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Education news from schools, businesses, research and government agencies

Head Start in Question

By one vote, the House passed in July the Head Start reauthorization bill that would reshape the program to be more in line with what the White House wants, and with what many politicians and educators fear.

The issue now goes to the Senate.

Congressional renewal of the Head Start program is required this year if the program, serving disadvantaged preschool children and their families, is to continue. The bill, which the Bush administration favors, would allow eight states, to be selected later, to devote federal funds to their own early-education programs.

House Democrats, united against the bill, claim the Bush plan would "unravel" Head Start, according to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

Meanwhile, the White House backed off from a letter it sent to 51,681 Head Start leaders and more than 870,000 parent volunteers threatening them with legal action if they spoke against the Bush plan. The National Head Start Association, representing children in the program and their families, subsequently sued to stop what it termed a "campaign of intimidation."

Wendy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau in Department of Health and Human Services, sent another letter stating "we are all at liberty to contact our representatives about our political thoughts and concerns." NHSA dropped its lawsuit and called on its supporters to urge Congress to defeat the pending legislation.

--Alan Dessoff

Teenagers Grade Schools

A national survey to find out how teenagers would grade their education showed that most of them would give B's and C's.

Earlier this year, the Gallup organization asked teens to grade their schools, technology at school, extracurricular activities, and the first teacher they had that morning.

Only 16 percent of teens gave their school A's, with 37 percent grading their schools with B's and 33 percent grading their schools with C's.

And 34 percent gave the first teacher an A, while 35 percent gave the teacher a B and 19 percent gave a C.

Differences in grades appeared to depend on what the teens thought of themselves, such as how healthy or academically successful they were. For example, 41 percent of teens who considered themselves "above-average" gave A's to their teachers versus 28 percent of "average" or "below-average" teens giving A's.

Financial Band-Aids for Education

It was Karen Roorda's second marriage, and she and her husband-to-be wanted something special for the June wedding. It wasn't china or new bath towels.

Roorda, who works at the University of California in San Francisco, and her now-husband, Chris Chidsey, a professor at Stanford University, asked their guests to donate money to at least one of three causes. One was to Herbert Hoover Middle School in San Francisco, where her son is a sixth-grader. The school needed funds to avoid several teacher layoffs.

"It was the second marriage for both of us, and we had no need for anything in the first place," says Roorda, 46. "One of the things that we're interested in and we like to promote is building a sense of community. ... We value education. We put our emphasis on how our kids are being taught in life."

Even though she is still uncertain of how much was raised, she guesses about a third to half of her 100 guests donated funds.

About 50 parents in Eugene, Ore., donated blood plasma to raise $30,000 to pay for a teacher's salary.

The gesture, although unusual, is getting to be almost the norm across the nation as communities struggle with the worst budget shortfalls since World War II, according to the National Education Association.

Districts are cutting programs for the sheer lack of funds, such as Boston's decision to close five schools and lay off 800 teachers and 1,000 school employees and Denver's reduction of full-day kindergarten classrooms from 56 to 14.

Teachers, faculty, parents and even children are finding unique--and unconventional--ways to raise funds beyond bake sales and telethons.

About 50 parents in Eugene, Ore., donated blood plasma to raise $30,000 to pay for a school teacher's salary and some students in Sonoma County, Calif., gave up allowances and donated $100 in pennies, nickels and dimes to help reduce debt. "A lot of these sort of horror stories are desperate attempts, but they are understandable in a lot of cases to come up with solutions given a very difficult situation," says Daniel Kaufman, NEA spokesman. "The blood plasma donations and the wedding invitations ... these are Band-Aid solutions at best. ... I think it's obviously great to see kids and parents and community members working together and recognizing the importance of teachers and classes, but it's not a long-term solution for the funding shortfalls. What needs to be done is for states and localities to look at longer-term solutions so districts are not subject to the ups and downs of the economy."

Roorda agrees. There is a "huge amount of disparity" between her middle-class school and other schools where parents cannot afford to raise extra money for education, she says.

In Dixon, Ky., the school board passed a four-day school week, a first for the state's public schools. And the Kentucky Dept. of Education is looking into it. Kentucky requires students undergo 1,050 hours per school year. "They claim they could save money by not having school" one of five days, says Lisa Gross, Kentucky's education department spokesperson. "We'll be looking at this with interest to see if there are some true savings."

--Angela Pascopella

Full-day K Gets Hot

Parents and education policymakers appear to see more benefits from full-day kindergarten than they did 20 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Student enrollment in full-day kindergarten increased from 25 percent of age-eligible children in 1979 to 60 percent in 2000. And over the past three years, more than 20 states introduced legislation related to increasing access to and finance of full-day kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States. Parents like it in part because it meets the needs of working hours, and policymakers like it because full-day programs better prepare children for school.

Fast Times at Florida High

Will a new law allowing Florida students to graduate from high school in three years create missed opportunities or provide new ones? It depends on who you ask.

Under the provision, which will help comply with a new law to shrink public school class sizes, students will have three graduation options starting this fall: a four-year, 24-credit standard program, a new three-year, 18-credit standard college preparatory program, or a new three-year, 18-credit career preparatory program.

