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Farris Hassan’s Days Off, Eradicating Absenteeism, and Supplies and Demand

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Dec. 29-Jan4.

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It’s certainly understandable that during the holidays, an enterprising teen might want to spend time in a warm, exotic climate, and maybe even do some research for an upcoming high school project. But 16-year-old Farris Hassan’s “journalistic” foray into Iraq stretches the limits of comprehension. First of all, Farris, the son of native Iraqis who moved to the States 35 years ago, already lives in a warm climate—Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he attends a prep school. He claims that an immersion-journalism class is what inspired him, on December 11, weeks before the holiday break, to fly to Kuwait, then take a circuitous route to Baghdad. There he eventually wandered into Associated Press headquarters after his divorced parents—made aware of Farris’ sojourn only after he called them from Kuwait—had the federal government send out an APB. Saying she had no idea how Farris obtained a travel visa, Shatha Atiya, his mother and a psychologist, later added, “I don’t think I will ever leave him in the house alone again.”

After arriving home New Year’s Day, Farris promised he’d soon share his strange tale with the public. But two days later, all he offered was a message read by his sister, stating, “I feel that the school has already stated all there is to say” and thanking those concerned for his safety. Officials at Pine Crest prep school said that Farris would be punished but not expelled for his “unexcused absence.” They also stressed that there is “no journalism class” or club at the school. As for punishment at home, Atiya assured the press—which has questions about Farris’ motives as well as his mother and father’s parenting skills—that the teen’s credit cards and driving privileges will be taken away.

School absences are a big concern in California, as well, but for a different reason. State funding there is based on attendance, and since 1998, even absences due to illness result in fewer dollars, so schools do everything from bribe to harass kids to get them in classrooms. The stakes are high: Absenteeism costs up to $40 per student per day, which for one district amounts to $91,000 per day. So it makes sense that that same district will soon have a truant officer hitting the streets. In other districts, however, “incentives” are the norm—raffle tickets for cars, iPods, and trips to Disneyland, for instance. The one big pitfall is that kids who really are sick may end up returning to school prematurely. So Redondo Beach’s superintendent, Bob Paulson, plans to send out info on handling chickenpox and other contagious ailments. “Some parents are just embarrassed,” he explains. “They think, ‘He’s still got scabs on him; is he contagious or not?’ ”

It’s too early to tell whether enrollment in what’s been described as Denver’s revolutionary merit-pay program is contagious, but thus far, signs point that way. During holiday break, teachers were invited to interview with district officials about ProComp (short for the Professional Compensation System for Teachers), which is being funded by a $25 million tax increase. Sixty-six percent of those who met with officials signed up, and others—who have up to seven years to join—are waiting to see whether the complex program, comprising nine components, works. Included in the consideration of add-ons to annual base salaries are whether a teacher earns a master’s degree (an extra $2,997), works at a challenging school ($999), or meets yearly goals for student achievement ($333 per objective). It’s no surprise that, rather than doing the math, teachers already steeped in experience and degrees are choosing to stick with the traditional salary schedule.

While many eyes are fixed on Denver, Silicon Valley is also worth a look. That’s the home of Resource Area for Teaching, a discount warehouse for unconventional classroom supplies that also serves as a meeting place for innovative educators. Demand for the nonprofit RAFT, founded by teachers, is so high that customers, who pay a membership fee to shop at the San Jose-based store, sometimes travel hours to get there. More than 1,000 businesses donate seemingly useless supplies to RAFT, which, in turn, offers everything from paper and pencils to unused greeting cards and rubber gloves at bargain-basement prices. One special ed teacher uses the cards as flash cards for deaf students, connecting words with everyday objects. And the gloves become part of a homemade musical instrument that sounds like a kazoo. Customers spend an average of $20 per visit, and membership—which has gone from 4,000 to 7,500 this past year—covers the Green Room, where “experts” (usually former teachers) help design kits and brainstorm ideas for class projects. California schools chief Jack O’Connell says of RAFT’s professional development offerings, “I hope we can replicate this throughout the state.”

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