Outdated fire alarms can be a danger to students and teachers

The killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School set off a fire alarm to lure students into hallways on February 14. The Sun Sentinel  reports that once the shooting began, the school went into a Code Red procedure, where doors were automatically locked, and students and staff were required to stay in their classrooms. However, the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, pulled the fire alarm, “which overrides a Code Red.”

“As a result, doors that would have otherwise remained shut were being opened by students, making it easier for the gunman to find victims,” the Sun Sentinel reports.

Jerry Graziose, the Broward County school district’s former directory of school safety, told the Sun Sentinel that he had recommended upgrades to fire alarm systems so that the entire school doesn’t have to evacuate when someone pulls an alarm. Students will often pull false alarms as pranks.

There are systems available that will give the office 40 seconds to determine whether an emergency is real before sounding a school-wide alarm, Graziose said. The system could also be overhauled so that fire alarm levers are installed only in rooms where large numbers of people gather, such as auditoriums and libraries, rather than in every hallway.

The district included an $908,000 upgrade to fire alarm systems at Stoneman Douglas as part of the 2014 bond referendum approved by voters. The work was supposed to be completed by 2016, but it was delayed and is now included as part of a $10 million overall renovation to the school. The district expects to hire a vendor in July.


Philadelphia won’t let students attend schools on Thursday

Education is less important than a parade for a football team in Philadelphia. Since a parade for the Philadelphia Eagles will be held Thursday, Philadelphia public and parochial schools will be closed that day. The Upper Darby School District also announced schools will close for the parade, according to NBC10.

“The excitement of the Eagles first Super Bowl victory is a once in a lifetime event,” Philadelphia schools Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite said. “For this reason we have decided to give our students, teachers and their families the chance to witness history.”

If the Eagles are such a good team, why would fans assume that this is a once in a lifetime event? Will schools close again next year if the Eagles win another Super Bowl? This reasoning is pathetic.

Not all parents have enough work flexibility to take a day off. Philadelphia school officials cavalierly ignore the difficulties many parents may have in arranging for their children to be cared for when there is no school.

Philadelphia has witnessed a lot of important history in the past few hundred years. It’s too bad that educational leaders think that scoring more points in a football game in Minneapolis is such an awesome historical event that all schools should close so that some people can go watch a paltry parade of a few vehicles festooned with athletes. The football players won’t really be the main attraction. The focus will be on all of the people who ditch work and school to create a big crowd. An added attraction will be free beer along the parade route for fans who are at least 21 years old. Hardly an edifying spectacle for impressionable young students who might happen to be there.


Fewer students use hall lockers in high schools

According to the Washington Post, high school students don’t use lockers as much as they did in years past: Schools and lockers: No longer the right combination.

Some renovated or new schools have few if any lockers. Joe Heim reports that most of the individual lockers at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County were removed during a renovation last year. I remember using the lockers when I attended Jefferson.

As part of its renovation, Thomas Jefferson installed shared cubbies in convenient locations throughout the school where students can temporarily store their gear. For a generation raised on bike-sharing and Uber, the fluid ownership model makes sense.

Heim also reports that DeBourgh Manufacturing, producer of “All American Lockers,” is introducing new products, “including smart lockers that are shareable, open with the swipe of an ID and are wired to charge electronic devices.”

So far 684 people have commented on this Post article, which was posted January 24. The Post moderators helpfully selected 12 featured comments. One writer using the name “apgbound” remembered a guy who had an adjacent locker to him all four years of high school and “for a few minutes every morning, and here and there throughout the day, we crossed paths at our lockers.” They reconnected at their 35th reunion and were so happy to see each other.

Another writer mentioned that block scheduling means students have only four classes per day, so backpacks are lighter.

Peoria high schools to have weekly early dismissals next year

High schools in Peoria, Illinois, will dismiss an hour early once a week for the 2018-19 school year. On January 22 the board of education approved the early dismissal policy to allow teachers to participate in Professional Learning Community meetings. “The plan would remove the PLC period for Core teachers during the school day and save an estimated $750,000 in the Education Fund,” the agenda stated.

