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Florida Voters Call For Universal Pre-K, Smaller Classes

The votes are in. In the first ballot initiative for voluntary universal pre-K in the U.S., Florida voters gave 59 percent approval for constitutional Amendment 8, requiring districts to offer the option of free pre-K for all four-year-olds. Also approved, with 52 percent of the vote, was Amendment 9, which calls for a gradual reduction in class size. The impact of both amendments—symbolically and financially—is huge.

“The significance is, the people spoke,” says Faith Wohl, president of New Yorkbased Child Care Action Campaign. “It’s got to say to voters in other states that this is a possible way to make things happen.” Currently only New York and Georgia districts are required to offer universal pre-K, and in both places the mandate came from the legislature. Florida districts have just three years to implement pre-K (New York allowed five), at estimated total costs of $425 million to $650 million annually.

But Florida is wasting no time. Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade convened a statewide conference with 547 attendees on the Friday following Election Day. Spokesman David Perez explains that the mayor pulled the conference together on a hunch the vote would pass. Teachers, administrators, union and PTA leaders, child care providers and citizens met and participated in seven breakout sessions on issues such as program administration and staff development. By the end of the day, each group had three recommendations.

Florida Secretary of Education Jim Horne says, “We will draw upon our understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t in other states as we call upon educators here ? to lend their vision and experience.” Statewide associations will provide forums to promote idea sharing among districts, he adds.

Wohl advises districts to partner with the experienced child care community—providers who are likely “worried about being out of the picture,” due in part on their need for some pre-school children for business. Another source of help: the recently released “Guidelines for Pre-Kindergarten Learning and Teaching.” These first guidelines ( in this area were developed to aid in formulating pre-K policies, standards and curricula.

The smaller class size amendment will require districts to reach 18 students per class in K-3, 22 in grades 4 to 8, and 25 in high school within eight years. Cost estimates have ranged from $8.5 billion to $27.5 billion for 30,000 additional classrooms and 32,000 new teachers. Horne says Gov. Jeb Bush and legislators recognize that a number of financial options will have to be considered. Also, the cost and speed of implementation for the amendment, he says, “will limit our efforts to recruit and pay quality teachers.” —Melissa Ezarik

Textbooks In line with Virginia

Harcourt School Publishers and Scott Foresman agreed to issue supplements to bring K-3 history textbooks in line with Virginia’s Standards of Learning for history and social science, according to a story from the Times Dispatch.

Major textbook publishers have traditionally only catered to Texas and California, the largest states that adopt textbooks. But that could be changing as other states, including Virginia, adopt standards and seek texts that are aligned with those requirements.

Administrators Given Own Special Interest

The International Society for Technology in Education has created the Special Interest Group for Administrators to support principals and other education leaders to promote using instructional technologies to increase student learning.

ISTE officials say that while teachers are powerful, administrators control funds in a school budget, and therefore, technology purchases.

ISTE group members will communicate via e-mail and the SIGAdmin Web site, and meet in June at ISTE’s 2003 National Educational Computing Conference in Seattle.

Bilingual Stays in Colorado, Out in Massachusetts

Massachusetts voters rejected bilingual education. Colorado voters want to keep it.

On Election Day, Massachusetts voters chose to have their students enter all English classes starting in the fall. Colorado voters instead want to stick with bilingual classes. But a week after the vote, Colorado started a plan to recruit and train teachers to better help immigrant children master English. The state is using a $9 million federal grant, the first-of-its-kind awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul how English-acquisition programs in elementary and secondary schools are taught.

Massachusetts Department of Education officials have yet to nail down specific steps needed to transform the program, the first step being from bilingual education to transitional bilingual education. A public comment period will follow before final approval on the plan.

“The language is clear about what is not permitted,” says Kathryn Riley, Title 3 director of the Massachusetts Department of Education. “There is a lot of regulation-making that will take place.”

Riley says all students in bilingual education now would be put in a structured immersion classroom with all books, materials and instruction in English for the first 30 days. The students’ first language, or Spanish in most instances, could be used only to clarify instructions. Riley says this will cost the state more money, in part because “you have to train people” to deliver the instruction effectively.

If after that time a parent wants their child, who is 10 or older, out of such classrooms, there is a waiver process that could offer that choice. But districts don’t have to set up another program for that student.

After a year in such classrooms, Riley says, students are then to be main-streamed into regular classrooms.

But the older the student, the more difficult it will be for the non-English-speaking student to grasp the curriculum, Riley says. Riley wonders about a non-Englishspeaking ninth-grader who faces highstakes state assessment tests. “Is there a prayer for him to graduate high school?” she asks.

Massachusetts Gov.-elect Mitt Romney wants to modify a part of the vote question that notes that parents have a right to sue administrators and school committees if a child does not succeed in school. “He thinks it’s too harsh,” Riley says.

