Current Events

January 01, 1995 14 min read
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Portsmouth school district officials hope to sidestep legal problems by making the classes voluntary and by discouraging, rather than prohibiting, boys from enrolling. Still, some teachers and students at the school are not convinced the idea is a good one. “I don’t really feel that we need [an all-girls class] here,’' says Susan Foye, head of the math department at Portsmouth High. Foye says at least as many girls as boys take calculus and pre-calculus at the school and that they perform as well as the male students. “The only place they’re not doing as well,’' she adds, “is on the SAT.’'

For Del Oro High School in Loomis, Calif., raising the money to field its 37 sports teams is a hit-or-miss proposition. Every October, three cows are let loose on the school’s football field for “cow-chip bingo.” Chances are sold for 1-yard squares marked on the field. “Basically, where the cow deposits its droppings, that person wins,” says Bob Christiansen, the school’s athletic director.

Del Oro is not the only school foraging for funds in peculiar places. Cuts in state aid combined with the anti-tax mood of voters have forced more than a few schools to fill budget holes with outside income. “They’re just doing anything they can to recoup some extra dollars here and there,” says Mary Fulton, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States. The money these efforts have pulled in may not seem like much compared with a district’s entire budget, but it often is enough to keep specific reforms or extracurricular programs afloat.

The hunt for extra income has resulted in some trailblazing endeavors for schools. District 11 in Colorado Springs has been selling advertising space on school buses, hallways, and athletic uniforms and facilities. The 32,000-student district, which has formed a partnership with an advertising agency, will make $59,000 this year from contracts to tout Burger King, 7Up, and Pepsi Cola.

Voters have not approved a tax increase for the district since 1972, and teachers’ salaries have been frozen for three of the past five years. Local officials believe their advertising program is the first such district-wide effort in the nation. But calls have been pouring in from schools that want to follow suit. “Most of them said they were in bad financial times and wanted to know how they can put something together similar to our program,” says Tracy Cooper, a spokeswoman for the district.

Other districts and school groups that have caught the entrepreneurial spirit are hoping to solicit corporate sponsorships and market products bearing school insignias or logos. The York County, Va., public school system, which is looking for advertisers, expects a $1.7 million deficit in its nearly $50 million budget. “That causes you to be very creative,” says Laura Abel, a spokeswoman for the 10,700-student district.

In Florida, state lawmakers passed a measure to tap the charitable inclination of drivers. Floridians renewing or purchasing automobile license plates can buy “License for Learning” tags that feature drawings of a graduation cap and diploma inside an apple. The plates cost $17, with $2 going to the state and $15 targeted for schools through local education funds. Based on revenues from other specialty plates sold in the state, the tags could bring in as much as $3-million.

Groups of parents and other supporters of education have come up with some enterprising moneymaking plans of their own—such as cow-chip bingo. The athletic booster club at Del Oro High rakes in about $20,000 a year from the event. Each year in Tucson, Ariz., the Educational Enrichment Foundation sells off items left unclaimed at area dry cleaners. Sales have included wedding dresses, military uniforms, chefs’ outfits, and drapes.

Not all of these efforts have been trouble free. School officials in Virginia’s York County, for example, have been forced to fight a law banning advertising on school buses. So far, Colorado Springs’ District 11 has managed to avoid that kind of problem. In fact, most residents seem to appreciate the fact that the schools are rooting through sofa cushions for loose change. A few callers have been concerned about advertising in schools, Cooper says, “but there has not been one who said, ‘I’ll see you in court.’”

Laying A Foundation For The Future Of Teaching

Two foundations that have long supported education reform have created a new national commission to recommend ways to improve teaching and teacher development.

The Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York contributed $1.2 million and $400,000, respectively, to underwrite the work of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. The panel’s 26 members include several schoolteachers and administrators, as well as officials from business, labor, higher education, and government. Gov. James Hunt Jr. of North Carolina is chairman.

The commission began its work in November with a full-day conference in New York City, the first in a series of meetings to be held over the next 18 months. By the fall of 1996, the panel expects to publish a report outlining its recommendations.

“So much is happening in the field, but it’s really time to start pulling it all together,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who is the panel’s executive director. A new report by Darling-Hammond on the status of teaching in the United States was the basis for the group’s first discussions. The study found that many newly hired teachers are underprepared in teaching theory and subject matter and that the lack of training is most obvious in urban schools.

The panel will tackle those problems and, in the process, try to convince policymakers and the public that better preparation of teachers is critical to lasting success in education reform. “The commission will draw from the best ideas and models that have been created around the country to develop a blueprint for recruiting, training, and supporting excellent teachers,” said David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation.

