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.EDU News From Around the Nation

School district mergers, student strip-search case, online testing, Detroit fixing the budget.

June/July 2009

Prepare to Merge

This July, the school districts of Monaca and Center Area in western Pennsylvania will combine. The resulting Central Valley School District will be the state’s first merged school district in some 20 years. But if governor Ed Rendell gets his way, it won’t be the last.

Pennsylvania currently has 501 school districts. According the governor’s office, only 10 states have more than Pennsylvania. In a surprise announcment last February, Rendell proposed slashing the districts in his state to as few as 100, citing the fact that 80 percent of them serve fewer than 5,000 students and more than 40 percent serve fewer than 2,000.

District consolidation elicits powerful opposition from both from employees who face job cuts and communities that fear possible loss of autonomy, crowded classrooms, and rising property taxes.

But with states facing so much red ink, the pocketbook trumps all. Arkansas, Indiana, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island have joined Pennsylvania in considering district mergers.

Proponents of consolidation say that it eliminates staffing redundancies, lowers overhead, and allows economies of scale.
But merging is not a matter of simple addition. Studies by Standard & Poor’s and Syracuse University find that the savings dwindle when consolidated districts reach 3,000 students. Moreover, not every district can merge successfully. It’s estimated that only 88 of Pennsylvania’s districts are optimal candidates for consolidation.

On the other hand, merging districts can save real money. Case in point: Combining Monaca and Center Area will initially cost about $2.7 million, but it is expected to save more than $1 million annually.

Research Roundup

• Medication boosts scores for ADHD students.
A study from the University of California, Berkeley, finds that students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (adhd) who take stimulant medications test better than those who don’t take such medications. Researchers studied close to 600 children with adhd in grades K–5 over a period of five years, and found that math scores were 2.9 points higher, and reading scores were 5.4 points higher, for medicated students with adhd. Approximately 4.4 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD, and 56 percent of them take prescription medications specifically to treat it. The full study can be found in the May issue of the medical journal Pediatrics .

• Do stereotypes cause failure?
Female and minority students fail the California high-school exit examination significantly more often than white male students of equal academic ability, according to a new study from Stanford University and the University of California, Davis. The reason? Researchers believe that female and minority students are simply daunted by others’ stereotypical expectation that they won’t do as well as white males—thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The study also found that California exit-exam failures were preventing a massive number of students from graduating­—more than 22,000 students each year.

• Michigan schools unsafe for gay students, says report.
According to a new research brief from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (glsen), gay and transgendered students experience high rates of unchecked harassment in Michigan schools. In 2007, 87 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed, 45 percent were physically harassed, and 21 percent were physically assaulted, says the report. But only 29 percent of students who reported the incidents to school staff said there was effective intervention.

• More education means more salary.
A new report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2008, helps to confirm the old saw that education leads to economic success down the road. Workers with only a high-school degree earned an average of $31,286 in 2007, while those with a bachelor’s degree earned almost double: $57,181, on average.

• Student discrimination linked to depression. A joint study by researchers from UCLA, the Rand Corporation, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and other institutions, claims that students who experience racial and ethnic discrimination appear to be more likely to have symptoms of depression and other psychological disorders. Researchers analyzed data from a study of 5,147 fifth graders and their parents from 2004 to 2006 in Los Angeles, Houston, and Birmingham. The study found, in part, that 20 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Hispanics experienced perceived discrimination in school, and among such students, symptoms of mental-health disorders were more common. For more information, the study is in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health.



Strip Search

The Savana Redding strip-search case has recenty been the subject of spirited debate. Administrator spoke with attorney Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued Redding's case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court:
Q Should officials have had a higher standard of suspicion before they searched Savana Redding?

A We've never challenged the search of her backpack. That search was probably fine under the Fourth Amendment. But to force Savana to disrobe, based on an accusation of prior ibuprofen possession, by a student who was already in trouble-it was both a weak and vague suspicion. The standards need to be higher. Having the same standard for a backpack search and a strip search is just frightening.

Q How can courts balance school officials' need to act on tips of drug possession with students' expectations of privacy?
A The way to do that is to say that school officials can take the rather extraordinary step of strip searching a child, but only when they have reliable information that a student presently possesses an illegal drug underneath their clothing. [In this case,] it needed to be more reliable and more specific, because the information here did not say that Savana possessed ibuprofen inside her underwear-just that she possessed it sometime in the past.

Q The legal standards for searching students in schools are generally lower than the standards for searching adults.
Why is this the case?
A I think it shows some deference to the difficult job of a school administrator. For the most part, school administrators do their job admirably. But every now and again, they, like many other people, overreact. And this was just a classic, and unfortunately traumatic, overreaction.

Security Nationwide

• Identity THEFT in Texas
Employees of the Irving (TX) Independent School District have been hit hard with identity theft. Two individuals used names and Social Security numbers garnered from an old payroll report that mistakenly wound up in the trash, according to district officials. At least 64 of the 3,400 district employees listed have reported being the victims of identity theft, with some reporting thousands of dollars in fraudulent purchases made in their names.

• New Jersey DRILLS
All New Jersey schools, public and private, may soon have to do monthly Homeland Security drills to improve emergency preparedness, if a bill before the N.J. Senate passes. “We need to develop a comprehensive, accessible response to the potential crises which could happen in our schools,” said Senator Girgenti, who sponsored the bill.

• More GUNS In Schools? State senators in Alabama approved a bill in early April that would allow the Mobile County school board to arm its school security personnel. Security staff would be required to have at least 43 hours of firearms instruction, as well as training in first aid, legal issues, and physical fitness—the same standards required for police officers. The bill still requires approval by the full State Senate and the House.

• Bucking SPENDING Limits A bill, proposed by the school-safety committee of the Wisconsin State Senate in April, would allow the Racine Unified School District to bypass spending caps for school security budgets. The change would allow districts to increase spending limits by $100 per student, in order to pay for security officers, safety equipment, or other safety improvements—an increase that would total $2 million if passed.

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