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<li>District Plus <li>Minnesota Districts drops plans for a four-day school week <li>Bitter Feelin

District Plus

The Gap Concerning Parent Involvement

A new study by the National Center for Education Statistics looks at how effective parent outreach efforts have been by administrators. As might be expected, there is a gap between efforts schools say have been made to include parents and what parents say about the school attempts.

But the gap increases dramatically when large schools or urban districts are involved. While 81 percent of large schools and 85 percent of urban schools reported giving parents information about child development, only 71 percent of parents in large schools and 73 percent of parents in urban districts reported that this information was helpful.

The report, Efforts by Public K-8 Schools to Involve Parents in Children's Education: Do School and Parents Agree?, can be found at

How to Save on Telecommunications Costs School districts can save up to 40 percent on their telephone bills by joining the American TelEd Communications Alliance. Annual dues are $75. The alliance negotiates with AT&T, Sprint, Qwest and other carriers for reduced rates on long distance and local phone service, Internet access, wireless networking equipment and Web hosting. Long distance, which can cost a school district as much as 9 cents per minute, can drop to 1.5 cents per minute through alliance membership, notes John Rathje, president of operations. The alliance not only helps administrators save money, but time. "Because we go through a precise procurement process, institutions have been able to avoid their own bid process," says Rathje.

The alliance, which is a partnership between the Michigan Collegiate Telecommunications Association and four interstate education groups, was originally set up to help colleges and universities save money. It was expanded to include K-12 members last year.

Maintaining Contact With Students One worry of teachers considering a move into administration is that they'll lose touch with students. "It just does not happen unless you let it happen," says David Sloan, a former principal and superintendent who is now an associate professor of education at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. Some tips for administrators at all levels:

Put yourself on the sub list for any subject or grade level. "I taught at least one whole day every month," Sloan says. "Kindergarten was terrifying for me."

Make arrangements to regularly teach a class. Sloan taught one period each week.

Ask schools to suggest that teachers send "good" kids to the office for recognition. "Bless their hearts! Some of those kids thought they were in trouble because they had never gone to the office before," Sloan remembers.

Volunteer for lunch and bus duty. "I did my fair share ... when I was a superintendent. I did not require my principals to do it, but when they saw me pulling duty, they started pulling duty," Sloan says. He says lunch and bus duty were almost a weekly occurrence for him.

Talk to students online. Howard Pitler, principal of Brooks Technology and Arts Magnet Middle School in Wichita, Kan., says, "I have over 140 kids on my AOL Instant Messenger buddy list. It is amazing what they will want to talk about online [that] they don't talk about in person," he says.

When to Hire Counsel

When school districts face liability for suspicious illnesses among students, one school board president suggests seeking expert advice.

Robert Haas, president of the River Valley school board in Marion, Ohio, says the district's board might have unknowingly waited a few months too long to hire environmental counsel to help when a high number of leukemia cases surfaced among high school graduates.

The school board hired an environmental firm to conduct soil tests, which showed nothing out of the ordinary.

But the site of the middle and high schools was found to be the former dumping site for the U.S. Army's Marion Engineering Depot and home to various toxic materials.

Later in 1998, the board hired a law firm. "At the time we hired them, they had a year of information to get caught up with," Haas says. "Had we hired them earlier, they may have been able to help us work with the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to make more appropriate tests at different locations."

The cancer cases were never linked to the site or schools themselves. But Haas says that getting expert information, either from an attorney or the state health department, is prudent and shows that the board is taking the situation seriously.

The attorneys finally crafted an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers that led the Army to put $15 million toward the cost of building a new school at a different site.

Minnesota Districts drops plans for a four-day school week

It can't be easy to have Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura on your case. Two superintendents-one in Elk River, the other in Osseo-took heat from the governor and parents for advocating a four-day school week to save on transportation and energy costs. Ventura was unimpressed with the logic that a shortened week was the answer. He offered his own solution: Cut teachers' pay by 20 percent.

For now, both school district superintendents have backed off their plans.

Osseo's superintendent, L. Chris Richardson, had to back down when the newly elected school board re-voted on the proposal in early January and ended up in a 3-3 tie. Despite the negative response from hundreds of irate parents, it was the board's action that finally ended the plan. But Richardson must still make up a $9 million shortfall in his $154 million district budget.

Although costs have risen, the money allocated to the district has increased only 1 percent to 1.5 percent during the current year.

The Osseo district, which has 22,100 students, has had an influx of those needing supplemental English language instruction. Currently, that total is 1,300; the number of students with these needs has doubled every two years.

Special education is another growing expense. "Costs are outstripping the funding coming from the state or the feds," says Richardson. Between staffing and programming, the Osseo district is spending $4 million to $5 million per year on special education alone, he adds.

