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A behind the scenes look at education from pre-K to college in Northeast Ohio

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gov. Kasich pushes for teacher performance-based criteria

Gov. John Kasich wants teachers in Ohio to be paid for what they are worth. This week, he is asking teachers to give ideas about how the state can fix the teacher evaluation system.
At a screening of "Waiting for Superman" - a documentary that looks at the public education in the United States. Kasich stated to a crowd that he wants performance-based pay for teachers.
"We ultimately want teachers  to be paid -as you saw in the movie-  we would like to pay them over $100,000," he said in the Waiting for Superman screening YouTube video. "What they do is so critically important, but we would like to do it on the basis of performance and be able to distinguish those who can really do it and those who can't."
The Associated Press recently did a  Q&A with Legislators on new guidelines for the teacher evaluations.
The state superintendent would create a framework the districts must use for the evaluations, however, the plan wouldn't go into effect until the 2012-2013 school year, according to AP.
It's not clear what the performance reviews would ultimately entail.
It has been suggested that 50 percent of the teacher evaluations would be based on state test scores, according to the AP.
Also, parents and students could be involved in the process.
However, some disagree that state test scores are a proper way to evaluate  teachers.
Some classes such as music and art don't have state tests, Kirtland Education Association President Scott Greenlee said
"I am optimistically cautious about parents evaluating teachers," he added.
He said it may work, but could be hard to take out a bias out of an evaluation if that parent has personal feelings about the teacher.
Greenlee said that maybe schools should look at practices at area colleges, which the students evaluates the professor at the end of the course.
"This could be an internal reflection for teachers," he said.
Kasich has invited educators to share ideas about performance criteria. and said they have heard from about 100 teachers already.
"I would like to hear from a couple 1,000 teachers," he said.
He added, "This is not a game, this is not a political posture. If you know of a teacher who is very concerned about getting it right on performance criteria, we want them to participate."
To participate, click on link or contact the governors office by phone at 614-366-3555 to share opinions. 

Angela Gartner

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Envirothon students go beyond workshop

What’s striking about the Chardon Envirothon students mentioned in today’s story is their enthusiasm.

Kim Savides, a junior and second-year Envirothon member, arrived with binoculars 45 minutes ahead of the workshop’s scheduled start in order to spend time birding.

Her peers, junior Anna Parker and team captain Kate Best, a senior, gathered under the pavilion for a moment before asking coach Marilyn Rohr if they could go check out trees while waiting for the rest of the team to arrive for the workshop.

The four bounded off toward the tree line, calling out tree and bird names as they went. Occasionally, they’d stop to inspect a tree or shrub at close quarters, checking for the flexibility of spruce needles or looking for distinguishing features on a small hemlock. They’d stop in their tracks to listen to what one girl called “the tweet, tweet, tweet in the woods” or to whip out their binoculars to stare toward a distant tree.

“Is that a green ash?” one teen would ask, followed closely by another’s query, “Is that a blue spruce?”

“Oh! Dragonfly! Giant blue one, yay!” another said as the creature in question buzzed quickly by.

Along the way, Rohr would quiz them about invasive species or give them mnemonic tricks for remembering names such as sycamore. (“See how the bark’s all peeling off and looks sick?” she said, using the word “sick” as a reminder for sycamore.)

Each team member’s strengths play well into Envirothon, giving the team a first-place win at this year’s Area 2 Envirothon and sending them on to state competition in June. In two of the past four years, the team earned a trip to nationals. Teams compete in five areas: forestry, wildlife, aquatics, soils and current environmental issues.

Rohr says she recruits students based on their “interest in the environment, demonstrated abilities in science, presentation skills, teamwork ethos and willingness to learn.” Kate is “extremely knowledgeable” in all Envirothon topics because her father is a park naturalist, according to information Rohr provided. Kim focuses on birds, reptiles and aquatics and recently took first place in ornithology at the Ohio Science Olympiad. The boys on the team, seniors Brian Vadakin and Matt Perkins, focus on mathematics and chemistry while Parker, a new member, is showing an “intense interest” in the environment.

