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Best and Worst 2007

By Brian Nadel | January 2008
We bring you the best--and the worst!--of the year.<br />
We bring you the best--and the worst!--of the year.

Scores are up. But so is segregation. More schools are going green. But what’s with the $15,000 espresso maker? Over the course of a year, the editors discover an awful lot of interesting district scuttlebutt, both good and bad. What follows is a refined collection. Have better stories? Log onto the Administ@tor Message Boards and dish.

Best signs of improvement
Most of the 11 big-city school districts taking part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) continue to gain in mathematics. The majority of districts in the Trial Urban District Assessment had higher percentages of fourth and eighth graders performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels of achievement in math on the test since 2003. Nearly half of all districts had a significant improvement in the percentage of fourth graders reaching Advanced—the highest level. The same can’t be said for reading: No district significantly improved at this level compared with 2003.

Worst district-wide memorandum
The Los Angeles Unified School District asked 36,000 employees in November to give back an estimated
$53 million they were overpaid due to the district’s malfunctioning payroll system. Other teachers were underpaid or didn’t receive checks at all. The district has pledged to repay about 7,000 employees who were shortchanged $7 million.   

Best examples of energy consciousness
Several schools across the nation have received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating, which is awarded to facilities that meet U.S. Green Building Council criteria to save water and energy and improve air quality. If all new school construction and school renovations went green starting today, energy savings alone would total $20 billion over the next 10 years. Fossil Ridge High School in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, spends about
40 percent less on energy than other high schools in its district, thanks to sustainable design that includes natural lighting. Arabia Mountain High School in suburban Atlanta also features naturally lit classrooms. Minnesota’s Elk River Area School District utilized recycled building materials; in Chicago, Tarkington Elementary’s gym supports a flower garden, which helps to insulate the building; and Clackamas High School in Clackamas, Oregon, uses an array of solar panels. For more information on green schools, check out www.usgbc.org.

WORST ::: E-Rate Robberies
*There is little debate that E-Rate, the $2 billion federal program that helps cash-strapped districts purchase crucial Internet and telecom access and equipment at a discount, has done a lot of good. But it has also been abused by corrupt companies and school administrators, almost since its inception in 1996. Last year was no exception, as scams proliferated all over the country.

*In February, two former telecommunications workers, Richard E. Brown and Keith J. Madeiros, pleaded guilty to submitting more than $453,000 in fake invoices to collect money from the E-Rate program, for work they claimed to have done in Connecticut schools.

*William Coleman III, the Dallas school district’s former deputy superintendent and chief operating officer, and Ruben Bohuchot, its former chief technology officer, were indicted in May for allegedly taking bribes from businessman Frankie Wong. Wong’s company, Micro Systems, was awarded $39 million in technology contracts in 2002 and 2003. Investigators claim that Wong allowed Bohuchot the use of his two yachts in exchange for rigging the bidding for Dallas’s E-Rate-funded products in Wong’s favor.

*Also in May, Arthur R. Scott, the former technology director of Atlanta Public Schools (APS), and his wife, Evelyn Myers Scott, a former employee of APS’s Information Services Department, pleaded guilty in federal district court to bribery and defrauding the district. The couple received more than $323,000 in bribes from technology vendors who wanted to do business with APS. Arthur Scott was involved in the selection of vendors for multimillion-dollar projects.n In September, former Video Network Communications sales representative Judy Green of Temecula, California, was convicted on 22 counts involving fraud, collusion, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy. Her crimes were in connection with E-Rate projects at schools in seven states: Arkansas, California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Five others were also found guilty of conspiring with Green in the scheme, which involved six different telecom companies.

*Want to stop more E-Rate scam artists? Anyone with information concerning fraud in the E-Rate program can contact the Cleveland field office of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division at 216-522-4070, or the San Francisco field office of the antitrust division at 415-436-6660.

Worst lawsuit magnet
In May, the ACLU filed its fifth lawsuit in 13 years against the Tangipahoa Parish School District in southern Louisiana. According to the ACLU, students at Loranger Middle School were given Gideon Bibles on school grounds during school hours.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of the upset parents of a fifth grader at the middle school. At the same time the lawsuit was filed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Orleans, was hearing arguments in a school prayer case—involving the same school district.

Best fat fighters
In November, T. J. Lee Elementary School in Irving and McDougle Elementary School in Klein were the first schools in Texas to receive U.S. Department of Agriculture “Gold School” awards for efforts to help students make healthy eating and lifestyle choices. The schools received the award as part of the USDA’s Healthier U.S. School Challenge. The schools’ lunches met enhanced nutrition requirements, such as daily offerings of two or more sources of iron-rich foods, low-fat or skim milk, good sources of vitamin C, fresh fruits or raw vegetables, and whole-grain foods. T. J. Lee Elementary School had previously received the USDA’s silver award in 2006 for its nutrition efforts.

