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Beating the Bulge Begins

With obesity among children rising at what health officials warn are alarming rates across the nation, many schools are cracking down on the sugars and fats served in their cafeterias.

French fry lovers in Texas, for example, will have to settle for oven baked instead. In Lynnfield, Mass., middle school students who choose green beans, Jell-O, and milk to go with their low-fat chicken nuggets can tally up bonus points to win T-shirts, skateboards and backpacks instead of fat calories.

It's all part of an effort, say nutrition advocates, to turn schools into nutrition educators instead of junk food enablers.

Today there is twice the number of overweight children than in the 1980s and three times the number of overweight teenagers. Federal health officials say the number is rising so quickly that poor diet and physical inactivity will soon overtake tobacco as a leading cause of death in the country.

In Texas, where obesity rates are higher than national rates, a new law prohibits bake sales before school and bans candy and soda in the elementary schools. It also limits sales from vending machines in the upper grades until lunch periods are over so students don't fill up and spend money on nutritionally poor snacks instead of healthier lunches. Deep-fried foods are also out.

"Children get about 60 percent of their daily food intake on our premises. If you are looking at one important place to address the issue [of obesity], you have to look at schools,'' says Texas Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs. "As a policy maker, as a parent, how can we turn our backs on something that ought to scare us all to death?''

Health advocates say while schools in general are paying more attention to what is being served in the lunch line, there are numerous hurdles to healthier cafeterias. Already stretched from slashed budgets, schools are faced with lost revenue if they limit vending contracts that kick back money into their coffers. Also, healthier foods, such as fresh fruit, can be more expensive to purchase than pre-packaged processed foods. But some schools are turning to vending machines that offer water and sports drinks instead of soda as well as healthier snacks such as baked chips.

"I think there is a real trend toward getting junk food out of schools,'' says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "but the trend needs to pick up the pace because the obesity rate is increasing so rapidly. We need stronger state legislation or federal guidelines."

--Fran Silverman

Be All You Can Be ... Online

A new program is making it easier for troops to serve a second time--in the nation's classrooms. Troops-to-Teachers, a federal program which helps retiring military people become certified teachers, is seeing an increase in the number of troops taking advantage of e-learning programs offered by universities. E-learning allows military people to get a jump start toward their certification before they leave active duty.

Troops-to-Teachers started recommending e-learning programs on their Web site 18 months ago and about 250 people are enrolled in e-learning programs nationwide. That's a jump from just 50 students enrolled 12 months ago, according to John R. Gantz, director of the Pensacola, Fla.-based program. Many students are set to begin their internships in the classroom.

"We encourage people when they're two years away from retirement to start their preparation then," says Gantz. "But, very often if you have someone stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, they can't come back.... That's when distance learning comes in."

For Christopher Schulz, a 44-year-old retired commander from Texas who just landed his first job as an algebra teacher, e-learning was an invaluable tool. "Other alternative certification programs require fairly large blocks of time in a classroom environment so I would have to delay transition training until after I had actually retired," says Schulz.

Experts say students should look for programs offering a "blended learning" approach that combines computer work with "real world" teaching experience in the classroom.

"Some skills lend themselves very well to a self-paced, individualized computer program," says Andrew Sadler, an IBM executive who helped put together e-learning software for a coalition of four South Carolina universities offering e-learning teacher certification. "Some others require person-to-person contact." See related information below

--Margaret Tierney

Can a Teacher's Race Boost Results?

A recent study of black and white students in class shows that black students learn more from black teachers and white students learn more from white teachers.

According to a published report, Thomas Dee, assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College, discovered that after one year, black students scored about 3 percentage points higher on math in the Stanford Achievement Test if they had a black teacher. Reading scores jumped by about half this much. And similar gains were seen in white students if they had white teachers.

"We don't really know why the racial interactions in classrooms matter," Dee says. "If we did, it might suggest changes in teacher training and practices that make teacher effectiveness race-neutral."