In competitions, students face a wide range of challenges, from a bucket filled with macroinvertebrates they’ve been asked to identify, to measuring a tree, then computing the amount of board feet in that tree and how much it would sell for, Rohr said.

- Rachel Jackson |

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Artfully functional project ends in festival

If you hear sounds of chaos coming from a classroom off a Kenston Intermediate hallway, don’t panic. It’s probably just students working on mosaic designs for wooden benches.

Creator and director of the chaos is Brenda Pokorny, a local mosaics artist given “free reign” over the project. She began working with the students prior to spring break, brainstorming themes and designs for the mosaics.

“I had kids who went through fifth grade (at Kenston). The teachers at Kenston are awesome,” Pokorny said, explaining her reasons for helping with the project.

The storage benches, known to students as the “lost and found benches,” typically reside in a KIS hallway when not under repair or the subject of projects such as the mosaics. Each bench’s mosaic will focus on a different PEAK character trait, such as integrity, responsibility or gratitude, and a quote that relates to the trait.

“Look what these kids are coming up with,” Pokorny said, gesturing to the mosaics in progress this week. “… Every one of these kids is doing a part.”

She enjoyed seeing the connections each student made as he or she returned from spring break and checked out some of the designs, all of which were based on and adapted from the student brainstorming sessions.

The mosaics will be unveiled during the culminating portion of the school’s upcoming Fine Arts Festival, KIS Principal Jack DiCello said.

The school decided to focus on fine arts following last year’s literacy program, DiCello said. That year, all students read the same book prior to meeting with an author/illustrator.

This year’s fine arts focus includes three parts, DiCello said. The first portion began in March with Right to Read Week, in which every class read a story related to fine arts. Classes worked on a number of small-scale projects related to those books.

The second portion is the mosaics for the “lost and found benches.”

The third is the Fine Arts Festival, to be held May 23-26. More than 60 local artists will offer sessions on a wide range of topics, from “art with recycled materials” to playing bagpipes or ballet dance, Irish dance, oil painting, photography, sculpture, fashion design or jewelry making, for example.

The project is being funded through the PTO and the Kenston Foundation, DiCello said.

- Rachel Jackson |

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mentor High School Principal looks to receive community feedback on school.

 Mentor High School's future principal is offering a survey for staff, students and parents to share their thoughts about high school.

Bill Wade, in a statement on the district's website, said with the shift in administration, he wants to take the time to gather as much information about the school as possible, and appreciates anyone who takes the time to answer a few questions.

Click here to participate in the survey.

School employees' pensions are safe for now, but schools lose possible future gains.

The budget was approved by the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this month, but the changes made won't alleviate funding woes for school districts.
Several schools are likely to lose funding from decreases in tangible tax payments within the proposed Ohio's budget bill.
The bill that was introduced in March required a two percent decrease in employer contribution rates into the School Employee Retirement System that may have helped to offset some of those losses.
The house, however, eliminated that plan in May, which not only affects school retirement payouts, but also was proposed for government employees, police and firefighters. 
The change called for school employees to pay more toward their pension.
Under the current general policy, the employer pays 14 percent and employees pay 10 percent toward pensions, depending on union contracts.
The Office of Budget and Management projected a total cost savings of more than $299 million annually for Ohio districts, joint vocational schools, and educational service centers from the program.

