History for Dummies

Neil Bush touts a school curriculum for guys like himself

The voice coming from the computer isn't your daddy's history teacher -- or yours, either. Studiedly casual and oh-so-hip, it's more beatnik than Ben Stein:

I was surfin' the Net just last Saturday, see

And I saw the most curious thing.

At a chat room for Georges, two Georges were chatting,

A new President and an old British king.

As Mr. Hipster intones "new President" and "British king," the words helpfully appear on the computer screen, white text on a bright orange background.

Said the Pres, 'Global power,

You mongo head honcho

You call it whatever seems best.

But you've got to admit that our young rebel nation

Has grown up to surpass all the rest.'

Great poetry, it's not. But the Houston Independent School District is welcoming it as the future of education. Last year, four HISD schools piloted Ignite! Learning's computer-based American history course. This year, 23 schools have signed on. More Houston schools are using the two-year-old software than in any other district in the nation. According to Ken Leonard, Ignite! president, the Houston schools are nearly one-fifth of the company's total business.

Ignite! is the brainchild of Houston's own Neil Bush: son of George Senior, little brother of George W. and father of supermodel-in-training Lauren. In a family of overachievers, Neil is the ne'er-do-well, gaining his biggest headlines by embarrassing his prominent relatives. His adventures in the savings and loan industry led to a taxpayer-funded bailout of $1.3 billion and a lifetime ban from the banking world. His divorce last summer revealed his taste for Asian call girls.

In countless interviews, Neil has explained his motivation for starting Ignite!: Dyslexic, he was badly frustrated by traditional school. He has said he saw his son suffer through the same "boring" classes, and he felt a call to do something. So Ignite! designs and promotes software-based curriculum for "hunter/warrior" types -- kids Neil believes are just as smart as the eggheads, but aren't being served by traditional education.

Ignite! works hard to shake things up. There are cartoons, fast-moving graphics and songs. A trench-coat-clad Peter Jennings type delivers a talk on the founding of Jamestown, with a driving hip-hop beat in the background.

A lesson on the division of governmental powers features "Federal Powers Man," a Schwarzenegger-style cartoon hero in a tight red-and-blue leotard. He coins money and wages war until the scene shifts à la Batman and Robin, with "BAM!" exploding in big black letters. "States Rights Man," we learn, is in charge of education. (It's a small irony, considering George W.'s work on behalf of "No Child Left Behind.") Then BAM! Concurrent Powers Woman, who could rival Wonder Woman in the babe department, gets to lock up criminals.

Or take that "chat room for Georges." King George gets his dig in by citing the Beatles as a reason the Brits still rule, then briefly mentions the Monroe Doctrine. But the three-minute "chat" is really a chance for President George to rap about this country's power: "Our lands have grown, and so has our trade. / Our economy's blossomed to such a degree, all the world seeks to lie in its shade."

The lesson about the Constitutional Convention is a would-be pop song, "Fight for Ratification," with lyrics about special interest groups and federalists. There's even a song about Eli Whitney.

"You've got interesting melodies, but the bottom line is, the lyrics are core content," Leonard says.

With dry lyrics and simple melodies, the tunes are far from rock and roll, but for a generation conditioned to think of Britney Spears as a musician, Ignite! just might be on to something. When teacher Marc Chicoria's class at Edison Middle School logs on, no one seems remotely disdainful. A few even seem to be having fun.

"It's better than reading a textbook," explains 14-year-old Mayra Gonzalez as she noodles with her mouse. "Something that I read, I'm just trying to get it over with. But this is actually interesting."

Mayra and her friends actually gasp in excitement when Chicoria tells them they can click on the song about John Winthrop's "City on a Hill." "This is my favorite," Mayra gushes.

"In seven years, I've been trying to get them to remember the City on a Hill and its importance," says Chicoria. "This is the only year they've gotten it."

After a year's pilot program, Ignite! offered the software to HISD for $10,000 per school. When the board balked, the Bush fund-raising powers swung into action. Landry's Restaurants, the Wells Fargo Foundation and Toyota dealership giant Friedkin Companies each donated $25,000. So did former Iranian ambassador Hushang Ansary, a trustee at the George H.W. Bush presidential library. Contributions totaled $115,000, halving the district's expense.

Colette Sayer, president of the Houston Classroom Teachers Association, urged the school board to reject the donation, saying the grant "is not worth the bad public relations."

But even Sayer admits that her criticism is due to the Bush behind the software, not its content: "I'm going to be very blunt. It's because of the name attached to it."

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says she heard from people outside her organization who wanted her to oppose the software. But the teachers themselves thought it was effective, she says.

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