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News Update

Education news from schools, businesses, research and government agencies.

Portland's Lesser of Two Evils

They faced a 14 percent pay cut and 24 fewer days of school this year. They could have paid nearly $194 a month in additional co-payments for health insurance. And they faced a possible strike.

So, in March, Portland school teachers approved a two-year contract.

The controversial and public contract negotiation caused some to say it was unfair and question if it spelled future trouble for teachers.

"We saw that it was a creative solution to a horrible situation, which was the best of scenarios for our folks and best for the community," says Ann Nice, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. But Nice says many teachers are "demoralized" and angry because they feel disrespected by management. "A lot of healing needs to happen," she says.

Oregon has had among the worst budget crises in the nation, according to Dan Kaufman, spokesman for National Education Association. And Oregon pays a larger portion of school revenues than other states do, creating a "perfect storm" for Portland, he says.

"The question is, what is the alternative?" Kaufman says. "Oregon teachers and parents are proud of their school system. They didn't want to see it all go to waste. ...It was a very difficult pill to swallow. There's no denying that. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And it's a sign that they were willing to make the sacrifice."

Districts in other states are cutting days of the school year, cutting bus stops for children, as well as substitute teachers and extracurricular activities. Some class sizes are rising to as high as 40 to a class, Kaufman says.

Nice adds that some affluent parents were ready to hire Portland teachers to make up for the proposed missing 24 days of class time under the proposed contract. But about 40,000 students who couldn't afford such an idea would have been "left out," Nice says.

Jan Chambers of Oregon Education Association adds that seniors in high school were getting calls from colleges saying their acceptance was up in the air because they wouldn't get all the math they needed for entrance requirements if they lost 24 days of school. While districts are required to teach 180 days, they can waive that requirement with the state Department of Education for one year if they have no money, Chambers adds. Out of 198 school districts in Oregon, 107 asked to cut school days this year. -Angela Pascopella

Documentary Sparkles on Spellers

From the Texas plains to manicured lawns of Connecticut, and from the Deep South to the Washington D.C., projects, Spellbound is about America.

The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary will open nationwide in theaters May 31 around the time of the 2003 National Spelling Bee. The film already won the Los Angeles Film Festival and Woodstock Film Festival Audience awards.

Eight 14-year-old honor students' family histories and frustrations are revealed as the 97-minute film unfolds. Director Jeff Blitz and producer Sean Welch presents the award-winning documentary with the intense, true-life experience of the National Spelling Bee, as seen through the young spellers in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Spellers include Angela Arenivar, daughter of Mexican emigrants in Texas, Emily Stagg, an equestrian jumper and an a cappella singer in New Haven, Conn., and Neil Kadakia, an East Indian boy on the San Clemente coast.

Contract Specs

Portland school teachers will receive a 5 percent pay cut, lose 10 days of school, and start co-payments for health benefits. The pay cut is retroactive back to July 1, 2002. The teachers will get a half percent pay increase in July and another half percent pay increase in January 2004. The contract terminates June 30, 2004.

Preschool Investments Pay Off

Spend a buck and get back $4. That's what a recently released study from the National Institute for Early Education Research has found about preschool.

It's the first study to compare costs and benefits of providing high-quality, full-day, year-round preschool programs. With such a healthy return to children, their families and taxpayers, it appears preschool programs pay for themselves and then some.

After analyzing data from the Abecedarian Project, a North Carolina effort that provided intensive preschool programs to children in low-income families in the early 1970s, the study's authors reported on several hidden benefits of preschool:

DISTRICT SAVINGS More than $11,000 per child can be saved in their 13 years of school because preschool participants are less likely to require special education or remedial attention.

INCREASED EARNINGS Project participants are projected to make about $143,000 more during their lifetimes than those who weren't in the program, probably due to increased intelligence reached. Surprisingly, mothers of children who were enrolled can also expect greater earnings-about $133,000 more over their lifetimes. Even children of project participants are projected to earn $48,000 more over their lifetimes.

BETTER HEALTH Results suggest a possible impact on smoking, with program participants less likely to smoke than those in the control group, meaning better health for a total benefit of $164,000 per person in their lifetime. -Melissa Ezarik,

E-rate in Exit Mode?

One by one, educators speak out on a Web site, explaining that the E-rate program is vital. Lillian Eberman, director of Menifee County Public Library, says the library has only eight computers, used by people who cannot afford a home computer. Then there is Elizabeth Ma, an educator in Los Nietos School District in California, saying E-rate assisted her district in getting wired and continues to help update its technical needs.

At least 1,400 comments are posted on a page of the E-rate Consulting Services Web site, in response to a proposed bill in the House of Representatives. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO, proposed the "E-rate Termination Act," which would eliminate the E-rate program, the ERC states. Out of the total 1,410 comments at press time, 1,353 disagree with House Bill H.R.1252, 45 agree, while 12 are undecided.