To see the revised budget bill visit
In April, The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System pleaded with the Ohio House committee to withdraw the proposal to alter contribution rate structures, according to the OPERS website.
Karen Carraher, interim executive director of  OPERS said in her testimony to the committee, "The proposal to boost public employee pension contributions and reduce employer contributions by  two percentage points each would increase unfunded liabilities beyond limits required by state law."
Although, the OPERS wanted the proposal removed from Ohio's budget bill, Carraher said instead,  insert the language into the pending pension reform legislation so the agency can evaluate the plan further.
Carraher added that a recent study, which the current employer contribution rate of 14 percent is comparable with the retirement contributions provided by Ohio’s large private-sector employers through Social Security,
employer-sponsored retirement plans, and employer-sponsored matched savings plans.
"Restoring the Board of Trustee's discretion to set the rate will provide flexibility in the future to lower rates if the financial conditions exist that make it prudent to do so," she said.  

Most school officials, however, didn't plan for the two percent savings as the proposed budget was a total shock and it was felt by many, the extra dollars weren't  going to be enough.
"It (the budget) was just another blow to us," Euclid Schools Treasurer Stephen Vasek said.
He said everything is up in the air as millions of dollars isn't easy to make up even with the incentive.
Cardinal Schools Treasurer Merry Lou Knuckles said it could have yielded a little bit of savings for the district, but it wouldn't have helped their situation.


What would have your district saved?

Estimated School Employer Savings from 2 percent Retirement Contribution Shift
(School Districts, Joint Vocational School Districts, and Educational Service Centers)
Sources: STRS and SERS 2009-10 school year contribution data and The Office of Budget and Management

Lake County

School District            Total Retirement Shift Savings

Auburn JVSD                         $121,298

Fairport                                     $56,715

Kirtland                                   $164,525

Madison Local                         $374,444

Mentor                                  $1,172,881

Painesville                                 $432,914

Perry                                         $265,710

Wickliffe                                    $206,074

Willoughby-Eastlake                $1,095,417

Geauga County

School District            Total Retirement Shift Savings

Berkshire                                 $252,532

Chardon                                  $364,635

Kenston                                   $431,301

Ledgemont                                $56,141

Newbury                                  $87,674

West Geauga                           $292,536

Cuyahoga County

School District            Total Retirement Shift Savings

Euclid                                    $993,132

Mayfield                                 $822,328

South Euclid-Lyndhurst            $697,089

--Angela Gartner

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cost of college

A pair of recent Pew Research Center surveys asked a very intriguing question: Is college worth it? That question becomes even more important when paired with a recent Wall Street Journal update about college debt.

According to the WSJ story, this year’s college graduates will embark on their careers with more debt than any of their predecessors – even when that debt is adjusted for inflation. When student and parent loan debts are combined, the average 2011 debt for earning a college diploma is $22,900 at graduation time, up some 47 percent from a decade ago.

That’s a significant chunk of change, considering most federal student loans must be paid off within 10 years of graduation. (In some cases, loan repayment can last as long as 25 years.)

While the WSJ essentially assumes the benefits outweigh the cost, the Pew center asks both the general public and college presidents that question in direct and indirect ways. The results, released this week, show – unsurprisingly – that college presidents are more likely than the general public to believe college is a good investment.

What is surprising is just 55 percent of college graduates said their postsecondary experience had been “very useful” in preparing them for a job or career, with another 33 percent saying it was “fairly useful.” A whopping 74 percent, however, said college was very useful in helping them to grow intellectually.

Those results beg the question: What, then, is the purpose of college? Isn’t it supposed to prepare students for careers? Maybe, but maybe not. Pew also asked respondents about the primary mission of colleges and found college graduates are more likely to say the extra schooling is meant to encourage personal and intellectual growth, while those who did not graduate from college say postsecondary education is meant to prepare students for careers.

Just 77 percent of Pew respondents said a college education is “extremely important” or “very important” for success in life, while 90 percent said on-the-job skills are important. A good work ethic (96 percent) and knowing how to get along with others (93 percent) were deemed even more important.

All of which brings us back to the first question. Pew also found that loan debt caused financial strain for 48 percent of those who took out college loans but are no longer in school, making it harder for them to make ends meet. However, 86 percent of the graduates surveyed said college was a good investment for them personally.

