Thoughtful reading

There was an excellent op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday: “The  case for working with your hands.”  It begins with the demise of things like shop programs in public schools, shifting students to preparation for working in a knowledge economy.

It’s a long, thoughtful piece that makes for excellent reading on a day when many have a day off.

There has been some discussion of this phenomenon even in Oak Ridge, where an overwhelming majority of our graduates do go on to college.  Although we have five career academies at the high school (preparing students either to continue studies in college, or to begin working in the field right out of high school), there is a sense in the community that we don’t do enough for the non-college bound.

Reading “The case for working with your hands,” a couple of things struck me: one, he’s right.  There is a level of satisfaction,  challenge, and use of intellect in working with one’s hands, whether creating something, or fixing something.  It’s why I like to sew, or to take things apart and repair them.  But the second point that stuck with me was, the author’s attainment of a PhD and subsequent studies enabled him to sample a variety of professions, including high school teacher, executive director of a policy organization in DC, and a writer of abstracts of academic journal articles before settling on his life’s calling in motorcycle repair.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that one must get a PhD to be successful in motorcycle repair (or any other such field that is typically thought not to require any college degree).  But to be good at it requires critical thinking skills that are honed through education.  And quite possibly, he derives greater satisfaction from his work because he has other things to compare it to.

The plumber I most often use once told me that he enrolled in medical school, but dropped out after realizing that’s not what he wanted to spend his life doing.   He likes being a plumber; he solves problems, and gets a feeling of having accomplished something tangible each day.

This meandering train of thought continued as I spent the afternoon playing mechanic’s assistant (we’re still working on it).  What I want for the kids graduating from our high school is to be sufficiently prepared to have options after graduation:  the option to work doing something meaningful and fulfilling, the option to pursue higher education, the option to succeed in a technical school, which might lead to either work or more  education.  Or both.

A satisfying life is one where learning never stops, even after the end of formal schooling.

Parenting, anyone?

Hunger: stop fighting it:
In Knoxville, the schools are taking pretty serious measures to deal with the growing problem of childhood obesity.  Students are being led through calisthenics in academic classes and offered “healthy choices” in the lunchroom (were there any other choices to begin with?  If so, why?).

The problem, as I see it, is this: the problem didn’t originate at school, and it’s not likely to be fixed at school.  Parents getting off the couch and setting decent dietary and lifestyle examples tends to work much better.

A new take on the “crack tax”:
In Nashville, the Legislature is moving on a law that would impose a $1,000 fine for baggy pants… and of course, some idiot has already written in the comments that ” for something like this, it’s better to impose disciplinary action in schools…” because naturally, if the schools are in charge of making sure your child isn’t obese, they should also be in charge of making sure they’re properly dressed.

And teaching them about the birds and the bees.  And “character education.”  And on, and on, and on.  Who needs to be able to read, write, or calculate anyway?  They say that those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it, but with the current state of affairs, I’m wondering if that’s such a bad thing.

I don’t know that I’d want to live through the black plague or anything, but maybe living through the 1950s wouldn’t be so bad.  Maybe I’ll get to, because I’m young enough to have not lived through it, but old enough that it was not considered history yet  when I was in school.

With all these responsibilities heaped upon the schools, wouldn’t it be better if the schools just took them at birth?  But if we’re going to go that far, shouldn’t the schools be able to decide whose DNA gets contributed?  Seems fair.

*  *  *
Schools are very good at teaching children math, English, science, and to some degree, social studies.  They’re pretty good at providing exposure to music, art, and the basics of lifelong fitness.  In the upper grades, studies can be specialized or expanded. The Children’s ISA you can make a saving account to protect their studies, to make enough to cover University and living costs for three years!

But schools are not your children’s parents.  If you want them to be healthy, teach them healthy eating and exercise habits at home.  If you want them to appear neat and respectable, do not buy them (or allow them to wear) clothes that represent the worst of MTV.  Come to think of it, don’t let them watch MTV — have you seen the garbage on there??

Let the schools do what they were designed to do, but remember, they’re your kids.  Do your part.

Stimulus and Schools

State Rep. Harry Brooks, Chairman of the House Education Committee, has opined via WSMV in Nashville that school systems should not use the federal stimulus funding for personnel.

That money can only be used for certain things, and lawmakers said since the money disappears in two years, it shouldn’t be used for personnel.
"If you were to use the money for a staff person, that staff person goes away in two years or you have to find the money to continue it," Brooks said.


That falls into the usual philosophy — with which I wholeheartedly agree — that it’s bad practice to use non-recurring funds for recurring expenses, as it just delays the problem — or creates a bigger problem in the future.   