The Peoria Journal Star reports:

High school teachers currently have PLCs and a preparatory period daily. Under the new plan, they will give up the preparatory period, which allows them to teach an additional course, alleviating the district’s teacher shortage. More teachers will be included in the weekly PLC periods….

Board Vice President Dan Adler was the only vote against moving to the once-a-week early dismissal. “I think there are better alternatives,” said Adler, who preferred earlier proposals. “It’s hard for me to justify the loss in instructional time.”

Some students don’t benefit from online courses

“For advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support,” Susan Dynarksi writes in the New York Times.

To illustrate that online courses are harming the students who need the most help, Dynarksi cites studies conducted in Chicago high schools and recent research by professors at Harvard and Stanford.

These scholars examined the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a large for-profit college with sites across the country. DeVry offers online and face-to-face versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments and lecture materials in each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.

The effects are lasting, with online students more likely to drop out of college altogether. Hardest hit are those who entered the online class with low grades. Work by researchers in many other colleges concurs with the DeVry findings: The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.

Democratic candidates for Maryland governor support increased funding for schools

Eight candidates for next year’s governor’s race in Maryland spoke to teachers at the Maryland State Education Association’s convention last weekend. The eight candidates will compete in the Democratic primary, which will be held June 26, 2018. Republican Governor Larry Hogan did not attend the convention.

The Baltimore Sun reports that Jim Shea, former chair of the Venable law firm in Baltimore, promised to provide more resources to high-poverty areas and greater future funding across the board.  “He promised universal pre-kindergarten and better prenatal care for pregnant mothers, paying teachers more and improving their pensions, and letting educators have greater control over curriculum.”

“We will argue about whether we can afford it, and I will say, ‘How can we not?’ ” Shea said.

He later added that he doubted Maryland would have to increase taxes to fund his plan. “It is about how you spend your money. Not if you have it.”

Universal pre-kindergarten was also supported by Alec Ross, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and Krish Vignarajah.

State Senator Richard S. Madaleno elicited gasps and applause from the audience “when he said politicians don’t talk enough about how teachers spend too much time in a classroom and not enough time preparing to be there,” the Sun reported.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker noted that he had proposed an increase in the property tax to send more money to schools and a four percent tax increase was eventually approved.

The Sun also reported on the comments by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamentz, Ben Jealous, former CEO of the NAACP, and technology entrepreneur Alec Ross.

Note: Jim Shea is my brother-in-law.

What issues are involved in setting a school calendar?

Yesterday, the Superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools in Colorado summarized the major issues involved in setting a modern school calendar. In an op-ed in  PostIndependent.com, Rob Stein contradicts the common assertion that the that traditional school year with a summer vacation was designed to assist with work on farms.

You know the myth: We still have an agrarian calendar that allows kids to go to school in winter and work in the fields during the summer. But think about it: The busy times for agriculture are during spring planting and fall harvest. If we really had an agrarian school calendar, we would have two breaks, one in planting season and the other for harvest. Midsummer, when days are long and there is less work to do in the fields, would surely allow kids time after school to tend crops.

In reality, our current school calendar is actually a byproduct of urbanization. With the rise of industry in the 19th century, more people crowded into cities. Urban areas were unpleasant places during summer: horse manure and primitive sewage systems, combined with heat and population density, made them stifling and disgusting. Upper and middle classes would escape the urban heat for country getaways. So schools, which at that time were not universally attended (the first state to legislate compulsory attendance was Massachusetts in 1852; the last was Mississippi in 1917), shut down for summer vacation.