Leadership Lessons For High School

Develop a professional learning community, where leadership focuses on what will support every student in high school.

Provide every student with meaningful adult relationships that can, in part, lead to personalized learning.

Build relationships between students and ideas through rigorous and challenging curricula, instruction and assessment.

These are three strategies spelled out in a recent report, Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform, conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The report offers "hands-on" approaches to improve student performance.

Wheels on the Bus Go Ca-Ching

A growing number of districts are following in Nascar's tracks and peddling buses as rolling billboards.

The Education Commission of the States confirms that school bus advertising is gaining national momentum. Effective programs rely on district and community oversight and correlate with benefits for students, such as earmarking funds to pay for a teacher, according to some marketing firms and school districts.

Beverly, Mass., schools raised $36,000 this year by selling ad space on the exterior of its fleet. Transportation Director Bill Burke says local real estate companies and restaurants eagerly signed on to help local schools. This year, Burke managed the enterprise, but found it more time-consuming than anticipated. The district signed an agreement with an outside company for its 2004-05 ad program and aims to double its take to $70,000. Burke says there has been no negative response to the program.

Other districts considering school bus advertising have encountered some resistance. In Montour, Penn., a watchdog group opposes an InSight Media proposal that would generate revenue for schools by placing interior ads on buses, effectively targeting children. Seventy-seven percent of those responding to a survey conducted by the Montour Taxpayers Organization indicated they opposed placing ads on school bus interiors. Michelle Bittner, president of Montour Taxpayers Organization, says the group believes children are already inundated with advertising. "This could also open the door to other types of ads possibly on school grounds," she says. In Pittsburgh, district officials are reluctant to market to students and question the logistics of managing a program with its 14 separate bus companies.

The InSight Media plan would pay schools up to 40 percent of ad revenue, or $50,000 to $1 million annually. InSight Media Founder Brian Ungar insists the company is pursuing "clean, wholesome" ad clients, like colleges and toothpaste or school supply companies, as well as "appropriate" retail ads. Districts could veto inappropriate ads. None of the 42 Pennsylvania districts solicited by Ungar has signed on but that may be because the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and State Police, who regulate school buses, must approve the scheme before the program can officially begin. DOT and State Police approval is expected in April. Ungar anticipates a wave of clients for the 2004-05 school year. "There are many interested districts," he says. "We've been getting calls from across the country and expect to grow rapidly."

--Lisa Fratt

Study: Certified Teachers Can Increase Test Scores

Using North Carolina student test scores over a three-year period, a research team recently discovered that National Board Certified Teachers are far more likely to improve student achievement under the state's standardized test.

Specifically, students of NBCTs improved about 7 percentage points more on year-end math and reading tests than students whose teachers tried but did not earn certification.

The study also concludes that NBCTs are more effective at raising achievement than teachers who do not pursue National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. And they tend to have a greater impact on younger students and low-income students.

The research team was led by economist Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington and the Urban Institute.

Fire and Peace in NYC Schools

Peace and firefighting are just two specialities New York City students will learn about this fall. Amnesty International School for Human Rights and the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety are two of 60 specialized schools set to open this fall, part of the city's plan to create 200 small (mostly high) schools by 2007.

The new schools will be located on campuses of existing schools, but will seek to foster personalized and rigorous academic environments with 525 or fewer students, a noted departure from New York's infamous 3,000-student, violence-laden and drop-out prone behemoths.

The creation, and some support, for the new schools will be funded by a $57.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A group of non-profit organizations who have partnered with the city will handle the new schools. These are not charter schools, though; the city will pay all regular educational expenses.

More than half of the 60 schools opening in 2004 will be created by New Visions for Public Schools, a non-profit that already operates more than 40 schools in the city. New Visions will require that 80 percent of students in its schools pass New York State Regents exams in five subjects and graduate in four years; currently, in many NYC public high schools fewer than 15 percent of students meet this standard.

