Wednesday, March 22, 2006

College prep for high school juniors

Resources available for low-income students

Questbridge is a non-profit organization dedicated to giving high-achieving, low-income students resources during the college application process. Questbridge is accepting applications for its college prep program for high school juniors. Maximum Award: Full scholarship to summer program, coverage of expenses for college travel visits, SAT prep course and material, and a new laptop computer. Eligibility: high-performing, low-income high school juniors. Deadline: May 15, 2006. More info:

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Solving global problems

Program encourages collaboration between schools of different countries

The National Association of Independent Schools invites participation in Challenge 20/20, a program that brings together two schools: one from the United States and one from another country. Teacher-student teams from both schools work together throughout the fall semester of 2006 to come up with a solution to a global problem. Eligibility: All U.S. schools, elementary and secondary, public and private. Deadline: April 15, 2006. More info: Challenge 20/20.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

American Idol credited with filling music classes

Pop! goes the curriculum

At a time when music education budgets are in trouble, "American Idol" makes some teachers cry for an encore. The smash Fox show is known for crowning newly minted pop stars as well as for the critiques offered by "Mr. Personality," the inimitable Simon Cowell .

"American Idol" has renewed enthusiasm for music education at the grass-roots level. Educators hope that the increased student interest will save music programs from the chopping block. Eric Spanberg writes for the Christian Science Monitor.

Via: Public Education Network

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why kids drop out of school

High School Dropouts: The Silent Epidemic
By George E. Curry

If you listen carefully, you still can’t hear it. It’s the sound of a third of high school students dropping out before receiving their diploma. For people of color, the figure is almost 50 percent and that has profound implications not only for the students, but for the society that failed them.

“The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” is an important report on the dropout problem told from the viewpoints of true experts – the students themselves. The study, which focuses on polling and focus groups, is a joint project by the Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2003, about 3.5 million youth 16 to 25 did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school.

The report begins with “An Open Letter to the American People” that gets directly to the point: “There is a high school dropout epidemic in America. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students – and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans – fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many of these students abandon school with less than two years to complete their high school education.”

And society has plenty of reasons to care.

“The decision to drop out is a dangerous one for the student,” the report continued. “Dropouts are much more likely than their peers who graduate to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced and single parents with children who drop out from high school themselves.”

The report on this silent epidemic allows us to listen to what those who quit say about their predicament.

“The central message of this report is that while some students drop out because of significant academic challenges, most dropouts are students who could have, and believe they could have, succeeded in school,” the study said. “This survey of young people who left high school without graduating suggests that, despite career aspirations that require education beyond high school and a majority having grades of C or better, circumstances in students’ lives and an inadequate response to those circumstances from the schools led to dropping out.”

We tend to think of high school dropouts as being incapable of handling the academic workload and there is some evidence that supports that view. For example, 35 percent of those polled said “failing in school” was a major factor in the decision to drop out. And 32 percent had repeated a grade before dropping out.

Nearly half of the former students – 47 percent – quit not because of the academic challenge, but because they found classes uninteresting.

“These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school,” the report said. “Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with people who were not interested in school. These were among the top reasons selected by those with high GPAs and by those who said they were motivated to work hard.”

An even larger number of students – 69 percent – said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard. In fact, two-thirds said they would have worked harder had it been required of them.

Naturally, there were other real life factors that caused some students to drop out. Approximately a third said they had to get a job and make more money, 26 percent said they became a parent and 22 percent said they had to care for a family member.

It became clear that the decision to quit school was not a spur of the moment choice. Rather, it was a culmination of growing disengagement and frequent absences from classes.

There was also a significant number of students who fell behind in the early years and never felt they caught up – or could catch up – with their classmates.

Among the recommendations made in the report:

- Provide a more supportive academic environment at school and at home that would improve the student’s chances of remaining in school

- Improve the teaching and curricular to make school more relevant and engaging

- Offering tutoring and summer school for struggling students

- Operate a more disciplined classroom

- Make sure that students have a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school

- Improve communication between parents and schools

And parents need to improve their communication with their children.

