December 2008 Up Front

News Analysis
It’s the economy, again
Businesses can’t finance investment. Homeowners pay more for loans. Job losses mount.
Unemployment rates reflect broad labor market recession. Wages are flat. Fewer people have pensions and health insurance. Family debt contracts from record high levels. The housing crisis deepens. Homeowners lose wealth. Mortgage troubles mount.

Those 10 sentences, part of a column by analyst Christian E. Weller of the Center for American Progress, succinctly describe the reasons why the U.S. economy is at its worst point since the Great Depression. They also help to explain why participation in the federal government’s food stamp program for the needy is at near-record levels, and why school districts are seeing 10 to 40 percent increases in the number of homeless children.

But knowing the why doesn’t mean that we can find a way out of this crisis quickly, and it doesn’t spell good news for local school districts.

Already, districts from Maine to Wisconsin to California are putting the brakes on school construction projects as they struggle to find buyers for their bonds. Others are paying higher interest rates to borrow money, or preparing to battle their way through the bankruptcy process to recoup investments made with bankrupt Wall Street firms such as Lehman Brothers.

The picture is not a pretty one, and as state legislatures prepare to convene in January, the cuts are likely to continue through the rest of 2008-09 and well into the next fiscal year. Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, predicts at least 30 states will announce large spending reductions by the end of 2008.

“We have a moving target right now,” Griffith said during a mid-October conference call with education reporters. “… In most states, education is the largest single line item. It’s almost impossible not to think that education won’t be cut in those states.”

The first tier of cuts, Griffith said, will likely come from after-school, reading, and summer school programs. Teaching positions are the safest because states “don’t want to cut the number ... They will cut everything else.”

One area that has survived the budget axe, at least so far, is pre-k. In October, Pre-K Now and the Pew Charitable Trust released Votes Count, a state-by-state analysis that showed legislatures have maintained spending on early childhood programs.

However, in a poor economy, class size likely will increase, said Randall Reback, a Columbia University economics professor who studies trends in education spending. This is particularly true in states such as Florida, where lawmakers are debating whether to relax a 2002 constitutional amendment that places strict controls on the number of students in each classroom. The state already is predicting a $3.5 billion budget deficit for 2009-10.

A growing area of concern for many states is the rise in homeless families. In Massachusetts, the number of homeless students has grown from about 7,000 to almost 12,000 over the past three academic years. By mid-October, Boston had 100 more homeless students than the previous year, which troubled school and city officials.

“For children, school is not only the place where they learn and grow, it’s also the place where they get their most reliable meals of the day, breakfast and lunch,” Jim Greene, the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission director, told the Boston Globe.

It’s important to remember that economic fears have the potential to affect children’s health and well-being regardless of income. A survey of 500 U.S. teenagers released at the initial height of the Wall Street crisis found that almost 70 percent feared an “immediate negative impact” on the security of their families.

Stanley Greenspan, professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University, said one reason is that children “pick up the mood, the tension, the anxiety -- there are no secrets in families.”

“Younger kids tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers,” Greenspan told the Washington Post. “So a healthy 8-year-old is more likely to worry in a more extreme way than an adult.”

One potentially good outcome for school districts, Reback said, is that the quality of teaching applicants will likely improve as more people seek the stability of a job in public education. He said there’s no question that districts will be picky even in the midst of cutbacks and layoffs.

In Fort Worth, Texas, school officials are considering closing some buildings. That’s better than in Dallas, where 550 layoffs are expected. Both districts had struggled to fill positions in the mid 1990s.

Dave Robinson, president of the Fort Worth Education Association, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he expects fewer retirements and more teachers taking shorter maternity leave rather than extended time off.

“Teachers,” Robinson said, “are going to be fighting for jobs.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief



Families using technology to remain close, study says

Even as school districts struggle to figure out how to harness social networking and bridge a growing technology gap (see story, page 14), a new study says families are using cell phones, e-mail, text messages, and other forms of communication to remain close to each other.

The Networked Families poll, released in mid-October by the Pew Internet and Family Life Project, said one-fourth of adults believe cell phones and online communication have made their families closer. More important, 60 percent said the new technologies did not affect the closeness of their family, and only 11 percent said they have had a negative effect.

“There had been some fears that the Internet had been taking people away from each other,” Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociology professor and one of the report’s authors, told the Washington Post. “We found just the opposite.”

The poll said cell phones and the Internet are used widely in households with two parents, regardless of the family’s education, income, employment, race, or ethnicity. More than four out of five children in the families polled use the Internet, compared to 94 percent of adults.

“Although some commentators have expressed fears that technology pulls families apart, this survey finds that couples use their phones to connect and coordinate their lives, especially if they have children at home,” the report says. “American spouses often go their separate ways during the day, but remain connected by cell phones and to some extent by Internet communications. When they return home, they often have shared moments of exploration and entertainment on the Internet.”