And two state legislators, including state Sen. Robert Antonioni, co-chairman of the education committee, are proposing a bill that will in part make it “more practical” for parents who don’t want their children, 10 or older, in English immersion classes.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the state’s universities and colleges are being enlisted to train new and veteran teachers in new strategies to prepare non-Englishspeaking students to succeed in schools, officials have said. —Angela Pascopella

Washington Parents Pay for Teachers

Parents in the Eastside district of Mercer Island, Wash., are paying for two part-time certified teachers as districts struggle with budget cuts.

In Issaquah, parents at two elementary schools recently raised money for teachers in the second year of a new parent-giving policy, according to The Seattle Times.

Some school districts, including those in Seattle, find that parents are willing to donate a lot of money if they believe it will improve their child’s education. “Washington state education funding is just abysmal and nobody will do it for us, so we have to do it ourselves,” said Mercer Island parent Ronna Weltman.

Facts on ’Net Help Steer Kids to Say “No”

It’s called Teen Getgoing and it’s a new treatment program to curb teen drinking and drug use.

A California health care company, CRC Health Corp., created and launched the new Web-based treatment program with the support of former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

The teen program is similar to the adult program, called eGetgoing, but with an educational step. Six sessions give information on alcohol and drug abuse, and quizzes give professionals insight to deal with problems.

Chicago Teachers Won’t Give Exam

About 12 Chicago teachers have refused to give an achievement exam this month. They say the exam is flawed and not valid.

In November, the group of teachers at Curie High School refused to give the Chicago Academic Standards Exam, developed by Chicago teachers and administrators. English teacher Martin McGreal said the English and history exams rely too much on memory, waste instructional time, and are not closely tied to the district’s learning standards. The teachers could face discipline if they refuse to give the test.

Urban Woes: Are School Boards The Problem?

It’s a question that is nearly as old as the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. What makes urban school systems fail—superintendents or the school boards that oversee them?

While this debate has been going on for decades, the latest salvo takes aim at school boards. Thomas Glass, a Universityof Memphis education professor, is readying a new report that calls for the end of school board elections in big cities.

Glass says these school boards are too political, not accountable to the public and often work at odds with their superintendents. The report, Is it Time for Elected School Boards to Disappear? calls for the members of the boards to be chosen by mayors, governors or blue-ribbon commissions.

He blames board mismanagement as the main reason superintendent turnover in such districts is so high.

Like Don Hooper, superintendent of the Fort Bend (Texas) ISD, Glass calls for school boards to have independent evaluations. Hooper, also the president of the American Association of School Administrators, said last year that an independent auditor could review minutes, keep track of board members’ activities and publish a report on their findings.

Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, refutes Glass’ findings, saying that the revolving door in most urban district superintendent positions is a myth, and that recent surveys say that boards and superintendents basically are supportive of each other. —Wayne D’Orio

Texans Talk of Ban for Sex Book

An award-winning sex education book that was published eight years ago and has more than 650,000 copies in 17 languages worldwide stirred up a potential ban in a Texas community.

Since 1995, four copies of It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, (Candlewick Press) have been in Montgomery County’s libraries. A group of parents complained to the county’s Commissioners Court that it condoned homosexuality and called for its removal, according to Library Director Jerilynn Williams.

The book, which is written for children age 10 and up, has been challenged, removed and/or banned in several public and school libraries nationwide. Some parents have complained it is an example of “child pornography.”

Williams, who was appointed in 1997, says when the librarians considered buying the book in 1995, they read various reviews to determine if it was appropriate. The books were placed in the adult section. Usually, if people are uncomfortable with a book or its location in the library, people fill out a written request for reconsideration and a five-librarian committee reviews it.

“I have defended to the death people’s right to their opinions,” Williams says. “But don’t try to take it [my right] away.”

Judge Alan Sadler, who chairs the Commissioners Court, does not want to “censor children’s books,” says Jim Strong, Sadler’s special projects coordinator. Strong said that Sadler wants an official review process. Five community members were to be appointed in October to join the five-librarian committee to reconsider the fate of the book in the libraries. —Angela Pascopella

North Chicago Leader Goes West

North Chicago Supt. Patricia Pickles left her post in November to take over academics in Portland, Ore.

After bringing academics to a higher level in one of Illinois’ poorest districts, Pickles is now chief academic officer in Portland Public Schools, which has 55,000 students. In North Chicago, Pickles implemented a uniform dress code, oversaw major renovations, reorganized the district’s schools, and transferred some teachers.

Computer Visionary Dies

Antonia Stone, a 20-year veteran teacher of prep-school mathematics and advocate for the poor and imprisoned, died in late November in Watertown, Mass. The New Canaan, Conn., native was 72.