“The majority of parents were ‘not aware’ or just ‘somewhat aware’ of their child’s grades or that they were about to leave school,” the report said. “Nearly half of the respondents said their parents’ work schedule kept them from knowing more about what was happening at school and 68 percent said their parents got more involved when they became aware their child was on the verge of dropping out.”

Clearly, we all need to be more involved.

George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and To contact Curry or to book him for a speaking engagement, go to his Web site,

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Public vs. private schools

Parent reveals 'Why I (still) send my kid to public school'

When your child goes to public school, some anxiety often accompanies your decision, writes Whitney Otto. Like many parents, Otto pondered what was right her son. The pressure was on from family members to place the boy in a "better setting" - in other words, a private school. This prompted the author to ponder the public vs. private school issue.

How could Otto and her husband leave their child in a system on the verge of cutting its academic year by five weeks? Leaving their son in a school district on the verge of laying off hundreds of teachers. The teachers, in turn, were contemplating a strike. The district already had overcrowded classrooms.

The parents elected to leave their son in public schools, even though they have the financial means to provide him with a private school education. So why choose public schools? Otto explains in her article for the Oregonian.

Via: Public Education Network

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

NASA spacecraft reaches Mars

Probe to give fresh insights into the Red Planet

A NASA spacecraft has successfully slipped into orbit around Mars, joining other orbiters already circling the Red Planet. Scientists cheered as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) emerged from the planet’s shadow.

The two-ton spacecraft is the most sophisticated to arrive at Mars and is expected to gather more data than all previous Martian missions combined. It will explore Mars in low orbit for four years and should produce detailed information about the planet, its climate and landscape. The $720 million mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. MRO will join Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and fellow orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

Later this year, the orbiter will begin exploring the Martian atmosphere. It will scan the surface for evidence that water has been present and scout for future landing sites to send robotic and possibly human explorers. The mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Related: NASA, National Geographic

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

College admission: cat-and-mouse maneuvering

Schools avoid class ranking, vexing colleges
By Alan Finder
© 2006 New York Times
March 5, 2006

Application files are piled high this month in colleges across the country. Admissions officers are poring over essays and recommendation letters, scouring transcripts and standardized test scores. But something is missing from many applications: a class ranking, once a major component in admissions decisions.

In the cat-and-mouse maneuvering over admission to prestigious colleges and universities, thousands of high schools have simply stopped providing that information, concluding it could harm the chances of their very good, but not best, students.

Canny college officials, in turn, have found a tactical way to respond. Using broad data that high schools often provide, like a distribution of grade averages for an entire senior class, they essentially recreate an applicant's class rank.

The process has left them exasperated.

"If we're looking at your son or daughter and you want us to know that they are among the best in their school, without a rank we don't necessarily know that," said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College.

William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, said, "There's a movement these days to not let anybody know that a kid has done better than other kids."

Admissions directors say the strategy can backfire. When high schools do not provide enough general information to recreate the class rank calculation, many admissions directors say they have little choice but to do something virtually no one wants them to do: give more weight to scores on the SAT and other standardized exams.

But high schools persist. The Miami-Dade County School Board decided last month to discontinue class rankings. Jeanne Friedman, the principal of Miami Beach High School and chairwoman of a committee of principals that lobbied to end ranking, said principals thought it would cut down on competition in schools and force college admissions officials to look more closely at each applicant.

"When you don't rank, then they have to look at the total child," Dr. Friedman said.

The shift away from class rank began with private schools making calculations that admissions officers might not look favorably on a student with an A- minus average and strong SAT scores who ranked 25th or 35th in a talented class of 150 students. But the movement has accelerated over the past five years or so, many deans of admissions say. Now nearly 40 percent of all high schools have either stopped ranking their students or have ceased giving that information to colleges, according to a survey released last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers.

