Track and field legend Wilma Rudolph has some pretty influential friends at Jessup Elementary.
Thanks to the efforts of Irma Thompson's fourth-grade class, Rudolph will be included in the next edition ofthe World Book Encyclopedia -- more than three decades after she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympics.
To commemorate Women's History Month in March, Thompson had the 30 students in her class choose from a list of women who have overcomeobstacles in achieving success. Students narrowed the list down to four: Helen Keller, Billie Jean King, Harriet Tubman and Rudolph.
Despite bouts with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, Rudolph developed into a world-class runner. During the 1960 Olympic Games inRome, she set world records in the 100- and 200-meter races. She also anchored the winning American 400 relay team.
Several students, including Christopher Whipple, 10, DeWayne Robinson, 10, and Noemi Burgos, 9, began searching for information on Rudolph. Naturally, one of their first steps was to check the encyclopedia in the school's library.
The World Book, however, did not even include an entry on Rudolph. Students were able to get the information they needed from "The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the Afro-American."
"I pickedher because I like track and field," Christopher said. "Ms. Thompsontold me about her and I got all excited. I think it was tough for her to win all those races with hurt legs.
"But I was mad when I found out that she was not in the encyclopedia. It wasn't fair. All the other famous people were in there. I think it's prejudice."
"Ms. Thompson said we could choose someone else if we wanted," he said. "I said no, because I like her. I didn't give up. I knew we would find her somehow."
Thompson suggested students write to the World Book Publishing company in Chicago, asking why Rudolph was not included.
"I've been trying to teach them that there is a way to do things through a step-by-step process," she said. "I tried to teach them that there are ways to show their feelings besides getting angry. I think they learned that they can make a difference."
Students mailed a four-page letter explaining their assignment and citing eight reasons why Rudolph should be listed in the encyclopedia. The class also signed a petition for the change.
"Our class did research on notable women in March 1991," the class wrote. "We learned each of these women did an amazing feat. Much to our surprise, one of our chosen women was not listed under her name!!! Wilma Rudolph!!! Is this bias by omission?
"Our class thinks that Wilma Rudolph was cheated. She is not listed under her name separately. She was not listed separately in your 1986 or 1990 editions of your encyclopedia."
World Book representatives responded within three weeks.
"As you may know, we at World Book take great pride in keeping our encyclopedia as accurate, current, and comprehensive as possible," wrote Mary Norton, director of Research and Library Services. "Our editors and researchers continually review our material as part of our ongoing revision program, updating many articles and adding new articles whenever possible. As a result of this review process, we added a new 25-line biography of WilmaRudolph for our 1991 edition.
"We appreciate your concern for World Book's quality, class, and we hope that you and all the students at Jessup Elementary School will continue to use and enjoy World Book for many years to come."
In a telephone interview, Norton said shecould not discuss why Rudolph had not been included in the encyclopedia before.
The class took the quest to learn more about the tracklegend one step farther. Students ran their own 100- and 200-meter races to understand what her accomplishments meant. Ten-year-old Hisako Seignemartin lead the class, winning the 100-meter race in 16.3 seconds -- 5.3 seconds slower than Rudolph's performance (an Olympic record that stood until 1984).
The World Book is popular in elementary schools because of its illustrations and easy, readable
style. Students said they hope their letter will encourage the company to be more thorough.
"We use a number of reference books and World Book is typically one of them," said Dennis Younger, the school system's executive director of curriculum. "When kids can move learning to its highest point of participation, it is quite exciting. It's very active learning that I think is a combination of good student response andgood teaching."