About 20 years ago, Stone criticized the technology gap between the rich and poor. She addressed it by providing computers to the poor and imprisoned. She first established a program to teach former prisoners how to use computers and to bring computer-education courses into New York prisons.

In 1983, she created Playing to Win, a computer center in an East Harlem housing project. More than 1,000 centers now empower people with technology skills.

Lower Math Scores: Who’s to Blame?

Another report criticizing the skills of high school students has been released, this one saying that 17-year-olds’ computation skills have markedly declined in the last decade.

But this report, from the Brown Center on Education Policy, suggests that the federal government may be part of the problem.

The report shows that the percentage of 17-year-olds correctly answering questions about fractions on the NAEP test decreased from 61 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 1999. The total math scores for nine-year-olds and 13-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test have remained flat since 1990.

So how does the federal government take part of the blame? The report claims federal officials de-emphasized the importance of arithmetic in the early ’90s when it decided not to include arithmetic as a separate reporting category in the NAEP results.

Computation skills refer to the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers, fractions, decimals and percentages.

The report’s author, Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center, says the news may get worse. Loveless points to scores from students taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. These students’ computational skills dived for several years after 1992 and are now at the lowest levels seen in more than two decades.

“When it comes to computation skills, Iowa may be the canary in the coal mine. These data warn the nation that there are consequences to de-emphasizing computational skills in the elementary grades,” says Loveless.

The Third International Math and Science Study has also shown that while elementary and middle school students are keeping up with foreign students, American high schoolers are falling far behind other nations in math and science. —Wayne D’Orio

Changes in Publishing World

The Houghton Mifflin Co. was recently sold to help reduce debt incurred by the previous parent company, Vivendi Universal. Around the same time, Thayer Capital Partners acquired Sunburst Technology, a Houghton Mifflin division and supplier of educational materials.

Vivendi Universal agreed to sell the Bostonbased publisher to a group of investors led by Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital. Vivendi, which bought Houghton Mifflin in 2001 for $2.2 billion, sold the company for $1.7 billion in cash and assumed debt to help cut a $19 billion debt—allegedly created by CEO Jean-Marie Messier’s role in a mediabuying spree, according to a story in the Boston Globe. Meanwhile, the Sunburst sale is part of Houghton Mifflin’s plan to focus on core businesses, according to a statement Hans Gieskes, CEO of Houghton Mifflin, made in a Thayer Capital press release.

After-School Enrichment Passes

California kids won’t just be heading to the streets or beach after school.The After School Education and Safety Program Act of 2002, designed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was voted in by California residents last fall, meaning programs will be available to all public school children.The measure increases spending on supplemental school activities from $117 billion to up to $550 billion. It will not kick in until at least 2004, but it aims to stem juvenile crime by keeping the state’s estimated one million latch-key-kids busy during 3 and 6 p.m.

LA Parents Talk of the “U” word

A few parents in Los Angeles USD are considering a union.

Bill Ring, a father of two, recently launched an online message board for LAUSD parents. Ring wants to organize leadership around the district to focus on a “common platform so we can create an association or even a parents’ union that would not be a vehicle or creature of the district,” Ring was quoted as saying.

Sheri Osborne, president of the Advocates for Valley African-American Students, agrees a parent union is needed. “Parents and kids across (ethnic and social) lines need to be united under one union,” she stated.

Does NCLB Go Too Far?

Classrooms will get over-crowded. More teachers will be needed. And more portable classrooms will make their way on to school campuses.

These are some of the likely consequences of the No Child Left Behind law—when parents use their right to transfer their children out of failing schools into higher-performing ones.

“It makes no sense,” says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “It may be helping some kids, but it will threaten the education of other kids. ? It’s going too far.”

“It’s not the only way to go about it,” adds Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman for the National Education Association. “There needs to be a more comprehensive look at this as opposed to the silver bullet. ? Giving parents the option to transfer to a ‘higher achieving school’ looks good on paper, but the reality of the situation is that it undermines the responsibility of school districts to make every school a high achieving school.”

The law requires students in grades 3-8 to be tested annually in reading and math beginning in fall 2005. States must show certain improvement every two years and have all schools proficient by 2014. Now, about 8,600 schools are labeled “in need of improvement,” or those that have test scores that have not increased over two consecutive years, Jennings says. Schools that fail to make progress could face sanctions, such as paying transportation costs for low-income students to attend better-performing schools within a district.

Under the new federal regulations, school districts cannot use overcrowded classrooms as an excuse to bar students transferring from failing schools. Jennings adds that districts also can’t cite health or safety concerns, or lack of school capacity to keep transferring students out. If districts have policies to reduce class size, they have to make adjustments to meet the new law, Jennings says. —Angela Pascopella