Enrichment Activities Program
The Teaching of Laura Bush
When the planes started falling from the
sky, Laura Bush was in a car on her way to Capitol Hill. It was just
before 9 a.m. on September 11, and the First Lady had agreed to
testify on early childhood education before a Senate subcommittee.
During the drive from the White House to the Hill -- it usually takes
no more than 10 minutes -- "before" ended and
"after" began. Or, as she put it later, "We all knew
normal would never again be what we knew it to be on September
10." Since that day Mrs. Bush has attended memorial services,
visited school classrooms and given feel-good speeches at such a pace
that Us magazine dubbed her America's
"Comforter-in-Chief." Don't think for a minute, though, that
she is only a patter of backs and a holder of hands. Even in short
visits Mrs. Bush shows a watchful intelligence, a combination of
smarts and reserve that should not be underestimated. Though she
seldom lets loose in public, she has a wicked sense of humor. In one
story she recounts how, when he was citizen George W. Bush, the
President used to put the lights on the family Christmas tree. It was
not his favorite task -- and he was apparently not that good at it
either. "We think," she says, "that he ran for governor
just to get out of putting lights on the tree."
Unlike Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Bush, 56, has no overt political
ambitions, but she serves an enormous strategic role. The delight she
takes in reading to grade-school children helps soften the image of
the Administration. And in November, she became the first Presidential
wife to deliver the weekly White House radio address. She spoke about
the brutality with which the Taliban treated Afghan women, and drew
plaudits all around. The First Lady is fiercely, protectively devoted
to her family. Loyalty and history count with her, and she stays in
touch with a tight circle of women, many of them friends since she was
Laura Welch of Midland, Texas, daughter of Harold, a real estate
developer, and Jenna, who worked as her husband's secretary. Her one
passionate public cause is reading. Trained as a teacher and a
librarian, from the bully pulpit of the White House she can now help
shape U.S. education policy, in her way. Our conversation began on the
topic of kids and classrooms.
Get a Jump on Learning
RD: You've been involved in early education for --
Bush: For years.
RD: At what age should public school start?
Bush: At kindergarten. I think Head Start is very important,
and parents' picking really good day-care centers for their children,
if their children go to day care, is important. It's crucial, really,
to a child's success later. It's no surprise that research proves that
how much a child has been read to before they start school determines
how successful they'll be, especially in the first years.
RD: Should there be curriculum for these early childhood
Bush: Yes. One of the things that the President wants in his
education plan is for Head Start to have an academic goal along with
social and nutritional and health-related goals. There is a Head Start
center in Dallas called the Margaret Cone Center that the Texas
Instruments Foundation adopted about 15 years ago. This is a
neighborhood with the highest poverty, the lowest education rate, the
most single-parent households. For two years Texas Instruments
provided every health and nutrition benefit they could. Year-round day
care. Three meals a day. Social workers. Even after that, when the
children started kindergarten they still tested in the bottom one
percentile on the Iowa test of basic skills. The T.I. Foundation knew
they had to add something else.
A reading professor at SMU, Nell Carvell, developed what she called
LEAP, Language Enrichment Activities Program. It's not a curriculum
that asks little three- and four-year-olds to sit at a desk. They play
all day. But she added pre-reading skills -- storytelling, story
listening, talking about letters, talking about sounds. The children
starting kindergarten tested in the 74th to 75th percentile on the
Iowa test. They now have 10 or 11 years of research.
This school, the Margaret Cone Center, was African American. But now
they have the Jerry Junkins Center that's Hispanic American, and
they're working to see what the results would be adding this
curriculum with children who didn't have English as their first
RD: Let's follow up on the English as a second language idea
and the controversy over bilingual education.
Bush: I think bilingual education is great if we know it helps
children learn to speak and read in English. The goal for children in
America is to learn to read and speak English. For children who are
lucky enough to be bilingual the goal is to become biliterate, to
learn to read and speak well in English, but also to take advantage of
their heritage. It's a huge advantage. There are so few Americans who
are actually biliterate, especially compared to Europeans.
RD: More than one million students are being schooled at home.
Do you think homeschooling is a good idea?
