Learning by Doing: The Bushes and Jordin Sparks Help Debut North Texas Super Bowl's Community Service Initiative for Kids

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In the end, Jordin Sparks had way more time with the microphone than a certain former president at Cowboys Stadium, where, this morning, George and Laura Bush were among those on-hand to unveil the North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee's educational outreach initiative called Service Learning Adventures in North Texas -- or, SLANT 45 for short. Which will no doubt infuriate those Arlington ISD students denied the opportunity to say they were there when the American Idol  winner performed two songs, including "Battlefield," for the Bushes. Poor Jerry McCullough -- the AISD super just can't win.

Ah, but at least a few DISD students were there from Bowie, Turner, Kramer, Lipscomb, Withers and Foster elementary schools; so too were DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and trustees Adam Medrano and Ron Price, sitting alongside Dallas City Council members Ron Natinsky and Pauline Medrano. Also on hand: Mayor Tom Leppert and City Manager Mary Suhm, espied reading the latest Dan Brown novel before kick-off. "Well, they told us to get here at 9:45, and I was the first one here," she told Unfair Park.

The former First Couple will serve as honorary chairs for the program, which officials say will serve 20,000 North Texas students who will perform 45,000 hours of community service between January 1, 2010, and the Super Bowl in '11. And so the couple spent most of their time on stage this morning sitting behind a parade of speakers that included host committee chair Roger Staubach, host committee member Daryl Johnston, some high-ranking suits from Bank of America and the National Football League and Gigi Antoni, president of Unfair Park downstairs neighbor Big Thought, which will oversee SLANT 45's operations.

So what, exactly, is SLANT 45? Well, for now it's still a concept-in-progress -- but one that officials expect will have kids out planting gardens, erasing graffiti, painting parks and so forth all in the name of creating what Johnston called "the largest service-learning project in our nation's history." Richard Holt, president of Bank of America Dallas, said that kids might go out planting trees, during which they'll learn about everything from "cost ... to code compliance."

Johnston and Bill Lively, president and CEO of the host committee, both told Unfair Park after the event the program will take $25 to $30 million to implement. (Update: Tony Fay, spokesman for the host committee, says the two were referring "to the budget for the Host Committee to put on the game, which is 30 mil or so." He adds, "It's a real legwork campaign: organizing volunteers and getting them out into the community, tracking projects, etc. Kids can apply for small stipends (of 100 or less).") Right now, they've got $1 million -- $500,000 from Bank of America, $500,000 from attorney Ted Skokos and wife Shannon via their foundation. But Antoni says others are committed as well, naming, among others, the Wallace, Simmons, Meadow and Ford foundations, as well as the U.S. Department of Education.

After the jump, Johnston, Staubach and Lively talk more about the program's genesis. And a few word from the former president.

According to Lively, he came up with the idea back in February, when he returned from Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa: "I said to Roger Staubach, 'We've got to have an education program,'" he tells Unfair Park. "It's not required, but we need to do it. It's the substance of this whole thing. There are lot of parties and a lot of fun, but the substance is how you extend the game into the neighborhood with kids and let them do things that make them better. And I told Rogert I don't know how to do that, but I know an organization that does. I've known Big Thought since I was at SMU, and I went out to get a volunteer chair."

Which is how he turned to Johnston, who's on the Legends Action committee, chaired by Troy Aikman, charged with getting sponsors on board for the February 2011 event in Arlington.

"Bill came to me and said, 'We're thinking about doing an education component as part of the legacy campaign for the Super Bowl, would you have an interest in being involved in that?,'" Johnston says. "I said absolutely. It's something I've done in the past. Education and academics have always been a big part of my life since the time I was younger, and when he came to me, a lot of the groundwork had been laid with Gigi. And they asked if I would chair if I had the time, and I said, 'I'll find the time.'"

The threesome met several times at Big Thought's Maple Ave. HQ, and in April they met with Bank of America about providing the start-up committement, which it did -- a check for $500,000. The Skokoses chipped in the other half mil.

Initially, the program will focus on third- through sixth-graders, but Johnson and Lively are adamant: If a kindergarten class comes up with a great idea, or if a group of high school sophomores want to participate, they won't be denied. If, that is, their group's already been cleared by Big Thought, which is in the process of vetting organizations -- and volunteers -- who'll be able to participate.

"Big Thought will develop an inventory of pre-qualified organizations to partner with," Lively says, explaning how this will work. "And then Big Thought will decide, 'What are the community service projects that are in the inventory, and how to we match those up with pre-existing groups, SLANT 45 kids, volunteers, and make it work -- including the budget. We have to work all that out before Christmas.

Lively -- who adds that "some churches," the Boy Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other "faith-based" organizations will also be included with schools -- says the most difficult part of the process was figuring out how to make this a "service-learning initiative" -- and not, oh, something tied into school athletics' departments or a little more obvious.

"We discussed all concepts you can imagine, and we decided kids would learn two things through the exercise: They would value education was we promote it through Big Thought and SLANT, but then they'd be introduced to the importance of community service, and community service at this age is our objective," Lively says. "Wasn't very scientific, wasn't very creative, but it worked."

It'll be a few months before SLANT 45 gets off the ground, even longer till it bears any fruit. That said, Staubach has every expectation SLANT 45 will continue long after the NFL's turned out the lights at the EnormoDome.

"We'd like to make this something that's part of future Super Bowls," Staubach tells Unfair Park. "You never know where it's going to go, but we're going to do things locally, and with Big Thought we'd like to carry it over to future Super Bowls. The NFL really likes the whole idea. We've got lofty goals to make this something that permeates other Super Bowls. Bill sat down with Big Thought -- I wasn't at a lot of those meetings -- and Daryl will help carry these things through. If it even stopped after this Super Bowl, it'll be a neat deal. But when you talk about kids and education, you can't do wrong -- especially if you're getting things done too."

As for Bush, he offered a few pleasantries and aphorisms: North Texas, he said, is "full of do'ers and dreamers," and said SLANT 45 was "an opportunity to make North Texas more competitive and more hopeful by workin' with our kids." And he called Staubach a "tough son of a gun on a basketball court." And then he told the kiddos he was sure "pleased to provide you with a convenient excuse to miss school."

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