At press time, it was not clear how Richardson will make up the $9 million deficit.

Elk River's superintendent, Alan Jensen, dropped his fourday proposal just days after the Osseo school board's re-vote. He pushed, instead, for a new deal to cut transportation costs in his district, which serves 9,000 students. Savings may total $2 million over two years, notes Ron Bratlie, director of business operations, who explains that school transportation will be handled by a private contractor.

Still, Jensen and his staff will be forced to squeeze its $67 million budget to cover new building and staffing expenses.

Elk River needs $5.5 million to re-open its expanded junior high and its new high school, says Bratlie. It also needs a new elementary school to handle growing enrollment. So far, taxpayers, have balked at paying more taxes; a levy on the November ballot was defeated.

Bitter Feelings Remain Between Jailed New Jersey Teachers and Parents

The striking teachers in Middletown, N.J., are back in their classrooms, but the community is not back to normal. There is still a painful rift between teachers and parents, says Jack DeTalvo, superintendent of the Middletown Township District that serves 10,500 students. The hurt feelings center on teacher salary and health insurance disputes that escalated into the largest mass-teacher arrest in three decades. About 228 teachers were arrested-some being led from their homes in handcuffs-because they refused to return to work after a judge issued an injunction to do so.

While negotiations continue with a court-appointed mediator, teachers and parents nurse bruised emotions. It is the timing of the strike that offended many parents. Teachers walked out of the classrooms just two months after the town lost 34 residents in the attack on the World Trade Center.

"How can you have sympathy for a teacher going to jail when you have children in this town crying because their father is never coming home?" Allyson Gilbert, a mother of two, told The New York Times.

For their part, teachers earned some support after images of them behind bars were shown in the local media.

Weeks after the teachers were released from jail, the community was still polarized. Two kindergarten teachers who had been jailed, refused to allow parents into their classrooms for soda and cookies parties during the holiday season, says DeTalvo.

Petty actions like these are new to this community, he adds. During the 1995 and 1998 teacher strikes, many parents sided with the teachers. In this recent case, the community seemed to support the school board. "[The parents] have had it with teachers walking off the job," says DeTalvo.

DeTalvo remained decisive but distant in the dispute. "From my standpoint, I think it was right to close the schools," he says. "We couldn't have opened with substitute teachers, and if we had tried, it would have been a disaster. In terms of the teachers going to jail, we distanced ourselves from that." It wasn't his call, he adds, it was the judge's order. He says he wanted teachers back in the classrooms, however.

By mid-December teachers agreed to go back to their classrooms without a new contract.

Research Organization Criticized for Selling Student Data

Each year, teachers and guidance counselors across the country collect more than two million surveys from students, who offer their names, addresses, grade-point averages, backgrounds and social views. The survey is sponsored by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, which promotes its efforts by promising students that their information will be passed along to interested colleges and universities. These schools generally pay slightly more than 20 cents per student name and then send direct mail and catalogs to students they want to recruit.

The research survey has been helpful in introducing students to schools they might not know about.

What administrators, students and teachers did not know, until now, is that the information is sold to American Student List LLC, a marketing company. A front-page story in The Wall Street Journal reported that American Student List has resold student names and results to major credit card companies American Express and Capital One Financial Corp., and to other consumer goods and media companies. Financial aid and test preparation services have also purchased this student data.

Of course, marketers can purchase student names and information from magazine subscription lists and Web sites. College Board, National Research Center's chief rival, is another well-known source of student information.

The Federal Trade Commission is reported to be looking into the National Research Center's practices, although it had not initiated a formal investigation at press time. NRC claims to have volunteered business information to the FTC to clear up any questions, according to a spokesperson for the company.

The University of Chicago is just one of 1,000 schools that have purchased data from the center.

"Certainly we were not aware they were selling student names to credit card companies or financialaid advisors," says Richard Bischoff, the associate director of admissions. Bischoff has ended his working relationship with the center.

In defense of his 30-year-old firm, based in Lee's Summit, Mo., Don Munce, president of National Research Center, notes that his firm has helped thousands of students free of charge. Munce has posted a two-page privacy statement on the National Research Center's Web site. The data, says the privacy statement, is used for the purposes of disseminating college and career information and other information helpful to students and their families. The statement discloses that some pages on its Web site use "cookies" for identification purposes. Munce was not available for an interview.

Should Students Grade One Anothers' Work? The Supreme Court Will Decide

Kristja Falvo, a mother of four, started the legal fight to change the practice of students correcting one anothers' papers. That was 1998, when her son, Philip, was in sixth grade in Owasso, Okla. She says he was called "dummy" and "stupid" because his reading disabilities were made public knowledge because peers were correcting his pop quizzes. She says she got nowhere when she complained to the school. She eventually won in court.

