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Notebook Education

Associated Press/Photo by Greg Wahl-Stephens

A Head Start in Hillsboro, Ore. (Associated Press/Photo by Greg Wahl-Stephens)

  • Joshua Trujillo/ via AP

    Students rally at Summit Sierra public charter school in Seattle.
    Joshua Trujillo/ via AP


A real head start

Preschool may not be the best way for young children to learn

Kathy Lee put her first child into preschool “for literally 15 minutes, because of the social pressure.” Soon after leaving the parking lot, she turned around and fetched her son. 

“He is 3 years old,” Lee says she thought to herself. “There is nothing he cannot get at home by cooking and measuring and sorting socks.”

Lee knows this from long experience. The mother of 10 and author of The Homegrown Preschooler has taught and managed preschools, and now instructs mothers and teachers on how to nurture the little wigglers. 

New advocacy organization Save the Children Action Network has launched ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to push presidential candidates to support government programs for poor children from birth to age 4. But research suggests such programs aren’t that effective. 

One study found that watching Sesame Street was as beneficial for children’s academic progress as Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children. The federal government spends approximately $8 billion a year on Head Start. 

Another study found that sending low-income parents three text messages a week with simple literacy activities advanced their preschoolers’ learning by two to three months. An example: “Tip: Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Ask: can you hear the ‘hhh’ sound in happy and healthy?”

What research does find most effective for tots’ long-term success is having a married biological mother and father. Other legs up include the number of books in a child’s home and eating meals together as a family.

“Preschool teachers are trying to recreate the home,” Lee noted. “Home is the most natural place to let children discover and have a sense of wonder. If we give those children those early years, they are going to be well-adjusted adults, socially, emotionally, and cognitively.”

Charters attacked

School had been in session three days when Brenda McDonald, principal of Pride Prep in Spokane, Wash., heard the state Supreme Court had declared charter schools like hers ineligible for public funds because their boards are not elected. 

Her first reaction was “kind of disbelief,” she said. The decision came Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, and McDonald spent the holiday calling teachers, lawyers, and parents to figure out and communicate “a plan of attack.” 

Donors quickly pledged enough money to keep Washington state’s nine charters running this academic year, so their 1,200 students haven’t missed a day. Forty-two states have legalized charters, which are public schools independent of local school districts that must accept all comers. 

On average, charter schools cost less and produce equal or better reading and math test scores than their traditional counterparts. Pride Prep offers a longer school year, more arts instruction, and smaller enrollment than local Spokane schools, where McDonald worked for 22 years. 

“[Spokane] is not Detroit or Chicago, where our traditional schools are dilapidated and kids are not getting school supplies,” McDonald said. “But even with that we could just not meet all the kids’ needs. To get kids into unique programs they had to almost fail.”

Washington’s nine charters have been urging parents and students to ask for a special legislative session that keeps the schools alive permanently. 

Charters’ biggest opponents are teachers unions, which helped bring the Washington lawsuit and are especially active in Seattle. The same week the charter decision came down, Seattle teachers union members went on strike for an 18 percent raise, leaving that city’s 50,000 kids with an extended summer vacation and their parents scrambling to find childcare. —J.P.

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Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT/Landov

Paul and Robert Davis head into the Francis Howell School District Administration Building to learn more about how to register for the upcoming school year. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT/Landov)

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A priceless conversation

A choice became an imperative when Paul Davis saw his son flourish at a better school

Robert Davis, 16, has a white mother and black father, and until he changed schools two years ago, his fellow students never let him forget it. The clarinetist with mild autism stuck out in Normandy, his previous St. Louis school district, where 87 percent of the students are black. Robert “was the lightest kid in the whole school,” said his father, Paul Davis, 64.

In third grade, Paul says, Robert became a target for bullies. It began with name-calling but by middle school had escalated to holding Robert’s head in a toilet and slamming his arm between desks—and the district seemed unable to deal with the out-of-control behavior. In September, Normandy Middle School’s principal sent one-fifth of her students home for bad behavior, according to a report on

Robert’s could have been one more story of dashed dreams except for two things: In 2013, Normandy lost its accreditation for persistently low academic performance, and Missouri’s Supreme Court ruled that children attending unaccredited schools could transfer to better-performing ones nearby. Two thousand children left Normandy schools—nearly half the district’s enrollment.

For ninth grade, Robert took an hour-long bus ride every morning to St. Charles, a school district where 93 percent of students are white. “He started to glow, he started to smile, life just got better for him overnight,” Paul says, with a grin in his voice. Robert’s grades improved, too.