Intriguingly, of the general public surveyed, only 5 percent said college students receive excellent value for their money, with another 35 percent saying it’s a good value and 42 percent saying it’s fair.

Other tidbits:
-          College graduates surveyed estimate they would earn about $20,000 less if they had not gotten a degree, while those without a degree estimate they would earn about $20,000  more if they had gotten a degree. That’s in line with U.S. Census data.
-          Of those ages 18-34 who aren’t currently enrolled and don’t have a bachelor’s degree, finances are likely to be the main reason for skipping college. For 67 percent of this population, the need to support a family is the primary reason for not going to college. (Ironic, given that the long-term economic boost supposedly received through higher education may help support families later on but doesn’t help immediate financial shortfalls.)

As for those college presidents: They’re almost twice as likely as the general populace to believe college is financially affordable for most people.

- Rachel Jackson,

Friday, May 13, 2011

Current events can be rocky terrain

Teaching current events in the classroom setting often is a challenge.

The best resources are the newspapers and other media, because none of the events have made it into textbooks yet. Breaking news can’t be scheduled into the curriculum ahead of time. And, with any serious news event, there’s bound to be emotional fallout. Educators have to be careful how they approach such topics with children and teenagers.

All of that and more was true in the days following the announcement U.S. forces had killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout.

In an age of instant information, most students already had heard the news before they arrived for classes the next morning.

And, while the topic itself is a hot one that dominated conversations for several days, it’s unusual to hear students talking about current events -- instead of social events -- in the hallways on a Monday morning, one educator said.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was surprised, because news like that would be on everybody’s mind. It’s out of the ordinary (however). Walking through the school on a normal Monday morning, you’re not talking about current events in the hallways,” said Bill Bryan, a member of the social studies department at West Geauga High School.

Even the students who are too young to have personal memories of Sept. 11, 2001, understand the significance of bin Laden’s recent death, Bryan said.

Several social studies educators in Lake and Geauga counties used the event as a teachable moment, discussing its significance with students as part of the curriculum.

“I think the big topic everybody wanted to talk about was where are we now on the war on terror ... how are we going to proceed from this point. There is a huge diversity of opinion among the students,” Bryan said.

Bryan teaches sophomore honors students as well as an elective current world issues class for juniors and seniors. Bin Laden’s death occurred at a time when students were wrapping up discussion on the original Sept. 11, 2001, events.

“It was almost an extension of what we had just learned. ... They’re able to understand the significance of the event (of bin Laden’s death) and they’re able to talk about the issues surrounding it because they’ve got a background,” Bryan said.

Some students at South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools were worried about the possibility of attacks stemming from the death of the terrorist leader, according to educators. Josh Wells, a social studies teacher at Brush High School, said the majority of the kids asked what happens if groups were to attack the U.S. again.

He said they heard the president’s speech, but he wanted to reassure them the government and president are covering all their bases in preparation for a possible future attack.

“I feel our students need to be aware of the world around them.” Wells said. “I felt it was necessary the students understand and grasp (this recent world event).”

Many students were comparing the treatment of bin Laden with that of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator who was hung after a jury trial, and in particular bin Laden’s burial at sea.

“The students didn’t agree that bin Laden should have got a proper burial,” Wells said.

Wells said he was surprised to learn the students knew as much as they did about the situation.

“I think the technology had a big part in spreading the word to the youth,” he said. “They knew things before I have even read it -- like the burial at sea.”

At Chardon Middle School, Tim Bowens’ students are well versed in the issues surrounding Sept. 11, even though most of his students are too young to know anything other than a post-9/11 world. The social studies teacher annually runs Flight 93 memorial fundraisers and other projects and leads students on a pilgrimage to the site.

“One of my students said today, boy, the royal wedding kind of takes a back seat to this,” Bowens said the first day after bin Laden’s death was announced.

Although his students were undergoing state achievement testing the day after the news broke, Bowens led discussions on bin Laden’s death later in the week and is considering creating a reflective writing assignment related to the news.

