Sunday, June 18, 2000

Breaking out of the bubble

Class of 2000 moves on after graduation day

By Phillip Pina
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WYOMING — For the Class of 2000, kindergarten seems a world ago.

        Then, school was songs, crayons and holding hands to walk to class. Today it's college placement tests, laptops and cliques. Then they were young children learning to read and write. Now they are young adults moving on to freedom and responsibility.

        In 1987, The Cincinnati Enquirer decided to chronicle the lives of the Wyoming kindergarten class. Chosen because Wyoming is both a stable and relatively diverse community, these students and the rest of the Class of 2000 were destined to set the standard for the millennium. And along with the rest of the country, the students have witnessed the horrors of violence, felt the pain of AIDS and tasted the fruits of a prosperous economy.

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        On Saturday, they graduated.

        The girls wore white dresses and carried red roses. The boys donned black and white tuxedos. All but six of the 133 members of the Wyoming Class of 2000 have picked out a college or have made plans to join the military. They are going to places as far as Stanford University in California and as close as Miami University in Oxford.

        As they filed beneath the flowered arches that are a tradition at Wyoming graduations, memories flowed back to 13 years ago when they lined up outside their kindergarten classroom for the first day of school.

        As they look forward to their future, a quick glance at their past will show this is a class that has been challenged and applauded. It is also one that has grown close throughout the years in the small-knit community they call “the bubble.”

        “I used to not understand the value of growing up here,” said Shira Jackson, the 17-year-old graduate. The daughter of two professionals, Shira has lived her life among Wyoming's manicured lawns and upscale homes.

        The school is the center of life in Wyoming. Teachers say parents are always supportive and active in school's functions. And they have helped make Wyoming a premiere school.

        The students are lucky, Shira said. But don't discount all the work the students have put into their studies, either. They've come a long way since 1987.

Back in time
        It was the end of summer as Larry Jackson walked his daughter Shira to kindergarten. He was carrying a camera to capture the moment. She was hiding behind the pant leg of his suit as they neared the school.

        Ronald Reagan was president. A gallon of gasoline cost 94.8 cents. The Cosby Show was the nation's favorite television show. And the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 2,000 for first time ever. For the Class of 2000, life had centered on home and family.

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        Shira's life was about to change dramatically. School work would dominate her days. She'd have to get to know and adjust to her classmates. And some lady was going to watch over her, correct her and ask things of her no one had ever before.

        “Oh, she was kind of scared at first,” Mr. Jackson said. It's hard to believe that his confident teen-aged daughter was once so timid.

        Parents, students — they are always excited on the first day of school, said Mary Jo Peairs, a kindergarten teacher at Wyoming. And sometimes they are a little nervous. Kindergarten for many is the first time a child is away from home for any extended amount of time.

        She has a classroom routine meant to ease that transition. Emphasis is put on socializing and sharing as well as reading and math. There is still a nap time. And there is plenty of singing and dancing.

        When Shira would come home from kindergarten, her father would ask what she did in school. “We played,” she would respond.

        “I remember it was fun,” said Christin Reckman, another member of the Class of 2000. Kindergarten wasn't much like future grades, which were filled with exams and homework.

        “I didn't even remember learning anything. But when I started first grade, I remember knowing how to read,” she said.

Life's lessons
        They were taught how to read, how to add and subtract. Yet aside from the lesson plans and the pages of homework, the Wyoming Class of 2000 has also gotten a lesson in life.

        Life in suburbia is often not the fodder of action movies. Wyoming has low crime and high property values.

        “There's not much to do here,” said 18-year-old graduate Mike Naegel. Perhaps that is why the class has remained close-knit, he wonders.

        But suburban life is not immune from tragedy.

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        Horror was the reaction as they and the rest of the country watched on television the Littleton, Colo., community suffer through a school massacre. School safety never used to be a concern, Ms. Peairs said. Now there are new rules in student conduct and restrictions on who even enters the school buildings.

        Sorrow hit the school as it dealt with the pain and reality of AIDS when a beloved first-grade teacher passed away. The teacher was one of Christin's favorites, she said. The teacher died in 1994, a few years after she was in his class.