Worst trend reversal
U.S. public schools are becoming more racially segregated, according to a report published by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles. The authors contend that the trend is likely to accelerate because of a Supreme Court decision in June. The rise in segregation threatens the quality of education received by non-white students, who now make up 43 percent of the total U.S. student body.

BEST ::: Big Apple Gets Big Bucks
In September, the Broad Foundation awarded its annual Broad Prize for Urban Education, the largest single education prize in the country, to the New York City Department of Education. The award ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., attracted the likes of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (who graduated from the NYC school system in 1954). The real prize, however, goes to the kids: The $500,000 in prize money pays for college scholarships for graduating high school seniors in the city. The following are among the reasons for the Big Apple win.

1. Greater overall performance and improvement. In 2006, New York City outperformed other districts in New York state in reading and math at all grade levels among students with similar income levels. New York City also showed greater improvement between 2003 and 2006 than other districts in New York state.

2. Greater subgroup performance and improvement. In 2006, low-income, African-American, and Latino students outperformed and showed greater improvement than their peers
in similar New York state districts in reading and math at all grade levels.

3. Closing achievement gaps. Between 2003 and 2006, the achievement gap in high school between the city’s Latino students and the state average for white students closed by 14 percentage points; the African-American/white achievement gap closed 13 percentage points.

4. More African-American and Latino students achieving at high levels. New York City increased the percentage of African-American and Latino students at the highest level of elementary school math: a 7 percentage-point increase for African-Americans and a 9 percentage-point increase
for Latinos.

Best news according to the Feds
The DOE declared much progress in its National Assessment of Title I report. The number of participating students has tripled over the past decade, rising from 6.7 million in 1994–95 to 20 million in 2004–05. The report states that during the first four years of the law, states implemented new testing, more rigorous accountability systems, and improved data collection. States also offered free tutoring for students in under-performing schools, ensured all students are taught by a highly qualified teacher, and provided better information to parents. Of course there is never good news without some bad. The report points to stagnant high school achievement, achievement gaps not closing fast enough, and too few students receiving aid.

Worst excuse for lost homework
The Philadelphia School District spent nearly $700,000 on a study of the district’s management and organization structure. During the study, consultants found that the district’s organization was chaotic, with officials unable to say where different employees were located or to whom they reported. In fact, when reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer asked district and School Reform Commission officials for a copy of the report, it took a week to even locate one. The $700,000 spent on the study, said the Inquirer, would have paid the salary and benefits of 13 new teachers.

WORST ::: Litigation Madness

It started out as a prank by an 18-year-old senior named Joseph Frederick at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska. One cold day in January 2002, students were allowed to leave school in order to watch the Olympic torch relay team pass by. Frederick formulated a plan to get himself and his friends on television. He set himself up across from the high school during local press coverage of the event. Then he and his buddies unfurled a massive paper banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”—a provocative, if nonsensical, phrase that Frederick later claimed he’d once seen on a snowboard.

It could have ended there; instead, it entered the realm of the absurd. Juneau-Douglas’s principal at the time, Deborah Morse, ran over and seized the banner. Frederick was then suspended from school for 10 days for violating the school’s antidrug policy.

Three months later, Frederick filed suit against the board and Principal Morse for violating his First Amendment right to free speech. The District Court ruled for the school board; the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. So the school board took the next logical step: It appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in March 2007.

In June, the Court ruled five to four against Frederick, claiming that restriction of student speech is justified in certain cases—such as when a student advocates the use of illegal drugs.

Many legal scholars decried the decision as an erosion of free speech for students nationwide, but it could have been worse. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, went so far as to claim that public school students have no First Amendment right to free speech at all. “To elevate such impertinence to the status of constitutional protection would be farcical and would indeed be to ‘surrender control of the American public school system to public school students,’” wrote Thomas, approvingly quoting former Justice Hugo Black. 

BEST ::: Top Innovators
Intel presents its Intel Schools of Distinction Awards each year to schools with innovative math and science programs that could serve as models for other schools.

In October, it named Bergen Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey, as the “Star Innovator” among its six winners. Many schools teach mathematics as theory—numbers and formulas on a dusty chalkboard—but few, like Bergen, truly bring that theory into the real world. Bergen’s program is hands-on, in the most literal sense of the term. Classes compete with one another in bridge-building contests and robot design and construction. Students also help design quality-of-life improvements for a sister school that provides housing geared toward handicapped students’ needs.

The real-world ethic extends to the teachers that Bergen hires: Many come from professions other than teaching—professions in which they used mathematics as an integral part of their work. Bergen’s strategy has paid off: On last year’s math proficiency exams, 100 percent of Bergen’s students were ranked proficient, with more than 97 percent deemed at advanced proficiency.

