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Notebook Education

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)

  • 4774344sean/iStock



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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World History Archive/Newscom

(World History Archive/Newscom)

  • Rex Features via AP Images

    Rex Features via AP Images

  • Associated Press/Photo by Ray Chua

    Associated Press/Photo by Ray Chua


Blasting the past

New AP framework presents a relentlessly negative view of U.S. history

Larry Krieger knew the U.S. history classes advanced students take in 12,176 high schools were changing, but the Pennsylvanian was surprised to find how much. Advanced Placement teachers had previously received a five-page outline of topics to cover. The new “framework” was 98 pages.

Krieger started reading it and became worried. Despite the expansion, the framework omits key historical figures and battles, such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Valley Forge, and D-Day. Because Krieger has instructed AP students for decades, he knew the omitted events and persons had previously appeared on exams.

There’s more. “The framework presents a relentlessly negative view of American history that emphasizes conflict, oppression, and exploitation while totally ignoring the innovators, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who built our country,” Krieger said.

In response, Texas state school board member Ken Mercer plans to introduce a resolution rejecting the new curriculum and its exams, for which students often earn college credit.

The College Board, which runs AP classes and tests, said its revisions reflect what college students encounter in freshman history classes. That may be the problem, wrote Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, in an analysis of the changes: “American history as it is currently taught in many colleges and universities has been twisted … into a platform for political advocacy and for animus against traditional American values.”

Safely scared

Although school violence has dropped significantly since 1992, parents and schools are snatching up bulletproof blankets, backpacks, and whiteboards, and a Delaware bill would require new schools to place “bullet resistant white boards in each classroom.”

Federal data currently does not include 2012, the year of the widely publicized Newtown, Conn., school shooting. But it says 57 youngsters were killed at school in 1992-93, a number that steadily declined to 31 school deaths in 2010-11. School violence of all types has also declined.

That hasn’t stopped some parents who buy everything from $100 Kevlar backpack inserts to $1,000 bulletproof blankets. After Newtown, where 20 children and six teachers died, one protective backpack maker saw sales multiply by 10, a company representative told The Washington Post. One thousand people ordered bullet resistant blankets the day they became available, their manufacturer said.

But U.S. childhood is safer than ever, noted Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mom who runs the blog Free-Range Kids: “When I was born, four times more kids died before kindergarten than do now. … What we have is a really distorted perspective that children in school are in danger of being killed by a madman.” —J.P.

Cut the clutter

A new study suggests the typical brightly decorated walls of elementary classrooms distract students from learning.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University gave 24 kindergarteners a lesson in two different classrooms. One was studded with artwork and educational posters. The other was unadorned. In the busy room, the children had a hard time concentrating, and scored worse on tests. The researchers say children might get used to busy walls and start tuning them out.

Or they might not. When she worked as a special-education teacher, “we often found that learning and behavior deteriorated in rooms with overzealous decorations,” said Cheryl Swope, author of Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child. “Years later, when teaching my own special-needs son at home, I noticed he completed work more quickly and more accurately in his own study carrel.”

The findings don’t mean classrooms should be dull, researchers said. Swope agreed, suggesting that teachers post selected “visual displays that assist instruction, such as an alphabet chart when learning to read.” —J.P.

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