Falvo's legal battle went to the 10th Circuit Court where she and her lawyer won the argument by charging that paper swapping violates the Family Education and Privacy Right Act. That 1974 act states that education records are to be kept private.

Although her concerns are in the past, and her children now do well in school, her battle lives on at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Before the close of 2001, the justices heard the case regarding the legality of children correcting one anothers' work. The Rutherford Institute argued the case on Falvo's behalf. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler argued for the government.

Although a decision is not expected until late February or early March, the justices did not seem especially sympathetic to the privacy argument. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether the court should be dictating the way teachers run their classrooms. Other justices, including Stephen Breyer, noted that peer pressure often motivated students to do better.

The National Education Association filed a friend-of-thecourt brief favoring peer grading. "We support the school districts," says Michael Simpson, the assistant general counsel. "If the decision is allowed to stand, it could have significant impact on teachers' methods."

There are good reasons for peer rating, adds Simpson. Teachers and students receive immediate feedback. Enlisting student help in grading also frees up teachers' time for creating lessons plans. If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the circuit court's decision, teachers may be prohibited from assigning group work, or from accepting help from parent tutors, Simpson argues. See Gary Stager's related column on page 21

Memphis District Gives Cash Incentives to Nationally Certified Teachers

Teachers in Memphis, Tenn., stand to add $6,000 to $10,000 to their annual salaries thanks to a new incentive program. The increases will go to teachers who earn National Board Certification-the highest teaching certification available.

The salary bonus represents a significant jump for teachers-at least 16 percent-in a city where the average classroom teacher earns $42,500.

Memphis currently has only four National Board Certified teachers in the city's 169 schools.

At least 16 city teachers are working toward certification. The exact amount of the annual salary increase will depend upon the number of years of professional experience.

National Board Certification is a voluntary process created through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The certification is a step beyond the state-mandated certification requirements, which typically measure minimum competency.

The national group hopes that the link between national certification and salary increases will motivate the best teachers to stay in the classroom, where they will have the most impact. "We're trying to identify a cadre of teacher leaders ... that will stay in teaching and not be siphoned into administration," says Betty Castor, president of the teaching standards group.

The idea is for these teachers to mentor others while staying in the classroom themselves.

Castor aims to have 100,000 National Board Certified teachers in the U.S. by 2006. There are currently 16,035. Incentive plans, such as the new one in Memphis, will help the board reach its goal.

"Research has shown that a quality teacher is the most significant influence on how well a child learns," Castor observes.

Similar incentive programs are working in other states.

Mississippi, which offers a $6,000 annual stipend for National Board Certified teachers, added 405 new teachers to its certified list this year, bringing its total to 1,159.

Arkansas, which offers a $2,000 annual bonus, almost doubled its number of nationally certified teachers. The total is now 61, up from 34.

Online Teachers College Receives $10 Million Grant

The federal government is granting $10 million to Western Governors University and its online teachers college. The money will help the relatively new university-established in 1997-to expand academic programs.

The university targets teachers and teachers aides who are already in the schools, notes Robert Mendenhall, president. He estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the 2.7 million public school teachers are not certified.

In urban areas, this jumps to 40 percent. These newcomers usually are given several years to complete their master's degrees and certification coursework. If they can't do this, they leave teaching for other jobs. The schools then are forced to hire a new crop of uncertified teachers with even less class experience.

WGU is set up to stop this cycle, says Mendenhall.

Online programs developed by WGU are based on professional competencies, not credit units. "We define what we think a graduate should know," he says. "If the student can demonstrate that knowledge, we grant a degree." The cost varies, but Mendenhall estimates the average expense for a master's degree to be $8,000.

Until now, WGU's only master's degree was in learning and technology. Now in its second year, the program has attracted 150 students and has already granted five degrees for coursework estimated to take three years to complete.

The government grant will be used to develop additional master's and teacher certificate programs.

WGU is a private, not-for-profit institution that was formed by governors of 19 states.

WGU is supported by IBM, AT&T, AOL and 22 other corporate partners.

Scholastic Acquires Tom Snyder Productions

Scholastic Corp. paid $9 million in late 2001 for Tom Snyder Productions, a software company based in Watertown, Mass. Tom Snyder Productions was founded 22 years ago by its namesake, a former teacher. Its 144 products cover social studies, math, science, language arts and professional development. Titles include Fizz & Martina's Math Adventures and Geography Search. The acquisition gives Scholastic a proven product development team, something the New York city media company did not have, says Jeff Schon, Scholastic's vice president of technology. The 25 staffers who develop pilot programs for Tom Snyder will remain in the Massachusetts office.