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project, said parents are using and embracing technology because they think it’s “important or useful” for their children.

The poll did not capture the responses of single-parent families, however. And it shows some of the drawbacks to the 24-7 connected world. Among them:

• Families with multiple communication devices were less likely than other groups to eat dinner together daily. These families also feel satisfied that they had enough family time.

• Among employed Internet-using adults, 11 percent say the Internet has increased the amount of time they spend working from the office, and 19 percent say it has raised the number of hours they spend working from home.

• Single households had the lowest rate of cell phone ownership (61 percent), home computer ownership (48 percent), overall Internet usage (44 percent), and home broadband adoption (27 percent).



Football-related deaths raise safety questions

Three of the 1.8 million teenagers who played football in the U.S. died in 2007. This fall, three died in New Jersey alone.

Two of the students died from brain hemorrhages that were the result of collisions with other players; the third was from an undiagnosed heart defect.

The deaths renewed the debate over when athletes should be allowed back on the field after sustaining a head injury, and led to further questions about school officials’ qualifications in treating concussions.

A number of programs have been created to help educate players, coaches, and trainers about the nature of neurological injuries. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Association conducts an annual concussion workshop for athletic trainers.

But is it enough?

Bob Baly, the athletic association’s associate director, said school leaders should be concerned about any sport where contact is involved, not just football. He said schools are “starting to learn more” about concussions.

“They’re not just happening because students are bigger and faster,” Baly told the New York Times. “There’s also more knowledge about how the brain works. One of the things about football is that the helmets are better. But soccer’s become more aggressive.”

At Montclair High School in Ridgewood, where 16-year-old Ryne Doughterty died after a hit on a kickoff 25 days after suffering a concussion, his father Martin refused to assess blame. A teammate said the younger Dougherty had complained of headaches even though he was cleared to play.

“This is no one’s fault,” Martin Dougherty told a reporter for CNN/SI.com. “He liked to hit. You couldn’t keep him out of the gym or off the field.

“This is surreal,” Dougherty said during a makeshift vigil for his son. “I just hope better testing and awareness comes of this.”



Brownsville ISD wins top honors from Broad, CUBE

The Brownsville Independent School District, a school system on the Texas-Mexico border that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, is on a roll this fall.

In mid-October, the district was named the “best kept secret in America” when it won the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education. The award came two weeks after Brownsville’s school board received top honors from NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE).

“In the face of stark poverty, Brownsville is outpacing other large urban districts nationwide because it is smartly focusing all resources on directly supporting students and teachers,” said Eli Broad, president of the foundation that bears his name.

Brownsville’s challenges are stark. The district, which serves nearly 50,000 students, is 98 percent Hispanic, with 43 percent of its overall population qualified as English language learners. More than 90 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

And yet, at all grade levels in reading and math, the district outperformed all other Texas districts with similar income levels. The gap between Hispanic students and the state average for white students closed by 12 percent alone in middle school math. More students are taking Advanced Placement classes and the SAT exams than in previous years.

“I attribute this to the hard work of our staff,” Superintendent Hector Gonzales said. “Our teachers know all students can learn and accept no excuses.”

In addition to the Broad and CUBE awards, the district has partnered with the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to start a dual-enrollment for high school students to earn college credit. The students will be the first to attend college in their families.

Finally, the district was one of three in the U.S. chosen by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health to participate in the Alliance/Merck Ciencia Hispanic Scholars Program. Over five years, high school students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math degrees will be eligible to receive $42,500 scholarships.

It was not all good news for the district, however. On the day the Broad prize was announced, Texas education officials said the district had failed to meet achievement targets under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The spirit of No Child Left Behind is good, the intent is great, we just need to look at how it labels schools and how we fund it,” Gonzales said.



Rural school districts facing threat of consolidation

Consolidation increasingly is becoming an attractive alternative to states faced with growing pressure to fund public education, with small, rural school districts being affected the most. The question, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, is whether policymakers take the best interest of students into account.

“It’s a case-by-case situation,” says Marty Strange, the organization’s policy director. “Where we balk is when there is a systemic, forced, and somewhat arbitrary consolidation of school districts. We think there are a lot of worthy considerations not given their due in the process.”

Over the past 70 years, the number of school districts has declined from 117,000 to around 14,200, even though the student population has almost doubled. Ten states, led by Maine, are considering consolidation or moving toward the process this year.

Strange said during a late October webinar that consolidation “crosses hairs with all of the classic debates -- equity, adequacy, efficiency, and the question of who is in control.”