Bush: I do. Parents are willing and disciplined enough to make
sure their child gets a great education. And in most cases the parents
I've met who homeschool their children are very, very disciplined. I
think it's a fine idea if people want to do it.
RD: All the way through?
Bush: Sure, if they want to.
No Bad News
RD: During the campaign you were quoted saying that when you
read a press story that started to get negative, you stopped reading.
Bush: I still do that.
RD: Has the media coverage of the Bush Administration so far
Bush: The good stories [have been]. I actually think -- and
everyone who knows me knows this is no secret -- it depends on the
newspaper or the network or whatever. I think some have been very fair
and some I think haven't been that fair.
RD: You think there's media bias?
Bush: Sure. I think everyone thinks that and knows that. It's
obvious. It's like everyone knows who the best teachers in the school
are. You know, the schools may not always pick out the one and award
the best teacher award, but everyone knows. The parents know, the kids
know. It's no secret.
RD: Has that kind of media scrutiny been a burden to the
Bush: We've been in politics a long time. We saw somebody else
we love in this job, and all the reviews, the press coverage is a part
of it. And really, we want press coverage. We want to be able to get
the President's message out, and the press serves as a messenger. It's
Friends, Family, Home
RD: I'm fascinated with your adventure trips with your friends.
Where is the next trip?
Bush: Well, a group of women that I grew up with in Midland
hiked this summer in Yosemite. We live all over now. Two are in Austin
and one's in San Francisco, one lives in Topeka. We've taken these
trips for our 40th birthday and our 55th. We have the goal of a trip
every year, but we never make it every year.
RD: You've built a new house on the ranch. How much did you and
the President discuss the design elements, and did you have ...
Bush: Did we have any arguments?
Bush: Only [about] the price. During the campaign, on weekends
when we were at home we'd drive to the property, walk around the site.
We ended up siting the house in these magnificent live oaks. There was
a cattle tank we extended to make a lake that we can see from the
house. I wanted a one-level house, with no steps, that we could grow
old in. One in which friends of ours who happen to be in a wheelchair
could come to stay. It's built like that -- perfectly level. A
wheelchair can even roll into the bathroom showers. We used a lot of
environmental details that we both wanted. Texas is a very arid state.
Water's always a major problem. We have a trough that runs around our
house filled with gravel, so the rain runs off the roof into a cistern
that holds 44,000 gallons. We don't drink that water, we irrigate with
it. We have a septic tank with gray water. And geothermal heating and
RD: What was it like, taking on a campaign for the White House
and building a house? It sounds intense ...
Bush: There was a great juxtaposition between running for an
office that you know will only last for so long, and building a house
that we would have for the rest of our lives, and our children will
have for the rest of their lives as well. It was an emotional relief
during the campaign to talk about the house and drive out there and
look and make plans while we made plans for the campaign and the
RD: You're a very neat and orderly person. Is your husband ever
exasperated by that?
Bush: No, but I'm exasperated because he's messy. I think he
really appreciates it that the books are on the shelf in Dewey decimal
order. Because if he's looking for a certain biography he can go find
A Turning Tide?
RD: Aside from your family, can you name someone who influenced
you the most?
Bush: My second-grade teacher, Charlene Gnagy. I wanted to be
so much like her I decided in the second grade I wanted to teach. I
saw an article about how women are choosing teaching again. The
daughter of a longtime friend of mine has decided she wants to teach
and she's gone back to school. And amazingly enough, six of her
friends have done the same thing. And one reason, my friend thinks, is
because of the television show "Boston Public." I think
that's great. Because teaching went very out of fashion for a while.
RD: A lot of older people want to teach, and some are shut out
because of degree and certification policies.
Bush: Well, in New York there's a program called the New
Teacher Project, and here it's called the D.C. Teaching Fellows. Both
of those help midcareer people who don't have education degrees to get
their teaching certificate. There's also a federally funded program
that encourages retiring military to choose teaching. They still have
a lot of productive years. They have already worked with young people,
and they bring a lot of discipline and maturity to the classroom. When
I was in Kosovo, the NCO whispered to me, "When I retire, I'm
going to teach in Memphis. I want to teach at-risk kids." So
that's good. Because there's no other more important profession than
|Copyright © 2001 The
Reader's Digest Association, Inc.