He notes that schools can now serve students during the summer and that the academic year is too short:

According to the National Center on Time and Learning, students should have at least 1,440 hours of school per year — that number makes more sense when you realize that it equals 180 school days times eight hours per day. However, very few schools around the country have that much time in session. Most states require 180 days of school per year; Colorado is one of only five states that requires less than 175 days. Roaring Fork Schools have more days per year than most districts in Colorado at 174, as well as slightly longer days at about seven and a half hours. Factoring in early release Wednesdays, our students still spend about 200 hours less per year than recommended.

He advocates investing in full-day kindergarten for all students. He also says it is a worthwhile to provide more extended-day and extended-year enrichment opportunities for low-income students.

He also notes that teenagers need more sleep and could  benefit from a later start to the school day. “This is challenging because transportation schedules, after-school activities schedules and schedules for students who care for younger siblings are all forces of resistance for a later start.”

Stein also points out that teachers need time for planning, collaborative planning, and professional development. “Though parents may be inconvenienced by shortened school days on Wednesdays and professional development days throughout the year, that professional learning time for teachers pays dividends for their children’s learning,” he asserts.



Some high schools have homework-free weekends

Several high schools in Maryland have scheduled homework-free weekends  this fall. The Washington Post reports that no homework was assigned this weekend at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County. Last weekend Watkins Mill High School, also in Montgomery County, had a homework free weekend.

“Wootton High School in Rockville, which gave its students a homework-free weekend in September, offered sessions to help seniors with their college essays and provide information about the federal financial aid application,” Donna St. George reports. “The concept goes back to 2008.”

Nationally, dozens of schools have created occasional homework-free weekends as students take more advanced and honors classes and have become increasingly over-scheduled with other activities, said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has worked with schools across the country on such efforts as part of a nonprofit called Challenge Success.

In response to the Post article, one comment from “webg” was, “This year MCPS reduced the school year from 40 weeks to 39 weeks but didn’t reduce the amount of work. The number of hours in school might be the same, but the amount of time left for doing homework and other tasks is reduced by a week.”

“ThinkTwiceWriteOnce” commented, “Homework is highly overrated, just ask Finland and note their academic outcomes. There IS a better way.”

Karen Keys-Gamarra for School Board

I will vote for Karen Keys-Gamarra in today’s special election for the Fairfax County School Board at-large seat. At a candidate’s forum on August 23, Chris Grisafe, the Republican endorsed candidate, said he supported zero-based budgeting for the school system. Keys-Gamarra, who is endorsed by the Democrats, correctly objected that zero-based budgeting would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Gamarra is also endorsed by The Washington Post, the Fairfax Education Association, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Grisafe presented an inconsistent position on the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School. On the one hand, he said that the community has a right to be heard on this issue; on the other hand he objected to the length of time it took to involve the community in the decision.

Independent candidate Michael Owens made some good points at the candidate’s forum. “Recess is a right, not a privilege,” she said, noting that it should never be withheld from students as a punishment. She is one of two independent candidates quixotically attempting to win an at-large seat without endorsement by either the Republicans or Democrats.

From my experience in the 1995 school board election, I know that school board elections in Fairfax County are nonpartisan in name only. It would be difficult to win a district seat as an independent, and probably impossible to win an at-large seat. What can be done to improve the selection process for school board members? I will cover this vital question in future posts.

Virginia Beach considers later school start times

An editorial in the Virginia Pilot reports that the Virginia Beach school division is trying to determine the best time to begin the school day in hopes of helping students, teachers and parents. “There are many reasons to evaluate the appropriate start times, and the impact on adolescents is just one of many factors.”

What’s impressive is how Virginia Beach is going about the process of determining what, if any, changes would be best. The division’s requests for feedback from students, parents and staff have resulted in nearly 30,000 responses, including more than 20,000 from students and nearly 8,000 from parents.

Those responses give school leaders a lot of good information to consider as they evaluate what would work best. Any changes they make wouldn’t occur before at least the 2018-19 school year.

The Virginia Pilot concludes:

Along with all the important logistical issues involved in determining schedules, it’s important to consider the research about when students are at their peak for learning. It’s not about letting adolescents sleep later; it’s about getting the best performance in the classroom.