THIS department was much distressed by an...


THIS department was much distressed by an Associated Press story shortly after Presidents Day that described what students and an assistant principal at James Monroe High School in Los Angeles thought (or didn't bother to think) about the president for which their school was named.

Teacher Caryn Cornell reported that when she asked 15 kids in her detention class who Monroe was, nobody knew. "Their mouths dropped open, like, 'Duh,' " she said, adding it was not funny.

No, it wasn't, but we were more aghast by the assertion of assistant principal Alice Parrish, who said Monroe "wasn't exactly among our most distinguished presidents," adding that all she could mention about him was the Monroe Doctrine. "And I'm a history teacher," she added.

A history teacher? No wonder the kids said, "Duh." For Ms. Parrish's information, James Monroe was instrumental in securing Florida and the vast Louisiana Territory for the United States. He served as president for eight years, two full terms, from 1817 till 1825 during what came to be known as "the Era of Good Feelings" under one of the strongest Cabinets ever assembled by an American president.

In a survey of historians compiled by Penn State before Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Bill Clinton could be added to this list, Monroe ranked consistently at the high end of the average ranking -- between 15th and 18th of 36.

What our high schools need are history teachers who know some history.

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READS A billboard on Monument Street: "PRESIDENT CLINTON, Thank You for our Empowerment Zone . . . Kurt Schmoke and the citizens of Baltimore." Its foot-high letters and bold colors are hard to miss. Several others like it dot the city.

The empowerment zone organizers would have been better off sending a $2 greeting card to the president -- even if Penn Advertising paid for the signs. The billboards telegraph the wrong message.

True, the city received a $100 million grant from the Clinton administration. Baltimore was one of a half-dozen cities that won a tough competition to create a new urban revitalization zone. But city residents, including hundreds of participants from business, government and civic circles -- not the president -- deserve the credit. Taxpayers are tired of praise being lavished on politicians for the act of passing their tax dollars back to them.

The empowerment zone grant was a major achievement of Mayor Kurt Schmoke. No doubt he will mention it often as he campaigns for a third term, as is his due.

But if this program is viewed as another political plum handed down from one Democrat feeling political heat to another, it will mar this creative initiative. The more politicized this effort becomes, the less faith the public will invest in it.

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