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Taking Calls Less Literally, Missing Children, and Black-Market Calories

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Feb. 18-24.

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That old trope about it never being too late to make a first impression has never been more true than in Scottsdale, Arizona. Callers to the school district office are now greeted by the voice of the Director of First Impressions, formerly known as the receptionist. If a parent calls to complain about a late school bus, the Director might transfer him to somebody in charge of the bus driver—er, Transporter of Learners. Or if the caller has a curriculum question, she could please hold for—ahem—the Executive Director for Elementary Schools and Excelling Teaching and Learning (the guy who used to be an assistant superintendent). All these highfalutin title inflations owe their existence to superintendent John Baracy, whose own title remains unchanged. “This is to make a statement about what we value in the district,” he explained. Liz Ryan, a former human resources professional who founded a Web site about women’s workplace issues, had a slightly different take: “ ‘Director of First Impressions’ makes me want to gag.”

School-related calls of a different sort have been coming in for more than a year to Philadelphia resident James Dowling. His daughter’s school called him up to five times a week to inform him that she was tardy, absent, or truant. That would all be very responsible if it weren’t for the fact that Dowling doesn’t have a daughter. He might give fellow Philadelphian Nancy L. Springer McAninley a call. Like Dowling, McAninley tried in vain to stop the school district from calling about her nonexistent children. After two years of repeated calls, she finally solved the problem by moving away.

Moving might be the only way for kids in San Diego public schools to enjoy the taste of freshly picked fruit without leaving campus. District officials squashed the hopes of a traveling troupe of environmentalists who’d hoped to plant fruit trees at Clark Middle, a troubled school with a gang problem. “Fruit does tend to be used as a projectile with students,” explained district maintenance and operations supervisor Mark Everts. Non-nonplussed, the group—a nonprofit called Common Vision—agreed to plant shade trees instead. But Michael Flynn, the group’s education director, did venture that “the idea of seeing fruit as something to throw is indicative of ... a problem.”

Problematic comestibles are a familiar topic at Austin High School in Texas. When officials removed candy from school vending machines last year to counter the rise of obesity, some students responded by selling M&M’s, Skittles, and Snickers out of gym bags in school hallways. “It’s all about supply and demand,” said junior Scott Roudebush. “We’ve got some entrepreneurs around here.” Administrators have since allowed some candy in the machines again, arguing that milk chocolate, for example, meets minimal nutritional standards because it contains milk.

Sweet treats at school have also come under scrutiny in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where officials are considering banning all homemade goodies. The fear isn’t of calories but of trace amounts of methamphetamine left in ovens used to bake both the drug and the desserts. Although no cases of drug-residue transmission have been reported, Iowa police say nearly 1,000 children in Iowa have been discovered living in homes with working meth labs during the past three years. The school board plans to vote on the proposal next month, but Pam Johnson, mother of a Mount Pleasant 7th grader, is already mourning the passing of an era. “I always liked to send decorated cupcakes for holidays,” she said. “I guess it’s just Little Debbie oatmeal pies now. It’s sad.”

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