Panel members pointed to the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—a private effort that has just begun to certify expert teachers—as an inspiration for their work. That board was established in 1987, following recommendations by a task force convened by the Carnegie Corporation. The new teaching commission draws on some of the forces that shaped the earlier effort. Governor Hunt, for example, is also chairman of the national board, and James Kelly, the board’s president, is a commission member.

A projected boom in teacher hiring over the next decade provides a dramatic backdrop for the commission’s efforts. The “graying” of the teacher work force will require districts to hire some 200,000 teachers a year in the near future, according to Darling-Hammond’s study. “The timing is right for this work,” she said, “and the commission is ready to focus on the issues where it really counts.”

Where The Boys Aren’t

A New Hampshire public high school may be the next to try out an increasingly popular equation for math classes: Subtracting boys equals greater success for girls.

Concerned that female students tend to fare poorly compared with male students on standardized math tests, the Portsmouth, N.H., school board voted 6-3 in November to consider a voluntary, all-girls math class at Portsmouth High School. Administrators at the 950-student school are drawing up plans. If the school board approves them, Portsmouth will become the first public school district in the state to offer a gender-segregated math class.

Over the past decade, schools in a handful of states have had some success with same-sex classes, boosting female students’ confidence and interest in traditionally male-dominated subjects. But many educators and gender-equity experts suggest that such treatment gives girls a negative image and violates Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in federally financed education programs. “We need to make sure we don’t send the message that girls need some sort of special class,” says Susan McGee Bailey, director of Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women.

Portsmouth school district officials hope to sidestep legal problems by making the classes voluntary and by discouraging, rather than prohibiting, boys from enrolling. Still, some teachers and students at the school are not convinced the idea is a good one. “I don’t really feel that we need [an all-girls class] here,” says Susan Foye, head of the math department at Portsmouth High. Foye says at least as many girls as boys take calculus and pre-calculus at the school and that they perform as well as the male students. “The only place they’re not doing as well,” she adds, “is on the SAT.”

But Pip Clews, a sophomore, believes a sex-segregated math class would give girls “greater confidence” in themselves. “Some think it’s kind of pointless to segregate after finally being integrated,” she says, “but I think that if we’re going to be equal, we have to learn to be equal.”

On the math section of the 1994 SAT, boys outscored girls by 41 points on a 200-to-800-point scale. Portsmouth school board member Charles Vaughn believes the discrepancies stem from poor self-confidence. An all-girls algebra class for 9th graders could help girls become more assertive in the subject, Vaughn says, and allow them to “move into geometry with a certain rigor.”

For the past six years, Presque Isle High School in Maine has offered just such a class—and has randomly assigned girls to it without any legal challenges. Periodically, says principal Dick Durost, a student or her parent will request the all-girls algebra section, but usually enrollment is set by a computer. “Most of the girls’ self-confidence is built to the point that they go into mixed classes with great success,” Durost says.

Judith Day, a member of the Los Angeles school district’s Commission for Sex Equity, thinks that, rather than pulling girls out of math and science classes, schools should be looking for ways to improve instruction for all students. All-female classes, she says, “are certainly a short-term way to bring girls into math and science, but ultimately what we need to do is think about how we are teaching those subjects in the first place.”

Dyslexia: A Genetic Link

A new study offers the most conclusive results to date pointing to a genetic link for dyslexia, a reading impairment that experts say affects up to 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren.

The findings, published in the Oct. 14 issue of Science magazine, could lead to the development of tests to identify and treat children with the learning disability earlier than is possible today. Currently, most youngsters with dyslexia do not receive any special help until the 3rd grade, according to Reid Lyon, director of research on learning disabilities at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

For many, that may be too late. Up to 80 percent of students with dyslexia who don’t start receiving special services until the 3rd grade will have the reading problem for the rest of their lives, Lyon says. “Early intervention is clearly the key,” Lyon explains, “and this [study] gives us an earlier window to initiate that intervention.”

Up to 20 percent of all children are born with varying degrees of dyslexia. And if a parent is dyslexic, the child’s risk of developing it is up to eight times higher than the risk for a child without a family history of the problem, says John DeFries, one of the study’s authors.

Experts have long suspected that dyslexia is carried on human chromosomes, which determine and transmit hereditary characteristics. Earlier studies had singled out chromosome 15, but, as with many studies involving complex traits, when more families were looked at, the findings fell apart. The new study traces the reading disorder to chromosome 6. The next step is to isolate the gene responsible for triggering dyslexia—something that is still a few years away, says DeFries, who is director of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This study indicates that it’s actually possible to identify individual genes that drive these complex behaviors,” he says.

