ECHO - The opening of the movie "Freedom Writers" this week triggered some memories for a few Echo residents who recalled the book sparking controversy at their school in 2004.

That year, first-year teacher Sarah Widdop had her English students read "The Freedom Writers Diary," the tale of some inner-city students and their extraordinary teacher Erin Gruwell.

Using innovative methods, Gruwell inspired her street-toughened students to embrace diversity and realize their own potential. All 150 -many abused, neglected and poor - graduated high school and went on to college.

The book is a collection of her students' diary entries.

Controversy arose when an Echo parent complained about the book's language and sexual content. In the months that followed, the board decided not to renew Widdop's contract, students demonstrated and Gruwell came to Echo from Long Beach, Calif., to speak and conduct workshops with some of the Freedom Writers.

Widdop, who now teaches at Evergreen High School in the Seattle area, recalls she assigned the book as a way to explore diversity.

"I was met with intolerance among my students - intolerance of different races and nationalities," Widdop said by phone this week. "It was just kids growing up in a small community."

She thought the book might broaden their horizons.

In hindsight, Widdop admitted she should have had parents sign permission slips - an oversight she chalked up to her inexperience.

Parent Staci McQuain, whose daughter Trista was in Widdop's class, remembers reading the book to find out what the fuss was about after another parent complained.

"We were probably the most conservative parents in the class - the ones you would have expected to object," she said.

While some of the language was rough, McQuain said the verbiage was necessary.

"The words weren't in the book for shock value," she said. "It's graphic because that's the language these kids used."

As the book progresses and the kids grow as individuals, McQuain said, the language becomes more refined. In the end, she endorsed Widdop's choice. In fact, McQuain was so moved she contacted Gruwell to tell her about the brouhaha at Echo School.

Gruwell was intrigued enough to plan a trip to the tiny northeast Oregon community. While her organization normally charges thousands of dollars for speaking engagements, Gruwell spoke for free.

"She cashed in her frequent flyer miles to come," McQuain said.

The day before the Freedom Writers' visit, students staged a walk-out demonstration after hearing the school board hadn't renewed Widdop's contract.

"We were in social studies class," said Kelsey Smith, who planned the walkout with her friend Trista McQuain. "We watched the clock, and at noon, we all stood up and walked out."

Outside, the students hefted homemade signs and donned T-shirts that read "The freedom to read is the freedom to think." Except for one march to the middle of town, the 25 -30 students demonstrated in front of the school the rest of that day.

The students planned the demonstration a week in advance, even checking with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We researched student rights," Trista McQuain said. "We found out we could do the walk-out and not get in trouble."

"It was all in support of Sarah," Smith said. "I think I learned more in that one year than I learned in any other English class."

Smith said she plans to become a teacher.

"Sarah was a big part of my reasoning," she said.

Widdop watched the demonstration, feeling secret pride as her students' expressed themselves.

"I taught them to be critical thinkers," she said. "That's what I was most proud of."

Echo Superintendent Rob Waite said the book was a bit player in the decision not to renew Widdop's contract.

"I'm proud of the procedure we followed," he said. "We weren't rash - we weren't knee-jerk."

Robin Marotta, one of the teenage Freedom Writers remembers the Echo visit, Marotta's first trip to Oregon. The group visited students and administration, were guests of honor at a town banquet and spoke at the town hall.

"There was so much controversy," Marotta said. "It took a little conversation to clear the air."

Teachers came from a wide area to hear Gruwell tell her story. Gruwell, Marotta said, transforms lives wherever she goes and Echo was no exception.

Marotta's classmates in Long Beach, however, didn't welcome their new teacher, at first.

"They didn't like each other - they didn't like her," Marotta said. "She found ways to draw us together."

Widdop said Gruwell, whom Widdop has since visited in Long Beach, is a role model.

"She is the teacher who everyone wants to be," Widdop said. "She has the knack of knowing exactly how to move kids."

Smith agreed, but was more in awe of the teenage Freedom Writers.

"I've never heard stories like that before," Smith said. "I felt privileged to meet these people."

The movie, "Freedom Writers," opened this week. Hilary Swank portrays Erin Gruwell.

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