“I have tried to relate the story as part of a circle with 9/11/01 being the first part, then the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for bin Laden, the war in Iraq, and now the death,” Bowens said via email.

Bowens said there are students who doubt the truth of the news, including one who was adamant that photos of bin Laden’s death should be released. Bowens countered by pointing to a photo that was widely circulated in the day or two following bin Laden’s death, and which was later discredited as a fake photo. Even if the real photos were released, Bowens said, doubters would remain.

“There are so many layers to this story. We studied Hitler, Germany, and WWII briefly -- he was one man, one country ... bin Laden was attached to Afghanistan to an extent, but he masterminded a worldwide network of terrorists,” Bowens wrote.

Bowens said his bulletin board is covered with stories and photos of the celebrations that followed bin Laden’s death, which was a sensitive issue among students. It’s a question of whether to celebrate a death and the implications of choosing not to celebrate this particular death, he said.

“They’re very complex issues, even for adults,” Bowens said in the first days following the news of bin Laden’s death.
- Angela Gartner,
- Rachel Jackson,

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NDCL Nicaragua trip: In their words

Nine Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin students spent spring break on a weeklong immersion trip in Nicaragua. Although the students may earn some school service credits for the trip, ultimately they went for the experience itself, said Greg Welch, director of campus ministry. What follows are excerpts from an interview Welch and several students gave The News-Herald this week. (See the "just the facts, ma'am" version.)

Hallie Stacho, sophomore: A lot of people, and I as well, have seen pictures like on the internet or in magazines of people who have experienced that poverty but it’s a lot different when you see it face to face, and it’s especially different when you’re talking to those people, so I was trying to prepare myself but there’s not really a way to prepare yourself completely for something that you’ve never experienced before.
Jimmy Vanek, sophomore: We experienced a lot of poverty and it was really tough to see but we also experienced the loving community of all the people down there …
Hallie: It was really moving to see a lot of children who were working at such a young age and a lot of the children were out by themselves without any parents, just working out in the streets ...
Valerie Arko, junior: I think another thing that we all agreed on is that the people are so proud of the little that they have and they wanted to share it with us and they wanted us to experience it but the little, little, little that they have they were just so proud and so happy.

Hallie: The people there have such strong faith, not just about going to church. They walk miles to church and the man who Mr. Welch was talking about who used to be an executioner and wanted to become a policeman, he carried around a rosary with him. A lot of people did. They have crosses in their homes. Their religion is everything to them.

Hallie (pointing to a photo): This was actually one of the places that the kids had toys. A lot of the places we went, there weren’t any toys. One of the kids had one roller skate and was pushing it around like a car, and then they were playing baseball with a stick and just a ball. They were already striving to have money for food so they can’t really get toys.
Welch: We bought the soccer ball for them and the Sisters (of Notre Dame) said that it was great because they had gotten balls but they were sent to them because they (the balls) were defective and that doesn’t help much.

Hallie: It was really difficult because when we were driving in our van it would stop at stoplights and people would occasionally come up to the window and want to sell things but in one instance a little girl pushed her face against the glass and she was all by herself. She was probably 6 or 7. She was asking for money and it was really hard because there was nothing that we could do and we started to drive away and she stayed with the car until she couldn’t keep up and then we just left her in the street.
Robin Jordan, junior: That was the same with me except it was the second time when we all had our money out because we were going to exchange it for córdobas and a little boy looked into our car and he saw all the money we had and he had called his family over and like four other kids came over and he was asking for just one dollar, please just one dollar, and we had to drive away from him and he got upset and he threw water at the car, but that was really hard for me.
Valerie: One of the organizations that we visited, the little boy -- we were in the van -- he said, mom can I have some water? She kind shushed him away. He said again, mom I’m really thirsty, can I have some water? And she didn’t have any water to give him. That’s so awful that a mother has to tell her child she doesn’t even have water to give him.