But in this case, the stimulus is needed because tax revenues for the schools are down, due to the economic recession.  In Tennessee, schools are funded in large part by sales taxes, which are the first to fall in a recession.  What if the stimulus funds were used not to create new jobs (for which we would have to find a supporting funding source two years from now), but to avoid job losses among existing staff?

That, it seems, would fit with the intent of the stimulus — to keep people employed, so that they continue buying groceries, appliances, cars, and houses, which in turn strengthens the economy.

Most of the federal stimulus funds are designated for economically-disadvantaged students, or those in special education.  Thus, it seems to me that the most appropriate use would be to use those funds to continue programs like extended contracts, where teachers are paid a small stipend to do extra things like before- or after-school tutoring (of particular benefit to special ed or economically disadvantaged students).

This year, the State has already advised that 100% of extended contracted funding will be cut.  If the stimulus funds would allow us to continue these programs through two years until the state and local economies begin to recover, would that not be an acceptable use?

UT Changes

The University of Tennessee is grappling with extraordinary budget challenges, and the future looks grim.  A few changes may strengthen the university long-term, but most will negatively impact students, employees, and the state as a whole.

As outlined in this morning’s News-Sentinel, they’re looking at laying off 700 people.  They’re raising tuition by 9%.  For our family though, Peterson’s proposal to remove the tuition cap is the most damaging.  For clarification, a "full time" student is defined as one taking 12 semester hours; that’s three or four courses, in most cases.  However, one must take at least 15 hours per semester to graduate in four years — more than that in some majors.

A student taking 18 hours (like my two) would see a 50% increase in tuition even before the 9% increase.

Peterson’s rationale is that removing the tuition cap would be an "efficiency measure, aimed at discouraging students from registering for classes they may drop too late for other students to get enrolled."  However, a more logical way to accomplish that would be to charge students an additional fee — say $50 or $100 — for dropping any class after the add deadline (typically about a week and a half after classes begin).

It’s not just a few high-performing students who would bear the brunt of this change: 51% of all full-time undergraduate students took 15 or more hours in Fall 2007 (the most recent data publicly available).  Those 51% would see a minimum 25% increase, in addition to the 9% across-the-board increase.

I acknowledge that the highest-paid administrators have voluntarily taken a 5% pay cut, and applaud them for starting there.  However, the draconian changes proposed to tuition rates and the elimination of the most cost-effective instructors will cut too deeply into the university’s core mission.

That will, in turn, cut deeply into the State’s efforts to improve overall.

At the very least, the State needs to increase the lottery scholarship amount, commensurate with any tuition increase.   But the tuition cap should be left alone.

TSBA Sunday

The Tennessee School Boards Association Leadership Conference concluded this morning, followed by the opening of the TSBA Convention.

The Leadership Conference was excellent: I attended one session on utilizing the data gathered from value-added testing, and another on effective leadership techniques.

A perennial feature of the TSBA Convention has always been the exhibit hall, but it does seem that the number of exhibitors has dwindled in recent years.  In fact, as I left the hall this afternoon, it occurred to me that this year’s exhibitors seem to fall into three categories: those providing design/construction services (or products supporting such), companies providing outsource services like transportation, food service, and janitorial, and insurance companies.

We used to see things like curriculum content providers, educational hardware and software, and more actual education-related goods and services.  This year, I don’t think I saw a single one of those.

As much fun as it was to see our new high school to completion, I don’t think we’re going to be ready for another aggressive building project anytime soon.   It’s not that it’s not needed — our preschool facility is in dire condition — but the money just isn’t there to do it.

I am looking forward to tomorrow’s meetings, particularly a presentation from Stephen Smith on the new Legislature and what to expect.  Unfortunately, there is a feeling of resignation that elected superintendents will again be proposed, and that it is more likely to pass.

I think that’s a horrible idea.   But, it’s better to know what’s likely to be at the forefront this year than to forge ahead blindly, hoping for the best.  Actually, given the recent revenue reports in the state, I’m just hoping to avoid the worst.

My dream is for one year — just one — where we could fund everything that’s needed and just a few wants… but that seems unlikely to occur anytime soon.

The future of school

After a couple of intense days at the T+L Conference, one thing is clear: the future of school includes some online courses.  That’s not to take anything away from teachers, or their ability to help our children learn and grow… but the way that’s accomplished is going to change.

It has to.  Already, schedule compression (more and more requirements, no more hours in the day) has reached the point where some students are forced to give things up, in order to fulfill requirements.  Once example of that is that Gamma will have to take economics next year, and to do so during the school day, she’ll either have to give up Orchestra (which she’s been in since 4th grade), or German IV (necessary for her to be able to take the AP test, which she very much wants to do), or Calculus (not an option).