        School staff met with parents on how to discuss the loss and the disease with their children, said then-Superintendent Robert Yearout, who has since retired. The students got an early view of the disease's impact on a community, he said.

        What you learn is to cherish your friends, Christin said. She has been best of friends with the same group of girls since preschool. Leaving them behind as she goes off to college in Maine is going to be difficult, she admits.

        Fellow graduate David Owens agrees: “It's just been a lot of years in school... I'm sad to leave a lot of great friends, but the future will be interesting as well.”

        And while Wyoming is an affluent community, many of the students are learning the responsibility of hard work by taking after-school jobs. Shira is co-assistant manager of a Tri-County Mall shoe store. Christin, who wants to study biology, works at the Newport Aquarium. Mike holds down two jobs, at a local sandwich shop and with a landscaper.

        If you want something, you have to work to get it, Shira said. Between work, school and her interest with a local theater troupe, her days and nights are busy. It is her mother Katrina Jordan's determination and hard work that serves as Shira's example. Shira's role model is her mother for the way she has cared for their family after a divorce.

        She and many of her friends feel luck to have grown up in Wyoming.

In the “bubble”
        Cincinnati businessmen began moving into the area which became Wyoming back in the mid-1850s. They were attracted by its rural beauty and convenient railroad link to their downtown jobs. Wyoming has always been a residential community, filled with large brick homes along shaded, wide streets.

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        Wyoming, now a community of 8,000, has always stressed education. According to the 1990 Census, 56 percent of Wyoming's adults are college graduates. While most cities rely on factories to boost tax bases and pay for schools, Wyoming residents support higher taxes on their homes to pay for school, said Gary Payne, a former superintendent and now education professor at Miami University.

        Parents attend sporting events and concerts, teacher conferences and board meetings. They pay close attention to the school and their children's lives, said Mr. Payne, who led the district when the Class of 2000 was in kindergarten.

        “Wyoming is small and protected,” Christin said. It is for these qualities students dub it “the bubble.”

        The work in the schools has led to statewide as well as national recognition. Wyoming's students constantly rank among the state's best when it comes to proficiency test scores. And in March, Newsweek magazine ranked Wyoming No. 8 in the nation in a survey measuring students in the nation's 22,500 public schools taking college preparatory tests.

        “We are really blessed she is in that school system,” Mr. Jackson said, of his daughter Shira.

        For the students themselves, school has been a time of challenges, tests and good times. Mike's fondest memories including playing on the school football team, which reached the state playoffs. For Shira it was going on spring break. Most point back to sharing those moments with their friends.

        “My friends know me. We've been through everything together,” Christin said.

A future ahead
As President Clinton nears the end of his term, motorists in the Cincinnati area must now pay about $1.70 for a gallon of gasoline. Investors have watched the Dow Jones index surpass 10,000 points. Unemployment levels are at or near new lows.

        For most, these have been good economic times. Many seniors know things will change as they leave Wyoming's protected life.

        Mike plans to tour the world when he joins the U.S. Navy on July 20. There are adventures and new challenges ahead, he said. Most of his peers will continue on to college.

        As they walked their children through the school doors for the first time, the parents talked about education and the future.

        “I do have high expectations,” of his daughter Shira, Mr. Jackson said back in 1987 on her first day of kindergarten. “ As long as she goes to college.”

        Accepted for pre-med at the University of Cincinnati, Shira is making good on her father's wish.

        Christin will take with her all those inside jokes, friendly memories and life's lessons she learned in Wyoming. Is she ready: "Yes I am,” she says confidently.

        She studied nearly 10 hours a week after school to help keep her grades up. She works. And she's remained active in school activities. High school in Wyoming can be difficult, she said. But with that she's learned what it takes to thrive in such a competitive environment.

        This is a special and gifted class, Mr. Payne said. “But all the classes that come through Wyoming are.”

- Breaking out of the bubble
   Youngsters aged as education did
   Technology opened new world to students
   Kindergarten teacher shares rewards, joy

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