ERC, which assists school officials in submitting forms for the program and providing service provider management, wants Tancredo to understand the program's national impact before proposing such a bill, according to Chief Executive Officer Jon Slaughter. Neither Tancredo nor a spokesperson could be reached for comment.

E-rate is slang for Universal Service Fund, which came about in 1997 and is administered by the Federal Communications Commission. It is created via fees on telephone bills to customers nationwide and it allows about $2.25 billion in yearly discounts for telecommunications services in schools.

It works so that if a school has 50 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, the school will get a 50 percent discount on their telecommunications bills, Slaughter says. The fees pay for wiring schools, updating them technologically, Internet access, file servers and fiber optic connections. And schools still need help in part because they need updates. "Now if you cut off the Internet, go back to books and papers and pens and you create a digitally disadvantaged youth, someone who is not getting equal resources" as others in more economically-sound areas, Slaughter says.

And the No Child Left Behind Act is mandating accountability procedures, which would be virtually impossible without Internet access to do the reporting, he adds. -Angela Pascopella,,

Seattle's Olchefske Resigns

After taking the brunt of a fiscal mess, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske is resigning, effective in October.

The five-year superintendent said the public and others couldn't move past the turmoil. "What I've seen over the last several months is this focus on divisiveness and acrimony and conflict ...I certainly saw that me staying here would not mitigate it," he was quoted in an online news story.

A few months ago, Olchefske took responsibility for a $34 million budget shortfall, but had a plan to fill the loss. But most members of the Seattle Education Association took a no-confidence vote and asked the Board of Education to fire Olchefske.

Timeline on Sheff vs. O'Neill:

1989: Milo Sheff, a fourth grader in Hartford, Conn., schools, files lawsuit against the state, claiming Hartford schools are segregated and promote racial and ethnic isolation. He and his mother call for equal education.

1996: State Supreme Court orders state to desegregate Hartford's schools.

1997: State passes "An Act Enhancing Educational Choices and Opportunities" to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation and orders each district to provide equal educational opportunities.

1998: Plaintiffs return to court to argue the state has not "done enough, fast enough" to address racial imbalance in Hartford.

1999: State Supreme Court rules the state has complied.

2002: Sheff plaintiffs still accuse state of dragging its feet.

March 2003: The Connecticut House of Representatives approves out-of-court settlement, which includes plans for eight new integrated magnet schools in Hartford over the next four years. The agreement calls for expansion of a suburban school choice program for Hartford students.

Robin Hood: A Win/Lose Situation

There's a law in the Lone Star State under which wealthy districts are required to share property-tax revenues with poor ones.

For poor districts, it's a blessing. For wealthy districts, it's a curse.

In February, the Texas House Public Education Committee voted to recommend that the legislature end its state funding system. Now, the Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case aimed at dismantling the current system, commonly called "Robin Hood."

Although many lawmakers agree that the system is broken, they've been reluctant to fix it.

Take, for example, the Galena Park (Texas) Independent School District, one of the state's poorest districts. More than 80 percent of students are minorities and many don't speak English as a first language. However, the Galena Park district is also the state's largest "exemplary" district-the highest rating given out for performance. The district receives funding through the Robin Hood system and has been able to provide individual instruction to struggling students.

"Robin Hood has worked great for us," says Mike Seale, Galena Park's chief financial officer. "If the state throws out the Robin Hood plan and doesn't come up with a mechanism to generate what Robin Hood did, we will not be able to be as successful."

Several bills are currently in the legislature, one that does away with Robin Hood by 2005, and another that proposes a state income tax to help fund schools.

"There is no way to solve this problem without a huge source of revenue," says F. Scott McCowen, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "The only answer is the income tax. Texas is trying to fund an entire state government out of a sales tax on goods. And as a result, public education competes with everything else in the budget."

Texas is not alone in its funding controversy. In Vermont, where a similar law seeks to spread the wealth, one town seceded from the public school system. And in New Hampshire, the state supreme court ruled in favor of a coalition of towns with scant property wealth, which claimed the state put unfair pressure on local communities to raise funds.

Since the 1970s, some states have improved funding for poor districts by shifting from reliance on local property taxes-which give more affluent districts a huge advantage-to greater reliance on state taxes for school revenue. Thirty years ago, local revenue sources paid for 52 percent of school funding nationwide, with states footing 40 percent of the cost. Today, local sources pay for about 44 percent, with states picking up nearly half of the total cost. -Laura Dianis

After Deaths, District Debates Wilderness Schools

When two San Francisco 17-year-olds on a wilderness education trip fell to their deaths in early March, it prompted an internal review by the school system, a police investigation, and a national dialogue about the safety of such programs that boost self-esteem, foster teamwork and develop leadership skills among the hardest-to-reach students.

