News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Philadelphia Wants Stricter Graduation, Promotion Rules

Philadelphia has vowed to end social promotion and demand more from students in exchange for a diploma. But there's a catch.

Unless the district can put in place various support programs and services, it won't hold students to the tougher requirements for graduation and advancement to the 5th and 9th grades. And finding the money for that list of programs is no sure thing for the cash-strapped, 214,000-student district.

Under a five-year plan adopted this summer, the school board committed to phasing in programs ranging from smaller class sizes to enhanced teacher training. The package will cost $416 million annually by 2002-03.

The first phase calls for summer school next year for struggling students in grades 3, 7, and 11. Then, in 2000, students would have to meet specific criteria to be promoted from the 4th and 8th grades. The district considers those grades "benchmark years."

Starting in 2002, students would not graduate unless they had earned a passing score on either a national test or on new citywide final exams planned for core academic courses. They would also be required to take two years of a foreign language and four years of both math and science.

Nev. Toughens Middle School

Nevada's 7th and 8th graders won't be able to coast through middle school anymore in hopes of bringing up their grades in high school. A new policy adopted by the state school board will require students to earn a C in their math and English classes for at least a year in order to get into high school.

The rule will go into effect in the 1999-2000 school year. The standards will get even tougher the following school year, when students have to maintain the C average for 1 1/2 years.

What will happen to students who don't make the grade is still unclear. The state education department plans to ask the legislature for $12 million for remediation programs next year, said Keith Rheault, the deputy schools superintendent.

It's unusual to see such specific requirements at the state level, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. But she added that the emphasis on higher expectations for middle schoolers is a growing trend.

N.C. Turns Schools Around

North Carolina's 15 lowest-performing schools all made significant progress on state tests this year, with 13 earning exemplary status, according to preliminary results from the state education department.

The schools were placed under the management of state assistance teams last year after students failed to meet expected performance levels on tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. Principals were put on temporary suspension, some were reassigned, and several retired.

The teams helped teachers and administrators at each school improve curriculum and teaching practices.

Under the 2-year-old accountability plan, the ABCs of Public Education, the state set performance levels in reading and math for each of North Carolina's 1,600 elementary and middle schools. High schools were included in the school-by-school report this year. Complete results were to be released this week.


Conspiracy Charges Dropped

A Mississippi circuit court judge has dismissed criminal conspiracy charges against five teenagers who had been accused of plotting the multiple shootings at Pearl High School last fall.

The judge dismissed the charges at the request of District Attorney John Kitchens, who said it would be difficult to meet the requirements under Mississippi law for winning convictions against the accused.

The shootings occurred last October as students at the high school in Pearl, Miss. as they prepared for morning classes. ("Six Charged as Conspirators in Miss. High School Slayings," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Luke Woodham, 17, was convicted in June of killing two students and wounding seven others in the incident. He was sentenced to two life terms for the deaths and 20 years each for the seven aggravated-assault charges.

The July 22 ruling leaves three of the students free of any charges; the other two still face trials on accessory-to-murder charges.

No Rise in School Deaths

Despite the spate of campus shootings over the past school year, the number of school-related violent deaths has not increased since 1992, and schools are far safer places to be than private homes, a report says.

There were 42 school-related fatalities per year on average between 1992 and 1995, compared with 33 per year on average between 1995 and 1998, according to the report by the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal-justice think tank in Washington.

In addition, 90 percent of juvenile killings occurred at home, and children were 23 times more likely to be killed by a gun accident than by a shooting at school, says the report, which used data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National School Safety Center.

Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the institute, said that intensive news coverage of the fatal school shootings during the past year left a false impression that violent crime on campus was escalating. Schools, he said, are still the safest place for children.

Chief Guilty on Cleanup

A federal district court has convicted a former superintendent in New Bethlehem, Pa., of violating federal law by improperly removing and disposing of asbestos from a high school.