Welch: One of the people that will stick with me is a guy we met at night school. These are people who have to work during the day but believe enough in education that they’re coming back at night to take school and he’s in his early 20s and he wants to become a police officer and he was talking with us about (how) he was illiterate before he started coming to teen night school and telling us about the work he had done for the army as an executioner and he hoped that we didn’t feel differently about him because of that. That was a job and it was what he could get and so he isn’t doing it anymore …
Jimmy: I think they’re making great efforts and great strides towards becoming a more educated country. I think that they believe that the more education that they get, the better it’s going to help the situation out.
Robin: And the teenagers in their high school, they have a different focus. They focused a lot on recycling in their community and immigration and things like that (which) we really don’t talk about because it’s not a really big deal to us here.
Hallie: The teens there were really bright. They know a lot about their politics, their economy, and they know a lot about the USA’s politics and economy, what was going on here in comparison to there, and they asked us a lot of tough questions -- some that I didn’t even know the answers to, about what America was doing about certain issues.
Valerie: … They wanted to learn and they wanted to better themselves. There were 40-year-olds in the sixth-grade English class. It was just so inspiring …

Hallie: A lot of the organizations (we visited) were people down there who were putting their organizations together to help other people in their country, even though they needed help themselves.
Robin: What was really cool to me is in the country Nicaragua, the women are not as powerful as the men there, but most of the groups that we went to visit were groups of women who were trying to change their culture and helping their communities so that was really cool. And then they were like gradually letting men into their group…
Valerie: … The looks on their faces and the smiles whenever we would go somewhere and buy something from them -- a lot of the people had to make their own things to survive. We would wipe them out. We would buy almost everything they had and we almost felt bad and they would say thank God for days like today. It’s what kept them going.

Robin: It’s hard for me to say what was the best, but I really liked when we came back to the guest house and we had reflection and we ate dinner. That was when we mostly figured everything out and got our feelings together rand it helped us like recuperate for the next day and what we’re going to do in the future so that was a big part of the trip. …
Jimmy: My favorite place was more general, just anytime we were with children, because just seeing the smiles on their faces, running around having fun, just playing with them, seeing how happy we made them; that was probably my favorite part of the trip.
Hallie: We went to Jinotega … and we played with a lot of the kids and we couldn’t necessarily speak with them because we weren’t fluent in Spanish and they didn’t know much English but just playing with them and smiling at them, it warmed your heart. It just made you feel so good inside knowing that even though you’re not talking to them, just playing with them makes them happy. We also had a soccer match with some kids from a different part of Nicaragua and that was so much fun too because the sport just brought us together and we were falling and we were missing the ball when we tried to kick it, but we all came together with just laughs and smiles and it was a really fun time.
Welch: I was amazed at the beauty of the country especially north in Jinotega …

Robin: It was hard to leave, to leave it like that, the way it is. It was just hard to leave. I didn’t want to leave them like that. I didn’t want to leave the children. I didn’t want to leave the women. I just wanted to stay there and try to work with them help clean up their communities.
Hallie: I agree with Robin. That was a really hard part. But what goes hand in hand in that is knowing that we don’t have another trip planned yet, so it was really hard leaving and not knowing when we were going to come back to do all the stuff that we wanted to do.
Jimmy: For me the hardest part was, going off what they said, also coming back to the United States. I remember just sitting in my room the night after I came back, just looking around, (thinking), I don’t need this. There’s people throughout the world that are getting by on less than this, so it was just a humbling experience.
Robin: When were down there we pointed out all of the things that we take for granted, all of the things that are really important to us that really shouldn’t be important to us, and we’re afraid that we’re going to come back and adapt to that, like taking things for granted and thinking things are more important than what they are.
Valerie: We have so much that you don’t even realize we have. We have simple luxuries that they would never, never, even have and we take it so much for granted.
Hallie: Even at lunch on Monday, the lunch line was really long so a couple of people at my line were waiting and they were going, oh I wish the line would go faster, I’m starving. (I thought,) you’re not starving. You could go at least two more days.
Regime Willis, junior: … This morning everybody was like, I don’t want to go to school today, and I was like, go to school. We take it for granted.