In spite of scientific advances, true gains in students’ progress will be hard to achieve until the gap between what the research community knows and what teachers are doing in their classrooms is bridged. “Teachers,” Lyon says, “often aren’t being trained with the most up-to-date techniques.”

Up In Smoke

Students at Van Buren (Maine) High School watch a firefighter stoke a blaze made up of hundreds of T-shirts imprinted with tobacco-company logos and pictures of Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man. The November event was organized to celebrate the smoke-free-schools provision of Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The provision, signed into law last year, bars smoking in any indoor facility that receives federal money and provides education services to children. The fine for noncompliance is $1,000 a day until the school’s federal aid is used up. Before the law was enacted, 12 states had already passed legislation prohibiting smoking in schools. At press time, 10 legislatures had similar measures pending, and districts, fearful of losing federal aid, were scrambling to adopt no-smoking policies to meet the law’s Dec. 26 deadline. The Van Buren students didn’t come away from the bonfire empty-handed. For each tobacco-touting T-shirt committed to the flames, they got a shirt depicting a cartoon character stomping out a pack of cigarettes.

New Statistics

Add statistics to the list of advanced placement courses approved by the College Board. The new college-level course will be piloted during the 1995-96 school year and introduced formally the following fall. Designed to reflect the ever-increasing influence of computers, calculators, graphs, and charts, the AP statistics course will cover exploratory analysis, planning data production, probability, and statistical inference. “The course is going to show students just how relevant statistics and mathematics are to our lives,” says Houston teacher Diane Resnick, who helped develop the course.

No Is Not Enough

Eleven parents from the Southern California town of Hemet have filed a lawsuit against their children’s school district over its decision to adopt a sex education curriculum the parents contend is “dangerous.” The lawsuit followed months of protests and fruitless negotiations by parents opposed to the “abstinence only” curriculum. It argues that the curriculum violates a state law requiring that sex education materials be complete and medically accurate. The parents are seeking an injunction to prevent the district from using materials that promote abstinence as the only acceptable form of birth control.

Damages For Injury

The New York City school system has been ordered to pay $18.8- million to a young man in Queens who broke his neck leaping over a volleyball net in the Richmond Hill High School gymnasium. A jury found the school system liable for the injuries suffered by Jose Barretto because his team’s supervising coach stepped out of the gym before the accident in 1988. Had the coach been there, Barretto’s lawyer argued, the boys in the class would not have started leaping over the net, and Barretto, now 25, would not have suffered the injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

A Call To Arms

District and teachers’ union officials in Dade County, Fla., were meeting at press time to seek a compromise plan for improving teacher-parent communications. Superintendent Octavio Visiedo issued a policy in the fall requiring teachers to return parents’ telephone calls within two days. The county teachers’ union denounced the mandate, calling it unprofessional. Annette Katz, director of media and public relations for the United Teachers of Dade, said currently the teachers’ contract requires only that they return calls as soon as possible. Many teachers say there are not enough phone lines in the schools for them to carry out the superintendent’s order. Henry Fraind, a spokesman for the district, said parents had complained about not receiving prompt responses from teachers. The union, he added, had “blown the issue out of proportion.”

Shirt Prompts Suit

When 9th grader John Spindler wore a T-shirt depicting an American flag, a bald eagle, and the letters “USA” to school in Simi Valley, Calif., last fall, Valley View Junior High principal Dan Gaudioso promptly barred him from class. Valley View has a dress code prohibiting shirts with any writing or pictures, unless they are “school spirit shirts.” That didn’t deter John, who began showing up each day in his patriotic shirt only to be turned away by the principal. Finally, in October, John sued the principal and the school board, arguing that the dress code violates his First Amendment right of free expression. School officials say the district stands behind the policy and will defend it in court.

In A Lather

A Pennsylvania school district—threatened with a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union—has dropped a requirement that all students take showers following PE. The ACLU’s Pittsburgh chapter contended that the Hollidaysburg district’s policy violated students’ constitutional right to personal privacy. “The teen years are a time of real angst about body self-image,” said Vic Walczak, executive director of the chapter. “Most kids are going to take showers. But if a student feels strongly about not exposing himself in front of his peers, the school should respect that right.” After meeting with ACLU lawyers, the district said showers are now optional, though it recommends that students take showers “in the interest of hygiene.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Current Events

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