At Kenyon College in Ohio, 60 percent of the students who enrolled last fall as freshmen did not apply with a class ranking. At Vanderbilt, 57 percent of those who applied for admission this year did not have a class rank. Last year, 51 percent of the applicants at Swarthmore and at the University of Massachusetts had no class rank, as did 42 percent of applicants to the University of Oregon.

Many college deans deplore the trend, saying it forces them to either recreate class rank, make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests.

That is because when a high school provides a student's grade point average without giving class rank or other information that puts the grade in context, it significantly diminishes the meaning of the grade, Mr. Shain and a dozen other admissions directors said.

"If a kid has a B-plus record, what does that mean?" said Jim Miller, the dean of admissions at Brown University. "If a school doesn't give any A's, it could be a very good record. You've got to position the kids in some relative environment."

Mr. Shain said the lack of information could result in judging the student more on standardized test results, something he said was counterproductive.

"The less information a school gives you, the more whimsical our decisions will be," he said. "And I don't know why a school would do that."

While admissions officials emphasize the need for class rankings to view a student in context, the impulse to do away with rankings came from parents and high school administrators who thought colleges were failing to view students in their full context when they used shortcuts like class rank.

Sometimes students are separated in class rankings by a few hundredths of a point in a four-point grading system, in which an A is worth four points and a B three points. In the most competitive private and public high schools, the gap between a student ranked second and one ranked 14th can be minuscule. Private schools in particular make this argument.

"Especially in schools that are smaller, ranking is something that could hurt applicants," said Myronee A. Simpson, associate director of college guidance at the Ranney School, a private school in Tinton Falls, N.J. "Our top 10 percent of the class here, since we have 46 seniors, would be four or five students." Some high schools have other motivations for eliminating class ranking: to restrain cutthroat competition among students and to encourage them to take challenging courses without worrying about their grades.

"The day that we handed out numerical rank was one of the worst days in my professional life," said Margaret Loonam, a co-principal and director of guidance at Ridgewood High School, a public school in northern New Jersey that stopped telling students and colleges about class rank a decade ago. "They were sobbing. Only one person is happy when you hand out rank: the person who is No. 1."

"In a school like this, where the top 30 percent of the class is strong academically, it was unfair to all of those students who are in that elite group," Mrs. Loonam said.

At some schools, including Ridgewood, officials continue to maintain class rankings in secret, disclosing them only when absolutely necessary, like when a student is applying to military academies, which require class rank, or when they are competing for merit scholarships that require the information. When high schools do not provide rankings, the broad information they sometimes include about grades can come in many forms: a bar graph showing how many students in a class had grade averages of A-minus to A or B-plus to B; a table listing grade averages by deciles (which averages fell in the top 10 percent of a class, for example); and even a graphic device called a scattergram, which shows the distribution of grades by plotting a dot for each grade average in a graduating class.

That allows colleges to estimate where a student ranks.

Still, some institutions, especially larger universities, may not have the time for that.

"If we're looking at a particular student's file and we can't find a proxy for class rank, then we move on and we make a decision without it," said Martha F. Pitts, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. "The question is, how good is that decision? Have we made a decision that is not as well informed as it could have been?"

For some, the decline of class rankings represents an opportunity. "I think it kind of frees us in some ways; it enables us to take the kids who are a joy to teach," said Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. "It allows you to tailor your admission process to what your institution strives for."

But that is a distinctly minority view. Mr. Shain of Vanderbilt said an internal review showed that the admission rate at Vanderbilt was highest for students with a class rank and lowest for those whose schools provided neither a rank nor general data about grades.

"You're saying your grades don't matter and that you won't tell us what they mean," Mr. Shain said. "I think it's an abdication of educational responsibility."

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Filmmaker Gordon Parks dies

Directed 'Shaft' and 'The Learning Tree'

Movie director and photographer Gordon Parks is dead at the age of 93. For years, Parks captured poignant images for Life magazine. He then went on to critical acclaim as a Hollywood director, scoring with The Learning Tree and Shaft. USA Today chronicles Parks' accomplishments.

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