It seems like the best of times and worst of times for public schools.

On the worst side are the horror stories: students with guns at schools, students robbed at bus stops, drunken school bus drivers transporting children.

But on the other side are initiatives -- best practices -- that engage children and make even the stuffiest of disciplines interesting.

One of those is the Indiana Council for Economic Education, run out of Purdue University by Harlan Day, who wrote a book called "Play Dough Economics." This organization trains teachers to convey the basics of economics, starting in the elementary years. Students learn about supply and demand, assets, and stocks and bonds when they get to high school.

The hands-on approach makes economics fun and even exciting. It's not boring when you play stock market games or build your own business and compete with fellow students for market share.

"The kids love it because kids are interested in money," says state Rep. Sheila Klinker, a West Lafayette Democrat. She used the program when she taught elementary school and remains a friend of it as a member of the Directors Circle.

This writer is also part of that circle, which includes Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, Secretary of State Todd Rokita and state Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar.

In another best practice, John Pratt is teaching Indiana history at a new level as a teacher in North Decatur High School in Greensburg.

He has a weeklong Chautauqua for his high school classes, giving the students hands-on approaches to state history each semester. Students work on research projects, from the Underground Railroad to the history of the Indiana-based All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Guest speakers include Bobby Plump, who shot the game-winning basket in the real-life version of the "Hoosiers" movie.

High school senior Ann Schwering appreciates the chance to see the creativity of fellow students. "If you don't do hands-on learning in Chautauqua, you have a hard time passing Mr. Pratt's classes," she notes.

Pratt started the program last year, in memory of the old traveling talent shows started in Chautauqua, N.Y., in 1874. They became famous forums for presidential candidates, especially William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential nominee. "Under one rooftop you would have William Jennings Bryan and a hypnotist and the local Sunday School singer that everyone raved about," Pratt said.

So which way is public education going? Up or down?

Superintendent Bennett sees a competition between excellence and mediocrity.

"We have to make sure to highlight these islands of excellence while we challenge the areas of mediocrity," he said after a recent economic council meeting. "The islands of excellence need to become our standard."

(Russell B. Pulliam, journalist, book author, associate editor and columnist at The Indianapolis Star, is a syndicated columnist, whose columns focus on topics ranging from politics to social issues to family life. He may be contacted at: russell.pulliam@indystar.com)