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PoorSchool.com: Helping Distribute Facts in Troubled School District - 2003-02-16


Across the United States, falling tax revenues and rising deficits have forced school districts to tighten budgets. Many parent-teacher organizations and local communities have tried to fill in the monetary gap with fundraising efforts. But news of budget problems and pleas for money can lead to rumors of dramatic proportions, from massive teacher layoffs to closing school altogether. In a Colorado school district that's facing serious financial difficulty, two teenagers have tried to make sense of it all with a very unorthodox website called "PoorSchool.com.

As Longmont Colorado's first new high school in more than two decades, Silver Creek stands proudly against the beautiful backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, on a campus full of shade trees planted just last year. It has a state-of-the-art computer network, indoor basketball courts and a gymnasium where cheerleaders gather in a circle to rally the crowd in the bleachers.

"Silver Creek Raptors! We're Number One! Silver Creek Raptors! We're Number One!"

While it all seems wonderful, a lot has changed since the school opened a year ago, according to Silver Creek High School principal Chris Rugg. "Everything at that time was going great. We had the money we needed to run things," he says.

That money is harder to come by today. Like most of the country, the state of Colorado is in a recession. What's more, two employees of Silver Creek High's School District made an accounting mistake and then hid the problem. When they finally confessed in early November, the school district realized it faced an additional $14 million shortfall, roughly 10 percent of its annual budget.

To keep the schools going, Mr. Rugg says everyone's been tightening their belts. "Our teachers are taking a 7.125 paycut. Some administrators are taking up to 21 percent paycut," he says.

The district's budgetary problems have made national headlines and local rumors, according to a pair of teenagers sitting in Mr. Rugg's office.

"A lot of kids were really excited about the rumor that they were going to cancel school altogether for the rest of the school year, says 16-year-old junior Eric McIntyre. He helps maintain Silver Creek's computer network along with his friend, Mitch Lubbers. "They said possibly athletics were going to be cut," says Mr. Lubbers.

Mitch says the rumors were distracting both students and adults from focusing on education and how to solve the budget problems. So, he and Eric decided to provide more accurate information through a website featuring the full text of district documents about the budget crisis. People can also use the website to check out rumors, even if they're about other schools in the district.

Here' a girl at Niwot [High] who was concerned about whether their school was going to have prom," says Mr. Lubbers. "Kelly McGuire, the vice-president of the junior class at Niwot High School, wrote us back after we posted that within three days with a statement saying how their Student Senate had already paid for it and it was going off as scheduled."

The teenagers' website has become a clearinghouse for the variety of efforts to explain and solve the district's budget needs. It's even prompted some people to write in and donate money. All in all, Eric says he and Mitch are glad they pooled their lunch money one day late last November and purchased the attention-grabbing web domain name poorschool.com.

"I said, I've got my seven bucks, Mitch said I've got my seven bucks, a friend of ours, he had seven dollars, too. And altogether we had 21 dollars and that was enough to buy it and get us off and running. We did it that day, went home, got it, and started working on it, and within a week, we had something up and papers calling and it just took off," says Mr. McIntyre.

The website's logo is a jagged red arrow reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain skyline and also of a stock market index going into the tank. Although the catchy name and flashy graphics quickly gained the website fame, Eric says they made for a bumpy start with school district officials. "With a name like PoorSchool.Com and a logo like that, they were like, oh, great. Just what we need. A bunch of kids making fun and causing another problem.

The school district's concerns were heightened because this isn't the first time these teenage computer buffs have spent time in the principal's office. "Oh, far, far from the first," says Mr. Lubbers. "We're reformed though, it's over!"

As the teenagers' faces turn a bright shade of red, Principal Rugg explains that the pair has been known to find ways to access teacher files maintained on the school's new computer systems. But Mr. Rugg is quick to point out that their "explorations" were motivated by curiosity rather than malice. "The kids have been able to come to us and say, 'Look, we can get into these things.' It's given us the opportunity to go in and fix things," says Mr. Rugg.

Still, their earlier exploits made schools officials nervous about just what would appear on the teen-run website. But given the secrecy that led to the budget shortfalls in the first place, and the conviction that facing problems honestly can lead to better solutions, the district decided to encourage Poor-school dot com. The district's public information officer even helps Eric and Mitch track down more accurate information. And the site is popular. More than 50,000 people have logged on.

"We've had people write us from Maryland to California and Washington and Oklahoma and Florida, I think we got one from," says Mr. Lubbers.

"Silver Creek High School, We're Number One! …"

It's also popular with Silver Creek students, according to a member of the high school cheerleading squad. "I thought the website they made was really cool, because it gave us an idea about what was going on in the budget rather than just being kind of cut out and not understanding what was going on," says a cheerleader.

Principal Chris Rugg agrees, saying that the website has led to greater student confidence about themselves and their school. "Kids have felt a lot of ownership with the site, and they're real proud that students have helped put it together," he says.

PoorSchool.com has also increased the pride of adults, by demonstrating that teenagers in their community can find innovative ways to share the responsibility of education.

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