Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School

Not many adults would be willing to go back to high school voluntarily, but Elinor Burkett was driven by the question that has been haunting Americans since the Columbine shootings: What's going on in our suburban high schools? To find out, she actually spent a year at a suburban Minneapolis high school, sitting in on classes, eavesdropping on gripe sessions, attending pep rallies and concerts, and insinuating herself into the lives of students, teachers, and officials. The result is a first-hand and first-rate account of the myriad factors that are alternately paralyzing and pulling apart public schools. In a vivid lesson in high school social geography, we meet preppies and partiers, hip-hoppers, jocks, and Christian kids, and especially, the loners and outcasts who were harassed and feared after Columbine--kids like Roger Murphy, the school's only black student who quotes Dante and wears chains and spikes; Ashlee Altenbach, a hyperactive cheerleader who uses her ADHD diagnosis as an excuse for her behavior; and Reilly Liebhard, the misunderstood and sorely underchallenged school genius. Even more enlightening, Burkett talks to those on the frontlines, the teachers, as they debate the need for greater discipline and higher standards, complain about being made "the clothing-and-drug police, the lateness brigade and the parent hand-holders," and voice their anger over being the first to be kicked in the game of political football. Over the course of the year, this cast of characters amply illustrates the impact of such hot-button issues as zero tolerance, grade inflation, Internet plagiarizing, and the self-esteem movement. In the end, this one school throws adult society--and the tangled web of social changes that have helped undermine public education--into bold relief. Burkett has brought a keen ear and a fresh approach to a topic freighted by contradictory exhortations and political rhetoric, and penned a valuable and telling contribution to the debate over education reform. --Lesley Reed