This July, the Missouri Board of Education employed a technicality to suspend the controversial transfer program. But rather than send his son to Normandy High, Paul, a taxi driver who receives disability aid, found an apartment in St. Charles for $1,500 a month. He pays rent in addition to the mortgage on the house in Normandy he’s owned for 17 years.

In September, Paul went to his son’s band concert and caught a glimpse of Robert before the performance, tuning the 10-year-old clarinet his single father can’t afford to replace and talking to two classmates. Paul had never seen Robert talk amiably with a classmate before.

“The only bad part about this is the ol’ man gotta work like a dog,” Paul says, “but it showed me I wasn’t as sick as I thought I was. So trying to accomplish things brought a new sense of life to me. So I think I’m going to do fine, just like my Robert.”

School spooks

About 18 months ago, someone claiming to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) called Huntsville, Ala., schools security director Al Lankford from a Washington, D.C., area code to alert him that a student had threatened his teacher on Twitter.

NSA spokesmen told their agency had no record of such a phone call. But the tip unearthed a student carrying an 8-inch knife on school property, so Huntsville asked its two security officers to start looking at students’ social media profiles when following up on similar tips.

State education officials have discussed hiring a company to scan social media constantly for similar threats, as a number of school districts across the country have done, but for now Huntsville isn’t quite that high-tech, said district spokesman Keith Ward: “We don’t have this room that looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”

Handling student misbehavior is a high-tech business elsewhere, though. In California, habitually truant students can be fitted with ankle bracelets or other GPS tracking devices, according to a recent unanimous appeals court ruling. Dallas and Sacramento companies that contract with school districts monitor truant students’ locations using the GPS built into their cell phones. —J.P.

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Grenade launcher (UltraONEs/iStock)

  • Steven Valenti/The Republican-American/AP

    OVERKILL: File photo of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP).
    Steven Valenti/The Republican-American/AP


Campus fortress

Do schools need grenade launchers?

More than 120 U.S. school districts, colleges, and universities have received tank-like armored vehicles, grenade launchers, M-16 assault rifles, and other excess military equipment they requested from the federal government. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Defense distributes dustbin-destined equipment to police departments that apply to receive it and pay shipping costs. Some school districts are so big they have their own police forces. 

After parent and activist complaints spiked in September, Los Angeles school administrators agreed to return three grenade launchers. San Diego schools will return a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) intended for use if an active shooter invades a campus. Los Angeles, though, will keep its MRAP. Some 95 percent of equipment the military distributes is nontactical, such as sleeping bags, computers, and boats. 

Meanwhile, homeschooling continues to grow. In North Carolina, homeschool enrollment increased 14.3 percent in the past year, and in Florida, the number of families homeschooling increased 4.6 percent. Homeschoolers now outnumber private-school students in North Carolina. 

National data on homeschoolers is only refreshed every four years. The next is in 2015, so it’s hard to tell until then whether these increases are part of a nationwide trend. But that’s likely, because homeschooling has increased ever since researchers began tracking it.

This fall’s newbies are different, said Dawn Hartman, who runs a 500-family North Carolina homeschool group. In previous years, newcomers had pondered and researched their decision intensely. This year, families first decided, then asked, “Now what do we do?” Their reasons vary from school bullies to frustration with new Common Core curriculum and tests, Hartman said. Several mothers in her group also said they wanted to spend more time with their kids. 

Other parents may want their children not to be in a place where MRAPs are needed. Here’s the unusual reason 13-year-old pianist Avery Gagliano is now homeschooled: Renowned Chinese musician Lang Lang selected her as an international music ambassador for his foundation, but the straight-A student’s globe-trotting for competitions and performances got her labeled a truant by her Washington, D.C., public school, despite her parents’ attempts to negotiate.

Parent power

In 1998, two black former community organizers squared off in Chicago at a lunch event. Both agreed poor children desperately need better education options. Barack Obama didn’t think vouchers would help. Howard Fuller did. 

Fuller’s response to Obama, as recorded in his new autobiography: “You sit here and claim that we can make changes in the existing system? If you can do that, God bless you. But … those of us who are out there fighting are not going to wait for you to do that.”

By then, Fuller had been superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, where for decades few minority children learned reading and math fundamentals. Just before his tenure, Wisconsin had inaugurated the nation’s first school voucher program. Today, it’s the nation’s largest. 

Fuller’s No Struggle, No Progress recounts how the former Black Power activist who quotes Malcolm X from memory came to believe parent choice could help lift the impoverished families he visited in shacks with no running water connected by dirt streets: “For me it’s a social-justice issue … trying to ensure that those families that have the least among us have some opportunity to choose the best environment for their children.” —J.P.

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