New Visions schools have shown early indications of success, with attendance rates in the 91 percent to 95 percent range, versus less than 80 percent in large schools, says Lili Brown, vice president of external affairs. Course pass rates are about 82 percent versus 65 percent for large schools, Brown adds. A New York study found that students in smaller high schools had higher graduation rates, higher college matriculation rates and lower dropout rates than their peers in large high schools, results that have been replicated in other large cities.

The biggest obstacle thus far has been related to facilities. "When you try to create an individual learning experience based on personalization and community, and you put them in a building where they have to go through three security gates to get in, and the elevators haven't worked in 10 years ... that's a challenge," Brown says.

The ambitious plan is just one of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed elixirs for the moribund system. Bloomberg, through Chancellor Joel I. Klein, has also proposed phasing out middle schools in favor of a pre-K-8 and 9-12 model. He recently strong-armed the passage of a plan to "end social promotion" by retaining third graders who score at the lowest level of a standardized test given in that grade.

--Rebecca Sausner

Achievement Gap Closing In Massachusetts?

Black and Hispanic students in the Class of 2005 are passing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation test more quickly than their predecessors, but they still lag behind white and Asian peers.

Governor Mitt Romney acknowledges that minority and non-native English-speaking students have yet to reach the achievement level of whites and Asians. Hispanics need more targeted resources, according to Jose Duran of the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, a Boston group that helps Hispanic students prepare for college.

Hands-on Science Improves Understanding

Students comprehend scientific concepts better through hands-on activities, multimedia tools and a multidisciplinary approach to science learning that JASON science curriculum provides, according to a new study by the Education Development Center's Center for Children & Technology.

The findings are part of a multi-year evaluation considering the impact of student learning through JASON, which provides experience-based science and math curricula and professional learning for grades 4-9. JASON's videos, online exercises and live expedition broadcasts all help students understand science concepts behind activities. The CCT is continuing this year with the fourth stage of its multi-year JASON study.

Bogus Degrees Get Punished

Six teachers in Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools will have to repay the district for raises this year that were tied to bogus degrees from an online diploma mill in Liberia.

The six teachers who received raises cost the school system nearly $30,000, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The phony degrees from St. Regis University, among 11 degrees given in the state, do not require course work, according to the newspaper's investigations. Four teachers received doctorates and two received master's degrees just by paying for them. It was unclear if the teachers would be simply reprimanded or if they would be terminated.

L.A. Starts Full-day K

The Los Angeles Unified School District is phasing in full-day kindergarten over the next four years.

Members of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, complained in March the district was rushing to begin the program by July 1, but the union did favor the idea of full-day kindergarten.

UTLA leaders had threatened to file an unfair-labor practice complaint because the switch to full days would violate the collective bargaining agreement. Superintendent Roy Romer told the board that kindergarten teachers already work a full day, although with two shifts of children, and he did not believe the change would violate the agreement.

More Green Doesn't Mean Better Success

Increased school funds for K-12 schools nationwide doesn't show improved test scores, according to a recent report ranking states on academic achievement.

Wisconsin, Washington and Iowa were among the highest in academic achievement, yet Iowa and Wisconsin were near the bottom regarding percentage of funds received from the federal government and Washington and Iowa were in the lower half of states regarding per-pupil expenditures, according to the Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis, 1980-2002, released by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Money $ Testing - Nationwide, per-pupil expenditures has grown in the past 20 years from $4,810 to $7,079 in 2000-01. But SAT scores for all test-takers have declined since 1972 and test scores for eighth-graders flat-lined while 12th-graders test scores declined.

Do-It-Yourself Fiber Networks: A Good Deal or Not?

High-capacity fiber networks are the way to go in telecommunications these days and some school systems are joining other state and local government agencies in building their own. But private-sector interests question whether it's a smart move.

School administrators in Douglas County, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, say they explored all options when they upgraded bandwidth between central offices and the district's 31 schools. They needed greater capacity to improve Internet access and allow for online testing and other voice, video and data capabilities, says Cory Martin, the district's director of information technology.