But to graduate in three years, students will have to skip life management and arts classes, physical education and most electives. And that is causing mixed feelings among educators like Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"Providing flexibility for kids is a positive thing," Houston says. "The plan makes sense for students who are accelerated in their achievement to begin with, or for students who may have been held back" and need time to catch up, he says.

"But when music and art, things that I think give students a fuller experience, get lost in the shuffle, it's not a good thing. We are already having enough problems making sure that we educate kids for the fullness of life."

Houston also worries about potential administrative nightmares that may surface if students change their minds.

Bruce Tonjes, director of Secondary Education for Polk County Schools, wonders if out-of-state universities will accept the three-year graduate and whether most 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough for college life. "The number of college freshman who go off to college at 18 and fail socially is well known," he wrote in an editorial. "Lowering the age to 16 or 17 may create more problems."

Tonjes also questions how the new law will shrink class size. "When students leave for any reason, we receive less money from the state, which means we must reduce teaching staff," he says.

It was unknown at press time how many students opted for the three-year plan. But members of the Florida Department of Education recommend that parents and students consult with guidance counselors to ensure students are prepared. --Nicole Rivard

Average Teacher Salary Up

Teachers are making a bit more these days, according to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers. The average teacher salary hovered around $44,000 in 2001-2002, a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year's average salary.

New teachers were paid an average starting salary of $30,719, up 3.2 percent over the previous year. While the better salaries for first-time teachers and a slow job market outside of teaching help shrink a national teacher shortage, more teachers are still needed in math, physics, biology and Spanish, the survey notes. And AFT President Sandra Feldman says the salaries don't show "much improvement."

Tale of Two Schools

In a special PBS documentary, A Tale of Two Schools, to be aired this month, two failing schools in Mississippi and Texas will show what it takes to turn struggling programs around.

Produced by Reading Rockets, a service of public television station WETA, the documentary delves into the hearts and will of parents, teachers and administrators of Walton Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, and Bearden Elementary School in Sumner, Miss. The one-hour special is narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

While the schools struggled with low-performing readers, their struggles are a national example. Thirty-six percent of all fourth-graders read below the "basic" level, meaning they cannot understand a simple story or can barely read. For air times in your area, visit the PBS Web site.

Study: Teacher Prep Helps Reading

A recent national study found that investing in quality reading teacher preparation at the undergraduate level helps teachers effectively teach students in class and helps students learn how to read in elementary schools.

Key results in the study by International Reading Association's National Commission on Excellence in Elementary Teacher Preparation for Reading Instruction include: Teachers prepared in quality reading teacher education program are more successful and confident than other beginning teachers; Teachers educated in quality reading teacher preparation programs are more effective in creating a rich literacy environment in class and engaging students in reading than teachers who are not; And students who are engaged in reading activities with teachers from such programs show higher reading achievement.

Classroom Health Report Hardly a Breath of Fresh Air

Asthma, allergies and eye and throat irritation may be the least of the ills in classrooms. A California study found that a small, yet still substantial, percentage of classrooms have formaldehyde levels that may cause short-term irritant effects. Unfortunately, nearly all classrooms have levels--like many indoor environments today--that may cause long-term irritation and contribute to cancer risk.

"We were a bit surprised by the extent of some of the problems," says report co-author Peggy Jenkins, manager of the indoor program at the state Air Resources Board. The study, Environmental Health Conditions in California's Portable Classrooms, uncovers problems found in permanent and temporary classrooms when researchers from ARB and the Department of Health Services surveyed 1,000 schools and tested 201 classrooms at 67 schools.

It's not all bad news. According to the report, study data does not support fears that severe environmental health problems are widespread. Still, many schools show problems. For example:

Ventilation is inadequate in about 40 percent of all classrooms.

In portables, teachers occasionally turn off noisy ventilation systems.

Floor dust testing showed elevated arsenic levels above the cancer risk level in most classrooms.

Nearly one-quarter of all classrooms had visible water stains--a sign of hidden mold.

Indoor formaldehyde concentrations were generally highest during warmer seasons. The greater use of carpets and pressed-wood cabinetry, as well as proximity to vehicle traffic, in portables likely contribute to even higher levels of air pollutants.

"We're trying to work with schools to ensure what they buy [to equip and furnish portables] is formaldehyde-free," says Judy Smith, executive director of Modular Building Institute, a nonprofit international trade association.

The report recommends using low- or no-emitting building materials and products, plus a quiet ventilation system. Other priority actions include conducting basic safety and health self-assessments, and placing portables away from roadways.


Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools,

School Planning Kit,

Safe School Inspection Guidebook,

--Melissa Ezarik

Edison Goes Private

The nation's largest for-profit schools manager is buying back the company from shareholders and taking it private.

Chris Whittle, chief executive officer and founder of Edison Schools, will buy the schools firm for $174 million using a company he owns and Liberty Partners, a New York private equity firm, according to Associated Press. Edison stock prices rose to $35 a share but were hovering at only $1.56 in July. The deal will pay Edison stockholders $1.76 a share.

The sale, which needs stockholder approval, should be complete this fall. Edison Schools are in 20 states and have around 110,000 students in public and charter schools and summer school programs.