New Bethlehem

The jury last month found David Farley, the former superintendent of the Redbank Valley public schools, guilty of violating the federal Clean Air Act when he failed to prevent possible exposure to tiles containing asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Weeks after a flood damaged Redbank Valley High School in 1996, Mr. Farley directed custodians and two students to remove tiles from the building instead of hiring a professional contractor, said Constance Bowden, the assistant U.S. attorney in the case.

Ms. Bowden said the administrator was also found guilty of disposing of the tile on a nearby farm and of failing to inform the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 10 days in advance of the cleanup effort.

Robert Ging, Mr. Farley's lawyer, said his client, who is no longer with the 1,626-student system, was wrongly convicted. Mr. Farley "thought the school was asbestos free" because tiles were removed during an asbestos cleanup in 1994, Mr. Ging said.

Mr. Farley faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A sentencing hearing is set for October.

Kiryas Joel Denied Again

The village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., has lost another legal round as a New York state appeals court affirmed a ruling that struck down the state's most recent attempt to form a school district for the community of Hasidic Jews.

The New York legislature has tried three times to create a district for the community about 50 miles northwest of New York City. Most children in Kiryas Joel attend religious schools, but the public school district serves several hundred children with disabilities.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 struck down a 1989 state law establishing a district for the village, calling it a form of religious favoritism.

In the latest ruling, a state appeals court in Albany said the 1997 law under which Kiryas Joel's district was formed "lacks the neutrality toward religion mandated by the establishment clause of the First Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution.

In a 5-0 ruling last month, the appeals court suggested that because of a separate 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed public school teachers back onto the premises of religious schools to provide remedial classes, the neighboring Monroe-Woodbury district could once again take over the special education needs of the village and could send teachers into religious schools there.

Lawyers for New York state and the Kiryas Joel district have indicated they plan to appeal.

Praying Teacher Gets Back Pay

Mildred Rosario, a 6th grade bilingual education teacher in New York City who was fired for praying with her 30-student class, has been awarded two weeks' pay by the city school board.

The decision last month to compensate Ms. Rosario for the time she missed from the remainder of the school year--and her one-year contract--was reached after the United Federation of Teachers argued that she could not be fired under the emergency provision in her contract because she did not present a threat to the children. Ms. Rosario admitted to leading her class in prayer and "laying hands" on some of the children after they had asked about the fate of a classmate who had recently drowned.

Ms. Rosario has filed a civil suit against the school board, claiming wrongful termination. She is seeking to be reinstated and awarded damages.

After numerous parents protested her dismissal from Middle School 74 in the Bronx, state Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, a Democrat, introduced legislation that would create a volunteer interfaith-chaplaincy program in each of the state's school districts, similar to those existing in hospitals, the military, and fire and police departments.

No Fees for Public Records

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that school officials may not charge school board members fees for retrieving public records, as board members are responsible for overseeing operations and therefore, must be given all documents necessary to do so.

The ruling came last month in the case of Elaine Rathmann, a former member of the Davenport, Iowa, school board, who has been involved in a long dispute with district administrators. Ms. Rathmann sought notes and draft materials relating to a proposed restructuring of the school administration. Officials of the district had argued that finding those papers would be too time-consuming.

The court also upheld a lower-court ruling giving a school superintendent authority to decide when and on what issues to seek legal help. Ms. Rathmann had argued that the school board should approve the use of counsel, and that district lawyers should confine their work to litigation.

Boston Truancy Rates Up

Students returning to the Boston public schools this fall will face a new student-promotion policy that intends to crack down on truancy.

Boston's 17,000 public high school students missed an average of 28 days of school last year, four more than the average of students in the nation's 10 largest cities, according to a recent study conducted for the school system.

Under the new attendance standards enacted June 24, students who accumulate more than three unexcused whole-day absences per quarter or 12 unexcused whole-day absences per school year will not receive credit for the course. Each school is responsible for determining at what point a student is considered late or absent. Previously, students received a failing grade if they missed more than 15 percent of the quarter's total school days, which equaled 7 to 8 days, depending on the number of days in the quarter.

Schools will be paired with local law-enforcement and human-services agencies, create task forces, form attendance-review teams, and establish student-support teams, according to Ken Caldwell, the district's chief of staff.