Commercial providers would have done the job, but cost estimates were higher and benefits lower than the school system anticipated. "So we asked ourselves," says Martin, "what would it cost us to put our own fiber on the poles?"

The Douglas County district created an agreement with the local electric company to use its poles at no cost. For a one-time outlay of $2.2 million, the school system built its own network. The only recurring expense now is less than $100,000 a year for maintenance. Overall, he figures the district saves $500,000 annually on communications and also has excess capacity that it possibly could use to generate revenue for the district in the future. "It just made good business sense for us to do it ourselves," he concludes.

Although no national data is available, other school systems are bypassing local providers and finding their own ways to gain the capacity they need and save money. In Murray, Utah, the school system pays $18,500 annually to link into the city's fiber network for its 11 schools, district office and maintenance shop. "It's much cheaper this way," says Assistant Superintendent Steve Hirase. "Our service has been good and we have high-speed connections."

Murray is part of the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, a consortium of 18 Utah cities that is launching its own publicly funded fiber optic network this year. "Our planned deployment will run a fiber past every address in our member cities, so that includes the schools," says Roger Black, UTOPIA's chief operating officer. Participating cities will issue bonds to finance the network over which private operators will offer voice, video and data services. AT&T has signed on as the first provider.

But at least one expert says it could be "a dicey proposition" for governments to get into the telecom business and compete with experienced private providers. "They don't know how to run these businesses and they don't have the same incentives as private companies not to lose money," asserts Thomas Lenard, vice president for research at the Washington, DC-based Progress and Freedom Foundation, a market-oriented think tank that studies telecommunications issues. "These things generally wind up losing money, so taxpayers have to subsidize them, and that's not good."

--Alan Dessoff

Climbing the Walls at School

As more physical education classes are getting squeezed out due to overloaded schedules and tightened school budgets, many Texas schools are offering a new kind of program: climbing the walls. Some say many students are not keen on traditional sports, so climbing walls, which involve upper-body strength, coordination and balance, can appeal to others.

"All kids can be successful at this," says Kathy Goodlett, health and physical education coordinator for the Mesquite (Tex.) Independent School District. "If you had a choice, would you rather get down and give me 20 [push-ups] or climb the wall?"

Wild West Wins In School

Rural states in the West and Midwest tend to have the highest percentage of residents with high school diplomas, according to a 2002 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Wyoming leads the nation with 90.2 percent of residents 25 and older having graduated from high school, followed by Utah's 90.1 percent. Minnesota, Alaska and Nebraska followed each with at least 89 percent rates.

"This seems to be more related with minority composition and levels of immigration in these states than an urban-rural phenomenon," says Mark Mather of the research group, Population Reference Bureau.

The End of Middle School?

In Stamford, Conn., Superintendent of Schools Anthony Mazzullo wants to reconfigure his district's K-5 and 6-8 schools into K-8 models. Not only do middle grade students feel alienated from students and teachers in their separate school, their achievement levels drop off dramatically when they reach middle school, he says.

In a K-8 setting, Mazzullo says middle grade students can have a team of teachers with smaller groups and more connections. And an eighth-grader can have a schedule that mirrors the one in high school to prepare for high school while staying in a small setting. He adds that parents fear middle schools as "institutions."

"Children still need a lot of nurturing that elementary school provides," Mazzullo says. "What kids are exposed to in TV and media games is suggesting that they are older than they feel. They feel a sense of alienation and their grades drop and their attitudes are not that positive."

Mazzullo's idea is supported by the RAND Corporation's recent study on middle schools.

The study claims that evidence shows that 6-8 schools, which mainly started in the 1980s, and the transition for children can cause problems that negatively affect students' developmental and academic progress. The study calls for fewer stand-alone schools to help reduce student stress.

But according to the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, it doesn't matter if adolescent children are taught in a K-8 school building or a 6-12 school or even a 6-8 school. What matters is whether or not students are given a middle grade education. "The issue is not grade configuration but about practices that go on in the school building," says Deborah Kasak, the forum's executive director.