Golden State Shines on Charters

Recent studies show that charter schools in California are improving student achievement at a faster rate than public schools, but have not matched overall public school performance.

RAND Education, an educational policy analyst, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University came to the same conclusions. Several other studies released in July echo that the success of charter education is on the upswing during the decade of its existence. Even where charter schools are matched against public schools with similar demographic and geographic traits, charter schools show slightly higher gains in math and reading over a year, according to a study by Manhattan Institute, a national policy research organization.

"It becomes more clear that when teachers are given more freedom from regulation as well as a little time to implement programs that work for kids, positive results happen," says Gary Larson, a spokesman for California Network of Educational Charters.

California is home to 415 charter schools, serving 157,000 children, or 2.4 percent of all students in the state. Thirty-eight states nationwide allow charter schools, enrolling more than 600,000 students. Although they are a relatively new phenomenon in California, their impact on the state's education landscape is undeniable, studies show.

"Charter schools are doing a better job than other public schools of improving academic performance of at-risk students. [Academic Performance Index] scores of charters that have passed the five-year mark exceeded those of the average public school, and statewide API gains by charter high schools since 1999 are double those of other public high schools," Nelson Smith, vice president for policy and governance at New American School, says in his study.

Smith states that "California has a golden opportunity to lead" regarding charter schools. He gave several recommendations, including:

Public and private sector leaders should create more effective ways of sharing innovations between charter and public schools.

Effective charter schools should be replicated and guidelines should be implemented for converting underperforming district schools into charters.

The RAND report also cites the need to track student achievement at charter schools and assure they are funded on par with public schools.

Eric Premack, director of charter school development for the California Charter Schools Development Center, says it just may be that the one-size-fits-all approach of public education may not be the best fit. "It is likely they are outperforming the regular system because they are offering a broader curriculum," he says.

--Steven Scarpa

New York Schools Sued Over Pregnancy Tests

New York City school administrators forced several eighth-graders to be tested for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases last school year after skipping school to go to a party where some students allegedly had sex, according to a lawsuit.

The Associated Press reported that about 10 girls were told they could not return to Intermediate School 164 without a doctor's note after attending the so-called "hooky party." The New York Civil Liberties Union defends the girls' rights of privacy.

"Different people have different views of what happened, and we will respond appropriately in court," Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was quoted as saying.

Laptops Not So Free

Michigan's plan to provide wireless tools to 132,000 sixth graders will cost school districts $25 per pupil.

The Freedom to Learn program, kicking off in January, allows schools to lease laptops or other wireless devices, such as Palm handhelds. The state would provide grants of $250 per pupil to districts for leasing. For a district like Detroit, which has about 12,600 sixth-graders, it could cost $315,000. Some officials don't expect cost to be a problem.

Other questions have yet to be worked out, including if children would keep the laptops. The state is providing $22 million and using $16 million in federal funds to expand Freedom to Learn, which started as a pilot program in 90 schools statewide this past school year.

Disappearing D's

Dropping the "D" grade shows signs of paying off in Frederick, Md. A year after Frederick County School District eliminated the D in its high schools, preliminary data from one semester shows that many students who formerly got D's were getting C's and even B's, says Henry Bohlander, instructional director for high schools.

That's what is supposed to happen, declares Thomas Guskey, professor of educational policy studies and evaluation at the University of Kentucky. Classroom grades should become more consistent with grades required to pass state assessments and qualify for graduation, asserts Guskey, who served as a consultant to the Frederick County schools.

The disappearing D is a growing movement across the country, including in some schools in California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Florida, because of "the conflict districts face with their grading systems, especially at the high school level," Guskey says. In Frederick County and elsewhere, he explains, while D was a passing high school grade, it wasn't high enough to meet state graduation requirements. "So we were setting them up for failure," Bohlander says of D students.

But districts should not just drop the D without having a support plan, Bohlander and Guskey agree. Frederick County implemented an intensive support system for D and F students, including individualized learning plans and tutoring before and after school and on Saturday. Teachers received special training and parents gave approval to help their children--a key factor, Guskey adds.

--Alan Dessoff

Rules for Prayers

For the first time, schools that prohibit students from praying outside the classroom or stop teachers from holding religious meetings among themselves could lose federal money, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers may not pray with students or try to shape religious views.

The new guidelines echo the Bush administration's stance to ensure schools give teachers and students freedom to pray as court rulings have allowed.

Bush Joins Push for Bible Club

The Bush administration joined with a national religious group in late June to force Maryland's Montgomery County schools to put recruitment fliers for an after-school Bible club in children's backpacks.

Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland is suing for the right to promote its Good News Clubs in two Montgomery elementary schools--Mill Creek Town in Rockville and Clearspring in Damascus. The U.S. Justice Department civil rights division filed an amicus brief June 11 in federal court supporting the fellowship.

The Bush administration brief said, in part, that CEF offers "students educational, cultural and recreational opportunities that are similar to activities offered by other community organizations that submit fliers for inclusion in [students'] take-home folders" and that CEF strives to foster self-esteem in youth and instill morals and character.

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