Crisis Mode, Long-Distance Tutoring,
and Green Is Good

By Rich Shea — September 09, 2005 3 min read
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Now that the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort is mostly over, it’s time to help affected families return to “normal,” which includes the monumental task of putting their kids in schools. It appears that the number of displaced students exceeds 200,000, and they’ll be enrolling in schools across the country. “What we’re going to watch over the next weeks is unprecedented in American education,” says Jeffrey Mirel, a history and education professor at the University of Michigan. While the U.S. Department of Education has set up a Web site to help coordinate efforts, there are questions about the role the feds themselves will play. The department’s current budget for homeless students cannot cover the crisis, according to education secretary Margaret Spellings, who’s otherwise held off commenting on whether NCLB assessment requirements might be waived this year. That alarms some people. “Imagine you’re the principal of a big high school in city X,” says progressive educator and visiting Harvard professor Ted Sizer, “and your scores are above the state minimums, so you’re doing fine with the law, and suddenly you have 300 displaced kids. That not only brings crowding but also means that on the next exams, your scores could plummet.”

Such long-term concerns probably aren’t shared by the kids themselves, who’ve relocated as far away as Michigan. Tyrienisha Smith, a 10-year-old from New Orleans, joined several other youngsters this week in enrolling in a suburban Detroit district near their new home, the Best Western Sterling Inn. The district plans to provide school supplies, free lunches, and busing. While taking on extra students will lower the district’s per-pupil spending by as much as $15, associate superintendent William Kiefer says, “it’s a small price to pay, I think. This is a national emergency.”

Displaced students, of course, are not the only ones now focusing intently on schoolwork. Some needing extra help, in fact, are turning to tutors who live in India. One participant in this outsourcing trend is Growing Stars, a California-based distance-learning outfit that employees 38 teachers in Cochin, India, who have to be at their computers and on the phone as early as 4:30 a.m. to help American kids after school. U.S. tutors cost as much as $50 an hour, whereas the going rate for their Indian counterparts is $20—a difference that tends to override concerns about cultural and language barriers, even when it comes to teaching English. Growing Stars employees are put through two weeks of training that familiarizes them with American ways, and clients have the option to switch to American tutors for an additional $10 per hour. But there’s no need, according to one happy client whose two daughters have received help in both math and English. “I want my girls to develop a good vocabulary and write better,” he says, “and I believe they are learning to do that.”

While many parents are worried about academics, others are keeping close tabs on their children’s behavior with help from a host of technological gadgets. Everything from location-transmitting cell phones to prepaid lunch plans to microchips in cars now track every move of the K-12 crowd. The adults love it, the kids hate it, and parenting experts have mixed feelings. Being cognizant of where a kid hangs out, and with whom, certainly makes sense, but “parents shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that they can keep their kids from making mistakes, which is part of growing up and learning,” says one psychology professor. Kate Kelly, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parenting a Teenager, goes further, comparing tech surveillance to hiring a private investigator to spy on a spouse. “You’ve got to create a relationship built on trust, not fear,” she says.

In a seemingly tech-obsessed world, it’s a relief to know that old-fashioned gardening is in vogue. Take Tarkington Elementary School, right in the middle of Chicago: It’s the latest example of a school going “green,” meaning that it’s using environmentally friendly methods to ensure student and facility health. Roughly 110 schools across the country have either earned or are seeking “green” certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Tarkington qualifies by having a “living” roof atop its gymnasium, a garden filled with self-sustaining plants that flower, don’t need much water, and will withstand Chicago’s often-harsh weather. The result is natural insulation that keeps the building cool in the summer and warm in the winter and that may improve the school’s air quality. A 7th grader, looking forward to having science classes on the roof, says of Tarkington, “It looks extraordinarily better than other schools.”

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