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A Tough-Love Coach Under Fire, Teacher Test Failure in Philly, and What's That for Lunch?

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, March 22-April 2.

Let’s face it: Parents are the Jekyll-and-Hyde of the education world. When volunteering time and resources, they’re extremely generous, but they can also be obstructionist boors. The fight over Coach Fitz, at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, is a textbook example. As alumni of the private high school shell out beaucoup bucks to renovate a gym with Billy Fitzgerald’s name on it, parents of the current baseball team are calling for his neck. Journalist Michael Lewis, who played ball at Newman in the ’70s, returned and found that his old coach—a closet intellectual, a devoted father and, yes, a tough-love teacher—hasn't changed. The 56-year-old still shows athletes how to confront fear and failure head-on. Just ask NFL MVP Peyton Manning, an alum who told Lewis, "I think he prepares you for life." But the latest batch of parents wants to know why Fitz recently gave their boys a hard time for, among other things, drinking booze. This kind of unhealthy parental intercession is endemic, according to Newman’s headmaster. "It’s true in sports, it’s true in the classroom," he said. "And it’s only going to get worse."

Coaches Against Gun Violence are definitely more appreciated. The Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit, launched the group to help fight what it says is the leading cause of death among young people in major cities. Each year, more than 20,000 people younger than 21 are killed or injured by guns, according to the Alliance, and high school coaches have been asked to honor the dead to raise awareness. A moment of silence, a half-time tribute, and speeches made by students and coaches usually take place during dedication ceremonies, which began in D.C. last football season. Fifteen basketball teams—at schools in Florida, California, and Michigan, among other states—have followed suit. The group’s spokesperson is former NBA coach Don Casey, whose son, Sean, was killed in a handgun incident. He says of the fledgling effort to get communities involved in the fight, "To say there is nothing to do about [gun violence] just isn’t good enough."

Coaching of a different kind may be needed in Philadelphia, where more than 300 of the city’s middle school teachers failed tests that would certify them as "highly qualified" under NCLB. While the 7th and 8th grade teachers, who took the tests this past fall, have until June 2006 to meet the mandate, reactions have been telling. One math teacher who aced his exam said it was fair and appropriate. But Lisa Haver, who’s taught various subjects at various grade levels since 1987, failed the same test by just three points. "There was stuff on there I’ve never seen," she says. With his master’s in environmental science, Nick Perry is already "highly qualified," but the science teacher argues, on his colleagues’ behalf, that one test is not an accurate measure of skills. "Content sometimes is really overrated," he says. "A teacher is like an artist, a coach. He has to be able to inspire children."

Or you can get kids to inspire each other. That’s what Jerry Hammes does at Belzer Middle School in Indianapolis, where he’s put together an in-school tutoring program. During Hammes’ first- and second-period classes, high-performing 7th graders tutor other kids in multiple subjects, thanks to a program that trained them in ways to talk to their fellow students, ask questions, and build confidence. Grades have gone up as a result, and the program, certified by the National Tutoring Association, serves as a model for other schools. "It works because the kids are getting one-on- one help," Hammes says, "and they are getting it from someone their own age as opposed to a 48-year-old man like me."

Another education trend is the four-day week, taking root mostly in rural districts facing rapidly shrinking budgets. Monday to Thursday, in farm states like Oregon and Idaho, teachers and students are facing longer classes and 12-hour days, so that Friday’s operational costs can be dropped. But the results aren’t yet conclusive. In Orofino, Idaho, which faced a $650,000 deficit after lumber mills were shuttered and property values plunged, school officials were hoping to save $150,000 this year. But one semester has, thus far, brought only $12,000 in savings.

Finally, farms—and things grown organically—bring to mind this charming story: Two weeks ago, during lunch at a Florida elementary school, a cafeteria monitor noticed that a kindergartner was peppering a classmate’s lasagna with a green, leafy substance. Before the recipient could take a bite, however, the monitor confiscated said lasagna and sent said kids to the office. Police later determined that the spice in question was not oregano, but marijuana. No, the 5-year-old was not charged; but the child-welfare authorities were called in to investigate. And, yes, the lasagna was disposed of.

—Rich Shea

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