I don’t consider any of those to be an acceptable trade-off, so I’m exploring the possibility of enrolling her in an online course through Roane State, which she could hopefully do over the Summer.  

I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few students faced with giving up something they’ve invested years in.  The reality is, you can’t take four years of a foreign language AND be in the band, orchestra, art, career academies, or any number of valuable classes, and still meet all the graduation requirements. 

What if we could offer online courses, to be completed at home, for things like Economics, Government, Personal Finance (a new requirement beginning next year), Wellness A (essentially, what we used to call "Health") and such?  Those are pretty standard classes, which most students could learn independently with the right online curriculum.

Further, what if we could waive the PE requirements (currently one semester, going up to two semesters next year) for those students who are part of school athletic teams, who already put in at least the same number of hours?

Next year, two more courses will be required for graduation (Personal Finance and PE).  In my opinion, we need to do something this year to prevent the schedule compression from getting worse.

There are already a lot of online courses developed that adhere to our State standards.   Partnering with community colleges, such as Roane State, is another option. 

I’ve gathered a lot of information, which I’ll link to in another post (when I can have all my papers and wireless access in the same place).  But for now, what do you think? 

Sleepless (before I even get to Seattle)

I woke myself with a yell this morning — heart racing, leaping from the bed, convinced that I was going to miss my plane (which boards at 5:25 a.m.), headed for Seattle for the week.

The clock said 1 a.m., but in the dream that woke me, my mother had just called — something about which dress I was going to allow Beta (now 18) wear for Halloween.  I asked her, in the dream, what time it was… and she said "about five."  This prompted the yell that woke me, and now I’m up for the day.

That dream probably came from spending most of yesterday trying to finish Gamma’s halloween costume.

It’s going to be a long day anyway, but even longer with the three-hour time difference.  That’s okay, though.  At least now I’ve had time to read the newspapers (as is my habit), write a little, and start the day the way I prefer.

I’ve packed everything in my carry-on, to minimize the chances of me arriving in Seattle while my luggage goes to Miami.  That happened when I went to a meeting in Sacramento some years ago, and I’ve never quite recovered from the trauma.  Unfortunately, this makes me a little anxious, wondering if my little bottle of toothpaste is going to make it through security… since I’ve only flown a few times since 9/11, it does seem like the processes change each time.

Anxiety about time and travel aside, I’m looking forward to the T+L Conference.   Technology is an important and growing part of education, but it’s critical to be informed. As most people realize, it’s easy to spend a ton of cash on technology, but there’s a huge difference between having all the latest gadgets and having the right tools for the job.

By the end of today, I’ll be better informed.  And I won’t be sleepless in Seattle.

Finally, Skyward

Today, I received via snail-mail our account information for Skyward — the new student information system for Oak Ridge Schools.  Skyward replaces K-12 Planet, which parents have used for a couple of years to access students’ current grades and attendance online.

K-12 Planet  was okay — better than nothing — but teachers didn’t universally participate (at least at my kids’ schools), and it didn’t have as much information.  Skyward is an integrated system that doesn’t require teachers to input grades separately for the web.  Therefore, since it’s the same system as is used for state attendance reporting, midterms, report cards, and everything else, they should all use it.

At this point, almost all of them are.  If you click the "attendance" tab, a calendar shows any day where your student was absent or tardy for even part of the day.  If you click that date, it shows an explanation, e.g., "doctor’s excuse."  If you click a letter grade on the grade report, it shows a detail of all assignments, tests, etc.  One notable improvement for me is that one login — mine — shows information for both of my children, even though they are at different schools.  With K-12 Planet, I had a different login for each school.

Each child has their own login as well, so they can see their own grades, but not their siblings’. 

It’s important for parents not to go overboard on this kind of thing; don’t freak out if you see one quiz with a low grade.  But it’s really helpful to log in regularly, so that if you see a pattern, you can address it before it becomes an irreversible problem.  Most teachers are anxious to help if only the student asks.

There’s also a "notifications" tab where you can request reports to be e-mailed to you periodically, or if a student’s grade or assignments fall below a specified percentage.

For the parents who choose to utilize it, this will be an excellent tool for improving communication between school and home.

Wild Ideas

5 x 8 = 40, and 4 x 10 = 40. Therefore, 5 x 8 = 4 x 10… except that five eight-hour days are more costly to operate than four ten-hour days.