Milwaukee Approves Charters

The city of Milwaukee has approved four charter schools scheduled to open in the fall.

While other cities have formed partnerships with school districts to set up charters, Milwaukee is believed to be the first municipality that can sponsor them on its own. ("Milwaukee May Adopt Its Own Charter Plan," April 29, 1998.)

Days before members of the city's Common Council voted July 24 to approve the four schools, the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the city-sponsored schools.

The National Education Association affiliate argues that the state legislation allowing Milwaukee to sponsor charter schools is unconstitutional because it was included in last year's state budget bill and not voted on as a separate measure--a move required by the state constitution, said Barry Gilbert, a spokesman for the local union. The union also argues that the 107,000-student Milwaukee district will suffer cutbacks as students leave to attend the charter schools. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 6 in Dane County Circuit Court.

La. Breakup Clears Hurdle

Efforts to break up the Rapides Parish school district in central Louisiana got a boost recently when a federal appeals panel overturned a ruling that had blocked the move on grounds that it would frustrate court-ordered desegregation.

A 1995 amendment to the state constitution authorized the predominantly white northern tier of the 24,000-student district to secede this coming school year.

The district challenged the amendment, however, arguing that the new district would run afoul of desegregation orders. Only 13 percent of the roughly 8,000 students residing in the proposed new district are black, compared with 42 percent in the existing system.

In a June 26 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found that it was premature for the federal district court to conclude that the new district would violate desegregation orders, which have resulted in extensive cross-parish busing. The Rapides Parish district has asked the full circuit court to overrule the panel.

Coaches Get Libel Settlement

n Two prominent high school track coaches have settled a libel suit against the parents who had accused the coaches of providing student athletes with performance-enhancing drugs.

Linda and Arthur Kranick, married science teachers at the 1,500-student Saratoga Springs High School in New York, were awarded $67,500 in last month's settlement, according to their lawyer, Richard Hanft. They had originally sought $17 million in damages.

"What was important was not the money, but the sanctity and purity of their names and reputations," Mr. Hanft said.

In 1994, the Kranicks filed suit against William and Camille Karl--whose two daughters used to run on the Kranicks' teams--for accusing them of dispensing performance-enhancing drugs to the girls' track and cross-country teams.

The charges were aired nationally because the Kranicks have helped the school in Saratoga Springs win a host of state championships since 1987. The Karls could not be reached for comment.

Hiring of Principal Blocked

A Cook County, Ill., judge has issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits the local school council at Clemente High School from hiring a principal and allows a principal chosen by the Chicago school board to remain in the job.

Circuit Court Judge Ellis E. Reid issued the restraining order last month in a suit filed by school board officials seeking to resolve who should serve as the high school's principal--the board-appointed Irene DaMota, or Betzaida Figueroa, who had been selected by the Clemente High council.

Such councils, which include community representatives, parents, and teachers, are empowered to choose principals under the district's system of school governance.

In the lawsuit, Chicago school officials charge that the Clemente council failed to fill a principal vacancy within 90 days, a statutory requirement, and violated school board policy by rescinding Ms. DaMota's contract. She had been appointed by schools chief Paul Vallas in January after the 2,300-student school was put on both academic and financial probation. Local school council members endorsed her appointment in February.

School for Blind Faces Cuts

Nine jobs will be eliminated at Wisconsin's only residential state school for the blind as state leaders continue to contemplate a plan to shut the school down.

The cutback follows a 1995 state audit that recommended reducing the teacher-to-student ratio. Enrollment at the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped has fallen over the past 15 years from 100 to 59. The school, located in Janesville, had 28 employees before the cuts.

Three teachers, three counselors, a psychologist, and a janitor were laid off in mid-July, said Debra Bougie, a spokeswoman for the state education department. A fourth teacher lost full-time status but will continue to teach part time.

Class sizes will now average four to six students, compared with two or three before.

State Superintendent John Benson recommended last summer that the school be closed, a proposal the legislature continues to discuss. ("The End in Sight," March 11, 1998.)

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 4-5

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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