The problem with middle school education nationwide is that such practices have not been uniformly implemented to the degree to which they should, she adds.

With tight school budgets in recent years, schools are more inclined to cut team teaching, where two to four teachers have the same students and work together on lesson plans. This works well with middle grade students who need more familiarity, Kasak says.

The No Child Left Behind act is also altering the way teachers think about school and success, thus, stressing test scores, she says.

Middle school students need academic excellence balanced with developmental responsive practices so students want to do well for teachers. Having students connect to adults for help is also key, Kasak says.

--Angela Pascopella

Educators See Schools as Hubs of Communities

Betting that healthy bodies and a taste of the world outside school can boost student performance, more schools are coupling education with health and other social services under one roof, and bringing in lecturers from the private sector and cultural institutions to help shape curricula.

Districts adopting the concept are making such community schools the hub of their neighborhoods. There are about 5,000 community schools in the U.S.

Consider Cincinnati Public Schools, which is embracing community schooling in a big way. By 2012, the district will have built or renovated 66 school buildings to accommodate health clinics or other untraditional service providers. The district approved a bond issue to pay for about half of the $985 million cost, while the remainder comes from public funds.

"The idea is to make the school a true center of the community," says Christine Wolff, a Cincinnati Public Schools spokeswoman. "The students are getting enriched programming. It improves academic performance and gives them additional learning opportunities with cultural and arts programming that they might not normally get."

Bela Shah, program associate at the Coalition for Community Schools in Washington, D.C., says community schools risk unraveling if their activities are not coordinated. She advises employing one person to coordinate between schools and participating community institutions.

"We're all trying to serve the same kids here," Shah says. "You have the YMCA or a Boys and Girls Club or a city health agency or local hospital often working in silos, not working together. But they're all working in the same community trying to reach the same kids."

Community school advocates might be onto something. In a study released last year, WestEd, a non-profit educational research group, found a strong connection between students' academic achievement and their overall health and well-being. Factors that contributed to academic performance include exercise and nutrition, the organization found. And being that these centers often have health clinics right on campus, it brings proper health care to students, improving overall well-being.

--Allan Richter

Aiming for Broad Success

Five districts in the U.S. are making enough strides that they've been chosen by the Broad Education Foundation as finalists for the 2004 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

The districts include Aldine Independent School District in Houston; Boston Public Schools; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, N.C.; Garden Grove Unified School District in Garden Grove, Calif.; and Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia.

The winner will be announced next fall and will get $500,000 for college scholarships. Each of the four finalists will receive $125,000 for such scholarships. And the districts' instruction and management practices are showcased throughout the year so other districts can mimic their practices. The prize is given to urban districts that make the greatest improvement in student achievement as well as reduce achievement gaps between whites and minorities and poor children.

Voucher Vices

Two voucher schools in Milwaukee that were allegedly involved in shady business deals have opened new wounds regarding voucher schools. School officials at the Mandella Academy for Science and Math allegedly signed up more than 200 students who never showed up and then cashed $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks, which the principal used to buy cars for himself and the assistant principal, according to published reports.

Then Alex's Academics of Excellence received $2.8 million in voucher money over three years while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the school founder was convicted for rape in the 1970s. The state recently suspended funding for Alex's school for financial woes and a judge shut down the Mandella school.

The Mandella academy could not be reached for comment in April. A woman who answered the phone at Alex's school says, "We don't comment to the media because they turn things around."

While Gov. Jim Doyle recently signed legislation that provides oversight of voucher schools, at least one group says it doesn't go far enough. Wisconsin Education Association Council President Stan Johnson says voucher schools take public money, yet they are not held to the same standards.

The law does give the state superintendent authority to terminate a school in the voucher program if there is an imminent threat to students; can bar participation if a school fails to meet academic standards; and can stop paying voucher checks for other violations.

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