The Y-12 National Security Complex implemented this schedule for salaried employees (hourly employees turned it down) a few years ago, in an effort to reduce operating costs while boosting productivity. A nice side effect is that employees save fuel, reducing their commute by 20%. The three-day weekends are pretty sweet, too. An article in the Tennessean this morning indicates that local governments and community colleges around the country are now exploring this possibility.

A few school systems nationwide have also made this transition, beginning in Southwestern states where the population density is low and students must travel great distances to school each day.

In Colorado, where state law has allowed the abbreviated week since 1980, more than a third of school districts have switched to a four-day schedule. The savings include transportation costs (reduced by 20%), utilities, and food service.

Custer School District in South Dakota has had a successful experience, while others have not.

The positives: cost savings (energy, food, fuel), improved attendance rates, longer periods of uninterrupted learning time
The negatives: long-day burnout, missing a day due to illness is a 20% greater learning loss

Note that I didn’t list child care as either a negative or a positive; for parents working a 5-day week, it does create a need. On the other hand, parents who work have often found (in the systems that have already switched) that it’s easier to find someone to keep their children for one whole day, than for a few hours after work every day.

Such a radical idea won’t work if it’s top-down, though. It would have to be something with broad parental support, and careful consideration of unintended consequences. But, it’s worth thinking and talking about.

The Alternative

Oak Ridge has an alternative school, which for some years served the purpose of being sort of the last stop before reform school. If students are expelled (usually for zero-tolerance offenses), they are usually permitted to attend the alternative school rather than just drop out.

It still serves that purpose, but over the last few years, we’ve been moving toward making it truly an alternative — a place that also serves those students who, for whatever reason, just can’t function in the big, open environment at the high school. Beginning about a year ago, it also became home to our credit recovery program, whereby students who had failed classes necessary for graduation could make up those credits in an online format and still graduate on time.

The alternative school is housed in the old Daniel Arthur building on Emory Valley Road. The facility was built as a school, but is in poor condition at this point, and not an optimal design for this purpose. The section of the building that houses the alternative school has exterior doors to each classroom; the plumbing is unreliable, and the electrical system is maxed-out.

On the other hand, with completion of the high school renovations, we will have an entirely empty, reasonably new building adjacent to the high school campus within a few weeks. Designed as home to career and technical classes (what we used to call "vocational" until the term developed negative connotations), it’s a good facility. We no longer teach cosmetology or automotive repair at ORHS (now with health sciences, networking, CAD, and other subjects having taken their place), and the career-and-tech classrooms are integrated with the rest of the high school. As they should be.

After a lengthy discussion last night (an hour and a half?), we made the decision to move the alternative school to G Building, adjacent to the high school.

There are three pages of solid reasons for the move, and only one that gives pause: will the closer proximity to ORHS (adjacent, actually) create any danger of students assigned to the alternative school for disciplinary reasons, mixing with the general student body?

I believe that the answer is no. Roger Robinson, our alternative school principal, is a gifted educator with a calling to work with struggling and difficult students. Chuck Carringer, the ORHS principal, has proven himself at ORHS. Working together, I have absolutely no doubts that they will devise strategies to accomplish the necessary separation for those students who should be separate, while allowing access to both facilities for those who need it.

(continued.. a few hours later)

As I noted in the meeting yesterday, I’d had a couple of phone calls over the weekend after Bob Fowler’s article ran on Friday.  Both callers had concerns about "those kids" being too close to the high school.  This afternoon, I had an e-mail to the same effect (excerpt as follows):

It seems to me that the administration is attempting to make the Alternative School  more convenient and attractive for the Alternative School students.  However, the reality is that the Alternative School students have forfeited their rights when they took what ever action they took to get them placed into the alternative program in the first place.  It’s great to try to provided the same level of education and educational atmosphere that the rest of the school has.  However, that should not be done if there is the slightest concern for the rest of the students.

Seems fair enough, right?

First, what most people do not realize is that not all of the Alternative School students are there because of disciplinary reasons.  Of those who are, most are there because they did something stupid — showing up at a school event under the influence, even just skipping school too many times.  Some got caught with drugs.   Some got frustrated and told a teacher to "f— off." A few are there for violent offenses, and they are receiving strong guidance in areas like impulse control in addition to their three R’s.

Our students at ORHS, and society in general, will be safer if we do not abandon and fail these students.  Furthermore, the credit recovery programs based in the alternative school are of benefit to ORHS students, some of whom are not now able to access them because they don’t have transportation to the Daniel Arthur building during the school day.

I asked blunt questions last night, and I’m comfortable that my children (yes, my children attend ORHS) and yours will be not only safe, but safer, with the new arrangement.

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