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Students drop, cover, hold on -- and ask questions of top public officials

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 - Students at Carnahan High School showed Thursday they not only know how to learn a lesson -- they can ask some pretty perceptive questions of their own.

The occasion was the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, a drill held 200 years after an earthquake shook up parts of southeast Missouri and other areas affected by the New Madrid Fault. There to observe were Arne Duncan, secretary of education; Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security; Gov. Jay Nixon; and Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

After students in Lucy Duffy's Project Citizen class discussed earthquakes and the possibility that the New Madrid fault could shift again, a tone sounded on the school's PA system and a voice said:

"Carnahan students, our earthquake drill has begun. Drop! Cover! Hold On!"

The students immediately obeyed, dropping to the ground under the tables they had been sitting at, putting one hand over the heads and using the other to grasp a table leg. After the PA voice announced, "The shaking is over. All clear," they got up and checked each other over to make sure that no one had been injured.

Napolitano noted that 2.7 million students in 11 states were also taking part in the ShakeOut, which she said was the first to take place along the New Madrid fault zone, and she praised the students for their level of preparedness.

"Seismologists say this area is ripe for an earthquake to come," she said. "Preparedness is key, and the key to preparedness is our young people."

Before the dignitaries arrived, Duffy ran through a series of questions about earthquakes and other natural disasters -- the difference it makes when the soil is soft, how schools and other buildings can be made safer, the different kinds of faults and where the plates that would most affect Missouri are located.

They also heard from Bill Duley, an assistant state geologist for Missouri, and Steve Besemer of the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. Duley ended his presentation with an image of a raging bull, comparing its behavior to the kind of unpredictable devastation an earthquake can cause.

"We don't necessarily know the size of the bull," he said, "we don't know where it will hit and we don't know when it is coming. But we do know that it's coming, so we better be ready."

Besemer's message was similar: "Earthquakes are inevitable, but damage from them is not."

Noting the tornadoes that struck the St. Louis area last Friday night, Nixon said that such preparedness helped Missouri avoid any deaths. He urged the students to use what they have learned in school to help their families become ready for when a disaster strikes.

"Take the lessons back home," he said. "We want to make sure that whatever happens, you're ready for it."

Speaking even as the death toll was rising from violent storms in the South, Napolitano said: "I think the last few days show us this is not make-believe. These things really happen."

The students are preparing for a trip to Jefferson City next week where, among other questions, they will ask why there isn't enough money to help older buildings be retrofitted so they can withstand earthquakes better. They have also studied issues like payday loans, and they peppered the Cabinet members with questions about Pell grants, federal aid to education when other funds dry up and other topics.

Duncan told the students he appreciated the family-like atmosphere at Carnahan High School, which is at 4041 S. Broadway in St. Louis, and said it could help students reach what he said should be education's major goal: making sure that every student not only graduates from high school but goes on to some form of higher education.

He also noted that even with today's high levels of unemployment, 2 million jobs go unfilled nationwide because companies can't find people with the skills needed to perform the work. The types of jobs that were available when he was growing up on the south side of Chicago, like working in the stockyards, are largely gone today, he said.

"You can have negative peer pressure," Duncan said, "but you can also have positive peer pressure."

He added that officials at the top can also help set the right tone, even in times like these when finances are tight.

"In these tough times," he said, "you can either shut down or you can look at it as an opportunity. ... It's a test of leadership."

Duncan praised the commitment to public service that students in Duffy's class have made and was clearly pleased by the caliber of questions and answers from her students. "Your learning in high school is so far ahead of where I was in high school," he said.

At a news conference, Duncan said he was impressed with the progress St. Louis Public Schools students had shown in test scores, even with its budget in less than optimum shape. "This is the challenge," he said. "We all have to do more with less."

Asked about the federal Race to the Top program, which awarded grants to states that have shown leadership in education reform, Duncan marveled at how even states that did not win the race have come up with plans to streamline and improve their schools. He said the leaders in reform will help show the way for other states.

He said that nearly 1,000 have taken advantage of another kind of federal help, the School Improve Grants, and many have already taken great strides. He said the movement toward education reform will highlight urgency, collaboration and the courage to make the necessary changes.

"I think you're going to see some fantastic success stories," Duncan said, acknowledging that "other schools are going to take a little longer."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.