Robin: One lady (we visited), she said, whether we come back or not, that she’ll still be down there fighting, and that really stuck with me too, because they’re not used to people coming back to help them or to be with them. We wanted to be that group who kept our promise and wanted to come back to them.
Valerie: The Sisters of Notre of Dame are down there and, being NDCL, we affiliate with the Sisters of Notre Dame. We’re trying to accommodate any of their needs. We’re looking at doing some type of book drive to send down there to one of the schools and raise some money, maybe, for whatever they need. … We’re also looking at trying to do another trip too, to either El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, maybe even go back to Nicaragua.
Hallie: A lot of the schools down there are in need of supplies, such as school books and stuff, and we thought about at the end of the year, when everyone cleans out their locker, a lot of people throw away half-used notebooks and stuff like that. We were thinking about collecting those, recycling pages that were already used and then sending down empty notebooks for them to use.
Jimmy: I’m trying to keep in contact. … I sent (one of the nuns) an email last night asking her if they need any help and what we can do to help.

Robin: I wanted to be an orthodontist but I’m also very interested in traveling and languages, so I always thought maybe I could do something like that. Then, I didn’t want to leave my family for a long time, but then this proved that I could leave them and so maybe I could do dentistry in other countries where they don’t have it.
Hallie: I’m interested in film producing and stuff like that, and going down there I realized that when I’m older and I do choose a career, that I could on these missionary trips, and it’s not the same as experiencing it, but for those who don’t go on missionary trips, capturing it with even a video camera is still (important).
Jimmy: It changes your outlook on life in itself. There’s so much that needs to be done in the world, I think that so many people here in America just don’t understand it -- its much different reading something than actually experiencing it.
Robin: It was hard at the time, because you were like, what can I do, but it just made me want to make everyone else in America be aware of it, people at NDCL to be aware of it, and maybe we could do something about it.
Jimmy: I think that was probably the toughest part, was just having that feeling of helplessness at the time, but also remembering that now that we’ve seen this, we can come back and we can help change it. Since I’ve been back, I’ve just wanted to do everything in my power to help fix problems down there, and I think that if we can all work together as a school and as a community, that we can really make a difference.
Hallie: It was a struggle knowing that, being there, we couldn’t do much but just learn about it, but I think the hardest part was coming back and knowing that I’m coming back to my house, to my family and my school and everything I have, but they’re still living the way they are. But Robin and Jim both said that it’s important for us to educate all the people around us on what’s going on down there and what we can do to help them now that we’re back here.

-Rachel Jackson


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

School lunches: The balancing act continues

A number of comments posted to a recent story on school lunches asked why schools don’t eliminate meal programs entirely. Another asked about the financial impact of the free and reduced lunch programs. Both point to interesting trends in the food services industry.

A public school in Chicago, for example, has drawn fire for doing the exact opposite of what a number of The News-Herald’s commenters suggested: It prohibited students from packing lunches at all, unless the students have a medical excuse. The reasoning: Schools can provide healthier lunches in a more controlled environment than students are likely to pack on their own.

According the Chicago Tribune, the ban has been in place for six years at Little Village Academy, where the principal says it stemmed from concerns over nutrition. Elsewhere in the city, such as at Claremont Academy, students are allowed to pack lunches but snacks that are high in salt or sugar are confiscated, according to the Tribune.

Although our local schools here in Lake and Geauga counties generally haven’t taken such extreme measures as prohibiting packed lunches, they have been working to update their lunch programs to comply with changing federal regulations and, in some cases, to increase meal purchasing rates among students.

Free/reduced-price programs
One area in particular that actually helps school cafeteria budgets is the free and reduced-price programs – because by “free to students,” we mean “schools get reimbursed (or partially reimbursed) by the government.”