The San Francisco Unified School District had granted the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy a one-year charter in 2001, despite misgivings about its safety record. At press time, the charter was under review by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The students were reportedly camping with seven others on a "solo" experience two miles away from instructors, when-possibly drunk-they wandered away from the group.

Serious mishaps on wilderness trips are uncommon and can be avoided, says Bill Zimmerman, director of accreditation for the Association for Experiential Education and a member of the Wilderness Risk Management Committee, which tracks incident reports. Zimmerman says a high school student has a greater chance of sustaining serious injury at football practice or driving a car than during a properly supervised outdoor experience.

David Calvin, executive director of the Wilderness Education Association, says school superintendents considering a partnership with an outdoor education program should look for: accreditation by the AEE, the National Outdoor Leadership School or another reputable group; adequate and proper insurance; a low instructor-to-student ratio; and experienced instructors who are certified as Wilderness First Responders.

"We would never send kids out unless they have gone through survival skills training," says Bob Giolito, executive director of the Wilderness Discovery School in Vermont, which operates outdoor programs for teens. For example, if children get lost, they should stay put, make themselves visible and ration food, he says.

Solo activities are often part of a wilderness trip, particularly toward the tail end, when teachers fade into a shadowing role and students assume more responsibility, says Michelle Barnes, vice president for wilderness programs for Outward Bound USA. Nonetheless, says Barnes, students should never be outside their instructors' supervision. "A student may not be able to see the instructor, but the instructor is never outside whistle range and may even walk past the site at regular intervals without being seen," she says. -Jennifer K. Covino

Terrorist Plans

A threat of terrorist strikes nationwide has the Bush administration allocating $60 million to help districts design emergency plans.

The program will include response and evacuation plans for emergencies, including chemical or biological attacks. The U.S. Department of Education released a model emergency response plan. It advises officials to:

--Review traffic patterns and try to keep vehicles away from school building;

--Ensure schools have site plans for each school facility;

--Ensure multiple evacuation routes;

--Practice responding to crisis on a regular basis;

--Inspect equipment to ensure it operates.

What's New with Charter School Laws?

Open up an online document and check out the latest of the nation's 40 charter school laws.

The Center for Education Reform released its semi-annual ranking and profile of the nation's 40 charter laws, including changes in 11 states and two new laws from Tennessee and Iowa.

States with laws that allow charter schools to proliferate were given top scores. For instance, Tennessee was ranked at C- and Iowa at F.

The document is supposed to be a guide to those evaluating their existing charter laws against other state laws or for those who want to amend their own laws.

New Alternatives to High School USA

Bill Gates certainly puts his money where his mouth is. Convinced that the existing public high school system in the U.S. doesn't work, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating nearly $30 million to enhance existing alternative high school programs and provide seed money for 168 new ones nationwide for children on the verge of dropping out.

"The idea is that our high school system isn't working for hundreds of thousands of kids," says Marie Groark, Gates Foundation spokeswoman. "But there are other options, and one of those options is alternative high schools." The Gates Foundation is joined by four other non-profits, which are donating another $1 million, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to create the Alternative High School Initiative. The funds are being distributed among nine intermediary organizations that the Gates Foundation has designated as best practices models for alternative high schools. Most programs to be funded by the grant give out diplomas, as opposed to GEDs.

YouthBuild USA, an intermediary organization, will use $5.4 million to improve teacher training and leadership and foster innovations at 19 YouthBuild charter schools. The remainder of the funds will go to community-based organizations for planning and developing 10 new charter schools, says Tim Cross, vice president of field services at Boston-based YouthBuild. "We like to consider it seed money," says Groark. "It's not enough to get you all the way there, but it gets you out of the gate."

The Alternative High School Initiative, which will reach 36,000 youths who have failed in traditional schools, is part of the Gates Foundation's larger focus on education. The foundation has pledged $400 million over five years to foster creating 298 new small high schools and transforming 927 existing high schools into small-school programs. The 168 alternative high schools are part of this 1,225.

"Our overall goal is to increase the graduation rate, especially among African-Americans and Hispanics, in the next decade for our grantees," Groark says, "and nationally over the next 20 years." -Rebecca Sausner,

InfoComm Moves to Orlando

InfoComm's 2003 conference and exposition, called Evolving the Art of Communication, will take place in Orlando, Fla., June 3-5.

The AV industry's trade show will include more than 500 exhibitors showing the latest products in display and projection, streaming media and video production, conferencing and collaborative technologies and other presentation projects.

Attendees typically include tech managers from K-12 education, business, the government and health care. More than 150 sessions are planned, including some that are education-specific, such as Upgrade Your Classroom and The Fundamentals of E-Learning.

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