“As the evidence grows daily that small schools are quite effective, this is an issue that is being turned on its head,” he said. “It’s gone from ‘How big does a school or district have to be to be efficient?’ to ‘How small do schools have to be to be effective?’ … For the most part, these issues are not matters of a right way and a wrong way. They are questions of value and questions in many respects that trouble the mind.”

Historically, consolidation has been a rural issue, but urban systems are seeing declining enrollment as well, which often results in the merger of two or more schools. Whether it occurs at the school or district level, Strange says the same issues -- loss of community in the pursuit of efficiency -- are the same.

States often look to consolidation when they face long-term declining enrollment and rising per-pupil costs. Legislators are likely to consider the process as a way to address funding inequities.

“This issue gets intense in states where there is a divergence of fortune, where you have prosperous urban areas and rural areas that are in great distress,” Strange says.

An example, he notes, is in Nebraska, where urban populations in and around Omaha and Great Forks are thriving and growing rapidly. Meanwhile, rural areas that have relied heavily on the agricultural economy are suffering, and Strange says the “feeling is that the rural areas are holding the urban areas back.”

Ultimately, Strange believes that as many as 25 states will take consolidation plans into consideration. And rural districts, he says, are in the most danger of losing their autonomy and identity.

“In 1920, we were still close to being a rural majority nation. Today, we’re definitely a rural minority nation,” he says. “As we’ve become an urban nation, we’ve stopped talking about the quality of rural schools and started talking about the cost of keeping them open.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

For more information on school consolidation, visit www.asbj.com and click on “The Long Road to Unity” button. Copies of the Rural School and Community Trust webinar can be downloaded at www.nsba.org/natwinrivers.



Talk About It

Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

The AYP balloon payment
Sacramento’s Prairie Elementary School has made solid progress on state tests, with each subgroup of students increasing test scores by an average of 3 percent annually since 2002. This year, however, the school is on probation after failing to make the 11 percent jump in proficiency required by the state. The reason Prairie Elementary and others like it face such a pinch, according to the New York Times, is that a number of states chose to low ball academic progress in the first five years of NCLB and schools are now paying the price. The states gambled that the 2014 requirement for 100 percent proficiency in reading and math would be changed when the law was reauthorized, but since that now is on hold until a new administration is in place, schools such as Prairie Elementary are faced with probation -- and a lot of sleepless nights.

Birth control in schools
The Glouchester, Mass., school board has decided to allow the distribution of condoms and birth control pills to high school students as long as parents don’t object. The district was the subject of national media attention after a steep rise in student pregnancies was reported during the 2007-08 school year. A majority of students and public health officials supported the access to contraceptives, but parents who wanted the ban to continue say allowing the practice -- even with an opt-out clause -- is still not acceptable. Under the policy, parents can choose to remove their students from receiving reproductive health services, rather than students getting “parent consent.”

Dating violence class
A new law requires all public middle and high school students in Rhode Island to receive instruction about dating violence in their health classes. The state is the second -- Texas is the other -- to make the instruction mandatory for students and parents. But what makes Rhode Island unique is that the law requires school districts to incorporate the instruction into the seventh- through 12th-grade curriculum. Called the Lindsay Ann Burke Act, the law was pushed through the state legislature by Burke’s parents after their daughter was killed by an abusive boyfriend in 2005.

Goodbye, class rankings
A number of Wiscon­sin high schools have ended the practice of reporting students’ class rankings in an effort to help graduates’ chances for college admission. One potential drawback: No class ranking puts extra emphasis on students’ ACT and SAT scores. Eliminating class rankings has reduced students’ anxiety during the application process, said Bill Henkle, principal of Milwaukee’s Whitefish Bay High School. “They used to be obsessed with it,” Henkle told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “With each passing semester, it was like kids were watching their stock go up or down, thinking, ‘I just fell out of the top 10 percent and now I’ll never get into such-and-such a place.’”

NCLB and special education
It’s a cruel irony: A school on the watch list for poor student performance finally makes the grade in reading and math, only to find that it doesn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act because of poor attendance. What makes this all-too-common story worse is that the Montgomery County, Md., school serves students with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. According to the Washington Post, one student missed 119 of 180 days due to illness, while another died after being absent for 80 days. Montgomery County has the option of seeking an exemption under state and federal law, but refuses to do so because officials believe it would be disingenuous to say the students attend a different school.

Reading apprenticeship
Michigan’s Macomb County school district has started a reading apprenticeship program to boost the literacy skills of high school students. The “talking to the test” program has trained 2,300 teachers throughout the county over the past four years, and both test scores and awareness around students’ reading skills has increased. Through the training, teachers get a set of strategies that they can use every day in the classroom, regardless of the subject matter. As one teacher told the Detroit Free Press: “So many students will read through something. They can read the words. But you ask them what it means, what they just read, to summarize, and they can’t do it.”