol and another thing entirely to motivate 37 fidgety teenagers.

But that's the challenge. In Room 305 at Sacramento's Kennedy High School, Hart is testing his ideas about education. Most important, he wants to give average students a shot at tough honors classes and, eventually, college.

And he is testing himself, even if he has some perks that other teachers envy.

"I'm not out trying to change the world. I'm just trying to do my little thing," he says. "If you can influence a few dozen kids, that's not small potatoes."

Hundreds of thousands of other teachers might love to do their "thing," too. But when he was secretary of education, Hart helped oversee the system that governs how California teachers run their classrooms and what textbooks they use. Now Hart has his own students, and he is finding that he wants freedom to innovate.

He has jettisoned the chronological approach to California and U.S. history in favor of teaching a few choice topics in depth, such as the Civil War and the Cold War. And he has handpicked his students, not so much for their good grades but for the potential he sees in them. "I want to march to my own drummer," he says.

At the front of his class, Hart is no politician. He comes across as a mild-mannered professor, with bushy gray eyebrows and slightly wrinkled clothes that sometimes clash -- one recent day he wore green pants with a brown belt, blue socks and black shoes.

At nearly 6-foot-4, Hart towers over his students, craning his neck downward when they approach to ask when their assignments are due.

This child of the '60s often starts class by playing music from the Beach Boys, John Denver and others. But it is no idle indulgence. He uses songs such as Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" to teach about geography and to psych up his students to learn.

One recent day, after collecting homework, Hart flipped on a CD:

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York island ... .

Some of the students gave singer Trini Lopez a tepid reception. One boy yawned. Two other students went right on talking to each other. Several students paid attention, but no one seemed to notice Hart as he sang quietly along, momentarily unaware of himself:

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

The song ended and Hart snapped back into teacher mode. He asked one of his students to approach a map of the United States tacked to the wall.

"Can you find the New York island?" he asked.

The girl eyed the map, then shrugged her shoulders.

"The redwood forest? The gulf stream waters?"

The girl stood silent for a moment until another student pointed out the sites.

Later, Hart felt guilty for embarrassing the girl. But the interaction underscored his challenge. Several of his students could not name the vice president of the United States when he asked recently. During a discussion on weapons of mass destruction, one student didn't know what a nuclear bomb was.

"They're bright, they're energetic," Hart says, "but their cultural and political knowledge is very limited."

Hart, unlike other teachers, has the part-time help of two college students who read first drafts of the ninth-graders' essays. Still, he says he is working harder than ever, putting in 80 hours some weeks writing lesson plans, chaperoning field trips, grading papers. An insomniac, he wakes up at 4 a.m. many days and shows up at school before other teachers to prepare his classes.

He rides his students just as hard, assigning up to two hours of homework each night. The readings include newspaper and magazine articles about everything from women's literacy in Afghanistan to the recent indictment of Sacramento Kings basketball star Chris Webber on perjury charges.

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