Other Intel award winners have a similar pragmatic mindset, forging partnerships with real-world labs. Conyers Middle School in Conyers, Georgia, has partnered with NASA and Georgia Tech to expand its students’ horizons, and students at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, can take part in research at the local University of Michigan. The days of “pure mathematics,” with students spinning theoretical proofs without a foundation in real-world problems, may be coming to an end.

Balboa Elementary School in San Diego, Sewell Middle School in Bremen, Georgia, and Escalante School in Salt Lake City also received awards. Each of the six winning schools received a $10,000 grant from the Intel Foundation.

WORST ::: Most Disturbing Trend: Female Teachers, Sexual Predators
Creepy congressmen aren’t the only ones victimizing students. But these offenders, all female former educators, don’t exactly fit the stereotype.

*Former Kearny (NJ) High School English teacher Celeste Adamski pled guilty to one count of official misconduct in October as part of a plea agreement, after which she will not be permitted to teach again. Adamski confessed to having sexual intercourse with one of her 17-year-old students.

* After a series of sex scandals involving teachers and students in Brunswick County (NC) schools, the school's human resources director, Terry Chestnutt, decided to look for a consultant in mid-2007 to provide sexual harassment training for teachers and students. One candidate looked promising: Janet Botton Klatt, a 45-year-old former teacher, gave a solid presentation to Chestnutt, who planned to report favorably to the superintendent. It turned out that Klatt had been charged the previous year with having sex with a 16-year-old student and was convicted on reduced charges of “indecent liberties.”

* Sharon Rutherford of Coffeeville, Alabama, was convicted in October for enticing a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old student for sex. She was arrested last year when one of her students told the principal at Coffeeville High School that he had sex with Rutherford. Rutherford has also been accused of soliciting one of her students to kill her husband.
 
*A former teacher and basketball coach at Wharton High School in Tampa, Florida, Jaymee Wallace, was sentenced in December to three years in prison, followed by three years of sex offender probation, after pleading guilty to lewd and lascivious battery and unlawful sexual activity with a minor.

*In November, Kelli Jo Camp, a 29-year-old former New Cuyama, California, teacher, was convicted of having sex with a 17-year-old student. She pled no contest to a felony count of unlawful sex with a minor and was sentenced to one year in county jail and five years probation.

*Pamela Balogh, 40, a former girls’ athletics coach at Immaculata High School in Somerville, New Jersey, was convicted in December of four counts of sexually assaulting one of her female students in 2005. At press time, Balogh was facing a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison.

B E S T : : :
The Defeat of NCLB

For the National Education Association (and perhaps its Democratic political allies), defeating the proposed reauthorization of NCLB was a display of political might that is seen by some as a way to help ensure that a Democrat wins the White House in 2008. For districts and administrators who have to deal with the current law another year, not so much.

A Union-Charter Hybrid
For nearly two decades, teachers have fought against charters largely because they were non-union. Along comes a new variation, Los Angeles’ Green Dot, that is both a charter and a union school. 

Online Dating for School Supplies
For years, classroom teachers had to beg their principals or write grant proposals to get extra books or supplies. Now they can go online, describe what they need, and have their requests filled by donors who want to see their gifts (usually about $100) go directly to work.

Great Education Writing
There were a few great education articles written this year, including Amy Waldman’s profile of New Orleans schools in The Atlantic Monthly, Kate Boo’s look at the Denver school system in The New Yorker, and Stephanie Banchero’s peek inside the effort to turn around a failing school in the Chicago Tribune.

W O R S T : : :
The Reading First Scandal

Conflicts of interest among some of those who developed (and benefited from) the program tarnished a relatively new federal K–3 literacy effort that many state and local administrators found useful.

National Standards
The political winds were not blowing right for national standards, but that didn’t stop a few think tanks and wannabe presidential candidates from pushing the concept, last advocated by President Clinton in 1997.

A Plague of Bans
The list of things that schools, districts, and lawmakers try to ban keeps getting longer—but no more effective. For 2007, this includes teenage tanning, “juke” (or freak) dancing, booing, and group hugs.

Oprah’s School
When Oprah Winfrey announced the creation of a new boarding school for girls in South Africa, everyone cooed and clapped. When it turned out that one of the school employees might have been molesting girls in the dorms, the public wasn’t so sure. 

Obama at the Madrassa
For a few minutes, the rumor that Barack Obama had been educated at a fundamentalist Muslim school called a madrassa seemed about to spike his fledgling candidacy. 

WORST PERK
The Edmonds (WA) School District purchased a $15,000 automated espresso vending machine this past summer for its district staff. Admins say the machine will pay for itself in about 20 months and then actually generate revenue. Sounds like a nice morale booster and moneymaker, right? The timing, however, could have been better politically: The district was in the process of slashing its budget by $4.5 million and cutting 35 teaching positions. 

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