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Strong Management Helps Avoid Construction Woes

As New Jersey has learned, lax oversight of school construction programs can cause costly problems. But it doesn't have to be that way. Strong management by state agencies and local school districts can keep programs out of trouble, according to school and construction authorities.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine is reviewing a recommendation by an interagency working group that he abolish the state's School Construction Corporation and replace it with a new agency that will make major changes in the way construction projects are planned and carried out.

Corzine established the advisory panel after the state inspector general and auditor reported problems under the SCC, including creation of false documents that led to inflated billings, conflicts of interest, and other instances of "waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars."

The advisory group is expected to give Corzine a follow-up report with steps to implement its findings and recommendations for future funding and legislative changes.

"Putting together the right people is critical" to effectively manage construction programs, advises Bruce D'Agostino, executive director of the Construction Management Association of America.

He cites Ohio's School Facilities Commission, comprised of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Director of Budget and Management and Director of Administrative Services as the only voting members, with four non-voting legislative members and a professional staff.

"Projects get into trouble because people fail to recognize the early signs of problems and then they snowball to the point of no return," declares Roy Sprague, president-elect of the Council of Educational Facility Planners and senior director of facilities planning and construction in the Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) Independent School District.

"We assign a manager at the beginning of a project and if we start seeing signs of trouble, we step up to the plate right away to solve the problem," Sprague says.

It's important, D'Agostino adds, to keep political connections out of the selection and management of construction vendors. "You have people in the community with relatives in the construction industry and they want a say. You need authorities who can say 'No,' " D'Agostino states.

School construction executives will discuss best practices in the field at a School Building Summit CMAA is sponsoring June 15-16 in Los Angeles.

-Alan Dessoff

New Report Aims to Bring High Schools Into 21st Century

The necessity of teaching students 21st century skills-and suggestions to achieve that goal-is the focus of a new report from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Results That Matter: 21st Century Skills and High School Reform outlines six elements the partnership claims are essential to returning America to a competitive footing in the international education scene.

"Standardized tests alone can measure only a few of the important skills and knowledge students should learn," the report states.

The partnership's vision is to spark a dialogue, said partnership chair John Wilson during a recent teleconference announcing the report. Scott Montgomery, COO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, added that advocates of high school redesign should work together.

On the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment math exam, 15-year-old American students ranked 24th out of 29 countries. And a 2005 survey for the National Association of Manufacturers showed that 84 percent of American employers say students are ill prepared for the workplace.

"Improving the value of a high school education improves the work force," said partnership President Ken Kay, who was also on the call. Wilson said incorporating the key elements into curricula would increase rigor without creating a need for extra classes. The plan also emphasizes that schools work with business to determine what skills students need. Employees are encouraged to be mentors and businesses should share technological resources.

Suggestions for districts include providing professional development to assist teachers in incorporating 21st century skills into their lessons; providing internship opportunities; and reaching out to businesses and colleges.

-Ann McClure

High School Dropouts Are Costly

When 1.2 million students dropped out of high school in 2004, it cost the U.S. more than $325 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

While states report higher graduation rates, research shows that nationally, only about two-thirds of students who enter ninth grade will graduate with a typical diploma four or five years later. The analysis is based on a recent report by Princeton University researcher Cecilia Rouse, noting that dropouts are less likely to get a job and earn as much as a high school graduate, meaning dropouts will pay significantly less taxes over their lifetime.

Florida Students Declare a Major

Some time this month, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign into law his A++ Plan for Education aimed at the state's middle and high schools.

While his A+ bill established the groundwork for public school reform and accountability in 1999, this new plan introduces measures that encourage students to continue the academic gains achieved in elementary school. One component requires high school students to declare a major, starting with the freshman class of 2007. To graduate, students must complete 14 credits in core courses, such as English or math, another six credits in electives and four more credits in their major.

It offers multiple advantages, explains Cheri Pierson Yecke, Florida's K-12 public school chancellor. "We want to ensure that we hook the kids in an area of their passion so that they will want to stay in school," she says. "It's looked at as a way to make school relevant for kids, increase the high school graduation rate and conversely, decrease the drop out rate."

To evaluate the plan's impact, Pierson Yecke says the progress of the first freshman class will be tracked and measured. She hopes it will encourage other states to follow.

Not everyone is convinced. Some Florida schools may be unable to offer the depth of curriculum students need or budget sufficient resources toward professional development to help teachers create new courses, says Liz Pape, president and CEO at Virtual High School in Maynard, Mass.

-Carol Patton

Study: Charter Schools Deliver

Charter schools are serving more "at-risk" children and doing so with less money than typical public schools and at the same time increasing achievement among students, according to a report by the Center on Education Reform.

The Annual Survey of Charter Schools shows that charter schools are serving more minorities and those receiving free and reduced price lunches. The growth can be attributed to multiple curriculum choices, smaller class sizes and more instructional time, the report claims.

Linking Pay to Tests

Florida is joining other districts' plans to tie teacher raises and bonuses directly to students' standardized test scores beginning next year.

It marks the first time a state has so closely linked wages to student exam results. The program comes with mixed reviews as teacher unions and some education experts say schools are not factories and output is not so easily measured, according to The Washington Post.

After-School Activity Boosts Learning

After-school programs can contribute to improved student achievement but they don't have to focus on academics to be successful.

Successful programs offer a variety of arts and recreation activities along with reading and writing, concludes research conducted by Policy Studies Associates for The After-School Corporation and the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

The study looked at 10 high-performing TASC-supported after-school programs in New York City and found they shared these characteristics:

A broad mix of enrichment activities like dance, music, art and organized sports that could spark students' interests and expand their goals for careers and hobbies;

Opportunities for students to build and master literacy and arts skills through reading, story-telling, writing, and performances;

Building internal relationships among host schools, staff, students and their families;

Site coordinators with youth development experience and a strong connection to the community, children and families they served;

Full administrative, fiscal and professional development support from the program's sponsoring organization.

Successful after-school programs do not replicate the school day but instead are "safety zones" where students can explore new interests while also receiving homework help, says Catherine Jordan, director of SEDL's National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning.

In one activity that researchers cited, a trained social worker guided a group of seventh and eighth graders in a discussion about drug prevention. Through her questioning, the staff member helped students feel comfortable openly relating their own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

Although the study took place in New York, any school can apply its findings, says Kathleen Carlson, a TASC spokeswoman. "We think that getting this type of research into the field is the best way to improve the quality of after-school programs nationwide," she says.

-Alan Dessoff

Texas Matches Adults With Children of Convicts

Amachi Texas is the name. It's a statewide program that Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently launched using a nearly $4 million grant to match trained adult mentors with children whose parents are in state prisons. It will reach 1,300 children.

"The mission of Amachi Texas is simple: to set thousands of Texas children free from the intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration through the compassion of mentoring," Perry was quoted as saying in a press release.

"Amachi" is a Nigerian Ibo word which means "Who knows but what God has brought us through this child."

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