“With the economy the way it is, we have seen more free and reduced applications and that always helps us because it helps with the cost of the lunch (and it) makes it more available to them,” said Lois Szuhay, manager of food services at Willoughby-Eastlake Schools.

Ohio law requires schools offer breakfast programs in any building where a certain percentage of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“Believe it or not, even though we don’t serve a lot of breakfast in our district, it does help us to be able to cover the costs overall. … The higher the free and reduced-price eligible students in the district, usually it’s a little bit easier to be self-supported and be in the black (financially), so more affluent schools have a harder time to be in the black because they’re not getting as much participation,” said Kelly Minnick, director of nutrition services for Riverside Schools.

The flip side to the free and reduced-price program, though, is schools are required to offer certain types and quantities of food in order to be eligible for federal reimbursement, so as those requirements change, the direct costs to the schools also change, Minnick said.

Meal planning
The biggest question in my own mind as I approached this story regarded what long-term habits are being taught by encouraging students to purchase meals every day. If they just walk in and buy whatever’s on the line that day, or choose whatever suits their mood, are they learning meal-planning skills? Or are we merely teaching yet another generation to survive on quick and easy, purchased meals?

The answer I heard from school personnel was the same as with many other questions I’d asked: It depends on the individual family. Some parents actively plan meals along with their children, while others may not.

“It just goes back to what they’re doing at home,” Minnick said. “If a child is coming from a family that buys breakfast and lunch at school and then they go out for dinner every night, they’re probably not going to be learning that skill.”

However, efforts are made to encourage thoughtful meal selection, she said. For example, elementary students choose their entrée in the morning rather than when they arrive for lunch, and some teachers springboard that into a math lesson for the day, Minnick said. And she encourages her staff to check each student’s tray to see whether one of the five components (protein, fruit, vegetable, grain, dairy) is missing and, if so, to ask the student if he or she forgot to pick up something.

In Chardon Schools, where Sodexo representatives actively market the school meal offerings, students have some opportunity to learn meal planning by becoming involved in a student advisory committee, which works with the Sodexo representative to plan special offerings.

Madison Schools is looking at starting a similar effort sometime in the future, food services director Patricia Masters said.

“I’m going to try to get something like that started next school year. I want to get them involved, maybe introduce something in the elementaries and let the kids participate and see what happens, so I know the teachers are promoting health food and we’re all working together. We all want the same results: The kids to have a healthy meal,” Masters said.

-Rachel Jackson


Monday, May 2, 2011

Teachers are being honored by many this week

Many schools and some political leaders such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are celebrating teachers and their work.
Teacher Appreciation Week is a national event on May 2 through May 6, which began with an initiative from  Eleanor Roosevelt who proposed a day set aside to acknowledge the efforts of educators.
In an open letter to teachers on the education blog, Duncan wrote, "I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society. In too many communities, the profession has been devalued. Many of the teachers I have met object to the imposition of curriculum that reduces teaching to little more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. I agree."
He added, he wants to work with teachers on improving the federal laws and develop a meaningful evaluation system that judges through observations as well as assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking,
PTA President Connie McCracken of Brentmoor Elementary School in Mentor said she thinks teachers don't get acknowledge enough for the work they do.
"They are teaching our children for the future," she said.
Throughout the week, the Brentmoor PTA will be holding different activities to honor their teachers with a theme and treat, which is paid by the parent organization.
McCracken said the PTA likes to honor not just teachers, but all school staff as well.
"It takes a whole school to help these kids," she said.
On Monday, teachers received breakfast of bagels and fruit as well as the "Kernels of the future" snack where teachers received bags of popcorn.
The principal will give a special Italian lunch to the teachers later in the week.
McCracken said it was great to see the students make cards for their teachers.
"It's a reminder for the kids they shouldn't take teachers for granted," she said.

   --Angela Gartner